Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid

Planning for one’s eventual death can be a somber task. However, consider what would occur if you failed to plan: loved ones trying to figure out your intentions, a long and expensive legal battle with unintended heirs and instead of grieving your loss, wondering why you didn’t take care of business while you were living. Planning suddenly becomes far more appealing, doesn’t it?

A recent article from yahoo! finance, “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid,” explains how to avoid some of the issues regarding beneficiaries.

You haven’t named a beneficiary for your retirement accounts. This is a common estate planning mistake, even though it seems so obvious. A beneficiary can be a person, a charity, a trust, or your estate. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you identify likely beneficiaries and ensure they are eligible.

You forgot to review your beneficiary designations for many years. Most people have changes in relationships as they move through the stages of life. The same person who was your best friend in your twenties might not even be in your life in your sixties. However, if you don’t check on beneficiary designations on a regular basis, you may be leaving your retirement accounts to people who haven’t heard from you in decades and disinheriting loved ones. Every time you update your estate plan, which should be every three to five years, check your beneficiary designations.

You didn’t name your spouse as a primary beneficiary for a retirement account. When Congress passed the 2019 SECURE Act, the bill removed a provision allowing non-spousal beneficiaries to stretch out disbursements from IRAs over their lifetimes, also known as the “Stretch IRA.” A non-spouse beneficiary must empty any inherited IRA within ten years from the death of the account holder. If a minor child is the beneficiary, once they reach the age of legal majority, they are required to follow the rules of a Required Minimum Distribution. Having a spouse named as beneficiary allows them to move the inherited IRA funds into their own IRA and take out assets as they wish.

You named an estate as a beneficiary. You can name your estate as a beneficiary. However, it creates a significant tangle for the family who has to set things right. For instance, if you have any debt, your estate could be attached by creditors. Your estate may also go through probate court, a court-supervised process to validate your will, have your final assets identified and have debts paid before any remaining assets are distributed to heirs.

You didn’t create a retirement plan until late in your career. Retirement seems very far away during your twenties, thirties and even forties. However, the years pass and suddenly you’re looking at retirement without enough money set aside. Creating an estate plan early in your working life shifts your focus, so you understand how important it is to have a retirement plan.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help square away your beneficiary designations as part of your overall estate plan. The best time to start? How about today?

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 19, 2022) “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”

Do I Need to Name a Life Insurance Beneficiary?

When a loved one dies, there are questions to address, such as how to pay for a funeral and other death expenses. A life insurance policy may help. However, the deceased must have made sure the proper beneficiary is named.

If a beneficiary isn’t designated, some issues with the estate could arise, or the policy could go to the decedent’s estate. Likewise, the same is true if the one beneficiary preceded the decedent in death.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Happens If I Don’t Name a Life Insurance Beneficiary?” explains that a life insurance policy is a contract you enter into with a life insurance company.

When you set up your life insurance policy, you have the right to name one or more beneficiaries who’ll get the proceeds of the policy when you die. You pay premiums on the policy until your death, to guarantee your beneficiaries that right.

You might designate just one beneficiary to receive all the proceeds. In addition to the primary beneficiary, you can name contingent beneficiaries who will receive the proceeds of the policy if the primary beneficiary predeceases the policyholder.

It is important to add as much identifying information about your beneficiaries as possible, so they can be easily identified. It’s also important to keep your policy up to date on the information of your beneficiaries.

If there are no beneficiaries living, either the proceeds of the policy will enter the probate process, or the life insurance proceeds will pass to the decedent’s heirs-at-law who are those people who are close to the decedent and would probably inherit, if there was a beneficiary designation or will.

Heirs-at-law are also defined as those people who will inherit your assets, if you die intestate.

Dying without a beneficiary in place or leaving your estate as beneficiary of your policy have different rules in each state.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about your state’s rules and the rules of the life insurance company when you’re setting up your life insurance policy and will.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 10, 2022) “What Happens If I Don’t Name a Life Insurance Beneficiary?”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

Should I Keep Beneficiary Designations Up to Date?

