Fraudulent Social Security Calls Still Targeting Seniors

You’d think everyone would know to ignore these calls. However, these criminals are so convincing, says The New York Times in the article “How Not to Become a Victim of Social Security Fraud Calls,” that many people fall for the schemes and end up losing money. They buy gift cards and often, give up their personal PIN (Personal Identification Number), losing thousands of dollars.

It’s not clear whether the volume of calls is increasing. However, the government is getting thousands of complaints about them, reports the Social Security Administration’s inspector general, Gail Ennis. There have been 250,000 online complaints made, since a new dedicated digital reporting form was released in November 2019.

Other regulators are also reporting a flood of complaints. The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 166,000 complaints about fraudulent Social Security calls last year, and the average individual loss is about $1,500. The Senate’s Special Committee on Aging said that Social Security impersonation schemes were the single most reported fraud on its fraud hotline last year.

In January, the committee heard from a woman who lost $150,000 in a Social Security scheme.

The government is trying to fight the fraud in a few different ways. The Justice Department took legal action in January against two telecommunication companies that it says serve as “gateways” for illegal robocalls, by funneling them to the U.S. from oversees. However, stopping the calls is not easily accomplished. There are many gateway telecommunications companies, so hitting two just means that the criminals will take their business elsewhere.

Congress passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRADED), which requires telecommunication companies to adopt technology to identify spoofed calls. Spoofed calls are calls that appear to come from legitimate phone numbers. However, the FCC has yet to set rules for how the law will be carried out, so relief for consumers may be as far as a year away.

Here’s what you need to know about Social Security and other fraudulent calls:

  • Don’t answer calls from unfamiliar numbers. Let the calls go to voicemail, or the answering machine, if you still use one.
  • If you answer the phone and someone demands money immediately, hang up.
  • Report the call to the inspector general’s office on the Social Security Administration’s website. There’s a form that asks you to create a unique identification number, so you can ask for that number if anyone calls to verify their identity.
  • Be aware that even a phone call that appears to be from Social Security mostly likely will not be from the agency. Schemes that involve a suspension of benefits work because they target senior’s biggest fear—losing their benefits.
  • There are other Social Security schemes. Some involve official looking papers, and there has been an increase in the number of scams that start with an official-looking text. The Social Security Administration does not text people, unless they have signed up to have authentication codes sent to your phone when logging into a Social Security account.

There’s not much that can be done by the individual to stop the endless stream of robocalls. You can register your number on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call list, but that will only reduce calls from legitimate telemarketers. The criminals will still call. The best advice is not to answer the phone, unless it’s from someone you know, and never, ever give in to demands of immediate payment. That’s always a red flag for fraud.

Reference: The New York Times (March 6, 2020) “How Not to Become a Victim of Social Security Fraud Calls”

C19 UPDATE: Tax Filing Deadline Extended to July 15

There has been some confusion about the tax filing / tax payment deadline extensions. On Friday, March 20 we got clarity that both the filing and the payment deadlines have been extended from April 15 to July 15 giving all taxpayers and businesses additional time to file and make payments without interest or penalties.

If you are expecting a refund, however, the Treasury Department encourages you go ahead and file as soon as possible – the sooner you file, the sooner you will get your refund.

Resource: Tax filing deadline moved to July 15, the latest measure to battle coronavirus downturn, The Washington Post, March 30, 2020

How Bad Will Your Estate’s Taxes Be?

The federal estate tax has been a small but steady source of federal revenue for nearly 100 years. The tax was first imposed on wealthy families in America in 1916. They were paid by families whose assets were previously passed down through multiple generations completely and utterly untaxed, says the article “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?” from The Orange County Register.

The words “Death Tax” don’t actually appear anywhere in the federal tax code, but was the expression used to create a sympathetic image of the grieving families of farmers and small business owners who were burdened by big tax bills at a time of personal loss, i.e., the death of a parent. The term was made popular in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.

Fast forward to today—2020. Will the federal government tax your estate when you die, seize your home and everything you had hoped to hand down to your children? Not likely. Most Americans don’t have to worry about estate or death taxes. With the new federal exemptions at a record high of $11,580,000 for singles and twice that much for married couples, only very big estates are subject to a federal estate tax. Add to that, the 100% marital deduction means that a surviving spouse can inherit from a deceased spouse and is not required to pay any estate tax, no matter how big the estate.

