Can Beneficiary Designations Be Challenged?

The demise of traditional pension plans in the U.S. has been followed by a surge in assets held in participant directed retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s. The responsibility for investment decisions now belongs to the owners, says a recent article “Did you really intend for your ex to get your IRA?” from Chattanooga Times Free Press. The owner is also responsible for beneficiary distributions after death, which doesn’t always go well.

Retirement accounts are outside of the probate estate. Therefore, assets pass to heirs directly. When people first enroll in a retirement plan or open an IRA account, it’s up to the account owner to stipulate who will receive the asset upon their death, known as the beneficiary. This sounds easy enough. The heirs don’t need to worry about probate and if the ownership transfer is done correctly, they can get some tax advantages from the accounts.

When the owner doesn’t pay attention to beneficiary designations, expensive problems occur.

Failing to name a beneficiary. This is the simplest and most commonly made mistake when enrolling in a company’s retirement plan or rolling assets into an IRA. More than a third of all IRA death claims submitted for processing are lacking a named beneficiary, according to a national retirement plan administrator company. Instead of assets passing directly to heirs, the IRA account flows into the estate and becomes subject to probate and estate taxes.

Once included in the estate, the assets are subject to the will. While IRA assets have up to ten years to be withdrawn, the time limit for distributions in an estate can be as short as five years, and the resulting taxes will be much higher. Even worse, the assets in the IRA are now available to creditors of the estate. Until the estate is fully distributed, it must pay tax returns. Even a modest IRA is going to generate more estate taxes than if it were outside of the estate.

If there is no will, the state decides where the assets go.

Failing to name contingent beneficiaries. If the account owner and primary beneficiary are both dead, there should be at least one contingent beneficiary named on the account. Lacking contingent beneficiaries, the account flows to the estate as if no beneficiary had been named.

Neglecting to update beneficiaries after major life events. Divorce and death happen. Account owners often forget to update beneficiary designations, leading to unintended recipients. In some states, but not all, a divorce decree nullifies the prior designation. However, don’t count on it. If the state does nullify the prior designation, the asset will flow into the probate estate.

Naming a minor as a beneficiary. Most state laws do not permit minors to inherit significant assets without the oversight of a conservator. If a conservator is named by the court, the inheritance will be reduced substantially by court fees and the conservator’s salary. This may not be the worst part, if the asset is big. Here’s what’s worse: at age 18 or 21, a young adult will inherit the entire amount, with no restrictions.

After you’ve updated your beneficiaries, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how to protect assets, including retirement accounts and pensions.

Reference: Chattanooga Times Free Press (July 9, 2022) “Did you really intend for your ex to get your IRA?”

Does ‘Gray Divorce’ Fit into Estate Planning?

According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate has more than doubled for people over 50 since the 1990s. The Pandemic is also adding to the uptick, says AARP’s recent article entitled “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan.”

A divorce can be financially draining. Moreover, later-in-life divorces frequently impact women’s finances more than men’s. That is because in addition to depressed earnings from time spent out of the workforce raising children, women find themselves more financially vulnerable post-divorce and more likely to serve as caregivers again in the future. Even so, for partners of all genders, it is important to consider the longer-term financial outlook, not just the financial situation you’re in when you are actually dissolving the marriage.

You and your spouse will be dividing assets and liabilities and the responsibilities regarding spousal support. How one of you will live if the other gets sick or passes away should also be part of this conversation.

Consider where you’ll need to make changes. One may be removing your spouse from beneficiary designations on all your accounts. (In some states, this is automatic.) Your divorce agreement may also include buying life insurance or maintaining a trust or beneficiary designations for one another.

Create or update your estate plan immediately. You should also ask your estate planning attorney to review your marital agreement. They will have suggestions about how to align your estate plan with your divorce obligations. If you and your ex are co-parenting children, your estate plan should address who their guardians will be, if both biological parents pass away. It is also important to address who will manage any inheritance, if you don’t want your ex-spouse handling assets you may leave to your children.

Create your life care plan, which means naming health care proxies or surrogates (who will take care of your medical affairs, if you’re in need of caregiving), designating a financial power of attorney (who will take care of your finances and legal affairs), and naming a guardian for yourself if you’re incapacitated.

