How Do You Plan for the Death of a Spouse?

The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. Make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”