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”

How Will the New SECURE Act Impact My IRAs and 401(k)?

The SECURE Act is the most substantial change to our retirement savings system in over a decade, says Covering Katy (TX) News’ recent article entitled “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans.” The new law, called the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, includes several important changes. Let’s take a look at them.

There is a higher age for RMDs. The current law says that you must start taking withdrawals or required minimum distributions from your traditional IRA and 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan when you turn 70½. The new law delays this to age 72, so you can hold on to your retirement savings a while longer.

No age limit for contributions to traditional IRAs. Before the new law, you could only contribute to your traditional IRA until you were 70½. However, now you can now fund your traditional IRA for as long as you have taxable earned income.

Stretch IRA Limitations. Previously, beneficiaries could stretch taxable RMDs from a retirement account over his or her lifetime. Under the SECURE Act, spouse beneficiaries can still take advantage of this “stretch” distribution, but most non-spouse beneficiaries will have to take all the RMDs by the end of the 10th year after the account owner dies. Therefore, non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA or other retirement plan could have tax issues, because of the need to take larger distributions in a shorter amount of time.

Early withdrawal penalty eliminated for IRAs and 401(k)s when new child arrives. Usually, you must pay a 10% penalty when you withdraw funds from your IRA or 401(k) if done prior to 59½. However, the new legislation allows you take out up to $5,000 from your retirement plan without paying the early withdrawal penalty, provided you withdraw the money within a year of a child being born or an adoption becoming final.

There are provisions of the SECURE Act that primarily impact business owners, which include the following:

New multi-employer retirement plans. The new law allows unrelated companies to coordinate to offer employees a 401(k) plan with less administrative work, lower costs and fewer fiduciary responsibilities than individual employers now have when offering their own retirement plans.

Tax credit for automatic enrollment. There’s now a tax credit of $500 for some small businesses that create automatic enrollment in their retirement plans. A tax credit for establishing a retirement plan has also been increased from $500 to $5,000.

Annuities in 401(k) plans. The Act makes it easier for employers to add annuities as an investment option within 401(k) plans. Before the SECURE Act, businesses avoided annuities in these plans because of the liability related to the annuity provider. However, the new rules should help decrease any concerns.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to examine the potential impact on your investment strategies and determine any possible tax and estate planning implications of the SECURE Act.

Reference: Covering Katy (TX) News “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans”

How Do I Incorporate My Business into My Estate Planning?

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about having it continue after you retire or pass away.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen next or what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.

Business continuity is the biggest concern for entrepreneurs. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge rather than leaving the company’s future in the hands of others who are emotionally invested in you or in your work. One option is to create a living trust and will to put in place parameters that a trustee can carry out. With these names and decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.

Let them be upset with you, rather than with each other. This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names successor trustees to be in charge of operating the business, if you become incapacitated or die.

A power of attorney document will nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning will also preserve your business assets, as advanced tax planning strategies might be implemented to establish specific trusts to minimize the estate tax.

Estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

How Should I Prepare for My Child’s Future?

It’s been a common path for millennials and their predecessors to go to a four-year college and get a job. If they were short on funds, they’d take out some loans. However, there have been some signals that this norm is changing.

With worries about a student debt crisis and with the experience of recent graduates, new college-age students are increasingly turning to alternatives to the established route to create their own debt-free future.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “How to Stay Flexible in Saving for Your Child’s Future” says that student debt is leading to obstacles, when it comes to achieving major milestones of financial freedom. Of the young millennials surveyed, nearly half (47%) said they delayed purchasing a home because of  their debt, 40% delayed saving for retirement and 31% waited to move out of their parents’ home. A total of 28% of parents said they delayed saving for their own retirement, to pay for their children’s education.

Saving for a child’s future now looks different than when these 18-year-olds were born.  It certainly will be the case, when they leave the nest. As a result, it’s critical for parents to try to give them help, by learning how to adapt to the changing times.

With the gig economy and digitally enabled side jobs, parents have more flexibility to maintain their financial goals, while preserving their personal lives.

When considering flexibility, especially when saving for a child’s education, it’s actually one of the big benefits of a 529 plan. Although you’re responsible if you make a withdrawal that isn’t for a qualified education expense, the penalties aren’t too steep. Federal income tax is imposed on the plan’s growth, plus a 10% penalty on the growth. Therefore, depending on the amount withdrawn, the penalty may be very little.