Consider the way in which your divorce will impact your children and extended family if you need caregiving. At a minimum, agree between yourselves what level of contact you can manage and, if you share children and loved ones, know that your lives will cross along the way.

While your marriage may not last, the connections will, so make a wise plan.

Reference: AARP (Jan. 25, 2022) “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan”

Why Is Beneficiary Designation Important?

The beneficiary designation will always supersede language of your will. Neglecting to know which assets have beneficiary designations and failing to update the designations can undo even the best estate plan.

The beneficiary designation for your life insurance or retirement account custodian provides an opportunity to tell the company who is to receive life insurance proceeds or retirement savings upon your death, explains a recent article titled “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press. If these are not coordinated with a last will and testament, the results are problematic at best, and worse, financially, and emotionally devastating.

This epic fail comes in many different forms, but the most common is when a life insurance policy has never been updated and an ex-spouse receives the policy proceeds. The rules differ between retirement accounts and life insurance and can be impacted by various state and federal laws (and the divorce decree, if the life insurance policy was included). However, for the most part, the ex will receive the proceeds and litigation will not succeed.

Another common beneficiary designation mistake is when a person has created a living trust or revocable trust to prevent assets from going through probate when they die. Probate can take many months to complete and there are several strategies used to take assets out of the probate estate.

When the living trust is established and assets are transferred into the trust, those assets do not pass through probate.

However, if a person (or married couple) established a living trust and fails to list both primary and secondary beneficiaries for life insurance and/or retirement accounts, it is entirely possible that the assets will go through probate.

Take the time to make an inventory of all assets and accounts. Determine which ones have a beneficiary designation and find out who is named as the beneficiary. If your retirement accounts and life insurance policies were established decades ago, this is especially important.

Failing to coordinate beneficiary designations with your estate plan could undermine your wishes. Review these items with your estate planning attorney to avoid these and many other potential pitfalls.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (May 23, 2022) “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed”

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Some reasons to update your will are more obvious than others, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, births and deaths. However, those aren’t the only reasons your estate plan needs to be reviewed, explains a recent article appropriately titled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” from CNBC.

Think of your estate plan like your home. They both need regular updates and maintenance. If your house starts to get rundown or the roof springs a leak, you know you need to get it fixed. Your estate plan is not as visible. However, it is still in need of ongoing maintenance.

Health events should be a trigger, yours or people named in your will. If the person you named as your executor becomes ill or dies, you’ll need to name a new person to replace them. The same goes for a guardian named to care for any minor children, especially if you named a grandparent for this role.

If you move, your estate plan must ‘move’ with you. Each state has different laws regarding how estates are administered. In one state, an executor living out of state may be okay. However, in another, it may make the executor ineligible to serve. Inheritance tax laws also vary.

Any time there is a large change to your personal wealth, whether it’s good or bad, your estate planning attorney should review your will.

The same goes for a change in parental status. The birth of additional children seems like it might not require a review. However, it does. More than a few celebrities failed to update their estate plans and accidentally disinherited children. The same person who may be willing to be a guardian for one child, may find taking on two or three children to be too much of a challenge. If you want to change the guardianship, your estate plan needs to be updated.

A change in your relationship with fiduciaries also merits an update. Someone you named ten years ago to be your executor may no longer be a part of your life, or they may have died. Family members age, retire and move and siblings have changes in their own lives. Reviewing the executor regularly is important.

If a family member becomes disabled, you may need special needs planning.

A commonly overlooked trigger concerns mergers and acquisitions of financial institutions. If your bank is the executor of your estate and the bank is bought or sold, you likely have a new executor. Do you know who the person is, and do you trust their judgment?

Beneficiaries need to be checked every few years to be sure they are still correct. If your life includes a divorce and remarriage, you could be like one man whose life insurance proceeds and property went to his new spouse. His daughter was disinherited because he failed to update his will.

It doesn’t take long to review an estate plan or beneficiaries. However, the impact of not doing so could be long-lasting and cast a negative light on your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

Can I Protect My Inheritance from Divorce?

