What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

What Needs to Be Reviewed in Estate Plan?

When it comes to drafting a will and other estate planning documents, note that you probably should revisit them many times before they actually are needed, advises, CNBC’s recent article entitled “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why.”

You should give these end-of-life legal papers a review at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more often. Things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child should necessitate a review. Coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or moving to another state where estate laws differ from the one where your will was drawn up, mean that you should review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney.

About 46% of U.S. adults have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. If you are among those who have a will or full-blown estate plan, here are some things to review and why.

Even though your will is all about you, there are other people you need to rely on to carry out your wishes. This makes it important to review who you have named to be executor. He or she must liquidate accounts, ensure your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, pay any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed), and sell your home. You should also be sure that the guardian you have named to care for your children is still the person you would want in that position.

As part of estate planning, you may create other documents related to end-of-life issues, such as powers of attorney. The person who is given this responsibility for decisions related to your health care is frequently different from whom you would name to handle your financial affairs. You should look at both of those choices.

Even if you have experienced no major life events, those you previously chose to handle certain duties may no longer be your best option.

Remember that some assets pass outside of the will, including retirement accounts like a 401(k) plan, IRAs and life insurance policies. This means the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money no matter what your will states. Bank accounts can have beneficiaries listed on a pay-on-death form, which your bank can supply.

If a beneficiary is not listed on those non-will items or the named person has already passed away (and there is no contingent beneficiary listed), the assets automatically go into probate.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 27, 2022) “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why”

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?

Avoiding the costs and extensive time needed to settle an estate through probate is one reason people like to use trusts in estate planning. This type of trust allows you to designate a trustee to manage the assets in the trust after you have passed.  This is especially important if heirs are minor children or adults who cannot manage a large inheritance. A living trust, as explained in the article titled “The Lowdown on Living Trusts” from Kiplinger, has additional benefits. However, there are some pitfalls to be cautious about, especially concerning transferring assets.

Certain assets do not belong in a living trust. Regardless of their size, some assets should never be placed in a living trust, including IRAs, 401(k)s, tax deferred annuities, health savings accounts, and medical savings accounts and others .

Placing these assets in a trust requires changing the ownership on the accounts. Don’t do it! The IRS will treat the transfer as a distribution. You will be required to pay income taxes and penalties, if any are triggered, on the entire value of the account.

You may be able to make the trust a beneficiary of the retirement accounts. However, it is not appropriate for everyone. Changes to IRA distribution rules from the SECURE Act may make this a dangerous move, since the trustee may be required to empty the IRA within ten years of your death.

For practical purposes, assets like cars, boats or motorcycles do not belong in a trust. To transfer ownership to the trust, you will need to retitle them. This would result in fees and taxes. You would also have to change the insurance, since the insurance company may not cover assets owned by trusts. The cost may outweigh the benefits.

Assets belonging in a trust include real estate, especially your primary residence. Placing your home in a trust will minimize the hassle of transferring the home to heirs, if this is your plan. If you own property in another state, transferring the title to a living trust allows your estate to avoid probate in more than one state. Remember to get a new deed to transfer ownership to the trust. If you refinance or take a home equity line of credit, you may need to transfer the property out of the trust and into your name to get the loan. You will then need to transfer the property back into the trust.

Financial assets can be placed in a trust. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, money market funds, bank savings accounts and even safe deposit boxes can be placed in a trust. There may be a lot of paperwork, and in some cases, you may need to open a new account in the name of the trust.

Once the trust has been created, do not neglect to fund it by transferring assets. Retitling assets requires attention to detail to make sure all of the desired assets have been retitled. The trust needs to be reviewed every few years, just as your estate plan needs to be reviewed. Be sure to have a secondary trustee named, if you are the primary trustee.

Trusts are an excellent option if you live in a state where probate is onerous and expensive. Assets placed in the trust can be distributed with a high degree of specificity, which also provides great peace of mind. If you believe your oldest son will benefit from receiving a large inheritance when he is 40 and not 30, you can do so through a trust. The level of control, avoidance of probate and protection of assets makes the living trust a powerful estate planning tool.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 24, 2022) “The Lowdown on Living Trusts”

How Do I Avoid Probate?

Probate can tie up the estate for months and be an added expense. Some states have a streamlined process for less valuable estates, but probate still has delays, extra expense and work for the estate administrator. A probated estate is also a public record anyone can review.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust” says that avoiding probate often is a big estate planning goal. You can structure the estate so that all or most of it passes to your loved ones without this process.

A living trust is the most well-known way to avoid probate. However, retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, avoid probate. The beneficiary designation on file with the account administrator or trustee determines who inherits them. Likewise, life insurance benefits and annuities are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the contract.

