Alexandria, VA Estate Planning Blog

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Invoking the Survivorship Option (Joint Tenants w/ right of Survivorship & Tenants by the Entirety)

It is very important that each person review how their assets are titled to ensure they are titled correctly. Assets can be owned jointly (no survivorship), jointly with right of survivorship, as tenants by the entirety (creditor protection & survivorship), or as tenants in common (no survivorship).

The method of titling the assets will dictate how that asset passes upon your death. If you own property as tenants in common or joint tenants, than the property will pass to your heirs, by devise, or to your personal representative.  If you own property jointly with right of survivorship or as tenants by the entireties, than your property will pass to the survivor. Note that tenancy by the entirety (or as tenants by the entireties) is a favored method of ownership reserved for married persons. Tenancy by the entirety provides significant creditor protection to the surviving spouse.  


Virginia abolished the survivorship presumption that existed for any person who owned real or personal property jointly with another (whether married or not). Va. Code 55-20. Thus, unless the proper survivorship language is invoked, and despite the joint tenant language, the property will be owned as tenants in common (no survivorship).


Friday, July 30, 2010

No Will? The Surviving Spouse Can Be Disinherited from 2/3 of Other Spouse's Probate Estate

Not many people know how the VA intestacy distribution rules (distribution of estate if no Last Will & Testament) operate and how disastrous they can be. It is important that everyone understand the issues. 

"If no will exists, then a surviving spouse generally only inherits 1/3 of the decedent spouse's probate estate if the decedent had a living child with another person".

If you or your spouse don't have a will, or your will is lost, stolen, destroyed, or successfully contested, then you may find that your probate estate will be distributed according to an intestacy statute. An intestacy statute is a statute that applies when someone dies without a will. In Virginia, if a person dies without a valid will, then the course of distribution may be as follows:
1) If children from a prior relationship, 1/3 to spouse and 2/3 to children
2) If no children from a prior relationship, 100% to the surviving spouse
3) If no surviving spouse, but surviving children, 100% to children
4) If no surviving spouse or surviving children, then 100% to the children’s descendants
5) If no surviving spouse, children, or children’s descendants, then 100% to the mother or father (or survivor)
6) If no surviving spouse, children, children’s descendants, or parents, then to the paternal and maternal kindred (very generally stated)
Please note that VA law only covers real property located in VA and it’s residents’ personal property (located in any state).


Real property located in another state is governed by the law of the state where the property is located.

(In other words, you should have a will if you have property in another state)
Practice Tip: People in urgent need of a will because of intestacy laws include the following;
 1) Any person (or their spouse) who has children from a prior relationship
 2) Any person (or their spouse) who has deeded or real property in another state
 3) Any person (or their spouse) who doesn’t have a surviving spouse or children

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dying In 2010 May Be The Most Expensive Thing You Have Ever Done

Stop! Don’t pull the plug just yet?

All individuals need to educate themselves as to the realities of the estate tax in 2010. It may be prudent to consider nominating an agent in their healthcare power of attorney or living will, for the year of 2010, who is not a potential beneficiary to their estate.

Since the death of billionaire George Steinbrenner, many television broadcasters and radio hosts have instantly realized their own preeminence as estate tax pundits. Unconstrained by prudence, they have opined on the wonderful tax benefits of dying in 2010.

Death never sounded so good. However the benefits aren’t so clear. Consider these three points:
a) Dying in 2010 may not result in estate tax avoidance.
b) Dying in 2010 may increase capital gains taxes for your beneficiaries.
c) Dying in 2010 may disrupt your dispositional scheme. 
Congress has the authority to pass a retroactive estate tax, which would impose an estate tax on persons dying in 2010. Many learned individuals have concluded that such legislation, if passed this year, would survive a constitutional attack.
What a terrifying thought. Having your assets subject to a 55% tax (or greater) and not being able to plan around it.
Estate planning attorneys implement strategies designed to shield many millions of dollars from the estate tax. The key word is plan. An estate planning attorney cannot plan with certainty around the tax rules of today, if the rules will not be known until tomorrow.
Don’t let the current climate of misinformation and uncertainty lull you into inaction. There is still much that can be done. The climate should motivate you to act and compel you to action. The tax consequences of inaction and complacency can be catastrophic.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Should I fund My Retirement Benefits (e.g., IRA, 401(k)) Into My Trust?

