What Do You Need to Do When a Spouse Dies?

Life events require planning, even the most heartbreaking, like the death of a spouse. Spouses ideally create a blueprint together so when the inevitable occurs, they are prepared, says the article “The important financial steps to take after a spouse dies” from The Globe and Mail. It may sound cold to take a business approach, but by doing so, the surviving spouse will know what to expect and what to do.

Some people use a spreadsheet to clearly see what their financial picture will look like before and after the death of a spouse.

There are pieces of information that are vital to know:

  • What health insurance coverage does the spouse have?
  • Will the coverage remain in place after the death of the spouse?
  • Do any accounts need to be changed to joint ownership before death?
  • What investments do both spouses have, and will they be accessible after death of one spouse?
  • Is there a last will and testament, and where is it located?

Many people are wholly unprepared and have to tackle their entire financial situation immediately after their spouse dies. If they were not involved in family finances and retirement planning, it can lead to costly mistakes and make a difficult time even harder.

If assets are owned jointly with rights of survivorship, the transition and access to finances is easier. If the accounts are only in one name, the surviving spouse will have to wait until the estate goes through probate before they can access funds. If there are bills to pay, the surviving spouse may have to tap retirement funds, which can come with penalties, depending on the accounts and the surviving spouse’s age.

All of this can be avoided by taking the time to create an estate plan which includes planning for asset distribution and may include trusts. There are many trusts designed for use by spouses to take assets out of the probate estate, provide an income source and minimize taxes. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help prepare for this event, from a legal and practical standpoint.

What happens when there’s no will?

No will usually indicates no planning. This leaves spouses and family members in the worst possible situation. The laws of your state will be used to determine how assets are distributed. How much a surviving spouse and descendants will inherit will be based solely on the law. The results may not be optimal for anyone. It’s best to meet with an estate planning attorney and create a will.

Reviewing beneficiary designations for life insurance policies and retirement accounts should be done every few years. If the beneficiary is no longer part of the account owner’s life, the designation needs to be updated. If the beneficiary had died, most accounts would go into the probate estate, where they otherwise would pass directly to the beneficiary.

Reference: The Globe and Mail (July 13, 2022) “The important financial steps to take after a spouse dies”

Some States Have Tough Estate and Inheritance Taxes

For now, most people don’t have to be scared of federal estate taxes. In 2022, only estates valued at $12.06 million or more for an individual ($24.12 million or more for a married couple) need to pay federal estate taxes. Even better for the very wealthy, there’s no federal inheritance tax for heirs who reside in such lofty economic brackets, notes the recent article titled “States with Scary Death Taxes” from Kiplinger.

By definition, estate taxes are paid by the estate and based on the estate’s overall value, while inheritance taxes are paid by the individual who inherits property, assets, or anything else of value. This isn’t to say “regular people” don’t need to worry about death taxes. We do, because states have their own estate taxes, and a few still have inheritance taxes.

A number of states eliminated estate taxes in the last ten years or so, in an effort to keep retirees from leaving and heading to places like Florida, where there’s no estate tax. However, a dozen states and the District of Columbia still have estate taxes, six states have an inheritance tax and one has both an estate and inheritance tax: Maryland.

Here’s how some state taxes look in 2022:

Connecticut has an estate tax, with an exemption level at $7.1 million. However, there is no inheritance tax. The Nutmeg state is the only state with a gift tax on assets gifted during one’s life.

The District of Columbia has an estate tax, with an exemption level of $4 million.

Hawaii’s estate tax exemption level is $5.49 million., one of the higher state estate tax exclusions, and is not adjusted for inflation.

Illinois’s estate tax is $4 million, but there’s no inheritance tax. It’s known as one of the least taxpayer friendly states in the country for retirees.

Iowa is phasing out inheritance taxes, but this doesn’t take effect until 2025. In the meantime, there’s no estate tax, and if the estate is valued at less than $25,000, there’s no inheritance tax. No taxes are due on property inherited by a lineal ascendent or descendent, but for other family members, the taxes range from 8%—12%.

