What Should I Know about Beneficiaries?

When you open most financial accounts, like a bank account, life insurance, a brokerage account, or a retirement account (e.g., a 401(k) or IRA), the institution will ask you to name a beneficiary. You also establish beneficiaries, when you draft a will or other legal contracts that require you to specify someone to benefit in your stead. With some trusts, the beneficiary may even be you and your spouse, while you’re alive.

Bankrate’s article entitled “What is a beneficiary?” explains that the beneficiary is usually a person, but it could be any number of individuals, as well as other entities like a trustee of your trust, your estate, or a charity or other such organization.

When you’re opening an account, many people forget to name a beneficiary, because it’s not needed as part of the process to create many financial accounts. However, naming a beneficiary allows you to direct your assets as you want; avoid conflict; and reduce legal issues. Failing to name a beneficiary may create big headaches in the future, possibly for those who have to deal with sorting out your affairs.

There are two types of beneficiaries. A primary beneficiary is first in line to receive any distributions from your assets. You can disburse your assets to as many primary beneficiaries as you want. You can also apportion your assets as you like, with a certain percentage of your account to each primary beneficiary. A contingent beneficiary receives a benefit, if one or more of the primary beneficiaries is unable to collect, such as if they’ve died.

After you’ve named your beneficiaries, it’s important to review the designations regularly. Major life events (death, divorce, birth) may modify who you want to be your beneficiary. You should also make certain that any language in your will doesn’t conflict with beneficiary designations. Beneficiary designations generally take precedence over your will. Check with an elder law or experienced estate planning attorney.

Finally, it is important to understand that a minor (e.g., typically under age 18 in most states) usually can’t hold property, so you’ll need to set up a structure that ensures the child receives the assets. One way to do this, is to have a guardian that holds assets in custody for the minor. You may also be able to use a trust with the same result but with an added benefit: in a trust you can instruct that the assets be given to beneficiaries, only when they reach a certain age or other event or purpose.

Reference: Bankrate (July 1, 2020) “What is a beneficiary?”

Can I Protect My Estate with Life Insurance?

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses, such as estate tax and keep other assets intact, says FedWeek’s article entitled “Protect Your Estate With Life Insurance.”

The article provides the story of “Bill” as an example. He dies and leaves a large estate to his daughter Julia. There are significant estate taxes due. However, most of Bill’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Julia may not want to hurry into a forced sale of the real estate. If she taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll be forced to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

A wise move for Bill would be to purchase life insurance on his own life. The policy’s proceeds could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Julia will then be able to keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from the inherited IRA. If Julia owns the insurance policy or it’s owned by a trust, the proceeds probably will not be included in Bill’s estate and won’t help with the estate tax obligation.

However, there are a few common life insurance errors that can damage an estate plan:

Designating the estate as beneficiary. If you make this move, you put the policy proceeds in your estate, where the money will be exposed to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have additional paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, be certain to name the appropriate people or charities.

Designating a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” or contingency beneficiaries. This will eliminate some confusion in the event the primary beneficiary should predecease you.

Placing your life insurance in the “file and forget” file. Be sure to review your policies at least once every three years. If the beneficiary is an ex-spouse or someone who has passed away, you need to make the appropriate change and get a confirmation, in writing, from your life insurance company.

Inadequate insurance. You may not have enough life insurance. If you have a young child, it may require hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all of his or her expenses, such as college tuition and expenses, in the event of your untimely death. Skimping on insurance may hurt your surviving family. You also don’t need to be so thrifty, because today’s term insurance costs are very low.

Reference: FedWeek (June 11, 2020) “Protect Your Estate With Life Insurance”

When will Social Security Stimulus Checks Arrive?

There have been a few hiccups in the distribution of stimulus checks, and some people may have to wait months before their check is delivered. Most of us are able to monitor the status of our check by using the IRS’s Get My Payment tool. However, for many Social Security beneficiaries, they’ll see a message that says “Payment Status Not Available.” That’s because most Social Security recipients don’t file tax returns.

Motley Fool’s ’s recent article entitled “Social Security Beneficiaries: Here’s When You’ll Get Your Stimulus Check” advises that if you are unable to track your payment, here’s when you can expect to receive your stimulus money if you’re collecting Social Security benefits.

Those first to see their stimulus checks will be the ones who have their direct deposit information on file with the IRS. The agency will deposit the stimulus check straight to their bank account.

However, if you receive your benefits in the mail via paper check, or if you’re not certain if your bank account information is on file, you can provide your information through the Get My Payment tool. This will help you get your check faster.

While using direct deposit will ensure you get your check the quickest, you can get your check in the mail instead if your bank account info isn’t on file. The IRS started sending stimulus checks the week of April 20, and it expects to mail out about five million checks per week. At that rate, it could take 20 weeks for all checks to be delivered.

Whether you receive your check in days or months will depend on your income. The IRS is sending checks in a particular order, and those with the lowest-income individuals will get their checks first. If your income is nearer to the $99,000 per year income limit (or $198,000 per year for married couples), you might not receive your check until late August or early September.

If your income is somewhere in the middle, it’s estimated that you’ll get your check sometime this summer.

If you’re receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you’ll see your stimulus payment in early May, according to the IRS. Whether you receive that money via direct deposit or paper check will be based on whether the IRS has your bank account information on file.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a real financial hardship for millions of Americans, and waiting for your stimulus check can be stressful, especially if money is tight and you need the extra money. However, it’s a little easier when you can at least calculate when your cash is expected to be delivered.

Reference: Motley Fool (April 27, 2020) “Social Security Beneficiaries: Here’s When You’ll Get Your Stimulus Check”

Does the Stimulus Bill have an Impact on RMDs?

