What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning?

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

Common Mistakes when Making Beneficiary Designations

Let’s say you divorce and remarry and forget to change your beneficiary from your ex-spouse. Your ex-spouse will be smiling all the way to the bank. There won’t be much that your new spouse could do, if you forgot to make that change before you die. Any time there is a life change, including happy events, like marriage, birth or adoption, your beneficiary designations need to be reviewed, says the article “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make” from Kiplinger.

If there are new people in your life you would like to leave a bequest to, like grandchildren or a charitable organization you want to support as part of your legacy, your beneficiary designations will need to reflect those as well.

For people who are married, their spouse is usually the primary beneficiary. Children are contingent beneficiaries who receive the proceeds upon death, if the primary beneficiary dies before or at the same time that you do. It is wise to notify any insurance company or retirement fund custodian about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you have properly named contingent beneficiaries.

When there are multiple grandchildren, things can get a little complicated. Let’s say you’re married and have three adult children. The first beneficiary is your spouse, and your three children are contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say Sam has three children, Dolores has no children and James has two children, for a total of five grandchildren.

If both your spouse and James, die before you do, all of the proceeds would pass to your two surviving children, and James’ two children would effectively be disinherited. That’s probably not what you would want. However, there is a solution. You can specify that if one of your children dies before you and your spouse, their share goes to his or her children. This is a “per stirpes” distribution.

This way, each branch of the family will receive an equal share across generations. If this is what you want, you’ll need to request per stirpes, because equal distribution, or per capita, is the default designation. Not all insurance companies make this option available, so you’ll need to speak with your insurance broker to make sure this is set up properly for insurance or annuities.

Any assets that have a named designated beneficiary are not controlled by your will. Consequently, when you are creating or reviewing your estate plan, create a list of all of your assets and the desired beneficiaries for them. Your estate planning attorney will help review all of your assets and means of distribution, so your wishes for your family are clear.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 23, 2021) “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make”

What Should I Do when my Spouse Dies?

Mourning the loss of a spouse can be one of the hardest experiences one can face. The emotional aspects of grief can also be difficult enough without having to concern yourself whether you’re financially unprepared.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse” says that when a spouse passes away, there can be many impacts to the financial picture. These can include changes in income, estate planning and dealing with IRA and insurance distributions. The first step, however, is understanding and quantifying the financial changes that may happen when your spouse dies.

Income Changes – Social Security. A drop in income is frequently an unforeseen reality for many surviving spouses, especially those who are on Social Security benefits. For retirees without dependents that have reached full retirement age, the surviving spouse will typically get the greater of their social security or their deceased spouse’s benefits – but not both. For example, let’s assume Dirk and Melinda are receiving $2,000 and $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, respectively. In the event Dirk dies, Melinda will no longer receive her benefit and will only receive Dirk’s $2,000 benefit. That is a 42% reduction in total social security income received.

Social Security benefits typically start at 62, but a widow’s benefit can be available at age 60 for the survivor or at 50 if the survivor is disabled within seven years of the spouse’s death. Moreover, unmarried children under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who passes away may also be eligible to get Social Security survivor benefits.

Income Changes – Pension Benefits. This is another type of income that may be decreased because of a spouse’s death. Those eligible to receive a pension often choose little or no survivorship benefits, which results in a sudden drop in income. Therefore, a single life annuity pension payment will end at the worker’s death leaving the survivor with no additional benefits. However, a 50% survivor option will pay 50% of the worker’s benefit to the surviving spouse at their death. A surviving spouse needs to understand what, if any pension benefits will continue and the financial effect of these changes.

Spousal IRA Benefits. Spouses must understand their options for inherited retirement accounts. A spousal beneficiary can roll the funds to their own IRA account, which lets the spousal beneficiary delay Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) until age 72. In this case, the spousal beneficiary’s life expectancy is used to calculate future RMDs. This may be appropriate for those over 59½, but spousal beneficiaries under that age that require retirement account distributions may subject themselves to early withdrawal penalties, including a tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty, even on inherited funds. Spouses younger than 59½ may consider rolling the account to a beneficial or inherited IRA for more flexibility. In this case, RMDs will be taken annually based upon the life expectancy of the beneficiary, with distributions avoiding the 10% penalty. Distributions greater than the RMD may also be taken, while still avoiding early withdrawal penalties. Inherited IRAs can be a great tool for spousal beneficiaries who need income now to help support their lifestyle but have not reached 59½.