However, what about state estate taxes? To date, thirteen states still impose an estate tax, and many of these have exemptions that are considerably lower than the federal tax levels. Six states add to that with an inheritance tax. That’s a tax that is levied on the beneficiaries of the estate, usually based upon their relationship to the deceased.

Many estates will still be subject to state estate taxes and income taxes.

The personal representative or executor is responsible and legally authorized to file returns on a deceased person’s behalf. They are usually identified in a person’s will as the executor of the estate. If a family trust holds the assets, the trust document will name a trustee. If there was no will or trust, the probate court will appoint an administrator. This person may be a professional administrator and likely someone who never knew the person whose estate they are now in charge of. This can be very difficult for family members.

If the executor fails to file a return or files an inaccurate or incomplete return, the IRS may assess penalties and interest payments.

The final individual income tax return is filed in just the same way as it would be when the deceased was living. All income up to the date of death must be reported, and all credits and deductions that the person is entitled to can be claimed. The final 1040 should only include income earned from the start of the calendar year to the date of their death. The filing for the final 1040 is the same as for living taxpayers: April 15.

Even if taxes are not due on the 1040, a tax return must be filed for the deceased if a refund is due. To do so, use the Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due to a Deceased Taxpayer. Anyone who files the final tax return on a decedent’s behalf must complete IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship, and attach it to the final Form 1040.

If the decedent was married, the widow or widower can file a joint return for the year of death, claiming the full standard deduction and using joint-return rates, as long as they did not remarry in that same year.

An estate planning attorney can help with these and the many other details that must be taken care of, before the estate can be finalized.

Reference: The Orange County Register (March 1, 2020) “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?”

Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”

Estate Planning Is For Everyone

Estate planning is something anyone who is 18 years old or older needs to think about, advises the article “Estate planning for every stage of life from the Independent Record. Estate planning includes much more than a person’s last will and testament. It protects you from incapacity, provides the legal right to allow others to talk to your doctors if you can’t and takes care of your minor children, if an unexpected tragedy occurs. Let’s look at all the ages and stages where estate planning is needed.

Parents of young adults should discuss estate planning with their children. While parents devote decades to helping their children become independent adults, sometimes life doesn’t go the way you expect. A college freshman is more concerned with acing a class, joining a club and the most recent trend on social media. However, a parent needs to think about what happens when the child is over 18 and has a medical emergency. Parents have no legal rights to medical information, medical decision making or finances, once a child becomes a legal adult. Hospitals may not release private information and doctors can’t talk with parents, even in an extreme situation. Young adults need to have a HIPAA release, a durable power of medical attorney and a power of attorney for their finances created.

New parents also need estate planning. While it may be hard to consider while adjusting to having a new baby in the house, what would happen to that baby if something unexpected were to affect both parents? The estate planning attorney will create a last will and testament, which is used to name a guardian for any minor children, in case both parents pass. This also includes decisions that need to be made about the child’s education, medical treatment and even their social life. You’ll need to name someone to be the child’s guardian, and to be sure that they will raise your child the same way that you would.

An estate plan includes naming a conservator, who is a person with control over a minor child’s finances. You’ll want to name a responsible person who is trustworthy and good with handling money. It is possible to name the same person as guardian and conservator. However, it may be wise to separate the responsibilities.

An estate plan also ensures that your children receive their inheritance, when you think they will be responsible enough to handle it. If a minor child’s parents die and there is no estate plan, the parent’s assets will be held by the court for the benefit of the child. Once the child turns 18, he or she will receive the entire amount in one lump sum. Few who are 18-years old are able to manage large sums of money. Estate planning helps you control how the money is distributed. This is also something to consider, when your children are the beneficiaries of any life insurance policies. An estate planning attorney can help you set up trusts, so the monies are distributed at the right time.

When people enter their ‘golden’ years—that is, they are almost retired—it is the time for estate plans to be reviewed. You may wish to name your children as power of attorney and medical power of attorney, rather than a sibling. It’s best to have people who will be younger than you for these roles as you age. This may also be the time to change how your wealth is distributed. Are your children old enough to be responsible with an inheritance? Do you want to create a legacy plan that includes charitable giving?

Lastly, update your estate plan any time there are changes in the family structure. Divorce, death, marriage or individuals with special needs all require a different approach to the basic estate plan. It’s a good idea to revisit an estate plan anytime there have been major changes in your relationships, to the law, or changes to your financial status.

