Q&A: A capital gains surprise

Dear Liz: My son has decided to settle abroad and wants to purchase a home. I made a gift of stock valued at $17,000, which had significant gains. My broker indicated that giving him the stock would avoid capital gains on my part, and he could cash the stock in at that value, also without accruing capital gains. Our CPA is now telling him that he will, indeed, have to pay the capital gains. What’s the real scoop?

Answer: It shouldn’t be a scoop that the person who does taxes for a living gave you the correct answer.

When you gave your son the stock, you also gave him your tax basis — essentially, what you paid for the stock. Once the stock was sold, your son owed taxes on those gains.

Q&A: Watch out for probate triggers

Dear Liz: My wife and I have a living trust that includes most of our assets. We have two bank accounts that are not in the trust totaling $130,000. Will these accounts be subject to probate? If it matters, she is in memory care and I handle all finances. Our executor son is a signer on one bank account to have ready access to cover final expenses in case I predecease my wife.

Answer: As you know, living trusts are designed to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death to distribute someone’s estate. In some states, including California, probate can be expensive, prolonged and often worth avoiding. Assets typically must be titled in the name of the living trust or have a designated beneficiary to avoid probate. There are some exceptions, but you’d be smart to consult an estate planning attorney to make sure you don’t inadvertently trigger the probate you’re trying to avoid.

Q&A: Helping beneficiaries find documents

Dear Liz: Not so much a question but a follow-up to previous advice in your column. I agree online statements are safe and reasonable but suggest keeping at least one printed statement a year from each account with important papers. Also, take time to place “transfer on death” beneficiaries on each account. My younger brother passed away without a will and most of his accounts were online. I have spent many months unraveling this mess. I had to prove I was next of kin to get at least enough money to be reimbursed for final expenses.

Answer: Your experience is far from unusual, unfortunately. With so much of our financial lives online, we’re just not creating the paper trails that can help executors settle our affairs. Often the executors can’t even open the laptops and phones that could help them track down accounts because those devices are password protected. Digital assets such as photos, frequent flier miles and cryptocurrency may become forever inaccessible.

People can make life easier for their loved ones by keeping an updated list of key passwords and account numbers in a safe place that’s accessible to the person or people who will be settling their estate. That could be an at-home safe or a locked filing cabinet, as long as your trusted person has the combination or key. Another option would be online services such as Everplans, which can allow you to organize documents and name trusted people who can get access to those documents after your death.

Q&A: To shred or not to shred

Dear Liz: In a recent column, an attorney suggested that a veteran’s information can be shredded three years after death. However, surviving spouses of veterans can be eligible for benefits to cover the costs of assisted living and would need to provide that information.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Many people aren’t aware of the “aid and attendance” benefit that can help veterans and their spouses pay for help with activities of daily living, including bathing, dressing and using the bathroom. These custodial care costs are typically not covered by Medicare.

Q&A: Death and document retention

Dear Liz: After a spouse’s death, I am wondering if there is some guidance on how long to keep items such as a driver’s license, Social Security card, Medicare and health plan card, passport, veteran’s information and so on. I haven’t seen this addressed in your column.

Answer: Guidance about what to keep and discard after a death can vary widely, so you may want to ask your estate attorney for help. In general, though, you can begin to dispose of many documents three years after the estate is settled, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

In some cases, you can shred them sooner. Social Security numbers are often printed on the death certificate, so the card can be shredded once you verify the number on the certificate is accurate, Sawday said. You also may wish to shred the passport as soon as possible to avoid it falling into the hands of an identity thief. Another option is to mark the passport “void” and keep it as a family history item, she says.

The driver’s license is another possible family history item — and boon to an identity thief — but it can be discarded at the three-year point, Sawday said. Veteran’s information can be kept for family history purposes or discarded three years after any death VA benefits are claimed.

Medicare and health plan cards should be kept in case any medical billing issues arise and then discarded when those issues, if any, are resolved, she said.

Q&A: What happens when your unmarried life partner dies without a will?

Dear Liz: A close friend recently lost her partner of many decades. The partner left no will or trust or anything in writing. The partner owned many properties and had a huge IRA and lots of money in the bank, but all in the partner’s name alone. My friend asked an estate lawyer and the lawyer said she had no legal right to anything, even the home she has lived in for many years. Can anything be done?

Answer: The lawyer is probably correct. Without estate documents, beneficiary designations or some kind of written agreement, unmarried partners typically can’t inherit, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

But your friend should consider talking to a family law attorney to see if she has any recourse, Sawday said.

In California, for example, she may be able to make a “Marvin” claim against the estate. (Marvin claims stem from a 1976 California Supreme Court case between Michelle and Lee Marvin, which established that unwed partners could sue each other over property divisions after a relationship ended.)

Q&A: What you need to know about power of attorney documents

Dear Liz: My husband has Parkinson’s disease and is showing early signs of dementia. I’ve been advised to get a financial power of attorney. If all of our accounts are joint, is this necessary? What will that do for me?

Answer: A power of attorney gives you the authority to make decisions on your husband’s behalf. You wouldn’t need one to pay the bills from your joint accounts, but this document could be invaluable if you wanted to take action on jointly held property, such as selling a car or house or refinancing a mortgage. Otherwise, you might have to go to court to get a guardianship, which can be expensive.

Please don’t wait. For the document to be valid, your husband needs to be able to understand what a power of attorney is and what it does. You’ll also need a power of attorney for healthcare, which is sometimes called a healthcare proxy or advanced directive, to make decisions regarding his medical care.

There are do-it-yourself options, but given your husband’s condition you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney who can offer personal guidance and help make sure the documents won’t be challenged.