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”

Did Groucho Marx Have Estate Planning and Elder Care Problems?

Julius Henry Marx, better known as Groucho, died 42 years ago on Aug. 19, 1977, at age 86. Groucho teamed with three of his four brothers—Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo—to become stars of vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio and television. (A fifth brother, Gummo, wasn’t part of the act).

PBS News Hours’ recent article, “How Groucho Marx fell prey to elder abuse” reports that the legal battles over Groucho’s money and possessions went on long after he died. The unrest of his last few years is familiar to adult children concerned with the well-being of their elderly parents.

Groucho’s relationships with his son Arthur and daughter Miriam (children from his first marriage) were also strained for various reasons. To add flame to the fire, Arthur wrote several books based on life in the Marx family, and Groucho threatened litigation over his portrayal in one of Arthur’s memoirs.

In the last few years of his life, Groucho had a companion, Erin Fleming, who was accused of elder abuse. Fleming was Groucho’s secretary-manager and was responsible for his popular comeback in the early 1970s. Fleming successfully campaigned for the Marx Brothers to receive a special Academy Award in 1974. In his acceptance speech, Groucho thanked “Erin Fleming, who makes my life worth living and who understands all my jokes.” However, some of Groucho’s friends thought that Fleming was pushing him too hard to perform, given his age and memory loss.

In 1974, Fleming was appointed his guardian and temporary conservator of an estate worth an estimated $2-$4 million. In 1975, Groucho even tried to adopt her, until a psychologist said he was not mentally competent.

Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son, sued Fleming for having a harmful and destructive influence on his father, including threatening his well-being and being abusive. He also claimed that she pushed Groucho to perform, against his best interest, for her own financial gain. In Groucho’s final days, a judge appointed the 72-year-old Nat Perrin, a close pal of Groucho’s and co-writer of the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film, “Duck Soup,” as temporary conservator of Groucho’s well-being and estate. Later, his grandson, Andrew, was named permanent conservator.

Even after he died, litigation concerning Groucho’s estate went on into the early 1980s. Groucho left most of his estate to his children but gave control of his name, image and movie rights to Fleming—an issue of dispute that led to substantial legal battles.

The court found in favor of Groucho’s children and ordered Fleming to pay $472,000, which she bilked from Groucho’s bank accounts, while she worked for him. Fleming committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 61.

In the 1970s, the term “elder abuse” had not been used, even though it existed. Today, elder abuse is a growing problem. There’s a long list of harmful activities, including physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological forms of abuse and neglect, as well as the theft or withholding of financial assets needed to live.

In identifying when elder abuse may be happening, it is important to keep in mind that some elders may be more susceptible than others due to risk factors. These include functional dependence or disability, poor physical health, cognitive impairment and dementia, low income, financial dependence, race or ethnicity, gender, and age.

Perpetrators also have their own set of risk factors, which include mental illness, substance abuse, relationship status (spouse/partners are often the most common perpetrators of emotional and physical elder abuse), and the abuser’s potential dependency on their victims for emotional support, financial help, housing and other forms of assistance.

Get some expert legal and medical advice on estate planning and the creation of a living will so that your wishes are known, and you and your estate are protected properly.

Reference: PBS News Hour (August 19, 2019) “How Groucho Marx fell prey to elder abuse” 

What Do I Need to Know About My Own Funeral Arrangements?

You’ve heard about death and taxes. While having a plan for your funeral may not be a big priority, creating a plan for your family when you pass is something everyone should do. WHNT’s recent article, “How to plan for life after death,” says the first step is having that conversation with someone you trust. It may be a close friend, a family member, or an attorney.

The National Institute on Aging has created a comprehensive list of considerations for those who are facing end of life decisions. It’s also a great resource for caretakers. This can help you think about some important considerations like what you want in terms of a funeral service, burial or cremation if you want life insurance to pay your last expenses, and how your estate should be handled. Advanced planning for things like this will may make the process easier for those you leave behind, especially if you work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

There are also some fundamental decisions that can ease the financial burden on your loved ones. The average North American traditional funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000. This price range includes the services at the funeral home, burial in a cemetery and the installation of a headstone at the cemetery. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that the median cost to move the remains of a loved one to a funeral home in the U.S. is $325. Embalming can run about $725, and the average cost of a vault in the United States is $1,395, as of 2017.

According to the 2018 NFDA Cremation & Burial Report, the 2018 cremation rate is estimated to be 53.5%, and the burial rate is projected to be 40.5%. Forbes says that roughly 42% of people opt to be cremated because of the costs involved with a standard funeral in the United States.

When some people consider these costs, they may think differently about what they would like their family members to plan to commemorate their lives. Writing down what you would like your family members to do for your memorial service can save them significant strain and stress as they cope with losing you, and it can also save them significant costs.

