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”

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 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 Should I Look for in a Trustee?

Selecting a trustee to manage your estate after you pass away is an important decision. Depending on the type of trust you’re creating, the trustee will be in charge of overseeing your assets and the assets of your family. In general, people choose either a friend or family member or alternatively decide to go with a professional trustee or a trust company or corporate trustee for this critical role.

Forbes’s recent article, “How To Choose A Trustee,” helps you identify what you should look for in a trustee.

If you go with a family member or friend, they should be financially savvy and good with money. You want someone who knows something about investing, and preferably someone who has assets of their own that they are investing with an investment advisor.

A good thing about selecting a friend or family member as trustee is that they’re going to be most familiar with you and your family. They will also understand your family’s dynamics.  Family members also usually don’t charge a trustee fee (although they are entitled to do so).

Depending on your family dynamics and personalities, however, your family may be better off with a professional trustee such as a private fiduciary or trust company that has expertise with trust administration. This may eliminate some potentially hard feelings in the family. Because your family member may be too close to the family and may get caught up in the drama, a neutral third party can also act as a barrier to potential fights and arguments. Certain family members may also end up having a power trip and enjoy having total control of your beneficiary’s finances a bit too much.

Trust companies, especially larger ones, will have more structure and oversight to the trust administration, including a trust department that oversees the administration. This will be more expensive, but it may be money well spent. A trust company can make the tough decisions and tell beneficiaries “no” when needed. It’s common to use a trust company when the beneficiaries don’t get along, when there is a problem beneficiary, or when the trustee is responsible for managing a large sum of money. A drawback is that a trust company may be difficult to remove or become inflexible. They also may be stingy about distributions if it will reduce the assets under management that they’re investing. You can solve this by giving a neutral third party, like a trusted family member, the ability to remove and replace the trustee in your trust documents.

Some people may also choose to have an attorney serve as their trustee. The advantage of a trusted attorney serving as a trustee is that they have familiarity with your family if you’ve worked together for some time. There will, however, be a charge for their time spent serving as trustee.

Talk to your estate planning attorney and go through your concerns to find a trustee solution that works for you and your family.

Reference: Forbes (May 31, 2019) “How To Choose A Trustee” 

Do I Need Life Insurance in My Estate Plan?

Not sure why you need to consider life insurance when planning your estate during retirement? You’re not alone if you don’t fully understand the value and benefits that life insurance can give you as part of a retirement plan. Kiplinger’s recent article, “Don’t Overlook Advantages of Making Insurance Part of Your Retirement Plan,” says many folks see life insurance as a way to protect a family from the loss of income in the event a breadwinner passes away during their working years.

If that’s your primary purpose in buying a life insurance policy, it’s a solid one. However, there are many additional benefits that life insurance can bring to your estate plan during retirement, including that income-replacement function.

When a spouse passes away during retirement, the surviving spouse frequently struggles financially. Some living expenses might be less when there’s just one person in a household, but the reduction in costs rarely makes up for the drop in income. One of the two Social Security checks the couple was getting goes away, and a pension payment may also be lost or reduced by 50% or 75%. Life insurance can be leveraged to make certain there’s sufficient cash to compensate for that missing income. This lets the surviving spouse maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Aside from income-replacement, life insurance programs can be good tax planning. There are several sections of the tax laws that give life insurance some income tax and transfer tax benefits. For example, death benefits typically are paid income-tax-free to beneficiaries and may also be free from estate taxes, provided the estate stays under the taxable limit. Also, any benefits paid prior to the insured’s death because of chronic or terminal illness also are tax-free. This is called an accelerated death benefit (ADB) and is a pretty new option. If your insurance doesn’t have this coverage, it can probably be added as a rider. Finally, cash values can grow within a permanent life insurance policy without being subject to income tax.

A life insurance policy can also provide some needed cash flow. Any cash value in the policy that is more than the policy owner’s tax basis can be borrowed income-tax-free as long as the policy stays in effect. But take caution when borrowing against your policy: if you were to pass away prior to paying back your policy loan, the loan balance plus interest accrued is deducted from the death benefit given to the beneficiaries. This may be an issue if your beneficiaries require the entire amount of the intended benefit.

