Coronavirus News Should Make You Think about Estate Planning

The global Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has many of us thinking about what could happen, if the disease spreads more fully across the general population. We all need to plan for what could possibly happen. To protect yourself and your family, it’s smart to be certain that you have the following these documents prepared and updated, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things.”

  1. A will or revocable trust. Be sure that your assets will pass to those who you want to receive them after your death. This is critical during crisis times. You don’t want to make things any harder than they need to be. Create an estate plan to avoid potentially expensive and time-consuming processes like probate, which will have greater importance, if your family is confined to their homes in a quarantine situation.

A simple will can cover what happens to your assets at death. This typically works well, especially for modest estates. State laws differ on how complicated a probate process would be with a basic will. Some people opt to use a fully funded revocable trust that doesn’t require probate. For either a will or a revocable trust, make sure that it’s up to date and reflects your current preferences and family circumstances.

  1. Updated beneficiary designations. If you have an IRA, 401(k) account, or life insurance policy, those you name as beneficiaries of that account will receive the proceeds, despite a totally different from arrangement in your will or trust. Many of us also don’t designate any beneficiary for these accounts, which means added complications in the event of death.
  2. Healthcare power of attorney. When we’re in the midst of this Coronavirus, it’s even more urgent that you’ll be able to get the healthcare you need, if you’re hit with this illness. A durable power of attorney for healthcare will give the individuals you choose the ability to make whatever medical decisions you specify on your behalf. An estate planning attorney can help you draft documents that match your specific wishes.
  3. Financial power of attorney. You can designate an agent to help take care of your finances, if you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to handle your financial affairs. A general durable power of attorney for financial matters is another document that lets you delegate responsibility and authority to make financial transactions to the person you name.

Estate planning may not be the highlight of your week, but the Coronavirus outbreak has more people thinking about what they need to do. Make sure your family will have what they need even if something happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 8, 2020) “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things”

Why Do I Need to Have Up-to-Date Beneficiaries on My Accounts?

When a family member passes away, it can be a very unsettling time. There are many tasks that need to be accomplished in a short amount of time. One way that you can lessen that burden for your heirs by clearly telling them your preferences for your assets. One element of this is making certain that you have accurate beneficiaries to your retirement and investment accounts.

Nerd Wallet’s recent article entitled “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now” says taking the time to do this will help save your heirs and family time, money and energy when they need it most. Let’s take a look at some of the compelling reasons to do this.

  1. Your beneficiaries get to keep more money (and get it faster). When your beneficiaries are assigned to your investment and retirement accounts, the assets will pass directly to them. However, if they are not, those accounts may have to go through the probate process to settle an estate after someone dies. A typical probate case can drag on for a year or longer, and during that time, your beneficiaries are unable to access their inheritance. “Court” also means expenses, time, effort and added stress—all of which are things they’d rather avoid.
  2. Less stress for your heirs. When you make certain that you designate the beneficiaries for your accounts, it can relieve your family of a heavy burden, so they’re not trying to figure out your finances while they’re grieving.
  3. Your beneficiaries will supersede your will. If you have beneficiaries named, those choices will typically override what is written in your will. Therefore, you can see that keeping your beneficiaries up-to-date is extremely important.
  4. It’s easy and painless. If you have a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or an IRA, your account will typically have its own beneficiary form within the account itself. With this, you are able to choose your beneficiaries when you open your account or review them later. With a regular investment account, you’ll need to ask for a transfer on death (TOD) form to make beneficiary elections.
  5. You recently experienced a change in your circumstances. If you experience a big life change, like getting married or having a child, it’s critical to update or add beneficiary elections immediately. It’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.

Remember that in community property states, spouses may be entitled to half of the assets in an IRA — even if another beneficiary is listed — unless you have written consent. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney about state laws to be sure your money goes to whom you want.

Reference: Nerd Wallet (January 22, 2020) “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now”

How Bad Can a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan Be? Very!

Here’s a real world example of why what seems like a good idea backfires, as reported in The National Law Review’s article “Unintended Consequences of a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan.”

Mrs. Ann Aldrich wrote her own will, using a preprinted legal form. She listed her property, including account numbers for her financial accounts. She left each item of property to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. If Mary Jane Eaton did not survive, then Mr. James Aldrich, Ann’s brother, was the designated beneficiary.