Joint accounts and joint title are ways to avoid probate. Married couples can own real estate or financial accounts through joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The surviving spouse automatically takes full title after the other spouse passes away. Non-spouses also can establish joint title, like when a senior creates a joint account with an adult child at a financial institution. The child will automatically inherit the account when the parent passes away without probate. If the parent cannot manage his or her affairs at some point, the child can manage the finances without the need for a power of attorney.

Note that all joint owners have equal rights to the property. A joint owner can take withdrawals without the consent of the other. Once joint title is established you cannot sell, give or dispose of the property without the consent of the other joint owner.

A transfer on death provision (TOD) is another vehicle to avoid probate. You might come across the traditional term Totten trust, which is another name for a TOD or POD account (but there is no trust involved). After the original owner passes away, the TOD account is transferred to the beneficiary or changed to his or her name, once the financial institution gets the death certificate.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and specify the percentage of the account each will inherit. However, beneficiaries under a TOD have no rights in or access to the account while the owner is alive.

Reference: Forbes (March 28, 2022) “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust”

Can Estate Planning Reduce Taxes?

With numerous bills still being considered by Congress, people are increasingly aware of the need to explore options for tax planning, charitable giving, estate planning and inheritances. Tax sensitive strategies for the near future are on everyone’s mind right now, according to the article “Inheritance, estate planning and charitable giving: 4 strategies to reduce taxes now” from Market Watch. These are the strategies to be aware of.

Offsetting capital gains. Capital gains are the profits made from selling an asset which has appreciated in value since it was first acquired. These gains are taxed, although the tax rates on capital gains are lower than ordinary income taxes if the asset is owned for more than a year. Losses on assets reduce tax liability. This is why investors “harvest” their tax losses, to offset gains. The goal is to sell the depreciated asset and at the same time, to sell an appreciated asset.

Consider Roth IRA conversions. People used to assume they would be in a lower tax bracket upon retirement, providing an advantage for taking money from a traditional IRA or other retirement accounts. Income taxes are due on the withdrawals for traditional IRAs. However, if you retire and receive Social Security, pension income, dividends and interest payments, you may find yourself in the enviable position of having a similar income to when you were working. Good for the income, bad for the tax bite.

Converting an IRA into a Roth IRA is increasingly popular for people in this situation. Taxes must be paid, but they are paid when the funds are moved into a Roth IRA. Once in the Roth IRA account, the converted funds grow tax free and there are no further taxes on withdrawals after the IRA has been open for five years. You must be at least 59½ to do the conversion, and you do not have to do it all at once. However, in many cases, this makes the most sense.

Charitable giving has always been a good tax strategy. In the past, people would simply write a check to the organization they wished to support. Today, there are many different ways to support nonprofits, allowing for better advantages.

One of the most popular ways to give today is a DAF—Donor Advised Fund. These are third-party funds created for supporting charity. They work in a few different ways. Let’s say you have sold a business or inherited money and have a significant tax bill coming. By contributing funds to a DAF, you will get a tax break when you put the funds into a DAF. The DAF can hold the funds—they do not have to be contributed to charity, but as long as they are in the DAF account, you receive the tax benefit.

Another way to give to charity is through your IRA’s Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) by giving the minimum amount you are required to take from your IRA every year to the charity. Otherwise, your RMD is taxable as income. If you make a charitable donation using the RMD, you get the tax deduction, and the nonprofit gets a donation.

Giving while living is growing in popularity, as parents and grandparents can have pleasure of watching loved ones benefit from the impact of a gift. A person can give up to $16,000 to any other person every year, with no taxes due on the gift. The money is then out of the estate and the recipient receives the full amount of the gift.

All of these strategies should be reviewed with your estate planning attorney with an eye to your overall estate plan, to ensure they work seamlessly to achieve your overall goals.

Reference: Market Watch (Feb. 18, 2022) “Inheritance, estate planning and charitable giving: 4 strategies to reduce taxes now”

What Assets Should Be Considered when Planning Estate?

The numbers of Americans who have a formal estate plan is still less than 50%. This number hasn’t changed much over the decade., However, the assets owned have become a lot more complicated, according to a recent article from CNBC titled “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked.”

Airline miles and credit card points, social media accounts and cryptocurrencies are different types of assets to be passed on to heirs. For those who have an estate plan, the focus is probably on traditional assets, like their home, 401(k)s, IRAs and bank accounts. However, we own so much more today.

Start with an inventory. For digital assets, include photos, videos, hardware, software, devices, and websites, to name a few. Make sure someone you trust has the unlock code for your phone, laptop and desktop. Use a secure password manager or a notebook, whatever you are more comfortable with, and share the information with a trusted person.

