Should I Have a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs are powerful retirement savings tools. Account owners are allowed to take tax-free distributions in retirement and can avoid paying taxes on investment growth. There’s little downside to a Roth IRA, according to a recent article “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA” from U.S. News & World Report.

Taxes are paid in advance on a Roth IRA. Therefore, if you are in a low tax bracket now and may be in a higher bracket later, or if tax rates increase, you’ve already paid those taxes. Another plus: all your Roth IRA funds are available to you in retirement, unlike a traditional IRA when you have to pay income tax on every withdrawal.

Roth IRA distributions taken after age 59 ½ from accounts at least five years old are tax free. Every withdrawal taken from a traditional IRA is treated like income and, like income, is subject to taxes.

When comparing the two, compare your current tax rate to what you expect your tax rate to be once you’ve retired. You can also save in both types of accounts in the same year, if you’re not sure about future tax rates.

Roth IRA accounts also let you keep investment gains, because you don’t pay income tax on investment gains or earned interest.

Roth IRAs have greater flexibility. Traditional IRA account owners are required to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from an IRA every year after age 72. If you forget to take a distribution, there’s a 50% tax penalty. You also have to pay taxes on the withdrawal. Roth IRAs have no withdrawal requirements during the lifetime of the original owner. Take what you need, when you need, if you need.

Roth IRAs are also more flexible before retirement. If you’re under age 59 ½ and take an early withdrawal, it’ll cost you a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus income tax. Roth early withdrawals also trigger a 10% penalty and income tax, but only on the portion of the withdrawal from investment earnings.

If your goal is to leave IRA money for heirs, Roth IRAs also have advantages. A traditional IRA account requires beneficiaries to pay taxes on any money left to them in a traditional 401(k) or IRA. However, those who inherit a Roth IRA can take tax-free withdrawals. Heirs have to take withdrawals. However, the distributions are less likely to create expensive tax situations.

Retirement savers can contribute up to $6,000 in a Roth IRA in 2022. Age 50 and up? You can make an additional $1,000 catch up contribution for a total Roth IRA contribution of $7,000.

If this sounds attractive but you’ve been using a traditional IRA, a Roth conversion is your next step. However, you will have to pay the income taxes on the amount converted. Try to make the conversion in a year when you’re in a lower tax bracket. You could also convert a small amount every year to maintain control over taxes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 11, 2022) “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA”

Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

What are the Pitfalls of a Charitable Remainder Trust?

If you have discretionary funds and are philanthropically minded, a charitable trust can serve you well, giving money to an organization you want to support, while passing assets to beneficiaries without burdening them with estate or gift taxes, but is it right for you? Some of the answers can be found in a recent article from U.S. News & World Report titled “Should you Set Up A Charitable Trust?”

Some basics to consider about charitable trusts are:

  • There are a number of different types.
  • Consider all disadvantages and alternatives.
  • Make sure it works with your estate plan and your long-term financial plan.

The most common types of charitable trusts are the Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) and the Charitable Lead Trust. For the CRT, funding begins with cash or other assets, like stocks. The trust pays an income stream to family members or beneficiaries while they are living or for a set period of time. When they die, or when the time period ends, the remaining assets in the trust go directly to the charity.

For a Charitable Lead Trust (CLT), payments first go to the charity and then the remainder transfers to the beneficiary at the end of the trust term. One of the benefits of the CLT is to reduce the beneficiary’s tax liability, while giving the estate a charitable deduction.

An estate planning attorney will help refine these choices to the ones best suited for each individual. The CLT and CRT let you support a cause you believe in, while alleviating the tax burden to loved ones.

Charitable trusts are also useful when wishing to sell an asset. If an asset with a large capital gain is to be sold, like real estate, individual stock or a business, the asset may be moved into the charitable trust. The trust becomes the owner of the asset, and then the asset can be sold, avoiding the capital gain. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that this is done correctly.

What about the disadvantages? There are fees to establish and maintain a trust. Charitable trusts are usually irrevocable, so if your financial situation changes, you may not be able to gain access to the funds. There may also be some pushback from heirs or family members who would rather see your money being given directly to them and not a charity.

Make sure that the benefits you and your heirs seek to gain from establishing a charitable trust, whichever type you use, outweigh the management costs. Do not create a trust with money you may need in the future. Charitable trusts are feasible only if you have already paid off all debts and are confident you will not need any of the assets in the future.

The exact amount to put in the trust should be carefully considered, with an eye to future expenses and your overall financial status. Your estate planning attorney may wish to meet with you and senior officers from the charity to ensure a clear understanding of your wishes and make sure that this is the best solution for all.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 23, 2022) “Should you Set Up A Charitable Trust?”