Another consequence to consider is that interest that accrues during the period when the loan remains unpaid is added to the principal balance of the loan. If the loan balance increases above the amount of the cash value, your policy could lapse. That means you could you risk termination by the insurance carrier. If a policy lapses or is surrendered, the loan balance plus interest is considered taxable, and the taxes owed could be pretty hefty based on the initial loan and interest accrued.

Keep in mind, though, that life insurance comes with some costs that should be considered in light of your entire estate plan. There are fees that can include sales charges, administrative expenses, and surrender charges. That’s in addition to the cost of the insurance, which grows as you age.

The most important thing to remember at the end of the day is this: just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you don’t still need the protections and benefits life insurance can offer you and your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 10, 2019) “Don’t Overlook Advantages of Making Insurance Part of Your Retirement Plan”

How Do I Know If My Mom’s Estate Was Divided Properly?

It’s not uncommon for a senior to let her adult children know about her life insurance policies. In many cases, it’s because that child or all of her children are the beneficiaries. It is also not unusual for one child to be named the executor of the parent’s estate.

The trouble arises, if Mom took actions before she died and didn’t tell anyone, or if she only told one child. In this case, the mother kept important documents in a safety deposit box. A brother, who lived closer to the mother, told his sister that before their mother died, she made some big decisions: she cashed out the life insurance policies, emptied the safety deposit box, sold her car and signed a reverse mortgage on the house.

Therefore, how does the sister determine if whatever’s left was evenly divided?

It will take some investigating. The good news is that there’s always a paper trail.

nj.com’s recent article asks, “My mom died. How can I know I’m getting the right inheritance?” As the article explains, if the policies were cashed out by the parent, they no longer exist.

If you know the name of the insurance company and policy number, you can try to call the life insurance company’s home office to confirm this. However, they may not give out much information, if you weren’t the named beneficiary.

There are a few tips to help track down life insurance old policies.

If Mom had a reverse mortgage, then you know she owned a home. If the home wasn’t owned jointly (or held in a trust), then it would be a probate asset.

One way to determine this, is to check with the county court where she died, to see if a will was probated or any estate administration application was filed. The home would need to be sold by the executor or administrator, so there would be some paperwork. If there was, you can contact the executor/administrator for more information.

With a parent’s safety deposit box, the executor/administrator, once appointed, would have the authority to empty the contents of the box. However, if Mom previously emptied the contents, there’d be nothing for the executor/administrator to retrieve. You should check with that individual.

If you don’t believe the executor is being honest with you, you may need to work with your own attorney to make sure you’re getting what you’re due from Mom’s estate. And remember that the State of California has protections and rights for heirs and beneficiaries to be informed about the administration of their parent’s estates.

Reference: nj.com (February 21, 2019) “My mom died. How can I know I’m getting the right inheritance?”

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will, or advance medical directive, is a legal document that details your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. It’s a document that you sign when you’re of sound mind and says you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate-planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

If you are in California, these two documents are often combined and are called an Advance Health Care Directive. 

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

What are Common Mistakes that People Make with Beneficiary Designations?

Many people don’t understand that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they pass away. Some of a person’s assets pass by beneficiary designation. That’s accomplished by completing a form with the company that holds the asset and naming who will inherit the asset, upon your death.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid,” explains that assets including life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts (think 401(k)s, IRAs, 403bs and similar accounts) all pass by beneficiary designation. Many financial companies also let you name beneficiaries on non-retirement accounts, known as TOD (transfer on death) or POD (pay on death) accounts.

