According to court documents, legendary singer Aretha Franklin did not have a will when she died, despite reportedly having a son with special needs. The lack of a will opens up the intensely private singer’s estate to public scrutiny and unnecessary costs, and means that there are no specific provisions to protect her son.
Franklin, who died in Michigan at age 76, left behind four sons, but no guidance on how to distribute her estimated $80 million estate. The eldest son, Clarence, age 63, has unspecified special needs and requires “financial and other forms of support for his entire life,” according to the entertainment news site TMZ.
When someone dies without a will – called dying “intestate” -- the estate is divided according to state law. Under Michigan law, an unmarried decedent's estate is distributed to his or her children. (Franklin had been married twice but long since divorced.)
Even if the “Queen of Soul” had wanted her estate to go solely to her children, by not having a will or trust, her estate will have to go through a long public probate process, which will likely cost her estate considerable money. If Franklin had created an estate plan that included a will and a trust, she could have avoided probate and kept the details of her financial circumstances private.
But perhaps even more importantly, that estate plan could have made special provisions to ensure that Clarence would receive proper care for the rest of his life. Franklin could have established a special needs trust to preserve any public benefits Clarence may be receiving, or perhaps allocated him a larger share of her estate. She also could have accompanied a financial plan for him with a Memorandum of Intent (also called a “Letter of Intent”) to serve as the primary source of information about her son’s care, providing a roadmap for the courts, guardians, caregivers and others involved in his life.
Clarence could also be harmed by the absence of a will because it opens up an estate to potential challenges that could drag out the probate process. Without a will to clearly state the decedent's intent, litigation resulting from family conflicts often eats into estates.
Finally, Franklin’s estate will be subject to unnecessary estate taxation, leaving even less for Clarence and her other sons. Although she may not have been able to avoid estate tax entirely, there are steps she could have taken to reduce the amount her estate will have to pay.
"I was after her for a number of years to do a trust," attorney Don Wilson, who represented Franklin in entertainment matters for the past 28 years, told the Detroit Free Press. "It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate, and kept things private."
Estate planning is important even if you don't have Aretha Franklin's assets, and it’s doubly crucial if you have a child with special needs as she did. It allows you, while you are still living, to ensure that your property will go to the people you want, in the way you want, and when you want, and to create special protections for the child with special needs before it’s too late. You don’t want your plan for your loved ones to simply be “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Contact us to begin working on your estate plan now.
In passing the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act in 2014, Congress created a new way for potentially millions of people with special needs to save for disability related expenses without jeopardizing their eligibility for federal public benefit programs.
In fact, these savings plans, popularly known as ABLE accounts, may be used for an even broader array of products and services than many beneficiaries may realize – including housing expenses, bus fare, financial management services or even, potentially, a smart phone.
The ABLE Act itself defines “qualified disability expenses” as “expenses related to the eligible individual’s blindness or disability which are made for the benefit of an eligible individual who is the designated beneficiary.” It then goes on to list a range of categories of potential uses for funds set aside in ABLE accounts, including:
“Education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, expenses for oversight and monitoring, funeral and burial expenses, and other expenses, which are approved by the Secretary under regulations and consistent with the purposes of this section.”
In subsequent proposed regulations released in June 2015, the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reiterated that the term “qualifying disability expenses” should be “broadly construed” to include any benefit related to the designated beneficiary “in maintaining or improving his or her health, independence, or quality of life.”
This means that there is no requirement that the benefit be medically necessary, such as is the case when determining health care services covered by Medicaid, or that it benefit no one but the designated individual. As an example, the regulations specify that a smart phone could qualify as a covered expenses, provided that it serves as “effective and safe communication or navigation aid for a child with autism.”
Originally, the proposed regulations would have also required states to establish safeguards for ensuring that ABLE funds are only used for qualifying expenses, presumably by requiring beneficiaries to obtain pre-approval before distributing funds. In response to a backlash from disability advocates, many who feared that such requirements would be unduly burdensome, the Treasury Department and IRS rescinded this requirement in a notice issued November 2015 So as things stand now, you don’t need to get approval to withdraw funds and pay for a qualified disability expense.
The Obama administration, however, never issued final regulations, although the IRS has stated that “[u]ntil the issuance of final regulations, taxpayers and qualified ABLE programs may rely on these proposed regulations.”