You’ll also need to include what you want to happen to the digital asset. Some platforms will let owners name a legacy contact to handle the account when they die and what the owner wants to happen to the data, photos, videos, etc. Some platforms have not yet addressed this issue at all.

If an online business generates income, what do you want to happen to the business? If you want the business to continue, who will own the business, who will run the business and receive the income? All of this has to be made clear and documented properly.

Failing to create a digital asset plan puts those assets at risk. For cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens (NFTs), this has become a routine problem. Unlike traditional financial accounts, there are no paper statements, and your executor can’t simply contact the institution with a death certificate and a Power of Attorney and move funds.

Another often overlooked part of an estate are pets. Assets cannot be left directly to pets. However, most states allow pet trusts, where owners can fund a trust and designate a trustee and a caretaker. Make sure to fund the account once it has been created, so your beloved companion will be cared for as you want. An informal agreement is not enforceable, and your pet may end up in a shelter or abandoned.

Sentimental possessions also need to be planned for. Your great-grandmother’s soup tureen may be available for $20 on eBay, but it’s not the same as the one she actually used and taught her daughter and her granddaughter how to use. The same goes for more valuable items, like jewelry or artwork. Identifying who gets what while you are living, can help prevent family quarrels when you are gone. In some families, there will be quarrels unless the items are in the will. Another option: distribute these items while you are living.

If you can, it’s also a good idea and a gift to your loved ones to write down what you want in the way of a funeral or memorial service. Do they want to be buried, or cremated? Do they want a religious service in a house of worship, or a simple graveside service?

If you are among those who have a will, you probably need it to be reviewed. If you don’t have a will or a comprehensive estate plan, you should meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to address distribution of assets, planning for incapacity and preparing for the often overlooked aspects of your life. You’ll have the comfort of expressing your wishes and your loved ones will be grateful.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 18, 2022) “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked”

Can You Keep Your Children from Inheriting Your Money?

What if you want to exclude your children and give your assets to a charity or a college after you pass away? You also don’t want your children to be able to contest your will.

Nj.com’s article entitled “My kids are brats. I don’t want them to inherit. What’s next?” explains that a person with this intention has a number of options for their estate.

First, you should understand that, unless there is a pre-existing contractual agreement or other obligation to do so, a person typically isn’t required to leave anyone other than their spouse anything in their estate.

A properly drafted will by an experienced estate planning attorney allows a person to name the beneficiaries of their estate. This can include charities. It also includes the amount or specific items and in what way each beneficiary will inherit.

You really can’t do much to prevent a child from challenging a will. However, your estate planning attorney can take steps to mitigate the risk that a challenge may be successful. This can include ensuring the testator — the person who establishes a will — has the requisite capacity to sign a will (“being of sound mind”) and that they’re signing it free of any undue influence or duress.

An experienced estate planning attorney will usually meet with a client several times to discuss the client’s assets and intention of disinheriting a child. The attorney will take notes that may be offered as evidence in the event of a will contest and even conduct the meeting in the presence of another attorney or staff member of the firm who could act as another witness.

A will should include specific language that it is the testator’s intent to disinherit a person, and that this individual should be treated as predeceasing the testator for purposes of the will. This helps ensure that the disinherited individual doesn’t somehow benefit.

Note that not all assets pass through the estate and pursuant to the terms of a will. Assets like retirement accounts, life insurance, annuities, and other financial accounts pass by beneficiary designation.

Real estate usually passes by operation of law, such by joint tenancy with right of survivorship.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 22, 2021) “My kids are brats. I don’t want them to inherit. What’s next?”

Will Moving to a New State Impact My Estate Planning?

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., baby boomers have been speeding up their retirement plans. Many Americans have also been moving to new states. For retirees, the non-financial considerations often revolve around weather, proximity to grandchildren and access to quality healthcare and other services.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First” provides some considerations for retirees who may set off on a move.

