I Signed My Will, Now What?

By Attorney Katherine A. Young

Completing your estate plan for the first time is a significant milestone.  It means that you have taken an important step forward in planning for your family’s future.  Our clients often breathe a sigh of relief after signing their estate planning documents, knowing the plans they have often long discussed are now finally in place.  However, just because you have signed your documents does not necessarily mean your estate plan is complete.  There are often a variety of tasks we recommend you complete after signing your estate planning documents to ensure your plans are fully realized.

1. Update Your Beneficiary Designations. After signing your estate planning documents, we recommend you review the primary and contingent beneficiary designations you have listed for your (i) life and accidental death insurance policies, (ii) retirement plan, pension plan, 401(k) plan, IRA and profit sharing plans, and (iii) any other contract, annuity, deferred compensation arrangement, policy or plan where a benefit is payable to a named beneficiary upon death. Most of these contract payments pass outside of the provisions of your will or trust directly to the named beneficiary identified in the beneficiary designation form.  This means that simply updating your will or trust does not necessarily change the beneficiary of such contact payments.  It is often necessary to update these beneficiary designations to ensure such payments will be made to your intended beneficiary and coordinated with your overall estate plan.  Your attorney should discuss with you his or her recommendations for updating your beneficiary designations after you complete your estate plan and can often help you to do so if you have any questions.

2. Prepare a List of Tangible Personal Property Bequests. Under Wisconsin law, you can incorporate certain language into your will that allows you the ability to leave a written statement or list disposing of items of tangible personal property at the time of your death. This list is separate from your will, and you can prepare it on your own if you wish.  This provides you with increased flexibility to update such bequests.  The list may only dispose of tangible personal property, such as jewelry, household furnishings, etc., and may not dispose of monetary assets.  To be enforceable, the list must describe the items and their recipients with reasonable certainty, and it needs to be signed and dated by you.  However, if you anticipate any disagreement among the beneficiaries, you can certainly have the list witnessed or notarized.  You may change or revoke the list at any time.  If you choose to prepare a list and decide to subsequently change it, we recommend that you destroy the old list and prepare an entirely new list.  You should always avoid erasing or crossing out prior entries on your list because this can lead to confusion regarding your intentions and possibly compromise the enforceability of the list.

3. Prepare and Maintain a Current List of Assets and Liabilities. We recommend that you regularly maintain a list of all of your substantial assets (home, checking and savings accounts, investments, retirement plans, or otherwise) and liabilities. We also suggest that you maintain a list of your insurance policies, policy numbers, and the name of the agent for each policy.  By regularly maintaining such lists, the person handling your estate will have accurate information regarding your assets and liabilities, and this can significantly increase the ease and efficiency with which he or she can settle your estate.  These lists should be updated at least annually and be kept in a safe and secure location where the person handling your estate knows how to access them.

4. Review and Update Your Estate Plan as Needed. The estate plan which is appropriate for you now may not be suitable years from now. We recommend that you contact your attorney and review your estate plan when any one or more of the following occur (i) when you move from Wisconsin to another state, (ii) when there is a change in your family circumstances (divorce, marriage, death of a child, marriage of a child, new grandchildren, incapacity of spouse or children, etc.), (iii) if there is a significant change in the law which may have an impact on your estate, and (iv) finally, even if you do not have a change in family circumstances or finances, it is advisable to regularly review your estate planning documents to make sure that they are a current statement of your preferences regarding the disposition of your property upon death.

The above recommendations are general tasks that should be completed in most all estate plans.  However, there may also be specific tasks that need to be completed that are unique to your individual estate.  Be sure to discuss with your attorney what tasks need to be completed after your estate planning documents have been signed to ensure your estate plan will fully accomplish your goals.

 

Harassment in the Headlines, Employers in the Headlights?

