What Should I Know about Beneficiary Designations?

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, in the event of the account holder’s death. The beneficiary designation doesn’t replace a signed will but takes precedence over any instructions about these accounts in a will. If the decedent doesn’t have a will, the beneficiary 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.

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”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”

The SECURE Act and Your Retirement

For anyone who has saved a high six- or seven-figure balance in their retirement accounts, the SECURE Act will definitely affect their retirement plans. That includes 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other workplace plans, as well as traditional IRAs and Roth IRA accounts. The article “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement” from the Daily Camera provides a clear picture of the changes.

Stretch IRAs are Curtailed. Anyone who inherited an IRA (traditional or Roth) from a parent before 2020, may take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from those accounts over their own life expectancy. Let’s say a parent died when you were 48—you could stretch those distributions out over the course of 36 years. This option gave heirs the ability to spread income and the taxes that come with the income out over decades—with little distributions having little impact on taxes. If you inherited a Roth IRA, you could benefit from its tax-free growth over your entire lifetime.

All that’s changed now. A non-spousal heir (or one who is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child) now has ten years in which to take their distributions. They have to pay ordinary income taxes on the amount they take out, over a far shorter period of time. Newly inherited Roth IRAs have the same rules, but usually there are no taxes due. If a minor inherits an IRA, once they reach the age of majority, they have ten years in which to take their distributions.

A Small Break for Required IRA Distributions. Until the SECURE Act, retirees had to start taking their RMDs out of IRAs soon after turning 70½. The new age for taking RMDs is now 72 for those who are younger than age 70½ at the end of 2019. This won’t alter the plans of most retirees, since they usually start taking those distributions well before age 72 to cover expenses. Roth IRAs have another benefit: they continue to escape distribution requirements, unless they are inherited.

No Age Cap for Traditional IRA Contributions. Workers may now continue to contribute funds into a traditional IRA at any age. Before the SECURE Act, workers had to stop contributing funds once they turned 70½. Note that you or your spouse are still required to have earned income to put funds in a traditional or Roth IRA.

Other Changes. There are many more changes from the SECURE Act and thought leaders in the estate planning community will be reviewing and analyzing the law for months, or perhaps years, to come. Some of the changes that are widely recognized already include the ability to withdraw $5,000 penalty-free from retirement plan accounts per newly born or adopted child, although in most cases, income tax will need to be paid on the withdrawal.

Section 529 educational savings accounts can be used, up to a lifetime limit of $10,000 per student, to pay off student loans. In most states, this will be considered a non-qualified withdrawal and state income taxes will be due, but at least the money can be used for this purpose.

Lastly, there are new tax credits available to smaller companies that set up new retirement plans, and there are new rules regarding including part-time employees in company sponsored 401(k) plans.

The changes from the SECURE Act, particularly regarding the loss of the IRA Stretch, have created a need for people to review their estate plans, if they included leaving large retirement accounts to their children. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your plan still works.

Reference: Daily Camera (Jan. 11, 2020) “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement”

Some Estate Planning Actions for 2020

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.

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 certain 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 certain 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”

How Will the New SECURE Act Impact My IRAs and 401(k)?

The SECURE Act is the most substantial change to our retirement savings system in over a decade, says Covering Katy (TX) News’ recent article entitled “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans.” The new law, called the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, includes several important changes. Let’s take a look at them.

There is a higher age for RMDs. The current law says that you must start taking withdrawals or required minimum distributions from your traditional IRA and 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan when you turn 70½. The new law delays this to age 72, so you can hold on to your retirement savings a while longer.

No age limit for contributions to traditional IRAs. Before the new law, you could only contribute to your traditional IRA until you were 70½. However, now you can now fund your traditional IRA for as long as you have taxable earned income.

Stretch IRA Limitations. Previously, beneficiaries could stretch taxable RMDs from a retirement account over his or her lifetime. Under the SECURE Act, spouse beneficiaries can still take advantage of this “stretch” distribution, but most non-spouse beneficiaries will have to take all the RMDs by the end of the 10th year after the account owner dies. Therefore, non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA or other retirement plan could have tax issues, because of the need to take larger distributions in a shorter amount of time.

Early withdrawal penalty eliminated for IRAs and 401(k)s when new child arrives. Usually, you must pay a 10% penalty when you withdraw funds from your IRA or 401(k) if done prior to 59½. However, the new legislation allows you take out up to $5,000 from your retirement plan without paying the early withdrawal penalty, provided you withdraw the money within a year of a child being born or an adoption becoming final.

There are provisions of the SECURE Act that primarily impact business owners, which include the following:

New multi-employer retirement plans. The new law allows unrelated companies to coordinate to offer employees a 401(k) plan with less administrative work, lower costs and fewer fiduciary responsibilities than individual employers now have when offering their own retirement plans.