If you don’t know who your beneficiaries are, then it’s time for a beneficiary designation check. Even if you think you remember, every now and then, they should be checked, according to an article “Are your beneficiary designations up to date?” from Community Voice.

Your choices may change with time. When did you open your very first IRA? Do you even remember when you purchased your life insurance policies? If it was back in the 1990s, chances are good the people in your life have changed, as well as your priorities.

When we filled out those forms on paper, back in the day, we were all confident they’d be the same forever, but time and life have a way of changing things. In five, ten or twenty years, big changes may have happened in your life. Your beneficiary designations and your estate plan need to reflect where you are now, not where you were then.

Smart people review these items every year. If you’re still working, your employer may have changed custodians for your retirement plan and your insurance policy. When a new custodian takes over, sometimes beneficiary designations can get lost in the change.

If you don’t have a beneficiary designation on these accounts, or any account where you have the option to name a beneficiary, you may have a bigger problem. The tax-focused part of your estate plan could be undone if you thought your 401(k) would go to your spouse but your spouse predeceased you.

If you don’t want your spouse to inherit your 401(k) or other retirement plan, your spouse will need to waive the inheritance in writing, if you want those assets to go to children or others. By law, spouses are protected when it comes to certain kinds of retirement accounts.

What most people don’t realize is that whatever choice you make on the beneficiary designation overrides anything in their wills. If you named someone to be your beneficiary, whether or not they are in your life, they will still receive the inheritance. Your family can try to fight it out in court, but they most likely will lose.

Another pitfall: naming the financial whiz in the family, then forgetting to review documents. Problems can arise if the whiz-kid moves far away or dies. If you make big changes to how you wish your estate to be distributed and neglect to tell the person named to carry out your updated wishes, they spend a lot of time trying to effectuate an out-of-date plan.

If you name your spouse as a beneficiary, the tax consequences are simpler. However, you still need an estate plan to plan for when the second spouse dies. In other words, you need an estate plan, including a will and trusts, and you also need to review it at least every three to five years.

Reference: Community Voice (September 30, 2022) “Are your beneficiary designations up to date?”

How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

Is it Important to have an Estate Plan?

Everyone needs to have an estate plan to ensure that their family can take part in medical care, assets will pass to the heirs they want and to protect minor children, as explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone” from mondaq.com. An estate plan does all this, and more. Having an estate plan can also protects privacy; any assets moved into a trust do not become part of the public record.

Here are the documents making up the foundation of an estate plan.

Last Will and Testament. This is used to direct the disposition of assets and appoints an executor to handle final affairs after your death. If there is no will, the state law controls how your estate is distributed.

Revocable Trust. Trusts permit more control of the management and disposition of assets in a more private and tax-efficient way during your lifetime and after death.

General Durable Power of Attorney. This document usually names a spouse, adult child or trusted individual who can take over your legal and financial affairs, especially if you should become incapacitated.

Health Care Power of Attorney. Everyone over age 18 should have this document. This nominates a person you choose to make health care decisions. Without it, parents of teenagers and young adults may not be involved in their care. Treating physicians will not be able to discuss your loved one’s care, or you may need to petition the court for guardianship.

Living Will. This document allows you to express your wishes with regard to end-of-life care and medical treatment decisions. It alleviates the emotional burden of guessing what you would have wanted by family members.

HIPAA Authorization. Your medical and health insurance records are protected from being released to third parties without the patient’s consent. While this is helpful for patients seeking to maintain their privacy, it also means parents or loved ones will not have any access to medical records and healthcare providers will not discuss the patient’s medical condition with family members. Fines and penalties for professionals and facilities are strict.

Asset and Beneficiary Designations. Part of an estate plan includes ensuring that assets are in alignment with your wishes. Your will does not control how assets with a beneficiary designation or those with joint ownership titles will be inherited. For your estate to achieve the outcome you want, you’ll need to dig deep into your records and ensure that all assets are properly titled, including insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, property and any other assets.

If you have an estate plan in place and have not updated it in recent years, or failed to get one or more of the above-mentioned documents, there is no time like the present to do so. Unexpected events are always around the corner and being prepared in advance helps ensure your wishes will be achieved and your family will be protected.