A few things that you don’t find on forms: wills and trusts need to contain a residuary, and other clauses so that assets are properly distributed. Ms. Aldrich, not being an experienced estate planning attorney, did not include such clauses. This one omission became a costly problem for her heir that led to litigation.

Mary Jane Eaton predeceased Ms. Aldrich. As Mary Jane Eaton had named Ms. Aldrich as her beneficiary, Ms. Aldrich then created a new account to receive her inheritance from Ms. Eaton. She also, as was appropriate, took title to Ms. Eaton’s real estate.

However, Ms. Aldrich never updated her will to include the new account and the new real estate property.

After Ms. Aldrich’s death, James Aldrich became enmeshed in litigation with two of Ms. Aldrich’s nieces over the assets that were not included in Ms. Aldrich’s will. The case went to court.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Aldrich’s will only addressed the property specifically listed to be distributed to Mr. James Aldrich. Those assets passed to Ms. Aldrich’s nieces.

Ms. Aldrich did not name those nieces anywhere in her will, and likely had no intention for them to receive any property. However, the intent could not be inferred by the court, which could only follow the will.

This is a real example of two basic problems that can result from do-it-yourself estate planning: unintended heirs and costly litigation.

More complex problems can arise when there are blended family or other family structure issues, incomplete tax planning or wills that are not prepared properly and that are deemed invalid by the court.

Even ‘simple’ estate plans that are not prepared by an estate planning lawyer can lead to unintended consequences. Not only was the cost of litigation far more than the cost of having an estate plan prepared, but the relationship between Ms. Aldrich’s brother and her nieces was likely damaged beyond repair.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 10, 2020) “Unintended Consequences of a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan”

The Latest on Kirk Douglas’ Estate

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War” explains that Douglas worked steadily in a four-decade period but slowed down after the early 1980s. Since that’s almost 40 years ago, one might think that what would be considered a modest legacy by modern standards would be whittled down considerably. However, Kirk Douglas died extremely rich, despite a long life and decades of semi-retirement.

Douglas was one of the first to ask to participate in the profit of his movies and was one of the first stars to form his own production company. For example, Spartacus was big enough to gross $30 million on its $12 million budget. When he started his company, he refused to pay himself for that film. Instead he took 60% of the profit and wound up about $3 million ahead. His company owned the films and sold off distribution rights.

His widow Anne is now the only shareholder of record. She’s rolled the money into a family trust that over the decades created numerous tiers of holding companies and joint ventures. One of those joint ventures ended up owning half the land under Marina Del Rey’s high-rise Shores apartment complex, a property that cost a reported $165 million to build. The land is nearly priceless.

Now that it’s only Anne, the successor trustees will one day need to decide what to do with the land. She called the shots on the accounting side. Kirk remarked that he didn’t even know where the money was. However, when he found out, he got eager to give it all away. Tens of millions have already been committed to hospitals, schools and theaters.

Estate tax won’t be an issue because Kirk and Anne conducted thorough estate planning so that any wealth that goes to the family will transfer via a trust. That way, they’ll get a portion of the income without triggering estate tax concerns.

Thanks to all of Kirk’s films—many of which he owned like Spartacus—he compiled tens of millions of dollars in cash and stock during his lifetime. In almost 70 years of marital bliss, his planning added up to a lot of marital property. It was good life with good things yet to come.

It’s a testament to the power of long-term thinking. Kirk Douglas’ fortune has remained intact for generations and will undoubtedly keep helping the world for many years to come.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (Feb. 4, 2020) “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War”

What Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people. The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion is an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The estate tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

The High Cost of Medicare Mistakes

A 68-year-old woman knew that she had to sign up at age 65 for Medicare Part A for hospital care and Part B for outpatient care, since she did not have employer provided health insurance from an employer with 20 or more employees. She knew also that if she did not have health insurance from an employer and didn’t sign up immediately, she’d face a penalty with higher Part B and Part D premiums for the rest of her life when eventually she did sign up, reports Forbes in the article “Beware Medicare’s Part B Premium Penalty And Surcharge Traps.”

Here’s where it got sticky: she thought that Medicare provided an eight-month special enrollment period after one job ended to apply penalty free. She is employed on a sporadic basis, so she thought she had a window of time. Between the ages of 65 and 68, she had several jobs with large employers, and was never out of work for more than eight months.