Reference: WHNT (June 30, 2019) “How to plan for life after death”

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”

Dividing Property for Married or Maybe-Not-So-Married Spouses

When a marriage doesn’t work out, the couple that wishes to become “un-married” must undergo the legal process of divorce. While a legal separation and divorce can sever the legal ties that bind a couple, very often couples neglect to tidy up and make the separation or divorce final. In that case, says The Pasadena / San Gabriel Valley Journal’s article “Ties that Bind,” they are still married.

The couple may be married in name only, or even estranged from each other, but legally, they are still married, which means that the law still sees them as a married couple as it relates to their rights and obligations towards each other and their property.

Surprisingly, there are many instances where a person dies and after the funeral, when the estate is being settled, it is revealed that the couple was still married. The decedent may have separated from his or her spouse years ago, but they never got legally divorced. Sometimes this is because neither party really wants to bring things to a conclusion. In other instances, they may not want to devote the time or resources to the divorce process, which can be both expensive and painful.

Many of us have also heard of cases where the couple was contemplating divorce, after recognizing that the marriage was no longer working, and one of the spouses died before the legal separation or divorce was obtained.

It is important to remember that marriage is a key factor when it comes to inheritance rights.

The law does not make a distinction between couples who been have separated for decades and those who are happily married. The only question that matters in the eyes of the courts is what the deceased spouse’s status was on the day that she or he died. There are only three answers to that question:

  • Married
  • Divorced
  • Legally Separated

Unless a person has done estate planning and has a will and trust, the spouse is entitled to receive a certain amount of their property. If the decedent lived in a state with community property, like California, the spouse is entitled to receive all the community property (which includes anything earned or acquired during the course of the marriage) and a portion of the separate property.

One of the first things a couple contemplating divorce should do immediately is have their estate plan done, especially in a community property state. This will allow them to make decisions about inheritance, just in case one of them dies before the proceedings are completed.

Marital status is also something that matters in the case of life and death decisions. If a person has a serious accident or becomes ill, a not-yet-divorced spouse may be the only person that the medical team will speak with. When divorce is on the horizon, part of estate plan concerning incapacity must also be addressed: an Advanced Care Directive, also known as a Living Will.

It often takes years to complete a divorce, and many things can happen in the interim. Unless you want your estranged spouse or someday-to-be ex-spouse making decisions and sharing property with you, sit down with an estate planning attorney to outline your wishes and make sure you are protected, even before the divorce is finalized.

Reference: The Pasadena / San Gabriel Valley Journal (Aug. 7, 2019) “Ties that Bind”

How Do I Discuss My Parents’ Long-Term Financial Goals With Them?

A recent study by Ameriprise Financial found that more than one-third of adult children say they haven’t had a conversation about their parents’ long-term financial goals. Even though discussing this delicate topic may seem uncomfortable, addressing it now can help avoid challenges and uncertainty in the future. To that end, the Ameriprise Family Wealth Checkup study found that individuals who talk about money matters feel more confident about their financial future.

The Enterprise’s recent article, “Four financial questions to ask your parents,” provides some questions that can help you start the dialogue.

“What do you want to achieve in the next five or 10 years?” Understand your parents’ aspirations for the next few years. This includes their personal and financial goals and when they plan to retire (if they haven’t already). Do they want to move closer to their grandchildren or to warmer weather? Getting an idea of how they want to spend their time will help you know what to expect in the years ahead.

“Where is your financial information located in case of an emergency?” An incident can happen at any time, so it’s essential that you know how to access key personal, financial and estate planning documents. You should have the contact info for their financial adviser, tax professional, and estate planning attorney, and be sure your parents have the right permissions set, so you can step in when the need arises. You should also ask your parents to share the passwords for their primary accounts or let you know where you can find a password list.

“How do you see your legacy?” Talk to your parents about how they want to be remembered and their plans for making that happen. These components can be essential to the discussion:

  • Ask them if they have an updated will or trust, and if there’s anything they’d like to disclose about how the assets will be distributed.
  • Health care choices and expenses are often a big source of stress for retirees. Talk to your parents about their current health priorities and the future and have them formalize their wishes in a health-care directive, which lets them name a loved one to make medical decisions, if they’re unable to do so.

“How can I help?” Proactively offering to help may get rid of some of the frustrations or relieve stress for even the most independent and well-prepared parents. The assistance may be non-financial, like doing house projects or giving them more time with their grandchildren. You should also look into including an attorney in the discussion, in case your parents have estate planning questions.

Retirement and legacy planning can be complex. However, taking the time to have frequent conversations with your parents can help you all prepare for the future.