Naming a beneficiary can be a good way to make certain your family will get assets directly. However, these beneficiary designations can also cause a host of problems. Make sure that your beneficiary designations are properly completed and given to the financial company, because mistakes can be costly. The article looks at five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to name a beneficiary. Many people never name a beneficiary for retirement accounts or life insurance. If you don’t name a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement accounts, the financial company has it owns rules about where the assets will go after you die. For life insurance, the proceeds will usually be paid to your estate. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely get the assets. If you’re single, the retirement account will likely be paid to your estate, which has negative tax ramifications. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, the assets must be paid out of the retirement account within five years of death. This means an acceleration of the deferred income tax—which must be paid earlier, than would have otherwise been necessary.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every person should receive an asset directly. These are people like minors, those with specials needs, or people who can’t manage assets or who have creditor issues. Minor children aren’t legally competent, so they can’t claim the assets. A court-appointed guardian will claim and manage the money, until the minor turns 18. Those with special needs who get assets directly, will lose government benefits because once they receive the inheritance directly, they’ll own too many assets to qualify. People with financial issues or creditor problems can lose the asset through mismanagement or debts. Ask your attorney about creating a trust to be named as the beneficiary.
  3. Designating the wrong beneficiary. Sometimes a person will complete beneficiary designation forms incorrectly. For example, there can be multiple people in a family with similar names, and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names in marriage or divorce. Assets owners can also assume a person’s legal name that can later be incorrect. These mistakes can result in delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, can mean litigation.
  4. Failing to update your beneficiaries. Since there are life changes, make sure your beneficiary designations are updated on a regular basis. This is especially important in the case of a divorce of the account owner, or death of a family member.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary designations with your attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall financial and estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best approach for your specific situation.

Beneficiary designations are designed to make certain that you have the final say over who will get your assets when you die. Take the time to carefully and correctly choose your beneficiaries and periodically review those choices and make the necessary updates to stay in control of your money.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

Forgot to Update Your Beneficiary Designations? Your Ex Will be Delighted

Your will does not control who inherits all your assets when you die. This is something that many people do not know. Instead, many of your assets will pass by beneficiary designations, says Kiplinger in the article “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid.” Therefore it is important to update your beneficiary designations.

The beneficiary designation is the form that you fill out, when opening many different types of financial accounts. You select a primary beneficiary and, in most cases, a contingent beneficiary, who will inherit the asset when you die.

Typical accounts with beneficiary designations are retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, SEPs, life insurance, annuities and investment accounts. Many financial institutions allow beneficiaries to be named on non-retirement accounts, which are most commonly set up as Transfer on Death (TOD) or Pay on Death (POD) accounts.

It’s easy to name a beneficiary and be confident that your loved one will receive the asset, without having to wait for probate or estate administration to be completed. However, there are some problems that occur and mistakes get expensive.

Here are mistakes you don’t want to make:

Failing to name a beneficiary. It’s hard to say whether people just forget to fill out the forms or they don’t know that they have the option to name a beneficiary. However, either way, not naming a beneficiary becomes a problem for your survivors. Each company will have its own rules about what happens to the assets when you die. Life insurance proceeds are typically paid to your probate estate, if there is no named beneficiary. Your family will need to go to court and probate your estate.

When it comes to retirement benefits, your spouse will most likely receive the assets. However, if you are not married, the retirement account will be paid to your probate estate. Not only does that mean your family will need to go to court to probate your estate, but taxes will be levied on the asset. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, all the assets must be paid out of the account within five years from the date of death. This acceleration of what would otherwise be a deferred income tax, must be paid much sooner.

Neglecting special family considerations. There may be members of your family who are not well-equipped to receive or manage an inheritance. A family member with special needs who receives an inheritance, is likely to lose government benefits. Therefore, your planning needs to include a SNT — Special Needs Trust. Minors may not legally claim an inheritance, so a court-appointed person will claim and manage their money until they turn 18. This is known as a guardianship of the estate. Guardianships are costly to set up. They must also make an annual accounting to the court. Guardians may need to file a bond with the court, which is usually bought from an insurance company. This is another expensive cost.

If you follow this course of action, at age 18 your heir may have access to a large sum of money. That may not be a good idea, regardless of how responsible they might be. A better way to prepare for this situation is to have a trust created.  The trustee would be in charge of the money for a period of time that is determined by the personality and situation of your heirs.

Using an incorrect beneficiary name. This happens quite frequently. There may be several people in a family with the same name. However, one is Senior and another is Junior. The person might also change their name through marriage, divorce, etc. Not only can using the wrong name cause delays, but it could lead to litigation, especially if both people believe they were the intended recipient.

Failing to update beneficiaries. Just as your will must change when life changes occur, so must your beneficiaries. It’s that simple, unless you really wanted to give your ex a windfall.

Failing to review beneficiaries with your estate planning attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall estate plan and financial plan. For instance, if you are leaving a large insurance policy to one family member, it may impact how the rest of your assets are distributed.

Take the time to review your beneficiary designations, just as you review your estate plan. You have the power to determine how your assets are distributed, so don’t leave that to someone else.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”