Reference: Independent Record (March 1, 2020) “Estate planning for every stage of life

Your Estate Plan is a “Dynamic Document”

One of the most common mistakes people make about their estate planning is neglecting to coordinate all of the moving parts, reports the Dayton Business Journal’s article “Baird expert gives estate planning advice.” The second most common mistake is not thinking of your estate plan as a dynamic document. Many people believe that once their estate plan is done, it’s done forever. That creates a lot of problems for the families and their heirs.

In the last few years, we have seen three major federal tax law changes, including an increase in the federal estate tax exemption amount from $3,500,000 to an enormous $11,580,000. The estate tax exemption is also now portable. Most recently, the SECURE Act has changed how IRAs are distributed to heirs. All of these changes require a fresh look at estate plans. The same holds true for changes within families: births, deaths, marriages and divorces all call for a review of estate plans.

For younger adults in their 20s, an estate plan includes a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and a HIPAA authorization form. People in their 40s need a deeper dive into an estate plan, with discussions on planning for minor children, preparing to leave assets for children in trusts, ensuring that the family has the correct amount of life insurance in place, and planning for unexpected incapacitation. This is also the time when people have to start planning for their parents, with discussions about challenging topics, like their wishes for end-of-life care and long-term care insurance.

In their 60s, the estate plan needs to reflect the goals of the couple, and expectations of what you both want to happen on your passing. Do you want to create a legacy of giving, and what tools will be best to accomplish this: a charitable remainder trust, or other estate planning tools? Ensuring that your assets are properly titled, that beneficiaries are properly named on assets like life insurance, investment accounts, etc., becomes more important as we age.

This is also the time to plan for how your assets will be passed to your children. Are your children prepared to manage an inheritance, or would they be better off having their inheritance be given to them over the course of several years via a trust? If that is the case, who should be the trustee?

Some additional pointers:

  • Revise your estate plan every three or five years with your estate planning attorney.
  • Evaluate solutions to provide tax advantages to your estate.
  • Review asset titling and beneficiary designations.
  • Make sure your charitable giving is done in a tax efficient way.
  • Plan for the potential tax challenges that may impact your estate

Regardless of your age and state, your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through the process of creating and then reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: Dayton Business Journal (February 4, 2020) “Baird expert gives estate planning advice”

 

C19 UPDATE: Paying for Covid-19 Testing and Treatment if You Have a High Deductible Insurance Plan

What is a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP)?

A HDHP is a health insurance plan with a higher deductible than traditional insurance plans. Many people choose this type of health insurance for the cost savings as the monthly premiums are usually lower than traditional insurance plans. A high deductible plan (HDHP) can be combined with a health savings account (HSA), allowing you to pay for certain medical expenses with pre-tax money.

For 2020, the IRS defines a high deductible health plan as any plan with a deductible of at least $1,400 for an individual or $2,800 for a family. An HDHP’s total yearly out-of-pocket expenses (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) can’t be more than $6,900 for an individual or $13,800 for a family. (This limit doesn’t apply to out-of-network services.)

How Does This Apply to Covid-19 Testing & Treatment?

The IRS recognizes that people with HDHP plans, where in general, all costs are paid out-of-pocket before medical benefits kick in, may be reluctant to seek care or be tested when ill.

To respond to the current Covid-19 emergency, the IRS on March 11 issued guidance in Notice 2020-15 stating (emphasis added)

“a health plan that otherwise satisfies the requirements to be a high deductible health plan (HDHP) under section 223(c)(2)(A) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) will not fail to be an HDHP under section 223(c)(2)(A) merely because the health plan provides health benefits associated with testing for and treatment of COVID-19 without a deductible, or with a deductible below the minimum deductible (self only or family) for an HDHP. Therefore, an individual covered by the HDHP will not be disqualified from being an eligible individual under section 223(c)(1) who may make tax-favored contributions to a health savings account (HSA).”

In short, the IRS said that health plans that otherwise qualify as HDHPs will not lose that status merely because they cover the cost of testing for or treatment of COVID-19 before plan deductibles have been met. This also means that an individual with an HDHP that covers these costs may continue to contribute to a health savings account (HSA).

The IRS noted that, as in the past, any vaccination costs continue to count as preventive care and can be paid for by an HDHP. Testing and treatment for the virus can be covered under the umbrella of “preventive services.”

This Applies Only to Covid-19 Emergencies

The IRS cautions that this new policy statement only applies to Covid-19 emergencies:

“This guidance does not modify previous guidance with respect to the requirements to be an HDHP in any manner other than with respect to the relief for testing for and treatment of COVID-19.”