To protect against future inquiries from the IRS, the ABLE National Resource Center recommends that beneficiaries maintain detailed records of expenses paid for by ABLE account assets, as well as how these expenses relate to their disabilities in case the expenditures are ever questioned by the IRS. Misuse of ABLE account funds could result in tax penalties and possible loss of public benefits.
Click here to watch a video and read a fact sheet about qualifying disability expenses from the ABLE National Resource Center.
For help in setting up an ABLE account or to find out whether something you want to use the account for is a qualified disability expense, please contact us.
Choosing the right person to serve as trustee of a special needs trust is one of the most important and difficult issues in creating the trust. A trustee typically manages the day-to-day operations of the trust, often making distributions to the trust's beneficiary, investing the trust's assets, and paying the trust's bills – all while maintaining the beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits programs.
The law isn't very strict about who may serve as trustee, as long as the person is over 18 years of age and is capable of managing his or her own affairs. A trustee can be the child’s parent or other relative, a trusted friend, or a professional such as a lawyer, accountant, trust company, bank or private professional fiduciary. Here are five considerations to help in the choice of who should serve.
Familiarity with public benefit programs. To ensure that your beneficiary's eligibility is never compromised, a trustee's knowledge of public benefit programs is crucial. Many government benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Section 8 housing have very complicated and contradictory rules governing special needs trusts. The trustee of a special needs trust must know these rules well, or, at the very least, work closely with a special needs planner who can explain the ramifications of his actions as trustee.
Does the trustee have time to do the job? Serving as the trustee of an active special needs trust can seem like a full-time job. Depending on a beneficiary's needs, the trustee could spend a good deal of time paying bills, monitoring government benefits, helping to secure housing, paying for medical care and serving as a link between the beneficiary and a variety of service providers. If a trustee finds that she can't perform all of these tasks when needed, or if she is sacrificing her family life or other professional obligations in order to work as a trustee, then it may be time to look for a professional trustee.
Consider a professional trustee. This could be an attorney, accountant, trust company, investment firm, bank or private professional fiduciary. A professional allows you to take advantage of that individual’s or institution's experience with public benefits, investments, money management and tax planning. Another advantage is emotional distance. Sometimes, the strains of a beneficiary's demands for trust distributions can cause significant problems for family members. These intra-family complications can be avoided through the use of a professional trustee.
How comfortable are you giving trust control to an outsider? For those who are uncomfortable with the idea of an outsider managing a loved one's trust, it is possible to appoint a family member and an independent trustee as co-trustees. By doing so, you can rest assured that there is a person who is familiar with the beneficiary and has her best interests at heart and that the public benefit programs' requirements are being met. Another option is to simultaneously appoint a trust "protector," who has the powers to review accounts and to hire and fire trustees, and a trust "advisor," who instructs the trustee on the beneficiary's needs.
Is a pooled trust an option? A pooled trust, which is administered by a non-profit corporation, may be a good option for some families. Such trusts pool the resources of many beneficiaries, and those resources are managed by a non-profit association. Pooling trust resources can reduce administrative fees, increase the total funds available for investment, and permit access to better investment opportunities. Because a pooled trust accepts contributions from many beneficiaries, the trust is able to make more stable investments and provide additional management services that a conventional special needs trust might not be able to afford. If the trust is modest in size, it may benefit from the low costs of a pooled trust. Others appreciate the fact that their funds will be used to help others with special needs.
Make sure that whomever you choose as trustee is financially savvy, well-organized, and, most important, ethical. We can help you make the best choice - contact us.
Most special needs trusts give their trustee wide authority, often appropriately so, to respond to unforeseen circumstances. But for those concerned about placing some checks and balances on the trustee’s authority, one possible option is a care committee.
Special needs trusts are trusts designed to protect the assets of a person with disabilities. The trustee is the person tasked with managing and distributing the trust’s assets on the beneficiaries’ behalf.
As previously discussed here, in addition to the trustee, many trusts create a separate care committee, either explicitly in the trust or through a separate memorandum of intent. Care committees, also commonly known as “trust advisory committees,” are typically granted the right to review accountings, to examine records, and to remove and replace the trustee. To use an analogy from the corporate world, the trustee is the CEO and the care committee is the board of directors. The care committee may also be given the authority to amend the trust, veto certain distributions or participate in other decisions.
A downside to the creation of a care committee is that it can slow down the decision making process, at the expense of the beneficiary. Likewise, a care committee can deny the trustee the appropriate flexibility to act in the person with disability’s best interests.
To see if a care committee is right for your special needs trust, contact us.