Updating the Estate Plan of the Surviving Spouse. It is easy to forget to review your estate plan drafted before your spouse passed away. Check on this with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Updating Financial Planning Projections. You don’t want to make any major decisions after the loss of a loved one, you can still review the numbers. Create a new financial plan to help provide clarity.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 9, 2021) “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse”

How Can I Protect Assets from Creditors?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Three Estate Planning Techniques That Protect Your Assets From Creditors” explains that the key to knowing if your assets might be susceptible to attachment in litigation is the fraudulent conveyance laws. These laws make a transfer void, if there’s explicit or constructive fraud during the transfer. Explicit fraud is when you know that it is likely an existing creditor will try to attach your assets. Constructive fraud is when you transfer an asset, without receiving reasonably equivalent consideration. Since these laws void the transfer, a future creditor can attach your assets.

Getting reasonably equivalent consideration for a transfer of assets will eliminate the transfer being treated as constructive fraud. Reasonably equivalent consideration includes:

  • Funding a protective trust at death to provide for your spouse or children
  • Asset transfer in return for interest in an LLC or LLP; or
  • A transfer that exchanges for an annuity (or other interest) that protects the principal from claims of creditors.

Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) can be an asset protection entity, because when assets are transferred into the LLC, your creditors have limited rights to get their hands on them. Like a corporation, your interest in the LLC can be attached. However, you can place restrictions on the sale or transfer of interests that can decrease its value and define the term by which sale proceeds must be paid out. An LLC must be treated as a business for the courts to treat them as a business. Thus, if you use the LLC as if it were your personal property, courts will disregard the LLC and treat it as personal property.

Annuities are created when you exchange assets for the right to get payment over time. Unlike annuities sold by insurance companies, these annuities are private. These annuities are similar to insurance company annuities, in that they have some income tax consequences, but protect the principal against attachment.

You can also ask an experienced estate planning attorney about trusts that use annuities, which are called split interest trusts. There is a trust where you (the Grantor) give assets but keep the right to receive payments, which can be a fixed amount annually with a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (or GRAT.)

Another trust allows you to get a variable amount, based on the value of the assets in the trust each year. This is a Grantor Retained Uni-Trust or GRUT. If the assets are vacant land or other tangible property, or being gifted to someone who’s not your sibling, parent, child, or other descendant, you can keep the income from the assets by using a Grantor Retained Income Trust (or GRIT).

Along with a trust where you make a gift to an individual, you can protect the trust assets and get a charitable deduction, if you make a gift to charity through trusts. There are two types of trust for this purpose: a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) lets you keep an annuity or a variable payment annually, with the remainder of the trust assets going to charity at the end of the term; and a Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) where you give a fixed of variable annuity to charity for a term and the remainder either back to you or to others.

To get the most from your asset protection, work with an experienced estate planning attorney

Reference: Forbes (June 25, 2020) “Three Estate Planning Techniques That Protect Your Assets From Creditors”

What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid?

There are a few important mistakes that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it won’t exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they’ll have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you’ll do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It’s a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it’s also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they don’t happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”

SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review
401k concept photo

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”

How a Charitable Remainder Trust Works
Charity Savings Jar

How a Charitable Remainder Trust Works

A couple lives well on their incomes, but the biggest asset they own is a tract of unimproved real estate that the wife received from her parents many years ago. The land was part of the family’s farm and is located in prime area that is growing in value. The couple is looking for ways to supplement their retirement income, which is based solely on their retirement accounts.

What can they do to generate retirement income and not have to pay a significant proportion of their profit in capital gains? The solution is presented in the article “Using Charitable Trusts in Your Retirement Planning” from Richardland Source.

One strategy would be to establish a Charitable Remainder Trust or CRT. The wife would transfer the land to an irrevocable trust created to provide lifetime payments to her and her husband. At the death of the surviving spouse, the trust property would be transferred to a charitable organization named in the wife’s trust agreement.

Using the CRT, the trustee can sell the trust property and reinvest the proceeds, without have to pay any immediate tax on the gain. The couple would have more money for retirement, than if they simply sold the land and invested the proceeds. They also have the option of investing their tax savings outside of the trust to produce additional income.

The CRT can be either an annuity trust or a unitrust. The type of CRT used will determine how payments from the trust are calculated. If a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT) is chosen, the couple will receive annual payments of a set percentage of the trust’s initial fair market value. The percentage will need to be at least 5% and may not be more than 50%.

If they choose a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), they would receive an annual income based on the fair market value of the trust property, which is revalued each year. That percentage must be at least 5% and not more than 50%.

These are complex legal strategies that need to be considered in tandem with an overall estate and tax plan. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn if using CRTs would be a good strategy for you and your family.

Reference: Richardland Source (October 28, 2019) “Using Charitable Trusts in Your Retirement Planning”