What Can I Do Instead of a Stretch IRA?

The idea of leaving a large inheritance to loved ones is a dream for some parents. However, without careful planning, heirs may end up with a large tax bill. When Congress passed the SECURE Act in December 2019, one of the changes was the end of the stretch IRA, as reported by Kiplinger in a recent article titled “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block.”

Before the SECURE Act, people who inherited traditional IRAs needed to only take a minimum distribution annually, based on their own life expectancy. The money could grow tax-deferred for the rest of their lives. The tax impact was mild, because withdrawals could be spread out over many years, giving the new owner control over their taxable income. The rules were the same for an inherited Roth IRA. Distributions were based on the heirs’ life expectancy. Roth IRA heirs had the added benefit of not having to pay taxes on withdrawals, since Roth IRAs are funded with post-tax dollars.

After the SECURE Act, inherited traditional and Roth IRAs need to be emptied within ten years. Heirs can wait until the 10th year and empty the account all at once—and end up with a whopping tax bill—or take it out incrementally. However, it has to be emptied within ten years.

There are some exceptions: spouses, disabled or chronically ill individuals, or those who are not more than ten years younger than the original owner can stretch out the distribution of the IRA funds. If an underage minor inherits a traditional IRA, they can stretch it until they reach legal age. At that point, they have to withdraw all the funds in ten years—from age 18 to 28. This may not be the best time for a young person to have access to a large inheritance.

These changes have left many IRA owners looking for alternative ways to leave inheritances and find a work-around for their IRAs to protect their heirs from losing their inheritance to taxes or getting their inheritance at a young age.

For many, the solution is converting their traditional IRA to a Roth, where the IRA owner pays the taxes for their heirs. The strategy is generous and may be more tax efficient if the conversion is done during a time in retirement when the IRA owner’s income is lower, and they may be in a lower tax bracket. The average person receiving an IRA inheritance is around 50, typically peak earning years and the worst time to inherit a taxable asset.

Another way to avoid the stretch IRA is life insurance. Distributions from the IRA can be used to pay premiums on a life insurance policy, with beneficiaries receiving death benefits. The proceeds from the policy are tax-free, although the proceeds are considered part of the policy owner’s estate. With the current federal exemption at $12.06 million for individuals, the state estate tax is the only thing most people will need to worry about.

A Charitable Remainder Trust can also be used to mimic a stretch IRA. A CRT is an irrevocable split-interest trust, providing income to the grantor and designated beneficiaries for up to twenty years or the lifetime of the beneficiaries. Any remaining assets are donated to charity, which must receive at least 10% of the trust’s initial value. If the CRT is named as the IRA beneficiary, the IRA funds are distributed to the CRT upon the owner’s death and the estate gets a charitable estate tax deduction (and not an income tax deduction) for the portion expected to go to the charity. Assets grow within the charitable trust, which pays out a set percentage to beneficiaries each year. The distributions are taxable income for the beneficiaries. There are two types of CRTs: Charitable Remainder Unitrust and a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust. An estate planning attorney will know which one is best suited for your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 3, 2022) “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block”

Do You Have to Pay Taxes on Inherited IRAs?

If you’ve inherited an IRA, you won’t have to pay a penalty on early withdrawals if you take money out before age 59½. However, you may have to make those withdrawals earlier than you’d wanted. Doing so may trigger additional income taxes, and even push you into a higher tax bracket. The IRA has always been a complicated retirement account. While changes from the SECURE Act have simplified some things, it’s made others more stringent.

A recent article titled “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?” from Aol.com explains how the traditional IRA allows tax-deductible contributions to be made to the account during your working life. If the IRA includes investments, they grow tax—free. Taxes aren’t due on contributions or earnings, until you make withdrawals during retirement.

A Roth IRA is different. You fund the Roth IRA with after-tax dollars, earnings grow tax free and there are no taxes on withdrawals.

With a traditional inherited IRA, distributions are taxable at the beneficiary’s ordinary income tax rate. If the withdrawals are large, the taxes will be large also—and could push you into a higher income tax bracket.

If your spouse passes and you inherit the IRA, you may take ownership of it. It is treated as if it were your own. Howwever, if you inherited a traditional IRA from a parent, you have just ten years to empty the entire account and taxes must be paid on withdrawals.

There are exceptions. If the beneficiary is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child, or ten years younger than the original owner, you may treat the IRA as if it is your own and wait to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) at age 72.

Inheriting a Roth IRA is different. Funds are generally considered tax free, as long as they are considered “qualified distributions.” This means they have been in the account for at least five years, including the time the original owner was alive. If they don’t meet these requirements, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. Your estate planning attorney will know whether the Roth IRA meets these requirements.