She was out of work for 25 months total between ages 65 and 68, when she was not enrolled in Medicare. She thought that since she was never out of work for more than eight months, she didn’t have to sign up until she officially stopped working and would then enroll penalty free in traditional Medicare Parts A, B, and D.

She had read information on the Medicare website and her interpretation of the information was wrong. It was a costly mistake.

In determining whether you need to permanently pay a Medicare Part B penalty, Medicare counts up all the months between age 65 and the month you first enroll in Part B, even if you have a job with a large employer with no gaps in employment for more than eight months.

She got hit with a 20% lifetime Medicare Part B premium penalty. For every 12 months that you’re not covered by Medicare B after reaching 65 and before you enroll, the penalty is an additional 10%. And making things worse, she was hit with a Medicare Part B penalty based on the cumulative (not consecutive, which is an important difference) 25 months that she went without credible prescription drug coverage.

This is the sort of problem that does not self-resolve or get better over time. In this case, another mistake in timing is going to hurt her. She sold some assets and realized a capital gain in 2018, which increased her Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI). In 2020, she’s going to have to pay the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA). If your MAGI, two years before the current year, is less than $87,000, you are exempt from IRMAA in the current year. Her cost: $1,735.20 more this year. Had she instead realized those capital gains over the course of several years, her 2018 MAGI might not have crossed the $87,000 threshold. Most people are not aware of the IRMAA and take capital gains in larger amounts than they need.

This is a harsh lesson to learn, at a time in life when there’s not a lot of flexibility or time to catch up. Talking with an estate planning lawyer about Medicare and about tax planning, as well as having an estate plan created, would have spared this woman, and countless others, from the harsh consequences of her mistakes.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 29, 2020) “Beware Medicare’s Part B Premium Penalty And Surcharge Traps”

How Can I Move On after a Loved One Dies?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One” says that there really are no rules about how you should feel or how long it will take you to regain your energy and ability to move forward. Grief is difficult to avoid, but there are many financial and legal tasks that will require your immediate attention. Here are some of the actions that can ease this process and help you to get back on track financially.

Here’s a breakdown of what you will need to address in the near future:

  • Gather important information, such as the deceased’s Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate and military discharge papers.
  • Obtain at least 10 copies of the death certificates, because each claim will need to have an original copy of the death certificate attached.
  • Inform the Social Security office about the death and file a Social Security benefits claim form to qualify for the death benefit.
  • Find the title to any automobiles
  • Print out up-to-date statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.
  • The executor should file the deceased’s will (if there is one) with the Probate Court.
  • The executor should obtain letters testamentary from the court.
  • File a death claim with the deceased’s life insurance company, if applicable.
  • Contact the Employer’s Benefits department about survivorship pension, health insurance, unpaid salary and life insurance benefits, if applicable.
  • Prepare a preliminary monthly budget and income summary.

You should seek the advice of an experienced estate planning or probate attorney. You should also retitle any joint accounts into your name and transfer any inherited IRA into your name and take out a required minimum distribution (RMD), if applicable. New beneficiaries should also be named and deeds for any real estate jointly held with rights of survivorship updated.

You need to file a federal estate tax return within nine months.

Don’t face these challenges alone. Contact an experienced estate planning lawyer for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 8, 2020) “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One”

What Should I Know about Beneficiary Designations?

A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy or some type of investment account as the individual(s) who will receive those assets, in the event of the account holder’s death. The beneficiary designation doesn’t replace a signed will but takes precedence over any instructions about these accounts in a will. If the decedent doesn’t have a will, the beneficiary may see a long delay in the probate court.

If you’ve done your estate planning, most likely you’ve spent a fair amount of time on the creation of your will. You’ve discussed the terms with an established estate planning attorney and reviewed the document before signing it.

FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Customizing Your Beneficiary Designations” points out, however, that with your IRA, you probably spent far less time planning for its ultimate disposition.

The bank, brokerage firm, or mutual fund company that acts as custodian undoubtedly has a standard beneficiary designation form. It is likely that you took only a moment or two to write in the name of your spouse or the names of your children.

A beneficiary designation on account, like an IRA, gives instructions on how your assets will be distributed upon your death.

If you have only a tiny sum in your IRA, a cursory treatment might make sense. Therefore, you could consider preparing the customized beneficiary designation form from the bank or company.

For more customization, you can have a form prepared by an estate planning attorney familiar with retirement plans.

