Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

When names change, executed documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, so there are some different solutions that can address this situation. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says, “I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts.” If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is used: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation where the sisters-in-law had such similar names, most attorneys want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, the names are too similar, as are their relationships with the testator. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second, the document being discussed in the case above is a healthcare designation. Usually, when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

When Selecting Beneficiaries Gets Overlooked

Here’s one way to mess up your estate plan: naming beneficiaries not by name, but by the generic term “children.” If yours is a blended family, your stepchildren may be out of luck, according to the article “Five mistakes to avoid when naming beneficiaries” from Delco Times. In many states, stepchildren aren’t recognized if the word “children” is used. Use their full names.

Here are more mistakes that people make about beneficiaries:

Failing to name a beneficiary on every account. The great thing about beneficiary designations as that they do not go through probate and beneficiaries receive assets directly from the custodian of the account. However, if you fail to name a beneficiary, the asset, whether they are life insurance proceeds or the entire balance of a 401(k) account, will go to your estate. If it exceeds the statutory limit, then it will need to go through probate.  For retirement accounts, your heirs will also lose the ability to stretch withdrawals over their lifetime.

Failing to name a contingent beneficiary. What if the first person passes away before you do and there’s no contingency beneficiary named? The asset will be treated as if there were no beneficiaries named at all, and it goes through probate.  If both the sole beneficiary and the owner die at the same time, all of the funds must similarly go through probate.

Neglecting to review beneficiary selections on a regular basis. Beneficiary designations override a will, so it’s very important to keep them current. Every few years, review the accounts that you own and see what your beneficiary designation choices are. This is especially necessary if you have been divorced, widowed or remarried. If you fail to take your ex-spouse off an insurance policy, for instance, there’s little that can be done when you die—even if you put your wishes that a new spouse or children receive the proceeds in your will. This will likely cause the issue to go to court, which will soak up precious time, resources, and anxiety.

Not communicating with your partner and family members. Talking with family members and loved ones about your wishes for your legacy and asset distribution is an important way to let them know what to expect when you die. It’s not an easy conversation, but it will be helpful to all. Knowing you have a plan will alleviate them from the worry of the unknown, and it prevents unexpected surprises. There’s no need to talk specific dollar amounts unless you want to. Instead, give them a high-level overview of what your intentions are.

Some families find these conversations easier in the presence of an objective third party, like your estate planning attorney. If your estate plan includes trusts or any complex planning strategies, a family meeting provides a means of explaining the plan and the processes involved.

Reference: Delco Times (October 6, 2019) “Five mistakes to avoid when naming beneficiaries”

Your Spouse Just Died … Now What?

There are several steps to take while both spouses are alive and well, to help reduce the chance of the surviving spouse finding themselves in a “financial deadlock” situation, or worse. The preparations require the non-financially dominant partner to be involved as much as possible, says Barron’s in the article “How to Avoid Financial Deadlock—or Worse—After One Spouse Dies”

Step one is to prepare the financial equivalent of a “go-bag,” like the ones people are supposed to have when they must leave their home in a crisis. That means a list of all financial contacts, advisors, estate planning attorney, accountants, insurance professionals and copies of all beneficiary designations. There should also be a list or a spreadsheet of all the couple’s assets and liabilities, including digital assets and passwords to these accounts. The spouse should also note the location of financial records and critical legal documents, including insurance policies, wills, and trusts.

Each partner must have access to checking and cash independently of the other, and the spouses need to review together how assets and accounts are titled.

It is especially important for both spouses to be on the deed to their home with right of survivorship, so that the surviving spouse can easily prove that they are the sole owner of the home after the spouse dies. Otherwise, they may not be able to communicate with the mortgage company. If a surviving spouse must go to court and file probate in order to deal with the home, it can become costly and more stressful.

It’s not emotionally easy to go through all this information but it is critical for the surviving spouse’s financial security.

Any information that will be needed by the surviving spouse should be documented in a way that is easily accessible and understandable for the spouse. Even if someone is very organized and has a well-developed description of their assets and estate plan, it may not be as easily understood for someone whose mind works differently. This is especially true if the couple has had years where the non-financial spouse was not involved with the family’s assets and is suddenly digesting a lot of new information.

