Some Estate Planning Actions for 2020

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Many of us set New Year’s resolutions to improve our quality of life. While it’s often a goal to exercise more or eat more healthily, you can also resolve to improve your financial well-being. It’s a great time to review your estate plan to make sure your legacy is protected, especially if you are home and have some time to think about your finances and your family.

The Tennessean’s recent article entitled “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year” gives us some common updates for your estate planning.

Schedule a meeting with your estate planning attorney to discuss your situation and to help the attorney create your estate plan.

You should also regularly review and update all your estate planning documents.

Goals and priorities change, so review your estate documents annually to make sure that your plan continues to reflect your present circumstances and intent. You may have changes to family or friendship dynamics or a change in assets that may impact your estate plan. It could be a divorce or remarriage; a family member or a loved one with a disability diagnosis, mental illness, or addiction; a move to a new state; or a change in a family business. If there’s a change in your circumstances, get in touch with your estate planning attorney to update your documents as soon as possible.

Federal and state tax and estate laws change, so ask your attorney to look at your estate planning documents every few years in light of any new legislation.

Review retirement, investment, and trust accounts to make sure that they achieve your long-term financial goals.

A frequent estate planning error is forgetting to update the beneficiary designations on your retirement and investment accounts. Thoroughly review your accounts every year to ensure everything is up to snuff in your estate plan.

Communicate your intent to your heirs, who may include family, friends, and charities. It is important to engage in a frank discussion with your heirs about your legacy and estate plan. Because this can be an emotional conversation, begin with the basics.

Having this type of conversation now can prevent conflict and hard feelings later.

Reference: Tennessean (Jan. 3, 2020) “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year.”

What Should I Know about Beneficiary Designations?

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A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy or some type of investment account as the individual(s) who will receive those assets upon the account holder’s death. The beneficiary designation doesn’t replace a signed will but instead takes precedence over any instructions about these accounts in a will. If the decedent doesn’t have a will, and there is no beneficiary designation, the heirs may see a long delay in the probate court.

If you’ve done your estate planning, most likely you’ve spent a fair amount of time on the creation of your will. You’ve discussed the terms with an established estate planning attorney and reviewed the document before signing it.

FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Customizing Your Beneficiary Designations” points out, however, that with your IRA, you probably spent far less time planning for its ultimate disposition, despite the fact that it probably houses a significant portion of your assets.

The bank, brokerage firm, or mutual fund company that acts as custodian undoubtedly has a standard beneficiary designation form. It is likely that you took only a moment or two to write in the name of your spouse or the names of your children.

A beneficiary designation on account, like an IRA, gives instructions on how your assets will be distributed upon your death.

If you have only a tiny sum in your IRA, a cursory treatment might make sense. Therefore, you could consider preparing the customized beneficiary designation form from the bank or company.

For more customization, you can have a form prepared by an estate planning attorney familiar with retirement plans.

You can address various possibilities with this form, such as the scenario where your beneficiary predeceases you, or she becomes incompetent. Another circumstance to address is if you and your beneficiary die in the same accident.

These situations aren’t fun to think about but they’re the issues usually covered in a will. Therefore, they should be addressed, if a sizeable IRA is at stake.

After this form has been drafted to your liking, deliver at least two copies to your custodian. Request that one be signed and dated by an official at the firm and returned to you. The other copy can be kept by the custodian.

Reference: FEDweek (Dec. 26, 2019) “Customizing Your Beneficiary Designations”

How Do I Correctly Title My Property for My Estate Plan?

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The way you title your real and personal property and who you name as your beneficiaries is just as important in your estate planning as your trust says The Black Hills Pioneer’s recent article, “Titling of property is just as important as your Will or Trust.”

There are some kinds of property that, depending on how they are titled or who’s the named beneficiary, will flow outside of the control of your trust.

For instance, if you designate a beneficiary to your life insurance policy or on your retirement account, that money goes directly to the named beneficiary at your death. This process completely bypasses the terms of your trust unless you named your estate or trust specifically as the beneficiary.

Beneficiaries show up on other types of accounts as well. You could designate another person as payable on death (POD) designee or transfer on death (TOD) designee on your investment account or your bank account. These types of accounts also transfer automatically to the named designee and similarly is not controlled by your trust if your trust is not the designee.