Nonetheless, the tax penalties may worry parents enough that even when their goal is to save for their child’s education, they want to spread their savings into multiple accounts. This has some clear advantages, when the child decides not to go to college after high school. The good news is that there are plenty of options to account for both possibilities.

  • Other investment accounts: You could also create a brokerage account with money earmarked for a child. This gives parents complete flexibility in how the money is used. The money can be used for expenses other than education, but the downside is not having the tax benefits of the 529 plan (tax deferral and potential tax-free growth).
  • Trusts: a trust allows parents to keep complete control over the funds and lets parents provide instructions to the trustee, on how the trust can be used.
  • Custodial accounts: These accounts are managed by a guardian (or custodian), until the child is an adult. These accounts are pretty easy to set up but don’t have the restrictions that can be placed on trust funds.

The digital world has changed everything, including how we plan for our children and their future. Be flexible and make your plans accordingly.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 27, 2019) “How to Stay Flexible in Saving for Your Child’s Future”

How Can Life Insurance Help My Estate Plan?

In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for people to buy second-to-die life insurance policies to help pay federal estate taxes. However, in 2019, with estate tax exclusions up to $11,400,000 (and rising with the cost-of-living adjustments), fewer people would owe much for estate taxes.

However, IRAs, 401(k)s, and other accounts are still 100% taxable to the individuals, spouses and their children. The stretch IRA options still exist, but they may go away, as Congress may limit stretch IRAs to a maximum of 10 years.

Forbes’ recent article, “3 Ways Life Insurance Can Help Your Estate Plan,” explains that as the IRA is giving income from the RMDs, it may also be added, after tax, to the life insurance policy. If this occurs, it’s even possible that the death benefits could grow in the future, giving a cost-of-living benefit to children. This is one way how life insurance can be used creatively to help your estate plan.

For married couples, one strategy is to consider how life insurance on one individual could be used to pay “conversion tax” at death, using tax-free benefits. When the retiree dies, the spouse beneficiary can then convert all the IRA (taxable money) to a Roth IRA, which is tax-exempt with new, lower income tax rates (37% in 2018-2025 versus 39.6% in 2017 or earlier).

This tax-free death benefit money can be used to pay the taxes on the conversion, letting the surviving beneficiary have a lifetime of tax-exempt income without RMD issues from the Roth IRA. The Social Security income could also be tax-exempt, because Roth withdrawals don’t count as “income” in the calculation to see how much of your Social Security is taxed. However, you’d have to be within the threshold for any other combined income.

Life insurance for both individuals (if married) may also be a good idea. If the spouse of the IRA owner dies, the money from the life insurance can be used once again. If this is done in the tax year of the death for married individuals, the tax conversion could be done under “married filing status” before the next year, when the individual must use single tax filing status.

Another benefit of the IRA-to-Roth conversion is the passing of Roth IRAs to heirs, which could create a lasting legacy, if planned well. New life insurance policies that add long-term care features with chronic care and critical care benefits can also provide an extra degree of benefits, if one of the insureds has health issues prior to death.

Be sure to watch the tax rates and possible changes. With today’s lower tax rates, this could be very beneficial. Remember that there are usually individual state taxes as well. However, considering all the tax-optimized benefits to spouses and beneficiaries, the long-term tax benefits outweigh the lifetime tax liabilities, especially when you also consider SSI tax benefits for the surviving spouse and no RMD issues.

Life insurance in retirement can help protect, build and transfer wealth in one of the easiest ways possible. If you’re not certain about where to start with your life insurance needs, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (November 15, 2019) “3 Ways Life Insurance Can Help Your Estate Plan”

Can You Explain the Concept of Step-Up Basis?

If you inherit assets—especially real property—you need to understand the step-up in basis rules. These rules can save you a lot of amount of money on capital gains and depreciation recapture taxes.

Motley Fool’s recent article on this subject asks “What is a Step-Up in Basis?” The article explains that step-up in basis has significant implications for inherited property. When an asset is inherited because the original owner has passed away, in many cases, it’s worth more than when it was first purchased. To avoid a huge capital gains tax bill when the inherited property is sold, the cost basis of the asset is modified to its value at the time of its owner’s death. This is called a step-up in basis. Note that this only applies to property transferred after death. If a property was gifted or transferred before the original owner dies, the original cost basis would transfer to the recipient.

This is a gigantic tax benefit for estate planning, regardless of whether you go ahead and sell the inherited asset immediately or hold on to it for a time. While a step-up in basis can let heirs avoid capital gains taxes, it doesn’t allow heirs to avoid estate taxes that apply to big inheritances.