It is wise for the non-financial spouse to be in meetings with key advisors and take on some of the tasks like bill paying, reviewing insurance policies and reconciling accounts well before either spouse experiences any kind of cognitive decline. Ideally, the financially dominant partner takes the time to train the other spouse and then also have them handle the finances independently to the extent possible until they are both comfortable managing all the details.

Each spouse needs to understand how the death of the other will impact the household income. If one spouse has a pension without survivor benefits and that spouse is the first to die, the surviving spouse may find themselves struggling to replace that income. They also need to consider daily aspects of their lives, like if one spouse is highly dependent upon the other for caregiving.

Spouses are advised not to make any big financial or life decisions within a year or so of a spouse’s death. The surviving spouse is often not in a good emotional state to make smart decisions, and that is the time they are most at risk for senior financial abuse.

Both spouses should sit down with their estate planning attorney and discuss what will happen if either of them is widowed. It is a difficult topic but planning ahead will make the transition less traumatic from a financial and legal perspective.

Reference: Barron’s (Sep. 15, 2019) “How to Avoid Financial Deadlock—or Worse—After One Spouse Dies”

Am I Too Young to Think About Estate Planning?

It’s wise for younger generations to consider estate planning early, advises The Cleveland Jewish News in the recent article “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that an estate plan is only for older people or the ultra-wealthy. In fact, there are many younger adults who may need it, especially if they have been financially successful and also have experienced changes with marriage and families.

This is especially important for young people who are in committed relationships. A young married couple should talk together about their vision and goals for their financial, health, and legal affairs, in case something happens to one of them or within their families.

Estate plans provide some certainty in an otherwise uncertain life. There are many reasons to start early. One reason is that you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make certain that all of your assets are in place.

When creating an estate plan, there are a few things that younger people should consider, such as making sure all their accounts have named a beneficiary. This includes life insurance, retirement, and checking and savings accounts. These beneficiaries need to be reviewed on an ongoing basis and updated for life and family changes.

Many younger adults will be fine with just a will, a financial power of attorney, and a health care power of attorney. However, marriage is a time when people begin to have more complexity in their professional lives. This can include starting a business or becoming leaders at companies and that may require more complex and protective plans.

While younger generations are known to be independent and to try to meet all their needs online, estate plans should be treated differently. There are numerous online tools or ‘do-it-yourself’ strategies, but professional legal assistance can make it an easier and a more thorough process. Remember, when you meet with an attorney, you are not just getting the papers; you are also receiving their guidance and expertise, crafted to address the needs of your specific situation.

Start as early as you can and set the foundation for more complex planning that will come in the future. This preparation will mean less stress for those left behind after you pass away.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (September 19, 2019) “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too”

Why Would I Need to Revise My Will?

OK, great!! You’ve created your will! Now you can it stow away and check off a very important item on your to-do list, right? Well, not entirely.

Thrive Global’s recent article, “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now,” says it’s extremely important that you regularly update your will (and other documents, such as a revocable living trust) to avoid any potential confusion and extra stress for your family at a very emotional time. As circumstances change, you need to have your will reflect changes in your life. As time passes and your situation changes, your will may become invalid, obsolete or even create added confusion when the time comes for your will to be administered.

New people in your life. We all know life changes. If you have more children after you’ve created your will, review your estate plan to make certain that the wording is still correct. You may also marry or re-marry, or you may have grandchildren that you now want to include. Make a formal update to your estate plan to include the new people who play an important part in your life and to remove those with whom you lose touch.

A beneficiary or other person dies. If a person you had designated as a beneficiary or executor of your will has died and there is no backup, you must make a change or it could result in confusion when the time comes for your estate to be distributed. You should update your will if an individual named in your estate plan passes away before you.

Divorce. If your will was created prior to a divorce, you will probably want to remove your ex from your estate plan. If you have minor children with your ex, you may also want to change your distribution and nominate a guardian of the estate to take care of any money you want to pass to your children. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the changes you need to make.

Your spouse dies. Even though wills should be written in such a way as to always have a backup plan in place, that’s not what always happens. For example, if your husband or wife dies before you, their portion of your estate might go to another family member or another named individual. If this happens, you may want to redistribute your assets to other people.