Even if divorce is the last thing on your mind, when an inheritance is received, it’s wise to treat it differently from your joint assets, advises a recent article “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection” from Forbes. After all, most people don’t expect to be divorced. However, the numbers have to be considered—many do divorce, even those who least expect it.

Maintaining separate property is the most important step to take. If you deposit a spouse’s paycheck into the account with your inheritance, even if it was by accident, you’ve now commingled the funds.

You might get lucky and have a forensic accountant who can dissect that amount and make the argument it was a mistake, as long as it only happened once, but the Court might not agree.

Long before the Court gets to consider this point, if your ex-spouse’s attorney is aggressively pursuing this one act of commingling as enough to make the property jointly owned, you could lose half of your inheritance in a divorce.

You might also try to mount a defense of the particular account or asset being separate property, by identifying the means of transfer. Was there a deed for real estate gifted to you from a parent or a wire transfer for securities? This information will need to be carefully identified and safeguarded as soon as the inheritance comes to you, in case of any future upheavals.

To spare yourself any of this grief, there are steps to be taken now to avoid commingling. Document the source of wealth involved as a gift or inheritance, maintain the property in a wholly separate account and consider keeping it in a different financial institution than any other accounts to avoid commingling.

Another way to safeguard gifts and inherited property against a 50% divorce rate is to use a revocable trust. Creating a revocable trust to own this separate property allows you to make changes to it any time but maintains its separate nature, by serving as a wholly separate accounting entity. The trust will own the property, while you as grantor (creator of the trust) and trustee (responsible for managing the trust) maintain control.

For a turbo-charged version of this concept, you could go with a self-settled domestic asset protection trust. This is a more complex trust and may not be necessary. Your estate planning attorney will be able to explain the difference between this trust and a revocable trust.

One clear warning: if you have already created a revocable trust to protect your estate and it is not funded, you may feel like it would be most convenient to use this already-existing trust for your inheritance. That would not be wise. You should have a completely different trust created for the inherited property, and this would also be a wise time to remember to fund the existing trust.

Using a revocable trust this way will also require customized language in your Last Will, as you’ll want standard language in the Last Will to reflect the trust being separate from your other marital property.

Reference: Forbes (April 13, 2022) “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection”

Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning is crucial to ensure that wealth accumulated over a lifetime is distributed according to your wishes and will take care of your family when you are no longer able to do so. Many well-intentioned people make common mistakes, which could be avoided with the guidance of an estate planning attorney, says the article “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes” from Physician’s Weekly.

Do you have a will? Many families must endure the red tape and expenses of “intestate” probate because a parent never got around to having a will prepared. The process is relatively straightforward: identify an estate planning attorney and make an appointment. Once the will is completed, make sure several trusted people, likely family members, know where it is and can access it.

Are you properly insured? If the last time you looked at your life insurance coverage was more than ten years ago, it’s probably not kept pace with your life. Although every person’s situation is different, high- income earners, like physicians or other professionals, need to understand that life insurance “replaces” income. This means enough to pay for college, pay off a mortgage and provide for your surviving spouse and children’s lifestyles.

When was the last time you spoke with your estate planning attorney, CPA, or financial advisor? Tax laws are constantly changing, and if your estate plan is not keeping up with those changes, you may be missing out on planning opportunities. Your family also may end up with a big tax bill, if your estate plan hasn’t been revised in the last three or four years. Your team of professionals is only as good as you let them be, so stay in touch with them.

When was the last time you reviewed your estate plan with your attorney? If you thought an estate plan was a set-it-and-forget-it plan, think again. Tax laws aren’t the only thing that changes. If you’ve divorced and remarried, you definitely need a new estate plan—and possibly a post-nuptial agreement. Have your children grown up, married and perhaps had children of their own? Do you have a new and troublesome son-in-law and want to protect your daughter’s inheritance? All of the changes in your life need to be reflected in your estate plan.

Having “the talk” with your family. No one wants to think about their own mortality or their parent’s mortality. However, if you don’t discuss your estate plan and your wishes with your family, they will not know what you want to happen. It doesn’t need to be a summit meeting, but a series of conversations to allow your loved ones to become comfortable with the discussion and make it more likely your wishes will be fulfilled. This includes your estate plan and your wishes for burial or cremation and what kind of memorial service you want.