By Attorney Brian G. Formella

It is hard to ignore the daily dose of headlines that assert new allegations of sexual harassment or abuse in American society. While the problem of sexual harassment may be analyzed on many levels – personal, societal, historical, cultural, to name a few – sound legal analysis must not be overlooked by employers and employees when considering specific workplace situations.

When sex harassment occurs in in an employment setting, the conduct is likely addressed by Wisconsin and federal law.  Some forms of harassment may suggest criminal repercussions, although many forms of sexual harassment may not be considered a crime, depending on circumstances.

While all bad behavior in the workplace is inappropriate, not all inappropriate behavior may be contrary to state and federal laws.  Inappropriate conduct may not merely be illegal, it may be bad for business, including lowering employee morale.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that “workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm,” all of which is a drag on productivity.  (Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace; June 2016.)

Given the wide range of sexually inappropriate conduct, it behooves employers and employees to know the law.  Sex harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination based on sex.  Wisconsin defines discrimination because of sex to include implicitly or explicitly making or permitting acquiescence and/or submission to sexual harassment a term or condition of employment.  It is unlawful for an employer to permit conduct that has “the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an employee’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”  Substantial interference with an employee’s work performance or creation of an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment may be established when the conduct is such that a reasonable person under the same circumstances as the employee would consider the conduct to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to interfere substantially with the person’s work performance or to create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.  Usually the offensive conduct must be unwelcome for the conduct to be deemed unlawful under Wisconsin law.

Federal law is similar to Wisconsin law.  Wisconsin law applies to any employer with one or more employees; federal law applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

What should employers do to protect themselves against conduct by employees that may lead to harassment complaints?

1. Review your harassment policy to make sure it is up-to-date and has been recently communicated to your employees.

2. Conduct harassment training for management and non-management employees if you have not done so within the past year. The EEOC recommends that the training be live and interactive, if possible, or computer-based and interactive if live training is not possible.

3. If applicable, conduct appropriate harassment training for your organization’s board of directors.

4. Analyze whether your organization has been unintentionally tolerating or ignoring an employee who has a reputation for engaging in inappropriate behavior.

5. If the allegations of inappropriate behavior or harassment in your organization are widespread or involve someone high up in the organization, consider outside legal counsel to assist with your investigation. Outside counsel will be able to help you analyze legally sound investigation techniques and what, if any, remedial action should be taken.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize that bad behavior is bad for business, whether or not the conduct is against the law.  Consult with your legal advisor to review whether your harassment policies are up to date and whether key employees in your company should have moral turpitude clauses added to their employment agreements (when there are such employment agreements) to assist the employer in terminating employees who are behaving poorly, even if their conduct does not rise to the level of unlawful harassment under state or federal law.  Seek legal advice promptly if you suspect behavior that may violate state or federal harassment laws.

 

Life Events Require a Fresh Look at Insurance Coverages

By Attorney Bradley A. Yanke

I recently had the incredibly good fortune of getting married to my wonderful wife, Kat.  In addition to the name, address, and health insurance changes that came with this life event, I volunteered to get our auto and homeowners insurance policies and coverages melded and up to date.  Since I focus my practice on representing injury victims, as we were updating our policies, I kept an eye out for a number of insurance policy issues that I recently came across in my practice.

Arbitration for Underinsured (UIM) and Uninsured (UM) Motorist Coverage

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, protection that an injury victim has is his or her Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.  If the negligent party’s insurer is unwilling to provide fair and reasonable compensation for the injuries and damage sustained, you can seek recourse from a jury of your peers.  This is also true if the negligent driver does not have sufficient, or any, insurance and you need to make an underinsured or uninsured motorist claim with your own insurance company.

However, the Seventh Amendment protection is disappearing in some automobile insurance policies that include provisions that require arbitration for uninsured and underinsured motorist claims.  As a result, if the injured person and his or her insurance company cannot agree as to whether UIM/UM coverage applies or the amount of damages, rather than a jury of your peers deciding the issues, a group of arbitrators (usually three) decides the issues.