A child becomes an adult. When a child turns 18 and comes of age, she is no longer a dependent.  Your documents might have included provisions for dependents that now no longer apply to your children, but you would like to still help them out if you were to die. Therefore, you may need to update your will in any areas that provided additional funds for any dependents.

You experience a change in your financial situation. This is a great opportunity to update your will to protect your new financial situation. If you now have more than the minimum amount needed for probate, you may also want to create a trust to avoid probate. In California, if a person has more than $150,000 in their estate when they die (including the value of any houses), they will have to go through probate. Create a trust and change your will to a pour-over will to save your loved ones the trouble of going to court.

You change your mind. It’s your will, and you can change your mind whenever you like.

Reference: Thrive Global (June 17, 2019) “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now”

What Happens When There’s No Will or the Will Is Invalid?

The Queen of Soul’s lack of a properly executed estate plan isn’t the first time a celebrity died without a will, and it surely will not be the last says The Bulletin in the article “Aretha Franklin and other celebrities died without an estate plan. Will you?”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Hughes, and Prince all died without a valid will and estate plan. When actor Heath Ledger died, his will left everything to his parents and three sisters. The will had been written before his daughter was born and left nothing to his daughter or her mother (it should be noted that if Ledger lived in California he would have needed a trust to avoid probate). Ledger’s family later gave all the money from the estate to his daughter.

Getting started on a will is not that challenging if you work with an experienced estate planning attorney. They often start clients out with a simple information gathering form, sometimes in an online process or on paper. They’ll ask a lot of questions, like if you have life insurance, a prenup, who you want to be your executor and who should be the guardian of your children.

Don’t overlook your online presence. If you die without a plan for your digital assets, you have a problem known as “cyber intestacy.” Plan for who will be able to access and manage your social media, online properties, etc., in addition to your tangible assets, like investment accounts and real property.

Automatic bill payments and electronic bank withdrawals continue after death, and heirs may struggle to access photographs and email. When including digital estate plans in your will, provide a name for the person who should have access to your online accounts. Check with your estate planning attorney to see if they are familiar with digital assets. Do a complete inventory, including frequent flyer miles, PayPal and other accounts.

Remember that if you don’t make a will or trust, the state where you live has laws that will decide for you. Each state has different statutes determining who gets your assets. They may not be the people you wanted, so that’s another reason why you need to have a will or trust.

Life insurance policies, IRAs, and other accounts that have beneficiaries are handled separately from the will. Beneficiaries receive assets directly and that bypasses anything written in a will, so you should confirm and keep documentation that specifies who your beneficiaries are. This is especially important for unmarried millennials, Gen Xers, divorced people, single individuals, and widows and widowers, who may not have designated someone as a beneficiary.

Don’t forget your pets. Your heirs may not want your furry family members, and they could end up in a shelter and euthanized if there’s no plan for them. You can sign a “pet protection” agreement or set up a pre-funded pet trust. Some states allow them; others do not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help protect your beloved pets as well as your family.

Reference: The Bulletin (Sep. 14, 2019) “Aretha Franklin and other celebrities died without an estate plan. Will you?”

What Do I Need to Do Financially, When We Have a Baby?

In addition to all the logistics involved with a new baby, new parents should also take care of financial and legal matters in the months leading up to the big day.

U.S. News & World Report’s recent article, “Financial Steps to Take When You’re Pregnant” reminds us that pregnancy is a terrific time to review your financial life. It’s a great time to assess your budget, emergency savings, estate planning documents, and insurance needs to see if anything needs to be refreshed.

Here are a few things to do to prepare for a new baby:

Employee Benefits. Take a look at your employee benefits or have a conversation with HR to determine how much time you can take off and whether you’ll be paid your salary while on parental leave. This is important because many families are faced with higher living costs by the presence of a new baby, which is often combined with taking parental leave that may cut their take-home pay. New parents may have to use the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, or tap into short-term disability insurance, which typically only replaces a portion of your salary. The amount you receive in short-term disability will also be impacted by whether you pay premiums with pre-tax or post-tax dollars. If you pay with pretax, your benefit will be subject to taxes, which will decrease the overall amount received.

