By Eric Scaringe
Recently, the office of the Illinois state treasurer was tasked with handling one of the most bizarre and complicated unclaimed estate cases ever recorded in U.S. history.
Chicago resident Joseph Stancak passed away in 2016, secretly leaving behind $11 million in his estate. Fast forward to October 2022, 119 of Stancak’s relatives have now received a portion of his wealth more than five years later.
With no siblings, children of his own, or nephews and nieces, his lineage had to be traced by going all the way back to his parents before coming back to these relatives who are located in multiple states and even countries. That is a life-changing amount of money, and there is not much information on how he accumulated the wealth, but there is an important lesson to be learned here.
The best time to begin estate planning is as soon as possible. It basically starts with going through “what if” scenarios, some financial housekeeping and then bringing in professionals to finalize the process.
The biggest error you can make is thinking that estate planning is only for those worth tens of millions of dollars and doesn’t apply to your family. Anyone with assets owned in their own names may be subjecting their heirs to a long and expensive probate court process to simply inherit their assets.
Here are steps you can take to start the process:
• Prepare a personal net worth statement and include columns for ownership such as husband, wife, joint.
• Review amounts of death benefits and beneficiaries of life insurance policies.
• Review pension plans, 401K and IRAs and the beneficiaries of those items.
• Communicate a desired plan for assets with your spouse if you were to pass.
• Get it in writing. Meet with a CPA and an attorney to calculate the effects of your planning and have your wishes drafted into a trust document.
• Select trustees responsible for your estate after your passing. Be sure to select several alternatives.
• If you have young children, decide who will become their guardians if both of you were to pass.
• Transfer assets that are not jointly held with the next generation into your new trusts.
In urging you to begin estate planning as soon as possible, we do so with the knowledge that the current estate tax exemption has been set at $12,920,000 and the annual gift exemption will be $17,000 per person for 2023.
It’s not a guarantee that those amounts will not decrease at some point. With a dynamic political environment, the tools available to your family now to minimize tax liability may not be available tomorrow.
If your family net worth is above the available exemption, there are many strategies to consider implementing to transfer growth outside of your estate today, as well as others to reduce or eliminate your exposure to estate taxes upon your demise.