There’s no estate tax in Kentucky. However, depending upon your relationship to the person who died and the value of the property, the inheritance tax is 4% to 16%.

Maine has an estate tax exemption of $5.87 million, but no inheritance tax.

Maryland’s has both an estate tax exemption of $5 million and a flat 10% inheritance tax.

Massachusetts has no inheritance tax and a $1 million estate tax exemption.

Minnesota has a low estate tax exemption of $3 million. Any taxable gifts made three years prior to death are included.

New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have no inheritance taxes, while Pennsylvania has no estate tax but does have an inheritance tax.

It’s not necessary to move purely to avoid estate or inheritance taxes. An experienced estate planning attorney uses strategic tax planning as part of an estate plan, minimizing tax liability and preserving assets.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 29, 2022) “States with Scary Death Taxes”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

No one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. It may or may not go to the decedent’s children.

After a valid qualified disclaimer has been executed and submitted, you as the “disclaimor” are treated as if you died before the decedent. Whoever receives the inheritance instead depends upon what the last will or trust provides, or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

In most cases, the last will or trust has instructions in the case of an heir disclaiming. It may have been written to give the disclaimed property to the children of the disclaimor, or go to someone else or be given to a charity. It all depends on how the will or trust was prepared.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimer is considered invalid. The disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

If you execute a non-qualified disclaimer relating to a $100,000 inheritance and it ends up going to your offspring, you may have inadvertently given them a gift according to the IRS. You’ll then need to know who needs to report the gift and what, if any, taxes are due on the gift.

Persons with Special Needs who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.

A Special Needs Trust might be able to receive an inheritance, but there are limitations regarding how much can be accepted. An estate planning attorney will need to be consulted to ensure that the person with Special Needs will not have their benefits jeopardized by an inheritance.

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

How Do I Address an Estranged Child in My Estate Planning?
Strong quarrel between elderly mother and her adult daughter

How Do I Address an Estranged Child in My Estate Planning?

For most families, estate planning is a relatively straightforward task, protecting loved ones and preparing to distribute assets. But when parent-child relationships have frayed or fractured, estate planning becomes more complicated and emotional, according to the article from The News-Enterprise titled “Estate planning must account for estranged children.”

The relationship may be broken for any number of reasons. The child may have married an untrustworthy person, have addiction issues, or have made a series of hurtful decisions. In some families, the parents don’t even know why a break has occurred, only that they are shut out of lives of their children and grandchildren.

The reason for the estrangement impacts how the parents address their estate plan regarding the child. If there is an addiction problem, the parents may want to limit the child’s access to funds, and that can be accomplished with a trust and a trustee. However, if the situation is really bad, the parents may wish to completely disinherit the child. Both require considerable legal experience, especially if the child might contest the will.

There are three basic options for dealing with this situation.

One is to leave an outright gift of some kind, with no restrictions. The estranged child may receive a smaller inheritance, but not so small as to open the door to litigation.

Second, the parent may create a testamentary trust in their last wills. Testamentary trusts become effective at death, with funds going into the trust and controlled by a trustee. The heir will have no control over the assets, which are also protected from creditors, divorces, or scammers.

Third is the option to completely disinherit the child. That way the child will not be entitled to any portion of the estate. The language in the last will must be watertight and follow the laws of the state exactly so there is no room for the disinheritance to be challenged.

There needs to be language that clarifies whether the child’s descendants (grandchildren) are also being disinherited. If the child is disinherited but their children are not, the descendants will inherit the child’s share as if the child had predeceased his or her parents.

Some estate planning attorneys recommend writing a letter to the child to explain the reasoning behind their disinheritance. The letter could be seen as reinforcing the parent’s intent, but it may also open old wounds and have unexpected consequences.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to clarify the steps to be taken in your estate. This is a situation where it will be helpful to discuss the full details of the relationship so the correct plan can be put into place.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (July 20, 2021) “Estate planning must account for estranged children”