Should I fund my retirement benefits(e.g., IRA, 401(k)) into my trust?

Answer: Sometimes, but even under those occasions, only if you are instructed to do so by an experienced and highly competent estate planning attorney.

(We make no statements or guarantees regarding the advisability of doing so)

Retirement benefitsfrequently qualify for some type of preferential income tax treatment. However, said favorable treatment comes with many strings attached. Additionally, some plans only allow a participant (and not the beneficiary) to stretch-out the benefits.

Generally trusts are impermissible beneficiaries. It is possible to fund particular retirement assets into trust and preserve the tax deferred benefit (stretch-out). However, the trust must be narrowly tailored and drafted with extreme particularity to qualify for see-through trust treatment. 

Assuming that your trust has been drafted correctly, you will need to correctly identify it as a beneficiary (typically on the beneficiary designation form). Assuming you do that, you must ensure that you have the correct beneficiaries named within the trust. Failure to correctly choose allowable beneficiaries (designated beneficiaries) or to craft the terms of their rights to, and succession in, the benefits, will likely invalidate or unnecessarily waste the tax deferral benefits. In addition, there are many other rules that could result in very negative tax consequences.

In sum, if you are considering funding your trust with your retirement benefits, you should immediately seek counsel from an experienced and highly competent estate planning attorney. Never go it alone. Never draft the trust yourself and never fund it without precise and express supervision by an experienced and competent estate planning attorney. 

Drafting and funding a trust with retirement assets, while simultaneously preserving and maximizing the stretch out, is an enormously complicated task that should be reserved for only very skilled estate planning attorneys. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our office and we can schedule a consultation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How Much Does an Estate Planning Attorney Cost?

How much does an estate planning attorney cost?

Answer: It’s not cheap, but the costs of not planning (or improper planning) can be devastating.

Just consider two aspects of estate planning. Let’s assume the following:
a) Your beneficiary is likely to become divorced, and
b) You have an estate over 1 million (2 million)

Did you know that your beneficiary’s divorcing spouse may receive more than half of your beneficiary’s inheritance and that the current tax law may impose a 55% estate tax in 2011 on every dollar over 1 million.

In 2011, you die, with a will, and leave an estate worth 2 million (life insurance, home, retirement benefits, stocks) to your child Adam. The government assesses an estate tax of $550,000 (55% x 1 million). Adam’s wife, Eve, is awarded 50% of the property during a divorce proceeding. Thus, Adam ends up with $725,000 of the 2 million you left him. OUCH!!!!!

DID YOU KNOW: An estate planning attorney would likely have shielded the entire estate from the divorcing spouse and entirely avoided the assessed estate tax?

While we argue that everyone needs an estate planning attorney, not everyone is willing or able to pay the fees. The fees are high because there aren’t many estate planning attorneys and the issues are complex.

When you high a competent estate planning attorney, you are hiring a professional to secure your legacy during your life and after death. You’re hiring someone to create and implement a plan that protects your loved ones from plaintiffs, creditors, divorcing spouses, the government, and the imprudent actions of a spendthrift beneficiary.   

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Happens If I Die Without A Will (or Valid Will)

What happens if I die without a will? / Or my will is successfully contested, lost, stolen, or destroyed?

Answer: Intestate succession, and likely disasterous consequences

First and foremost, you don’t want to merely rely on the state statutes. The risks are too high (improper and unwanted beneficiaries, taxes, plaintiffs, creditors, divorcing spouses, government seizure, and spendthrift beneficiaries). Without planning, your legacy and your beneficiaries will be exposed. You should have a will, even when you have a living trust.

Virginia has statutes in place to distribute your probate estate if you die without a will. Who receives your estate depends on numerous factors, including who survives you and their blood relationship with one another.

There are many disaterous pitfalls. Consider just one example.

Generally, a surviving spouse is entitled to 100% of your estate. However, there are numerous exceptions and issues that may change that. For example, if you have a child who was born to a person other than your spouse, then your spouse will generally only inherit 1/3 of your estate.

You die with a surviving spouse and also one child born by another person. Your spouse will inherit 1/3 of your probate estate and the other 2/3 will go to your child.