Tax credit for automatic enrollment. There’s now a tax credit of $500 for some small businesses that create automatic enrollment in their retirement plans. A tax credit for establishing a retirement plan has also been increased from $500 to $5,000.

Annuities in 401(k) plans. The Act makes it easier for employers to add annuities as an investment option within 401(k) plans. Before the SECURE Act, businesses avoided annuities in these plans because of the liability related to the annuity provider. However, the new rules should help decrease any concerns.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to examine the potential impact on your investment strategies and determine any possible tax and estate planning implications of the SECURE Act.

Reference: Covering Katy (TX) News “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans”

Facts and Figures for Older Workers and Retirees in 2020

A new year always brings change, and this year is no exception. From Market Watch, the article “Numbers that older workers and retirees need to know in 2020” provides key information for this new year.

Retirement Plan Changes. Limits for how much can be saved in 401(k), 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan, and most 457 plans have increased by $500 to $19,500 for 2020. If you are 50 and older, the “catch-up” contribution has also increased by $500, so you can now save an additional $6,500 in those accounts.

For those with SIMPLE retirement plans, which are usually from small businesses with 100 or fewer employees, you can increase savings by $500 to $13,500.

What hasn’t changed—if you have an individual traditional IRA, you can save $6,000, with a catch-up contribution of $1,000.

Social Security Changes. The Social Security Administration reports that the average monthly benefit in 2019 was $1,356.05. This will rise by 1.6% in 2020, which will mean an increase of $21.69 per month. Last year, some 63.8 million Americans took Social Security benefits. It was the first year since the program began in 1935 that spending topped $1 trillion.

Another change to Social Security in 2020 is the longer period of time to reach full retirement age. For people born in 1958, this now increases to 66 years and eight months. If you were born in 1958, you’ll need to be that age to collect your full retirement benefit. The longer period is also going to increase in 2021 and 2022—making the full retirement age 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.

That doesn’t mean people can’t get Social Security benefits earlier—you can elect to take benefits as early as age 62—but you’ll receive less. If you take benefits at age 62, they’ll be 75% of the monthly benefits because you will have added 48 months. At age 65, you’ll receive 93.3% of full benefits because of adding an additional 12 months. If you are taking spousal benefits, there are more numbers to consider.

Medicare Changes. The good news was the increase from Social Security. The bad news? Standard monthly Part B premiums will increase 6.7%, from $135.50 in 2019 to $144.60. That’s the minimum premium. Depending upon your premium, they could go as high as $491.60 per month. Medicare officials blame higher drug prices on the increase.

Health care costs are part of a rising tide of costs facing retirees and older workers. Considering how few Americans have enough money saved for retirement, this is going to become more of a national issue as boomers and millennials age. It should serve as a reminder for all—save as much as you can for retirement, starting now.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 28, 2019) “Numbers that older workers and retirees need to know in 2020”

SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review
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SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review

The most significant legislation affecting retirement was signed into law on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. After stalling for months, Congress suddenly passed several bills, as attachments to budget appropriations, as reported by Advisor News’ article “SECURE Act, Signed by Trump, A Game-Changer For Retirement Plans.”

Here are some of the key points that retirees and those planning their retirements need to know:

Changes to Age Limits for IRA and 401(k) Accounts. The age for taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) has increased from 70½ to 72 years. Adding a year and a half for investors to put away money for retirement gives a little more time to prepare for longer lifespans. The change recognizes the prior limits were arbitrary, and that Americans need to save more.

However, the SECURE Act also brought about the demise of the “stretch” IRA. Americans who inherit an IRA must now withdraw the money within 10 years of the account owner’s death, along with paying taxes. Surviving spouses and minor children are still exempt. The exempt heirs can still spend down inherited IRA accounts over their lifetime, which is an estate planning strategy known as the “stretch.”

Small Business 401(k)s. The SECURE Act expands access to Multiple Employer Plans, known as MEPs, so that employers can pool resources and share the costs of retirement plans for employees. This will cut administration and management costs and ideally, will allow more small businesses to offer higher-quality plans available to their employees.

The law also enhances automatic enrollment and auto-escalation, letting companies automatically enroll employees into a retirement plan at a rate of 6%, instead of 3%. Employers can now raise employee contributions to a maximum of 15% of their annual pay, although workers can opt out of these plans at any time.

Annuities Options. The SECURE Act now allows 401(k) plans to offer annuities as a retirement plan option. Experts have mixed opinions on this. Annuities are a type of life insurance that convert retirement savings into lifetime income. However, fees are often high, and if the insurance company closes its doors, those lifetime income payments may vanish. Under the new law, employers also have what’s called a “safe harbor” from being sued, if annuity providers go out of business or stop making payments to annuity purchasers. Being freed from liability may make employers more likely to offer annuities, but that may put 401(k) investors at more risk, say consumer advocates.