The estate tax this year is imposed on property in excess of $11.4 million per individual and $22.8 million per married couple. Therefore, if you and your spouse leave a $25 million estate to your heirs, $2.2 million of this will still be taxable, even though your heirs’ cost basis in assets they inherited will be stepped up for capital gains tax purposes.

There are many strategies that a qualified estate planning attorney can advise you on to avoid estate taxes, but step-up in basis doesn’t exclude the value of inherited property from a taxable estate all by itself.

There are two significant ramifications of stepped-up cost basis regarding inherited real estate assets. First, like with other assets, you don’t have to pay capital gains on any appreciation that occurred before you inherited the property. Selling an investment property after years of holding it, can mean a massive capital gains tax bill. Therefore, a stepped-up cost basis can be a very valuable benefit. A step-up in basis can also give you a larger depreciation tax benefit. The cost basis of residential real estate can be depreciated (deducted) over 27½ years: a higher number divided by 27½ years is a greater annual depreciation deduction than a smaller number would produce.

Estate transfers are pretty complicated, so work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Motley Fool (November 21, 2019) “What is a Step-Up in Basis?”

What Can I Do with an Inherited 401(k)?

Inheriting a 401(k) at the death of the account owner isn’t always as simple as inheriting a home or a piece of jewelry. The IRS has rules that 401(k) beneficiaries must follow that say when and how much tax they’ll pay to inherit someone else’s retirement plan. If you’re currently the beneficiary of a 401(k) or you’ve recently inherited one, here are some important things you need to know.

Smart Assets’s recent article entitled “A Guide to Inheriting a 401(k)” explains that if a spouse of the account owner waives their right to inherit a 401(k) or the account owner is unmarried, they can leave their account to whomever they want at their death.

An inherited 401(k) is taxed is based on three key factors: (i) your relationship to the account owner; (ii) your age when you inherit the 401(k); and (iii) the account owner’s age when they die.

There’s also several ways to take a distribution from a 401(k) when you’ve inherited it: you can do a lump sum, periodic payments, or distributions stretched out over your life expectancy.

If you inherit a 401(k) from your spouse, what you decide to do with it and the subsequent tax impacts may be based primarily upon your age. If you’re under age 59½, you have a choice of three things:

  1. Keep the money in the plan and take distributions. You can take withdrawals from the account without the 10% early withdrawal penalty. You’d still pay regular income tax on any distributions you take. If your spouse was age 70½ or older when they passed away, you would have to take required minimum distributions from this account. There’d be no early withdrawal penalty. However, you’d pay income tax on the withdrawals. If the spouse was younger than 70½ when they died, you could wait to take RMDs until you turn 70½.
  2. Move the money to an inherited IRA. This is an IRA that’s designed to hold rollover funds from an inherited retirement plan, including 401(k)s. You can make withdrawals without any early withdrawal penalty. With this type of account, you’d need to take RMDs. However, the amount would be based on your own life expectancy, not the amount your spouse would have been required to take.
  3. Move the money to your own IRA. If you already have an IRA, you could roll an inherited 401(k) into it with no tax penalty. However, if you’re under age 59½ when you execute the rollover, the withdrawal will be treated like a regular distribution, so you’ll pay income tax on the full amount, along with the 10% early withdrawal penalty. If you’re over age 59½, you won’t pay an early withdrawal penalty with any of these options. If your spouse was taking RMDs from their 401(k) when they died, you’d have the option to continue taking them or delay taking them until you turn 70½. If you’re already 70½ or older, you’d need to take RMDs, regardless of whether you leave the money in the 401(k), transfer it to an inherited IRA or roll it over to your existing IRA.

If you inherit a 401(k) from someone other than your spouse, your options are linked to how old the account owner was when you inherited the plan and the plan’s distribution rules. If the account owner hadn’t yet turned 70½, the plan may let you spread distributions out over your lifetime or spread them out over a five-year period. If you take the five-year option, you may have to fully withdraw all of the account assets by the end of the fifth year following the account owner’s death. In either case, you’d pay income tax on the withdrawals.

You could also roll the account over to an inherited IRA, if the plan permits this. Here, the RMDs would be based on your life expectancy, assuming the account owner hadn’t started taking them yet. If they had started with their RMDs, you’re required to continue taking those distributions. However, you could base the distribution amount on your life expectancy, rather than that of the account owner.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to help you determine the route that makes the most sense to reduce taxes, while planning ahead for the future.

Reference: Smart Asset (October 22, 2019) “A Guide to Inheriting a 401(k)”

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