Consider that 2/3 of your estate may be under the control of the child’s surviving parent if the child is under 18 and that  your surviving spouse would only receive 1/3 of your estate.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Happens If I Don't Fund My Living Trust?

What happens if I don’t fund my living trust?

Answer: Your plan will likely be totally disrupted and your estate and your beneficiaries will be exposed

You have to fund a living trust. Having a trust, in itself, is generally insufficient and ineffective. You actually have to fund each asset you want the trust to govern.

An unfunded living trust is as useful as a DeLorean Time Machine without a Flux Compacitor. Or, for those of you who haven’t seen any movies within the Back To The Future Trilogy, as useful as a bank account with a balance of zero.

A living trust’s terms only govern assets that have been funded into the trust. Funding is the process of titling assets in the name of the trust. The type of funding method depends on the type of asset and other factors. Typical funding methods can include beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance), assignments (e.g., tangible personal property), and deeds (e.g., real estate).

If you die with an unfunded trust, consider the following:
a. The living trust is likely utterly ineffective and useless
b. If you have a will, your will would likely control (but only to the extent its terms govern your entire probate estate)
c. If you don’t have a will, or it was lost, stolen, destroyed, or successfully contested, then intestacy controls
d. Your whole plan will be disrupted
e. You wasted your money on the trust
f. Your estate and your beneficiaries will be at risk and potentially subject to disastrous consequences (See Blog What Happens If I Die Without A Will (or Valid Will); Blog Categorie Do I need An Estate Planning Attorney?) 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Do I Need an Estate Planning Attorney?/ Who Needs an Estate Planning Attorney?

Do I need an Estate Planning Attorney?/ Who Needs an Estate planning Attorney?
Answer: Yes/ Everyone

An estate planning attorney’s primary purpose is to create and implement a plan that protects you during your life and incapacity, and to protect your spouse and other beneficiaries when you aren’t around to do it anymore. The estate planning attorney shields your legacy from plaintiffs, creditors’ claims, divorcing spouses, imprudent beneficiaries, and the government. 

The law is too voluminous for you to do it yourself. The attorney must have a deep understanding of the current and prospective tax and non-tax law. That includes income, gift, generation, probate, and death taxes. Each year the firm spends many thousands of dollars just on tax-research-databases alone. 

The attorney should have litigation experience to better understand how plaintiffs choose their prey, trial/ litigation attorneys choose their clients, and how judges evaluate claims.  This insight goes beyond merely understanding the law, but actually understanding the business of being a litigation attorney and the practical realities of the judicial system.

Estate planning is not a transactional exercise. It is ultra complicated and the consequences can be disastrous. You wouldn’t have your general practitioner perform your brain surgery, and you certainly wouldn’t buy a hatchet and do it yourself.  That is why everyone needs to consult an estate planning attorney.  

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

Every person with a life partner (married or unmarried) wants to provide for their loved ones, have financial, medical, and burial decisions made by the person(s) they trust, and avoid paying unnecessary taxes. The harsh reality is that the government has passed laws that favor married couples and discriminate against unmarried couples. Consequently unmarried couples need to establish an estate plan.

Most significantly Virginia law doesn’t create intestacy rights for unmarried couples. Dramatic results can occur if a partner dies without a will and other estate planning documents. The surviving partner will likely be completely disinherited and unable to make burial decisions. In cases of incapacity, the competent life partner will likely be precluded from making financial or medical decisions. With regard to inheritance rights and the aforementioned decision making authority, the law has been written to favor blood relatives.

Married couples are greatly benefited by the federal tax code. Consequently married couples incur no tax liability on many transfers that could cost unmarried couples hundreds of thousands of dollars. The most significant disparity exists with regard to Gift Taxes, Estate Taxes (Death Taxes), and Generation Skipping Taxes. That means that unmarried couples are more likely to have to pay more tax liability.

A skilled estate planning attorney can use cohabitation agreements, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, medical powers of attorneys, living wills, and advanced medical directives to provide for the orderly disposition of assets and to grant decision making authority. The attorney has many tools at his disposal to avoid or reduce tax liability. Advanced tax saving tools include Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts (ILITs), Granter Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), Qualified Personal Residence Trusts (QPRTs), Creditor Shelter Trusts, Charitable Trusts, and a lifetime gifting program.