Reference: mondaq.com (July 29, 2022) “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone”

When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

Who Should Be Your Executor?

While the executor is usually a spouse or close family member, you can name anyone you wish to be your executor. A bank, estate planning attorney, or professional trustee at a trust company may also serve as the executor, according to a recent article from Twin Cities-Pioneer Press titled “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor.”

Regardless of who you select, the person has a legal duty to be honest, impartial, financially responsible and to put your interests ahead of their own. This person and one or two backup candidates should be named in your will, just in case the primary executor declines or is unable to serve.

How does someone become an executor? When your will is entered into probate, the court checks to be sure the person you name meets all of your state’s legal requirements. Once the court approves (and usually the court does), then their role is official and you executor can get to work.

The executor has many responsibilities. You can help your executor do a better job by making sure that financial and personal business documents are organized and readily available. Here are some, but not all, of the executor’s tasks:

  • Making an inventory of all assets and liabilities
  • Giving notice to creditors: credit card companies, banks, mortgage companies, etc.
  • Filing a final personal tax return and filing the estate tax return
  • Paying any debts and taxes
  • Distributing assets according to the directions in the will and in compliance with state law
  • Preparing and submitting a detailed report to the court of how the estate was settled

If there is no will, or if no executor is named in the will, or if the executor can’t serve, the court will appoint a professional administrator to settle your estate. It won’t be someone you know. Your family may not like all of the decisions made on your behalf, but there won’t be any options available.

Does an executor get paid? A family member may or may not wish to be paid. However, given how much time it takes to settle an estate, you might feel it’s fair for them to be compensated. The amount varies depending on where you live, but you can leave the person between 1% to 8% of your total estate. A professional administrator will likely cost considerably more.

How do you document your estate to help out the executor? If you think this task is too onerous, imagine how a family member will feel if they have to conduct a scavenger hunt to identify assets and debts. If a professional administrator ends up doing this work, it will take a bigger bite out of your estate and leave loved ones with a smaller inheritance.

Start by making a list of all of your assets and liabilities, plus a list of all advisors who help with the business side of your life. Recent tax returns will be helpful, as will contact information for your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. You should include retirement accounts, life insurance policies and any assets without beneficiary designations.

Reference: Twin Cities-Pioneer Press (June 25, 2022) “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor”

What Is a TOD Beneficiary?

You can name anyone as a TOD beneficiary. However, if you’re married, your spouse may have special rights over your assets that take precedence over your named TOD beneficiaries. These laws vary by state, though, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Who Can Be a Transfer on Death (TOD) Beneficiary?” explains that, if you name TOD beneficiaries, it’s very clear who you want to receive your assets when you pass away.

A TOD instruction allows your heirs to avoid probate for these assets. This will take precedence over anything in your will. This can make the legal process of distributing assets much faster than it otherwise would be.

It’s important to know that naming TOD beneficiaries may not achieve everything you would like to achieve in your inheritance settlement. Passing on assets to a TOD beneficiary won’t provide much creditor protection. In that case, a trust may be a better option.

Your TOD beneficiaries will also be responsible for paying taxes on the money they receive. This will complicate their tax situation and may also mean a large tax bill for them.

Remember that a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary can be a person, charity, business, or trust. If the beneficiary is a person, they can be a relative, child, spouse, friend, or anyone else you happen to know. But again, if you’re married, your spouse may have special rights over your assets that take precedence over your named TOD beneficiaries, according to state law.

Contact your account provider to see if you can add a TOD beneficiary. It’s available for many account types—not only retirement accounts but also certificates of deposit (CDs), savings accounts and brokerage accounts.

Naming a TOD beneficiary (or several) can have advantages during the inheritance process, since this makes it very clear who you would like to inherit your assets. These funds can then be distributed without passing through the potentially costly process of probate. It can make the inheritance process much simpler because your named beneficiary will automatically receive the assets in the account—bypassing probate as a result.

Reference: Investopedia (May 19, 2022) “Who Can Be a Transfer on Death (TOD) Beneficiary?”