529 Plans and Saving for Children. The new law expands 529 accounts to cover many more types of education, from registered apprenticeships, homeschooling, private elementary, secondary or religious schools. Up to $10,000 can be used for qualified student loan repayments, including for siblings.

Reference: Advisor News (December 23, 2019) “SECURE Act, Signed by Trump, A Game-Changer For Retirement Plans”

Retirement and Estate Planning Work Better Together

So, you’ve been married for a while, and you’re both comfortable with which bank accounts, credit cards and investment accounts are shared and which other accounts are kept separate. However, where the big picture is concerned—like coordinating retirement plans, health coverage and tax planning—you both need to take an active role in planning and making good decisions. In fact, says the article “Couples and Money: When Together is Better” from Kiplinger, the decisions that work well for you as individuals may not be so hot, when they are looked at from a couple’s perspective.

Here’s an example. A man is working at a firm that doesn’t offer a match for his 401(k) contributions, but his wife’s employer does. Instead of contributing to his 401(k) plan, he uses the money to pay off a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) that the couple had taken together to do some upgrades on their home. She contributes enough to her own 401(k) to get her company’s match every year. The goal is to cut their debt and save as much as possible. This worked at that time in the couple’s life.

Ten years later, they are both maxing out their 401(k) savings and working to build short-term savings to send kids to college through the use of 529 College Savings Accounts.

Retirement accounts can never be jointly owned. However, some couples fall into a trap of saving for themselves without considering the overall household. Dual earning couples often run into trouble, when one has a workplace plan and the other does not. The spouse with the workplace plan isn’t thinking that he or she needs to save enough for two people to retire. With two incomes, you might think that both are making retirement a savings priority, but without a 401(k) plan, it’s possible that only one person is saving and only saving enough for themselves.

A general recommendation is that both members of a couple save between 10-15% of their household earnings, rather than their personal earnings, in retirement accounts. Couples should review their respective retirement plans together and plan together. If one has a more generous match, access to a Roth option, or better investment opportunities, they should consider how much the person with the better plan should save.

Couples also need to examine other financial aspects of their lives. Coordinating retirement benefits, reviewing life insurance policies, planning a coordinated strategy for taking Social Security and making informed choices about health care coverage can make a big difference in the family’s financial well-being.

Equally important: making sure that an estate plan is in place. That includes a will that names a guardian for any minor children, a health care proxy and a financial power of attorney. Depending upon the family’s circumstances, that may include trusts or other wealth transfer strategies.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 23, 2019) “Couples and Money: When Together is Better”

How Business Owners Undo Their Years of Hard Work

When it comes to preparing for retirement, transitioning their business and putting a succession plan in place, many small business owners simply aren’t realistic, says the article “Business Owners Dream (Wrongly) of an Easy Retirement Transition” from Plan Advisor. While it’s great that they believe in their businesses, by putting every last dollar they have into the business, thinking they will reap the rewards when it’s time to sell, they put themselves in a risky position.

Many small business owners treat their business as their nest egg. That may not be wrong, but if there is no other estate planning or retirement planning, there are a number of ways this could go wrong.

For one thing, it’s not likely that the value of the business at the time of the sale can be guaranteed. What if the value of the business is not as strong as the owner thinks it is? It’s better to have more than a few eggs in a retirement basket, including savings in retirement accounts that provide tax advantages.

The business owner can open a 401(k), SEP-IRA, SIMPLE or a pension plan. Because these types of accounts are tax deferred, the investments can grow while avoiding taxation. The best retirement plan for any small business owner depends upon how much income the business generates, how stable earnings are, how many employees there are and how generous the business owner wishes to be with the full-time employees.

This last factor matters because the law requires most tax-deferred plans to be fair to all employees. A business owner cannot open a 401(k) for themselves and exclude full-time employees. However, the appreciation of employees for having a 401(k) plan should be considered. By investing in an employee retirement plan, and perhaps a matching program, the business becomes more attractive to current and future employees.

Estate planning is a critical piece of the succession plan. A true family legacy plan needs to go beyond defining who will be in charge of the business and estate if the owner dies, and how the business and any other assets will be divided. If there is no will, the state’s laws will govern how assets are divided.

An estate planning attorney who routinely works with business owners will be able to help with the formation of a succession plan, with an eye to fulfilling the owner’s goals for themselves and their family. It should be understood that any succession plan needs to work in conjunction with the overall estate plan, so that both can achieve their respective goals.

For a succession plan to work, it needs to be put into place five to ten years in advance. If a sale of the business is at the heart of the plan, it can take five years to value the businesses’ profitability, formalize the management structure, identify a solid buyer, determine how the transition will be made, etc.

Reference: Plan Advisor (December 12, 2019) “Business Owners Dream (Wrongly) of an Easy Retirement Transition”

What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

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