Reference: The Enterprise (August 19, 2019) “Four financial questions to ask your parents”

How Do I Have the Financial Talk with My Parents?

GOBankingRates recently released a survey that found that 73% of Americans haven’t had conversations with aging parents about their finances. Moreover, 22% of the survey’s respondents said they never plan to have this talk with their parents, because they believe their finances are none of their business.

That’s a really big mistake.

Forbes’ recent article, “What You Don’t Know About Your Parents’ Finances Could Ruin Yours” says that if you don’t take the time to chat to your parents about their finances, your own finances could be affected. This is because there’s a good chance you’ll have to get involved with your parents’ financial lives, as they age. This can impact your own financial well-being, if you aren’t ready for that task.

As Americans are living longer, there’s an increased risk of health issues, which can lead to significant financial consequences. About 80% of older adults have at least one chronic condition like heart disease, diabetes, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is becoming increasingly prevalent as people live longer. The number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to more than double to 14 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

However, just 5% of adults ages 55 to 60 have long-term care insurance, and only 11% of adults 65 and older have it. Long-term care insurance helps cover the cost of care in an assisted-living facility, nursing home or even at home. Medicare doesn’t pay for this sort of care–which easily runs well over $8,000 a month.

If you and your parents don’t talk about how to pay for any care they might need, you could become your parents’ long-term care plan. That could mean you pay these expenses or stop working to help care for a parent.

Those who haven’t had detailed discussions with their parents about their finances can anticipate facing a larger burden than those who have been able to help their parents start managing their money better, by having discussions with them.

If you have siblings, it is important for all the children to be on the same page regarding the parents’ finances and long term care plans. This will help everyone involved be better prepared.

Another important reason to talk to your parents about their finances sooner rather than later, is to see if they have a will, power of attorney and living will or advance health care directive. If they don’t, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney. The sooner you address these issues, the better.

Reference: Forbes (July 17, 2019) “What You Don’t Know About Your Parents’ Finances Could Ruin Yours”

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

Many people have heard of “probate,” but there are a lot of misconceptions floating out there about it. First and foremost, many people believe they can avoid going to court and going through probate if they have a Will.

In reality, a Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is the legal document that is to be used in probate court if a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.” The probate process proves the will is valid.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising the distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The executor of the will is the person responsible for managing the probate assets and then reporting the activities to the judge.

Without a will, things can get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as an administrative proceeding, and the manager of the estate is called an administrator, and not the executor.

To start the probate proceeding, the executor completes and submits a probate petition with the probate court. Some executors do this on their own, but most hire an estate planning attorney to help. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child must receive notice to learn he or she has been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

The will contest can be resolved in two ways: with a settlement between the parties involved, or with a jury trial. It is always possible that the disinherited person could prevail and be awarded a certain amount of the inheritance, regardless of what the decedent said in their will.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. After the court is satisfied with who the executor should be, the judge will issue “Letters Testamentary”. Only then can the executor start doing anything with the property. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries. Keep in mind, however, that distribution cannot happen until the court gives the all-clear.

Can a will contest or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the probate estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

Where Should I Keep My Estate Plan?

Many people ask their attorney to hold the original documents of their estate plan. This prevents the plan from being misplaced at home and keeps it away from prying family members.

Forbes’ recent article, “Keeping Your Estate Planning Documents Safe,” explains that because of the expense of storage and the move to paperless offices, some estate planning attorneys are now having their clients hold the original documents.

This saves money for the attorney, but it leaves the client with the problem of where to put the originals.

If you need a safe and secure place for them, here are some options.

No safe deposit boxes. Avoid placing the original documents in a safe deposit box, because the authority to get into the box is inside the box! If you pass away or are incapacitated—and nobody has access to the safe deposit box—they’ll need a court order to get access. For them to get the court order, they need the documents inside the box. It’s like the chicken and the egg.

Get a fireproof safe. A fireproof safe is a great place to keep these important documents.

Make copies. Get a set of hard copies in another location that is easily accessible. You can now use the safe deposit box to hold a set of copies of your documents. Your attorney should also have a set of hard copies.

E-records. Your estate planning attorney should also have an electronic copy of your estate plan and should send you an electronic version of the documents to keep with your e-records.

Treat your copies like the originals, and don’t lose it, in case the originals are misplaced or destroyed. If the original documents somehow vanish, your family may still be able to use a set of copies. For instance, a photocopy of a will can be probated, once the executor has attested that she has made a diligent search to find the original which hasn’t turned up.

Remember that this isn’t a “one and done” task. You should review your documents every few years to make certain the people you’ve named in them are still alive and your intentions haven’t changed.

Reference: Forbes (August 16, 2019) “Keeping Your Estate Planning Documents Safe”