It is easy to pass this issue off as an “only lawyers read the insurance policy” type of issue.  However, depending on the issues and type of injuries, having your claim limited to a three-person arbitration body with limited discovery, limited evidence and limited appellate review could have a huge influence on your injury claim.  Unfortunately, by the time a lawyer reads your insurance policy, it is often after the injuries have occurred, and it is too late for the injured party to make an informed choice.

Breed Restrictions and Limits for Dog Bites

In Wisconsin, there is statutory liability for an owner, harborer and keeper of a dog when a dog bite occurs.  Normally, insurance coverage for this type of incident falls under a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy.  Just as all UIM/UM policy provisions are not written the same, not all policy provisions involving dog bite liability are the same.  There are a number of insurance policies in Wisconsin that limit, or completely exclude, coverage for certain dog breeds.

Some insurance policies exclude coverage for bodily injury or property damage caused by what the policy defines as prohibited or excluded breeds of dogs, including mixed breeds.  If not excluded, some policies limit the amount of insurance to an amount that is much lower (e.g. $25,000 or $10,000) than the policy’s normal liability limit.  As such, if you or your family owns a dog, make sure to check your policy for any dog breed restrictions or limitations of coverage.  Fortunately, my new married life includes only a teacup Chihuahua, which I have yet to see listed as an excluded breed.

 

Special Needs Estate Planning

Special needs planning involves parents or caregivers who are interested in ensuring quality of life, advocacy and services to a child or individual with special needs. The planning itself is two-fold: First, parents and caregivers will want to be sure that they can use their own assets to provide resources and services and to ensure that such resources are appropriately handled after death. Second, for individuals with special needs, inheritances, like other resources, can have an adverse impact on needs-based or financially-based public benefits. Therefore, special needs planning also incorporates planning for those types of benefits as well.

A properly drafted special needs plan has two primary goals: (1) preservation of resources and (2) ensuring quality of life. The foundation of such planning includes a Will or Revocable Trust, a Special Needs Trust, and in some cases, Guardianship.

If you do not have a Will, Wisconsin Statutes will determine the beneficiaries who receive your property (the Laws of Intestacy). If you have a child with special needs who is receiving public benefits, you may not want that child to receive your property directly. Instead, you can set up a Special Needs Trust in your Will for your child with special needs ensuring that public benefits will remain intact after your death. If you have been court appointed as legal guardian for your adult child, you can also nominate a successor guardian in your Will.

As an alternative to your Will, you can execute a Revocable Trust, which is a trust that provides for distribution of your assets upon death. Unlike a Will, if the Revocable Trust is properly funded, it will allow you to avoid probate procedures. You can also provide for the distribution of assets to a Special Needs Trust within your Revocable Trust.

A Special Needs Trust is a trust arrangement whereby income and assets are preserved and used for the beneficiary without interfering with or jeopardizing the beneficiary’s eligibility for Medicaid, SSI, and other needs-based government benefits. Assets are held and managed by a Trustee, who distributes the assets in accordance with the instructions in the Trust document.

A Special Needs Trust created under a Will or Revocable Trust is called a third-party trust. A third-party trust is one created and funded with assets owned by someone other than the beneficiary. A third-party trust can also be created and funded prior to death and is called a living trust, or inter vivos trust. Under 42 USC 1396p (d)(4)(A), third-party trusts are not subject to a Medicaid lien.

All Special Needs Trusts provide that funds held in the trust are not to be placed under the control of the beneficiary, and most provide specifically that disbursements from the trust are not to be made to the beneficiary but are to be in the form of payments to vendors. The Special Needs Trust must also be irrevocable. The trust also provides what is to be done with any funds remaining after the death of the beneficiary. Unlike Special Needs Trusts established with a disabled individual’s assets (self-settled trusts), a third-party trust contains no requirement to pay back benefits paid to the beneficiary during his or her lifetime. It is important not to commingle the assets of a third-party trust with a self-settled trust because of this distinction.