While reviewing these policies, look at your health insurance and see what kind of prenatal visits and pediatric care are covered. You should also look at the terms of your health insurance policy since you could be liable for health insurance premiums during periods where you are taking leave from work. Also, remember that you’ll need to add your baby to your medical insurance within 30 days of the birth.

Budget. Create a new budget that takes into account changes in your income from taking leave and new expenses from having a new baby. You may have to survive several weeks without your normal level of income, so be sure that you have enough saved up to get through that period. After that, create another budget that considers more long-term expenses associated with the new one, such as the cost of childcare, diapers, and formula, all of which can add up.

Life Insurance. Determine if your current life insurance will meet your needs. If you need more, look at term life insurance. It’s usually affordable and expires after a set term, typically anywhere from 10 to 30 years. This policy payout would help a surviving parent or guardian care for your child.

Estate Planning. Consider who would care for your child if both parents were to die before they turn 18. Talk to family or close friends about who you’d like as the guardian of the child. Talk to an estate planning attorney to update (or create) a will and guardianship choices. In addition, ask about formulating a plan for how inheritance, insurance, and other assets will be handled and disbursed if you die while the child is a minor. A revocable living trust can be one way to direct a future inheritance. You can designate your child as the beneficiary and a relative or close friend as the trustee. The trustee will help decide how the money is spent. This trust is usually included in the will and activates after the death of the person who created it.

Beneficiary Designations. Update any beneficiary designations on your retirement and insurance accounts to include your child, but make sure and ask about meeting requirements for how minors can own property.

529 College Savings Account. You should also look into funding a 529 college savings account but don’t feel pressure to contribute a lot. Making certain that your budget, estate, and insurance needs are tailored to meet your new family dynamic are more pressing concerns.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (August 29, 2019) “Financial Steps to Take When You’re Pregnant”

What Happens when Both Spouses Die at the Same Time?

There are any number of ways a person can inherit assets from another person. They may inherit assets from a trust, through a will or as a designated beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. However, in each case, says Lake Country News in the article “Simultaneous and close together deaths,” the person inheriting the asset is living, while the person they inherited from has died.

What happens if spouses die either at the same exact time or at a time that is very close to each other? The answer, as with so many estate planning questions, is that it depends.

The first question is, did both decedents have estate planning documents in place? If so, what directions do the wills give? Are there trusts, and if so, who are the trustees? If they served as trustees for each other’s trusts, did they name a secondary trustee?

If assets were owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven that a joint tenant survived the other.

Here’s an example: if a parent dies without a will, is survived by two children, but one of the two children dies only four days after the parent’s death, i.e., fewer than 120 hours, in California, the law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. The sole surviving child receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.

A trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries, and accounts with pay-on-death beneficiaries can sometimes name contingent beneficiaries. This is another reason why it is wise to have primary and secondary beneficiaries on all accounts that permit secondary beneficiaries. Check to see if your accounts have this option, as not all accounts allow for secondary beneficiaries.

Keep in mind that a beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit might die before receiving complete distribution of his or her inheritance. In this case, that beneficiary’s share will pass through his or her estate plan. Unless there has been advance planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it will be distributed either according to the beneficiary’s will or according to the laws of intestacy of the decedent’s state of residence. In this case, the beneficiary’s estate may need to be probated to distribute the inheritance.

The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a couple who died at the same time or in close proximity to each other varies from case to case. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan prepared to avoid your family having to unravel the knotty mess that is created when there is no trust, and no estate planning has been done.

Reference: Lake Country News (Aug. 10, 2019) “Simultaneous and close together deaths”

Details of the New SECURE Act

You may have heard some talk about the new SECURE Act. But what are the details and how does it impact you?

The SECURE Act proposes a number of changes to retirement savings. These include changes to parts of IRAs and 401(k)s. Although it is still under review, the Act is expected to be passed in some form after revisions. Some of the changes that the Act makes look to be common sense, like broadening access to IRAs and 401(k)s, as well as including updating the rules to reflect that retirement is now a longer period of life. However, with these changes come potential limitations with stretch IRAs.