Reference: Physician’s Weekly (Oct. 8, 2021) “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes”

Is My Will Void If I Get Divorced?

If you neglect to update your estate plan after a divorce, everything you gave to your ex in your original will could very well add up to a nice post-divorce inheritance. Even in the most amicable divorces, it’s probably not what you had intended. Yet, as reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, people do this.

Depending on where you live, there might be a law that automatically revokes gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. In Florida, there is a statute addressing this. In Texas, a law revokes gifts to the former spouse and their relatives. However, unless you know the laws of your state as well as an estate planning attorney, it’s best to let the estate planning attorney protect your estate.

What happens if you die before you are legally divorced?

If your will leaves everything to your surviving spouse and you are currently in the process of separating and divorcing, it’s time for a new will, as soon as possible.

Don’t forget assets passing outside of the will. Assets with beneficiary designations, like life insurance, investment accounts and some retirement plans, go directly to the beneficiary listed on the account. If the beneficiary is your ex, you should also make those changes as soon as possible.

Your estate plan must also update any property gained or lost during the divorce. If any assets are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them.

The executor (the person named in your will to oversee the distribution of assets) probably has to be changed as well. If you had previously named your ex-spouse, it’s time to name a new executor.

Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. If you have children with your ex, you will want to appoint a guardian in case both you and your ex are not alive to raise them. If you die unexpectedly, your spouse will raise them, but you should still name a guardian. If a surviving parent has a serious problem, like addiction, child abuse or incarceration, naming a guardian in your will and documenting the reasons you believe your ex is an unfit parent may be a deciding factor in how a judge awards custody.

A will can be updated by writing a codicil, which is an amendment to a previous or a prior will. However, since there may be many changes to a will in a divorce, it is better to tear up the old one—literally—and start over. A prior will is revoked by physically tearing up and destroying the original and including language in the new will that it will revokes all prior wills. Your attorney will know how to do this properly.

Your ex may have the legal right to challenge your will. This is why an estate planning attorney is so necessary to create a new will. There are provisions in some states that may give your ex more rights than in other states. In a divorce situation, the use of an experienced estate planning attorney can make the difference in your ex receiving a windfall and your new spouse or children receiving their rightful inheritance.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

Do I Have to Give My Husband’s Children from First Marriage Anything When He Dies?”

This is a common question with second (or third marriages) and blended families. Questions frequently arise about Social Security, investments and savings, when the husband is divorced from the children’s mother and is paying child support until each child turns 18.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Are my husband’s kids from another marriage due assets when he dies?” says that these questions demonstrate why estate planning is critical to revisit after a divorce. You can take action to make certain that you’re taken care of, but if you don’t do this at the time of the divorce, it could be too late.

Let’s look at what you should know about beneficiaries and wills. First, beneficiary designations supersede a will. Make sure that all beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries are consistent with your wishes. There are beneficiary designations on retirement accounts, pensions, life insurance policies, annuities and other accounts that take precedence over what may be stated in a will.

While New Jersey does not provide for beneficiary designations on certain assets like a house, vehicles, and real estate, many other states do. For assets without a beneficiary, it’s important to determine the way in which they’re titled.

The titling of assets has an effect on how the assets will be distributed after death. Thus, when married again, spouses should review and update their wills to have an idea of how a spouse’s estate would be disbursed at his or her death.

If a husband is paying child support, divorce decrees will often dictate that he purchase life insurance to cover that obligation upon his death. Therefore, there may be a life insurance policy for the children from a first marriage.

With Social Security, if a spouse remains unmarried after the spouse’s death, he or she can claim a survivor spousal benefit as early as age 60, and if he or she is caring for the spouse’s children from the first marriage who are under 16 years of age, he or she may be entitled to receive a payment earlier. The deceased spouse’s unmarried children can also claim a survivor benefit until age 18, or longer if in high school or disabled.

Reference: nj.com (Aug. 4, 2021) “Are my husband’s kids from another marriage due assets when he dies?”