Special Needs Trusts involve complex estate planning concepts. It is important that you work with someone who is familiar with different types of Special Needs Trusts, the various options for establishing such trusts, and public benefits planning to ensure that your assets are properly managed and that your loved one maintains necessary benefits following your death.

“As Is” Clause in Real Estate Agreement

When using an “as is” clause, the seller and the realtor are still obligated to make disclosures about the property, unless the buyers executed a valid waiver to receive the real estate condition report.

Under Wis. Stat. § 709.01, the law requires that sellers of real estate complete a real estate condition report. There is no exception for property sold “as is.” The only exceptions from the requirement of providing the real estate condition report are for (a) Personal Representatives; (b) Trustees; (c) Conservators; and (d) Fiduciaries who are appointed by, or subject to the supervision of a court. Wis. Stat. § 709.01(2).

Sellers of real property also have a duty to exercise ordinary care — the legal obligation to refrain from any act which would cause foreseeable harm to another or create an unreasonable risk to another. Sellers may be liable if they intentionally conceal defects or prevent buyers from investigating the property to discover the defects. Sellers may also be liable to buyers if they make false affirmative statements about the property. Sellers may further be liable if they do not disclose material conditions which buyers are in a poor position to discover (e.g., fire damage that has been repaired or prior mold or pest issues).

Similarly, pursuant to Wis. Admin. Code REEB 24.07, real estate agents are required to inspect the property to familiarize themselves with the property’s condition and disclose adverse conditions to potential buyers. Wis. Admin. Code REEB 24.07(1)(b) further requires real estate agents to “make inquiries of the seller on the condition of the structure, mechanical systems, and other relevant aspects of the property as applicable.” Simply because the real estate is being sold “as is” does not mean that a real estate agent no longer must comply with such prescribed duties.

In conclusion, if you are selling your property and you want the sale to be an “as is” sale, you may still be required to make disclosures about the condition of the property. To limit your risks, talk to your attorney about proper disclosures when selling real estate.

Health Savings Account Account (HSA)

Have a Health Savings Account? Do you know what happens to your HSA when you die?

An HSA account is a tax-exempt, medical savings account that is available to United States taxpayers who are enrolled in a high-deductible health plan. Over the last few years, HSA accounts have become more common. However, many HSA account owners are unaware of the implications of the rules governing HSA accounts in the event of their death.

Death of an HSA Holder

If you die with an HSA account and you have named your spouse as the designated beneficiary of your HSA, then the HSA will continue to be treated as your spouse’s HSA after your death. Your spouse will then be able to use the money tax-free to pay for qualified medical expenses even if your spouse is not enrolled in a high-deductible health plan. Your spouse will also be able to use the account funds to pay for any qualified medical expenses that you incurred prior to your death if your spouse pays those expenses within a year of your date of death. However, if your spouse is younger than 65, takes a distribution of funds, and uses the funds for something other than medical expenses, then your spouse will be required to pay a 20% penalty tax on the amount withdrawn plus income taxes. (This is the same rule that applies to you while you are alive.)

If you named someone other than your spouse as the HSA account beneficiary, then the HSA account stops being an HSA, and the fair market value of the HSA becomes taxable to the beneficiary in the year in which you die. However, the taxable amount can be reduced by any qualified medical expenses that you incurred prior to your death if those expenses are paid by the beneficiary within a year of your date of death.

If no beneficiary is named or, in other words, if your estate is the beneficiary of the account, then the HSA and the account value shall be included on your final income tax return. The amount reported on your return cannot be reduced for the payment of any qualified medical expenses incurred by you and that your estate paid within a year of the date of your death. This is true even if your spouse is the sole beneficiary to your estate.

In conclusion, naming your spouse as the beneficiary of your HSA account carries numerous tax advantages. If you are not married, naming another person as the beneficiary of your HSA account is a good option, depending on the value of the account and the tax implications you might have if you named no beneficiary and had the value reported on your final income tax return.

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