The Stimulus Bill gives some relief to those “who would otherwise be required to withdraw funds from these retirement accounts during the economic slowdown due to COVID-19.”

Waiving 2020 RMDs will help many people avoid a tax bill on IRA value that has disappeared. Without this relief, 2020 RMDs would be based on the account value at Dec. 31, 2019, when the Dow was around 28,000, says Think Advisor’s article entitled “Stimulus Plan Includes Temporary RMD Waiver.”

The Stimulus Bill’s RMD waiver also applies to IRA and Roth IRA beneficiaries who have 2020 RMDs.  However, the Treasury Department says that about 80% of people subject to RMDs take more than the minimum because they need the money. As a result, the RMD waiver won’t be much help to these individuals.

RMDs are also waived for IRA owners who turned 70½ in 2019 and must take their 2019 RMD by April 1. Those who ignored traditional advice about spreading their first two RMDs over two years (2019 and 2020), can now have their first two RMDs waived.

If they have already taken any part of their first RMD in 2019, that can’t be undone or waived.

As far as special rules for use of retirement funds, like previous disaster-related relief, the Stimulus Bill waives the 10% early withdrawal penalty for distributions up to $100,000 from qualified retirement accounts for coronavirus-related purposes made on or after January 1, 2020. The bill also states that “income attributable to such distributions would be subject to tax over three years, and the taxpayer may recontribute the funds to an eligible retirement plan within three years without regard to that year’s cap on contributions. Further, the provision provides flexibility for loans from certain retirement plans for coronavirus-related relief.”

The distribution is still taxable, but the tax impact can be lessened because it can be spread over three years. The funds can also be repaid within the three years.

The law also gives an exclusion for certain employer payments of student loans. This lets employers provide a student loan repayment benefit to employees on a tax-free basis. Under the provision, “an employer may contribute up to $5,250 annually toward an employee’s student loans, and such payment would be excluded from the employee’s income. The $5,250 cap applies to both the new student loan repayment benefit, as well as other educational assistance (e.g., tuition, fees, books) provided by the employer under current law.”

The provision applies to any student loan payments made by an employer for an employee after date of enactment and before Jan. 1, 2021.

Reference: Think Advisor (March 31, 2020) “Stimulus Plan Includes Temporary RMD Waiver”

Should I Use Life Insurance in My Estate Planning?

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses like estate taxes. It will help keep other assets intact.

For example, Hector passes away and leaves his rather large estate to his daughter, Isabella. Because of the size of the estate, there’s a hefty estate tax due. However, unfortunately, most of Hector’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Isabella may not be keen on a quick forced sale of the real estate to free up some cash for the taxes. If Isabella taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll have to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate” that in this scenario, Hector could plan ahead. Anticipating such a result, he could buy insurance on his own life. The proceeds of that policy could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Isabella can then keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) that are warranted by law from the inherited IRA. If the insurance policy is owned by Isabella or by a trust, the proceeds most likely won’t be included in Hector’s estate, and the money won’t increase the estate tax liability she has.

However, some common life insurance mistakes can sabotage your estate plan:

  • Designating your estate as the beneficiary. This will place the policy proceeds in your estate, which exposes the funds to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people, trust or charities.
  • Naming just a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” beneficiaries to decrease confusion, in the event the main beneficiary should die before you.
  • Placing your policy in the “file and forget” drawer. Review your policies at least once every three years, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation, in writing, from the insurance company.
  • Inadequate insurance. In the event of your untimely death, if you have a young child, in all likelihood it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college tuition. Failing to purchase adequate insurance coverage may hurt your family. This also shouldn’t be a hardship with term insurance costs so low.

Reference: FedWeek (Feb. 6, 2020) “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate”

How Do I Do the Most with My Inheritance?

Studies have shown that when people unexpectedly come into money, they’ll treat it differently than the money they’ve earned.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “5 Important Steps To Maximize An Inheritance” says that even the most financially astute consumers can get inundated with their newfound wealth. People can feel pressure to use the cash to purchase new vehicles, bigger homes, or even take their families on dream vacations. Others may feel that they can safely quit their jobs and live the life of luxury.

Many people regret jumping into major purchases after getting an inheritance. Others will give away much of the money or even make bad investments that are completely wrong for their goals and financial needs. If you don’t get expert financial guidance to develop a plan for your inheritance, or take the time to do it yourself, you may find yourself worse off than you were before you became wealthier via an inheritance.

Here are some financial planning tips for anyone who is receiving an inheritance or another windfall.

Do Something Fun. Set aside an amount to splurge on something fun. However, figure out how much you want to spend and on what. Without that, you may find that one small splurge turns into many, and next thing, a big chunk of your inheritance could be spent.

Taxes on Your Inheritance. It’s uncommon for someone to get an inheritance big enough to trigger the federal estate tax. However, estate taxes will vary at the state level, so check with your estate planning attorney. Depending on the type of assets you inherit and how they’re held, you may owe taxes on some of your newfound riches.

Quitting Your Job. This sounds tempting, but before you take this big step, make sure you’ve thought it through and that you have a plan to replace your income. It’s not hard to underestimate how much money you’ll actually need to provide a nice standard of living for the rest of your life.

Take Care of Yourself. When you come into money, you’ll hear from relatives you never knew you had. They’ll all be asking for money. Make sure your own finances are in order, before you commit to take care of others beyond your immediate family.

Consult Experts. An inheritance can be stressful and overwhelming, so talk to an experienced estate planning attorney. He can help with tax filing deadlines and provide strategies to protect that wealth.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 26, 2020) “5 Important Steps To Maximize An Inheritance”

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”

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?”

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”

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”