This principle applies to real property too. If title to real estate is taken in a certain manner, then jointly owned real estate would automatically flow to the surviving joint owner, not pursuant to your trust. Generally, if language lists multiple individuals on the property as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship,” then the survivor(s) will automatically inherit the decedent owner’s share. Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t automatic just because the property is owned jointly, rather it depends on how the property is titled.

You can, therefore, see how critical it is that you discuss these issues with your estate planning attorney. In addition to questions about trusts, you should also be discussing the titling of your property and the beneficiaries you’ve named on your life insurance and retirement accounts, along with any POD and TOD designees you’ve named on your investment accounts or bank accounts.

If you don’t, you could create problems for your family and loved ones.

Reference: Black Hills Pioneer (August 5, 2019) “Titling of property is just as important as your Will or Trust”

What are Common Mistakes that People Make with Beneficiary Designations?

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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”

How Do I Get My Mom’s Affairs in Order?

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What can you do to make sure your mother’s financial affairs are in proper order?

The Monterey Herald’s recent article, “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of,” says to first make sure that she has her basic estate planning documents in place. She should have a will and an Advance Health Care Directive. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure these documents fully reflect your mother’s desires. An Advance Health Care Directive lets her name a person to make health care decisions on her behalf, if she becomes incapacitated. This decision-making authority is called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, and the person receiving the authority is known as the agent.

Based on the way in which the form is written, the agent can have broad authority, including the ability to consent to or refuse medical treatment, surgical procedures and artificial nutrition or hydration. The form also allows a person to leave instructions for health care, such as whether or not to be resuscitated, have life prolonged artificially, or to receive treatment to alleviate pain, even if it hastens death. To limit these instructions in any specific way, talk to an attorney.

Another option is to create a living trust, if the value of her estate is significant. In some states, (including California) estates worth more than a certain amount are subject to probate—a costly, lengthy and public process. Smaller value estates usually can avoid probate. When calculating the value of an estate, you can exclude several types of assets, including joint tenancy property, property that passes outright to a surviving spouse, assets that pass outside of probate to named beneficiaries (such as pensions, IRAs, and life insurance), multiple party accounts or pay on death (POD) accounts and assets owned in trust, including a revocable trust.  You should also conduct a full inventory of your parent’s accounts, including where they’re held and how they’re titled. Your parents should update the named beneficiaries on IRAs, retirement plans and life insurance policies.

Some adult children will have their parent name them as a joint owner on their checking account. This allows you greater flexibility to settle outstanding obligations, when she passes away. But, it is important not to put a large account in joint tenancy for tax reasons. Also, a joint owner automatically becomes the owner, on the other joint tenant’s death. Remember that a financial power of attorney won’t work here, because it will lapse upon your mother’s death. However, note that any asset held by joint owners are subject to the creditors of each joint owner. Do not add your daughter as a joint owner, if she has current or potential marital, financial, or legal problems!

You also shouldn’t put your name as a joint owner of a brokerage account—especially one with low-cost basis investments. One of the benefits of transferring wealth, is the step-up in cost basis assets receive at time of death. Being named as the joint owner of an account will give you control over the assets in the account—but you won’t get the step up in basis, when your mother passes.

Reference: Monterey Herald (March 20, 2019) “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of”

What Should My Fiancé and I Discuss About Finances Before We Say “I Do”?

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If you’re older and remarry, you may have more assets and you probably have children. That’s different than a first marriage, where people often enter as financial equals. In subsequent unions, situations are more complicated—and the stakes are higher. You should protect your money in the event of divorce and protect your children in the event of your death.

Barron’s recent article, “How to Manage Your Money When You’re Remarrying,” says the subject of money should be easier this time around. Money talk might have been taboo going into your first marriage, but experience—and the battle wounds of divorce—tend to make this dialog much easier.

The best strategy for navigating the financial side of remarriage is to be direct and give yourself plenty of time before the wedding to work out the details. All good financial plans start with a broader discussion that has more to do with identifying and setting goals, than it does about dollar signs.

Consider what you hope to achieve individually and as a couple over the next year, five years, decade, and so on. Discuss your priorities and intentions, be specific, and write it all down. Your conversation will be the groundwork for the specific financial planning decisions the two of you will need to make, when it’s time to formalize your plans for merging finances or—as the case may be—keeping them separate.