Check with Your Provider

If you are currently enrolled in a HDHP health insurance, be sure to check with your provider for details about your specific benefits coverage.

Resources: IRS Notice 2020-15, “HIGH DEDUCTIBLE HEALTH PLANS AND EXPENSES RELATED TO COVID-19,” https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-20-15.pdf

Why Do I Need to Have Up-to-Date Beneficiaries on My Accounts?

When a family member passes away, it can be a very unsettling time. There are many tasks that need to be accomplished in a short amount of time. One way that you can lessen that burden for your heirs by clearly telling them your preferences for your assets. One element of this is making certain that you have accurate beneficiaries to your retirement and investment accounts.

Nerd Wallet’s recent article entitled “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now” says taking the time to do this will help save your heirs and family time, money and energy when they need it most. Let’s take a look at some of the compelling reasons to do this.

  1. Your beneficiaries get to keep more money (and get it faster). When your beneficiaries are assigned to your investment and retirement accounts, the assets will pass directly to them. However, if they are not, those accounts may have to go through the probate process to settle an estate after someone dies. A typical probate case can drag on for a year or longer, and during that time, your beneficiaries are unable to access their inheritance. “Court” also means expenses, time, effort and added stress—all of which are things they’d rather avoid.
  2. Less stress for your heirs. When you make certain that you designate the beneficiaries for your accounts, it can relieve your family of a heavy burden, so they’re not trying to figure out your finances while they’re grieving.
  3. Your beneficiaries will supersede your will. If you have beneficiaries named, those choices will typically override what is written in your will. Therefore, you can see that keeping your beneficiaries up-to-date is extremely important.
  4. It’s easy and painless. If you have a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or an IRA, your account will typically have its own beneficiary form within the account itself. With this, you are able to choose your beneficiaries when you open your account or review them later. With a regular investment account, you’ll need to ask for a transfer on death (TOD) form to make beneficiary elections.
  5. You recently experienced a change in your circumstances. If you experience a big life change, like getting married or having a child, it’s critical to update or add beneficiary elections immediately. It’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.

Remember that in community property states, spouses may be entitled to half of the assets in an IRA — even if another beneficiary is listed — unless you have written consent. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney about state laws to be sure your money goes to whom you want.

Reference: Nerd Wallet (January 22, 2020) “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now”

How Can I Fund A Special Needs Trust?

TapInto’s recent article entitled “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts” says that when sitting down to plan a special needs trust, one of the most urgent questions is, “When it comes to funding the trust, what are my options?”

There are four main ways to build up a third-party special needs trust. One way is to contribute personal assets, which in many cases come from immediate or extended family members. Another possible way to fund a special needs trust, is with permanent life insurance. In addition, the proceeds from a settlement or lawsuit can also make up the foundation of the trust assets. Finally, an inheritance can provide the financial bulwark to start and fund the special needs trust.

Families choosing the personal asset route may put a few thousand dollars of cash or other assets into the trust to start, with the intention that the initial investment will be augmented by later contributions from grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. Those subsequent contributions can be willed to the trust, or the trust may be named as a beneficiary of a retirement or investment account. It is vital that families use the services of an elder law or special trusts lawyer. Special needs trusts are very complicated, and if set up incorrectly, it can mean the loss of government program benefits.

If a special needs trust is started with life insurance, the trustor will name the trust as the beneficiary of the policy. When the trustor passes away, the policy’s death benefit is left, tax free, to the trust. When a lump-sum settlement or inheritance is invested within the trust, this can allow for the possibility of growth and compounding. With a worthy trustee in place, there is less chance of mismanagement, and the money may come out of the trust to support the beneficiary in a wise manner that doesn’t risk threatening government benefits.

In addition, a special needs trust can be funded with tangible, non-cash assets, such as real estate, securities, art or antiques. These assets (and others like them) can be left to the trustee of the special needs trust through a revocable living trust or will. Note that the objective of the trust is to provide the trust beneficiary with non-disqualifying cash and assets owned by the trust. As a result, these tangible assets will have to be sold or liquidated to meet that goal.

As mentioned above, you need to take care in the creation and administration of a special needs trust, which will entail the use of an experienced attorney who practices in this area and a trustee well-versed in the rules and regulations governing public assistance. Consequently, the resulting trust will be a product of close collaboration.

Reference: TapInto (February 2, 2020) “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”

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