Forbes asks in its recent article “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?” In general, an IRA is a tax-wrapper for your investments. While the investments stay in the IRA, you do not have to pay any tax on income made from those investments. A traditional IRA is where your contributions can be made tax-free for the time being, with tax due upon withdrawal. Alternatively, you can contribute after-tax dollars and have your distributions be tax-free if you use a Roth IRA. The SECURE act isn’t changing this fundamental process during the lifetime of the person who contributed to the IRA. Instead, it is altering what happens when that person, still has an IRA balance at death.

If you’ve ever spoken with someone who inherited an IRA, you have probably heard of the Stretch IRA. A Stretch IRA can be a great estate planning tool. Here’s how it works: you give the IRA to a young beneficiary in your family. The tax shield function of the IRA is then “stretched,” for what can be decades because the length of the IRA will now extend to the end of the beneficiary’s lifetime. This is important because the longer the IRA lasts, the more your investments can continue to grow. In a sense, this will protect that growth from taxes for a longer period of time.

However, the SECURE Act could change that: instead of IRA funds being spread and distributed to the beneficiary over the lifetime of the beneficiary, they’d be spread and distributed over a much shorter period. Based on the provisions of the SECURE Act as it stands, that period will likely be 10 years. That’s a big change for estate planning because a beneficiary will now have to withdraw that investment within a shorter period of time, be taxed on that income sooner, and lose out on the benefits of letting the investments grow for longer.

It’s good to keep in mind, though, that for a person who uses their own IRA throughout retirement and uses it up or passes it to their spouse as an inheritance—the SECURE Act changes almost nothing. In fact, IRAs are slightly improved for these individuals due to the new ability to continue to contribute after age 70½ and other small improvements. Therefore, most typical IRA holders will be unaffected or benefit to some degree. For many people, the bulk of IRA funds will be used in retirement and the Stretch IRA is less relevant. If you are planning to use the IRA as a distribution for your children or other people to inherit, however, talk to a tax advisor or attorney to understand how the SECURE Act will impact your estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2019) “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?”

Second Marriage? Make Sure Your Estate Plan Is Ready

It’s always a good idea to review your estate plan, especially when a major life event, like a second marriage, is taking place. The use of pre-nuptial agreements gives prospective spouses the opportunity to discuss one another’s rights of inheritance and clarify a great many issues, says nwi.com in the article “Estate Planning: Planning for second marriages.”

There’s a second opportunity to sign an agreement detailing inheritance rights after the wedding takes place, called a “post-nuptial agreement.” The problem is that once the wedding has occurred and you are both legally married, you might get stuck with some surprises and, well, you’re married. For most people, it’s better to set things out before the wedding, rather than after.

Having the discussion prior to marriage can also help with financially planning your life together. There may have been dissolution decrees in one or both of the couple’s prior divorces that have requirements which must be satisfied, such as maintaining a life insurance policy with the ex-spouse as a beneficiary. This can have an impact on the couple’s estate plan. Because of arrangements like this, it is recommended that you have everything discussed upfront in the pre-nup.

There are also additional steps that should be followed for any estate review upon a marriage. First, make sure that the last will and testament reflects your new spouse. For second marriages in particular, you want to make sure any mention of the prior spouse lists them as just that, a prior spouse only.

Next, verify and confirm how all of the assets are owned. Will they continue to be owned by just one spouse, or converted to jointly owned? Does your estate plan have a trust, and if so, are assets owned by the trust? Does there need to be a change made to your trustees?

Many people don’t remember how their bank accounts are titled. Fewer still can tell you who their beneficiaries are on their retirement accounts, life insurance policies and bank accounts. Remember: the beneficiary designations are going to determine who receives these assets, regardless of any language in your last will and testament. Once you die, there is no way to contest that distribution. Review your accounts and make sure that the beneficiaries are up to date, especially if you want to remove your prior spouse from your designations.

Part of your pre-nup and estate plan review should include a discussion of inheritance rights for any children in the blended family. Do you want to leave assets only for your children, or do you want to leave assets for all the children? It’s not an easy conversation to have, especially at the start of the blending process.

Remember also that blended family dynamics can change over the years. When you review your estate plan next—in three to four years—you’ll have the opportunity to make changes that hopefully will reflect deepening bonds between all of the family members. Your estate planning attorney will help create and revise estate plans as your life circumstances evolve.

Reference: nwi.com (May 5, 2019) “Estate Planning: Planning for second marriages”