You can address various possibilities with this form, such as the scenario where your beneficiary predeceases you, or she becomes incompetent. Another circumstance to address, is if you and your beneficiary die in the same accident.

These situations aren’t fun to think about but they’re the issues usually covered in a will. Therefore, they should be addressed, if a sizeable IRA is at stake.

After this form has been drafted to your liking, deliver at least two copies to your custodian. Request that one be signed and dated by an official at the firm and returned to you. The other copy can be kept by the custodian.

Reference: FEDweek (Dec. 26, 2019) “Customizing Your Beneficiary Designations”

Fixing an Estate Plan Mistake

When an issue arises, you need to seek the assistance of a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney, who knows to fix the problems or find the strategy moving forward.

For example, an irrevocable trust can’t be revoked. However, in some circumstances it can be modified. The trust may have been drafted to allow its trustees and beneficiaries the authority to make certain changes in specific circumstances, like a change in the tax law.

Those kinds of changes usually require the signatures from all trustees and beneficiaries, explains The Wilmington Business Journal’s recent article entitled “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess.”

Another change to an irrevocable trust may be contemplated, if the trust’s purpose may have become outdated or its administration is too expensive. An estate planning attorney can petition a judge to modify the trust in these circumstances when the trust’s purposes can’t be achieved without the requested change. Remember that trusts are complex, and you really need the advice of an experienced trust attorney.

Another option is to create the trust to allow for a “trust protector.” This is a third party who’s appointed by the trustees, the beneficiaries, or a judge. The trust protector can decide if the proposed change to the trust is warranted. However, this is only available if the original trust was written to specify the trust protector.

A term can also be added to the trust to provide “power of appointment” to trustees or beneficiaries. This makes it easier to change the trust for the benefit of current or future beneficiaries.

There’s also decanting, in which the assets of an existing trust are “poured” into a new trust with different terms. This can include extending the trust’s life, changing trustees, fixing errors or ambiguities in the original language, and changing the legal jurisdiction. State trust laws vary, and some allow much more flexibility in how trusts are structured and administered.

The most drastic option is to end the trust. The assets would be distributed to the beneficiaries, and the trust would be dissolved. Approval must be obtained from all trustees and all beneficiaries. A frequent reason for “premature termination” is that a trust’s assets have diminished in value to the extent that administering it isn’t feasible or economical.

Again, be sure your estate plan is in solid shape from the start. Anticipating problems with the help of your lawyer, instead of trying to solve issues later is the best plan.

Reference: Wilmington Business Journal (Jan. 3, 2020) “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess”

What’s the Best Thing to Do with an Inherited Investment?

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Handle Inherited Investments” provides us with some of the top inheritance considerations:

Consider Cash. Besides cash, the most common inheritances are securities, real estate and art. These assets usually go up in value, but another big benefit is their favorable tax treatment. The heirs won’t pay capital gains on unsold investments that went up in value during the lifetime of the deceased (estate taxes would apply). Those taxes would only apply to the gains that happened after they took possession.  There’s a good reason to hang onto these investments. These types of property carry some risks, so you may consider putting some of your inherited investments into cash, cash equivalents, or life insurance with a guaranteed payout to avoid exposure to undue risk.

Beware of Concentration Risk. It’s not unusual for an inheritance to be heavily concentrated within a specific asset. While the deceased’s instincts may have been accurate at the time of their initial investment, there’s no guarantee that their strategy will continue to pay dividends long term.  Diversifying into other areas—even with high-volatility vehicles that are unrelated to the original inherited investment—can lessen that concentration risk. An even safer strategy would be to build a portfolio of diverse holdings that includes multiple asset classes across different sectors.

Learn about Trusts. Sometimes when people inherit assets through a trust, they don’t think it’s critical to require anything but a superficial understanding of how these work. This is because the trustee assumes nearly all the fiduciary duties. However, this could change when a beneficiary attains a certain age, which often triggers a dissolution of the trust or stipulates a transfer of trustee responsibilities to them. You should understand what will happen at that point. You may want to create your own trust to distribute part or all of your unmanaged inherited assets to heirs in a framework that suits you best, and without having to go through the probate process. In any event, you should learn how trusts work and the difference between revocable and irrevocable trusts. Ask your estate planning attorney about your specific situation and whether there is a trust that may be best for your circumstances.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 7, 2020) “How to Handle Inherited Investments”

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