  1. Income tax rates. Before moving to a new state, you should know how much income you’re likely to be generating in retirement. It’s equally essential to understand what type of income you’re going to generate. Your income as well as the type of income you receive could significantly influence your economic health as a retiree, after you make your move. Before moving to a new state, look into the tax code of your prospective new state. Many states have flat income tax rates, such as Massachusetts at 5%. The states that have no income tax include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, Texas, Washington, South Dakota and Wyoming. Other states that don’t have flat income tax rates may be attractive or unattractive, based on your level of income. Another important consideration is the tax treatment of Social Security income, pension income and retirement plan income. Some states treat this income just like any other source of income, while others offer preferential treatment to the income that retirees typically enjoy.
  2. Housing costs. The cost of housing varies dramatically from state to state and from city to city, so understand how your housing costs are likely to change. You should also consider the cost of buying a home, maintenance costs, insurance and property taxes. Property taxes may vary by state and also by county. Insurance costs can also vary.
  3. Sales taxes. Some states (New Hampshire, Oregon, Montana, Delaware and Alaska) have no sales taxes. However, most states have a sales tax of some kind, which generally adds to the cost of living. California has the highest sales tax, currently at 7.5%, then comes Tennessee, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Indiana, each with a sales tax of 7%. Many other places also have a county sales tax and a city sales tax. You should also research those taxes.
  4. The state’s financial health. Examine the health of the state pension systems where you are thinking about moving. The states with the highest level of unfunded pension debts include Connecticut, Illinois, Alaska, New Jersey and Hawaii. They each have unfunded state pensions at a level of more than 20% of their state GDP. If you’re thinking about moving to one of those states, you’re more apt to see tax increases in the future because of the huge financial obligations of these states.
  5. The overall cost of living. Examine your budget to see the extent to which your annual living expenses might increase or decrease in your new location because food, healthcare and transportation costs can vary by location. If your costs are going to go up, that should be all right, provided you have the financial resources to fund a larger expense budget. Be sure that you’ve accounted for the differences before you move.
  6. Estate planning considerations. If this is going to be your last move, it’s likely that the laws of your new state will apply to your estate after you die. Many states don’t have an estate or gift tax, which means your estate and gifts will only be subject to federal tax laws. However, a number of states, such as Maryland and Iowa, have a state estate tax.

You should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate and gift tax implications of your move.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 30, 2021) “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First”

What’s the First Step in Estate Planning?

 

Forbes’ recent article entitled “A Love Letter to Your Heirs” explains that not having an estate plan is risky, almost like riding in a speeding car on the freeway without wearing a seatbelt. However, it’s never too late — or too early — to put one together.

The first step is to create a vision of your future. Consider the most important people in your life or your charitable goals. This should help with the distribution of your assets. Then, plan who gets what, both when and how.

Remember that you can modify your estate plan over time. You should also develop and implement a financial plan to provide ongoing guidance for your long-term wealth accumulation goals. This means reviewing your will regularly, especially if your investment portfolio becomes more complex and when your family situation changes, such as the birth of a child or even a divorce.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to implement tax mitigation strategies to reduce or eliminate taxes. Keep in mind that different types of assets can and should get different treatment. For instance, you should handle assets you own outright with care. Consider assigning ownership for each treasured heirloom, even as that can seem tedious. Another option is to allow heirs to place bids on items, using money allocated to them from the estate.

Based on the asset and how liquid it is, the executor could either sell it to raise cash or retain it and then distribute it to heirs under the terms of the will. Other assets, such as those held jointly, will go directly to the surviving joint tenant, while qualified retirement plan assets — like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, profit-sharing plans, and pension plans will go directly to a named beneficiary. Similarly, life insurance proceeds pass directly to a named beneficiary.

In addition any assets subject to a lien can be sold to pay off outstanding debt, or your executor can use cash from the estate to pay off the debt and retain the asset.

Bequeathing your estate to your chosen beneficiary or contingent beneficiary can be one of the most important life decisions you can make for their future.

Even singles without children should have a will, so that you can pass your wealth to a relative or someone else about whom you care deeply.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 10, 2022) “A Love Letter to Your Heirs”

When Do I Need to Review My Will?

You should take a look at your will and other estate planning documents at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more frequently. Some reasons to do it sooner include things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or even moving to another state where estate laws are different from where your will was drawn up.

CNBC’s recent article entitled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated” says that one of the primary considerations for a review is a life event — when there’s a major change in your life.

The pandemic has created an interest in estate planning, which includes a will and other legal documents that address end-of-life considerations. Research now shows that 18- to 34-year-olds are now more likely (by 16%) to have a will than those who are in the 35-to-54 age group. In the 25-to-40 age group, just 32% do, according to a survey. Even so, fewer than 46% of U.S. adults have a will.

If you’re among those who have a will or comprehensive estate plan, here are some things to review and why. In addition to reviewing your will in terms of who gets what, see if the person you named as executor is still a suitable choice. An executor must do things such as liquidating accounts, ensuring that your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, paying any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed) and selling your home.

Likewise, look at the people to whom you’ve assigned powers of attorney. If you become incapacitated at some point, the people with that authority will handle your medical and financial affairs, if you are unable. The original people you named to handle certain duties may no longer be in a position to do so.

Some assets pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA or 401(k)plans and life insurance proceeds. As a result, the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money, regardless of what your will says. Note that 401(k) plans usually require your current spouse to be the beneficiary, unless they legally agree otherwise.

Regular bank accounts can also have beneficiaries listed on a payable-on-death form, obtained at your bank.

If you own a home, make sure to see how it should be titled, so it is given to the person (or people) you intend.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 7, 2021) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated”