WHEN STEWART MOTT died in 2008, his obituary in The New York Times described him as offbeat. That’s probably a fair description. Mott’s father, Charles Mott, had been one of the founding shareholders of General Motors. As a result, the younger Mott didn’t need to work and instead pursued other passions.
Among his many activities, Mott enjoyed political activism, but he wasn’t a strict partisan. To underscore this, he once brought both a live elephant and two donkeys to a fundraiser.
I HAD AN AUNT WHO did everything for her husband. She paid the bills, invested their money and oversaw the family budget, plus she did all the household chores.
They both liked this arrangement. It worked for them. But as they grew older, people were concerned about what would happen to Uncle Bob if he outlived my aunt. He depended on her for everything. How could he take care of himself?
My uncle could not operate a washing machine,
I JUST WENT TO SEE a lawyer about making changes to my trust and will. It’s been some 20 years since I had my revocable living trust drawn up, and a lot of things in my life have changed since then.
For most folks, it’s difficult to decide how they want their estate distributed upon their death. Consider five questions:
Should the division of your assets be based solely on relationships, leaving your assets to immediate family,
ONLY ABOUT 40% of Americans have a will, including just 58% of those ages 53 to 71. The good news is, among those of us 72 and above, the percentage is much higher—81%.
Putting in place a will, trust documents, powers of attorney and so on is no easy task. I’ve been through the process twice and it’s not fun, mostly because a good attorney will ask a lot of uncomfortable questions you’d probably rather not think about—like,
BABY BOOMERS ARE retiring every day and Generation X is right on their heels. With this, an increasingly large amount of wealth is making its way into IRAs and Roth IRAs, thanks to rollovers from employer retirement plans.
I’ve found that many folks don’t quite grasp the complexities of such accounts. On the surface, they seem pretty simple: You contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA, receive tax-deferred growth and then gradually withdraw the funds during retirement.
I OFTEN TALK WITH estate planning attorneys—and they tell me that individuals typically complete an estate plan just twice in their lives: upon marriage and upon retirement.
On the one hand, this is good. Major life changes warrant a review of your estate plan and an update to key documents. On the other hand, this is not so good. Much like other areas of your financial life, your estate plan needs to be reviewed on a regular basis.
WE’VE ALL GOT STUFF. Too much stuff. George Carlin was among the first to highlight our obsession with stuff in his 1980s standup comedy routines. I hadn’t thought much about Carlin or stuff for decades—until 2015, when I inherited my parents’ stuff.
Not only did I inherit their stuff, I inherited some of their parents’ stuff and their grandparents’ stuff. Boxes, drawers and shelves full of unlabeled stuff. I wouldn’t call my parents hoarders.
THE MUSICIAN PRINCE died in 2016 at age 57, leaving behind a legacy of musical genius. Unfortunately, he also left behind an ongoing legal and financial mess. The issue: For reasons no one understands, Prince neglected to prepare even the most basic estate plan, leaving potential heirs squabbling over his fortune.
Under the latest tax law, passed late last year, only those with more than $11.2 million in assets ($22.4 million for a married couple) are subject to federal estate taxes.
MY MOTHER-IN-LAW Doris passed away last year at age 90. In the last few years of her life, she often mentioned that she felt guilty spending any of her money, let alone splurging. She wanted to leave the money to her children, even when her children kept telling her to spend, splurge and enjoy the last few years of her life.
Doris didn’t want to worry about her investments. Like a lot of people,
LONG EMBEDDED IN the federal tax code is a provision that provides important advantages for people who sell inherited stocks, real estate or other investments that have appreciated in value and are held outside retirement accounts.
In tax lingo, the basis (the starting point for measuring gain or loss) of inherited assets “steps up” from their original basis (cost, in most instances) to their date-of-death value. It’s as if the inheritors had bought the assets that day.
TWO CHORES THAT most people gladly put off: The first is writing a will—and the second is updating it to reflect changed circumstances. Either way, it’s crucial to name the right executors.
Regarding the first chore, my client roster includes recalcitrant individuals who’ve yet to write their wills. I regularly remind them how badly things could turn out if they fail to do so. For instance, their assets might wind up with individuals whom they never intended to benefit or they consider less deserving of their largess than others.
FOR REASONS THAT make lots of sense to my clients, many of them place their homes, securities and other assets in joint ownership with their spouse or children. A characteristic of joint ownership is the right of survivorship—the co-owner who dies first loses all ownership in the property and the surviving co-owner acquires all ownership.
Many individuals mistakenly believe that joint ownership relieves them of the need to write a will. To be sure,
I FREQUENTLY FIELD inquiries from people who know they ought to get a will. Others have wills, but may need to revise them because they’ve moved to a new state, entered into a marriage or ended one. But either way, most folks—in my experience—never get beyond that simple first step.
And those who do often overlook an additional step that’s almost as necessary: drawing up a “letter of final instructions” that provides their heirs with an informal personal financial inventory.
EVERYTHING I KNOW about personal finance I learned in court. As part of my law practice, I represent individuals in estate, trust, and probate disputes. Many of these cases have common themes that teach important lessons about personal finance—lessons that aren’t covered in the usual commentary about saving for retirement, paying off credit card debt, and so on. In particular, six crucial lessons stand out.
Lesson No. 1: Know where your assets are.
HAVEN’T GIVEN MUCH thought to estate planning and charitable giving? Here are 10 questions to jumpstart your thinking:
Can you afford to give away money now? You shouldn’t gift large sums to your children or charity unless you’re confident you have enough for your own retirement. There’s no limit on gifts to charity, though your annual tax deduction may be capped. For gifts to family members, you might take advantage of the annual gift-tax exclusion,