Drafting documents for unmarried couples requires keen attention to the relationship’s unique circumstances. The estate planning attorney must carefully draft documents that reflect the personal circumstances of the relationship. Failing to understand the nature of the relationship, or to draft appropriate language, can easily result in unintentional disinheritance.

If you are interested in establishing a new estate plan, having your existing estate plan reviewed, or just have questions, please feel welcome to contact me personally. I encourage any and all inquiries. Please note that we understand that your financial and non-financial information is sensitive. And as such, it will be kept confidential to the extent allowable by law.      

Authored by Luke Anthony Lenzi, Esquire

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Plan Today and Avoid the Estate Tax Repeal Trap

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Estate Tax will likely expire on January 1rst. n1 Consumed by Health Care Reform, and in an unsurprising expression of absolute inaptitude, Congress recently failed to pass an extension of the Estate Tax. Consequently people should speak with their tax advisors regarding how they will be affected by the complex rules and growing uncertainty.

Don't assume that the repeal will be a tax benefit to your beneficiaries. The income tax consequences can be dramatic. Many beneficiaries could potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars if the Estate Tax (under its 2009 form) is in effect. In many instances, the Estate Tax rules have provided for very favorable basis rules that have been a tax benefit to beneficiaries. 

Don't assume that the repeal will be a tax benefit for you. First, with proper planning an estate planning attorney can shield many millions of dollars from the Estate Tax. The result may be little to no actual Estate Tax liability. Second, the repeal is merely temporary. If Congress continues to do nothing, the Estate Tax will be reinstated in 2011. The reinstated Estate Tax would be much more expansive in scope. Consequently many more people would be subject to the Estate Tax. Third, Congress may pass retroactive Estate Tax legislation to capture Estate Taxes for decedents dying in 2010. If you die in 2010, without planning for the Estate Tax, and Congress passes retroactive legislation, then you may have inadvertently been snared in a tax trap. The result could be finacially devastating.

Don’t be lulled to sleep by the seemingly inevitable Estate Tax repeal. The rules will most certainly change, and future legislation is likely.  Don’t delay talking to your tax advisor because you are overwhelmed by the complex rules and uncertainty. It's very important that you consult an estate planning attorney. Contact us today and let a knowledgeable estate planning professional go to work for you.

The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA) was passed by the 107th Congress. Generally, the EGTRRA repeals the Estate and Generation Skipping Taxes (GST), for persons who, respectively, die or make GST transfers after December 31, 2009. However other particular rules apply (i.e. Qualified Domestic Trusts).
n1 The Wall Street Journal, Effort to Extend Estate Tax Fails: Levy Set To Expire Jan. 1, Setting Up A Political Standoff; Democrats Promise New Push, Authored by John D. McKinnon and Martin Vaughan, December 17 2009,

Authored by Luke Anthony Lenzi, Esquire  

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What's the issue with "issue" anyway?

The Virginia Supreme Court has determined that the term “issue” has a different meaning then similar terms, like “children”. Yet many people throw caution to the wind and rely on documents that use “issue”, “children”, “descendants”, “lineal descendants”, “heirs” and “heirs of the body”, either interchangeably or arbitrarily. All of the aforementioned words have specific meanings and, depending on the particular term used, the results can differ dramatically. 

Even less comforting, the date that the will or trust was executed has an effect on the meaning. A Virginia trust executed in 1976, with language devising property to the “issue” of a child, would likely have a different meaning if the trust were executed in 1980. Why? Because particular terms, like “issue”, have a common law meaning and sometimes state legislatures decide to abrogate that meaning. However rules of constructions may require that the will or trust terms be construed according to the law existing at the time of execution, rather than the current meaning.  But, then again, if that same Virginia trust were construed according to another state’s laws, the analysis may be completely different.

What does it all mean? Have an estate planning attorney create your documents. Estate planning is an enormously huge and complicated legal sphere.  Consult a competent attorney. Estate planning is not, and I repeat emphatically, not, a form driven exercise. Contact us today and let a knowledgeable estate planning attorney go to work for you.

Authored by Luke Anthony Lenzi, Esquire         

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