Prenuptial agreements, or “prenups,” are becoming more frequently used by millennials because they are marrying later and bringing more assets and debt to the marriage. In the case of remarriage, a prenup should be strongly considered by most couples. This legally-binding agreement details how assets and liabilities will be divided, in the event of divorce.

Many experts suggest keeping separate checking, savings, and investment accounts—but setting up joint accounts for shared lifestyle expenses. Having a joint account removes the need for constant discussion about how you’ll divide expenses. Create a monthly joint budget and agree on the fairest way to split it. Some couples divide it down the middle, while others base it on a percentage of their respective incomes.

You don’t need to have all of your estate plans settled before the wedding but be certain to update key documents where appropriate—such as your wills, medical advance directives, retirement plan, and insurance beneficiaries.

A big trouble spot for couples remarrying—especially if there are children and grandchildren from other marriages—is how assets will be divided in the future. Without a clear estate plan, if you die first, then the assets will pass to your spouse and then to that spouse’s children, depending on the type of asset. That can be a big source of family strife—even for families who aren’t wealthy. A good solution is to set up revocable livings trusts that say exactly how you want your respective and joint assets to be distributed when you die.

Reference: Barron’s (March 2, 2019) “How to Manage Your Money When You’re Remarrying”

How Do I Plan for a Blended Family?

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A blended family (or stepfamily) can be thought of as the result of two or more people forming a life together (married or not) that includes children from one or both of their previous relationships, says The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a recent article, “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late.”

Research from the Pew Research Center study reveals a high remarriage rate for those 55 and older—67% between the ages 55 and 64 remarry. Some of the high remarriage percentage may be due to increasing life expectancies or the death of a spouse. In addition, divorces are increasing for older people who may have decided that, with the children grown, they want to go their separate ways.

It’s important to note that although 50% of first marriages end in divorce, that number jumps to 67% of second marriages and 80% of third marriages end in divorce.

So if you’re remarrying, you should think about starting out with a prenuptial agreement. This type of agreement is made between two people prior to marriage. It sets out rights to property and support, in case there’s a divorce or death. Both parties must reveal their finances. This is really helpful, when each may have different income sources, assets and expenses.

You should discuss whose name will be on the deed to your home, which is often the asset with the most value, as well as the beneficiary designations of your life insurance policies, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts.

It is also important to review the agents under your health care directives and financial powers of attorney. Ask yourself if you truly want your stepchildren in any of these agent roles, which may include “pulling the plug” or ending life support.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about these important documents that you’ll need, when you say “I do” for the second (or third) time.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 24, 2019) “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late”

Do I Have All the Beneficiaries Set Up Correctly on My Assets?

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Pretty much everything you own, transfers in one of three ways:  1) by title; 2) by will/trust; or 3) by contract.

When’s the last time you’ve reviewed your beneficiaries? This question was explored in a recent InsideNoVa article, “Naming Beneficiaries: A Quick Tip to Reduce the Surprise Factor.”

For example, if your checking account is titled in your spouse’s and your name “with rights of survivorship” (WROS), you effectively co-own the account. That one should be all set, at least until the surviving spouse dies.

Your will or trust instructs your executor on the transfer of any assets that aren’t transferred by title or contract. That’s probably at least some of your estate. Therefore, if you don’t have a will and/or a trust, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have this important document.

Next, the beneficiary designation contacts for assets like your retirement accounts, pension plans, and insurance policies should be reviewed when there’s a life event, like birth or adoption of a child, a divorce, or a marriage.

Start the process by identifying all the accounts you own, including life insurance policies, annuities, and the like that will pass by beneficiary designation. You should then see who the primary and contingent (secondary) beneficiaries are for each. You can usually assign percentages to your beneficiaries. Therefore, you could name your spouse as primary beneficiary, 100%. Your siblings could then be secondary beneficiaries in equal shares.

Some contracts allow you to have your funds be distributed “per stirpes.” In that case, if you name your three children as primary beneficiaries, they each would receive a third. However, if your eldest son dies with you, with per stirpes, his share will go to his children.

In addition, there may be situations when you might designate a trust as a beneficiary. This can get complicated, so work with an experienced trust and estate attorney.

In any situation, if it’s been a long time (or never) since you reviewed your beneficiary designations, do it right away.

Reference: InsideNoVa (October 26, 2018) “Naming Beneficiaries: A Quick Tip to Reduce the Surprise Factor”