If at all possible, always avoid immediately taking a single lump sum from an IRA. Wait until the RMDs are required. If you inherited an IRA from a non-spouse, use the ten years to stretch out the distributions.

If you need to empty the account in ten years, you don’t have to withdraw equal amounts. If your income varies, take a larger withdrawal when your income is lower and take a bigger withdrawal when your income is higher. This can result in a lower overall tax liability.

If you’ve inherited a Roth IRA and funds were deposited less than five years ago, wait to take those funds out for at least five years. When the five years have elapsed, withdrawals will be treated as tax-free distributions.

One of the best ways for heirs to avoid paying taxes on an IRA is for the original owner, while still living, to convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, paying taxes on contributions and earnings. This reduces the taxes paid if the owner is in a lower tax bracket than beneficiaries, and lets the beneficiaries withdraw funds as they want with no income tax burden.

Reference: Aol.com (Feb. 25, 2022) “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?”

Do You Have to Go through Probate When Someone Dies?

Probate is a required court proceeding under certain circumstances, although the rules surrounding probate are slightly different from state to state. In Hawaii, if a person dies owning real estate in their own name or if the total value of personal property is worth more than $100,000, their estate must be probated. In other states that threshold may be lower. Most states require probate regardless of the estate’s value, unless the estate assets are arranged to avoid probate.

This is explained in a recent article “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate” from The Hawaii Herald.

Probate also requires written notice to be sent to the persons named in the will and to persons who would have inherited, if there had been no will. This is a big reason why many people use trusts and other alternative estate planning strategies. In addition, a will becomes part of the public record when it goes through probate, so creditors and others can see your will and learn all about your estate. So can estranged family members, ex-spouses, people looking for sales leads and thieves!

If there is no will, assets are distributed according to the state’s law of intestacy. These laws specify who receives inheritances, based on kinship. If a will is deemed invalid by the court, then the will is discarded, as are your wishes, and the laws of intestacy take over. This is another reason to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a properly prepared will and estate plan.

Probate can be a time-consuming process, delaying the distribution of assets. If the estate is complex, the process could take years.

Certain assets do not go through probate. These includes assets held by two or more people as “joint tenants” or “tenants by the entirety.” Real estate, checking accounts, saving accounts, and investment accounts can be owned this way. However, there can be pitfalls. If one person has debts, creditors may come after the assets, regardless of who the original owner may be.

Assets with a named beneficiary do not go through probate. This includes life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, savings bonds, “Transfer on Death (TOD accounts) and “Pay on Death” (POD accounts). It is very important to review all beneficiary designations every few years. Someone you may have named as a co-owner twenty years ago may no longer be in your life, or you may want to change the beneficiary. If you do not make any changes, whoever you originally named on the account will receive the assets.

Trusts are used to avoid probate, while directing what will happen to assets when you die. A Revocable Living Trust allows you to maintain control over the assets while living, but because you still have control over the assets in the trust, they are considered a countable asset by Medicaid.

To protect your assets from going through probate and to prepare for possible long-term care needs, an estate planning attorney can create a plan, possibly including a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT).

Reference: The Hawaii Herald (Jan. 21, 2022) “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate”

What Assets Should Be Considered when Planning Estate?

The numbers of Americans who have a formal estate plan is still less than 50%. This number hasn’t changed much over the decade., However, the assets owned have become a lot more complicated, according to a recent article from CNBC titled “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked.”

Airline miles and credit card points, social media accounts and cryptocurrencies are different types of assets to be passed on to heirs. For those who have an estate plan, the focus is probably on traditional assets, like their home, 401(k)s, IRAs and bank accounts. However, we own so much more today.

Start with an inventory. For digital assets, include photos, videos, hardware, software, devices, and websites, to name a few. Make sure someone you trust has the unlock code for your phone, laptop and desktop. Use a secure password manager or a notebook, whatever you are more comfortable with, and share the information with a trusted person.

You’ll also need to include what you want to happen to the digital asset. Some platforms will let owners name a legacy contact to handle the account when they die and what the owner wants to happen to the data, photos, videos, etc. Some platforms have not yet addressed this issue at all.

If an online business generates income, what do you want to happen to the business? If you want the business to continue, who will own the business, who will run the business and receive the income? All of this has to be made clear and documented properly.

Failing to create a digital asset plan puts those assets at risk. For cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens (NFTs), this has become a routine problem. Unlike traditional financial accounts, there are no paper statements, and your executor can’t simply contact the institution with a death certificate and a Power of Attorney and move funds.

Another often overlooked part of an estate are pets. Assets cannot be left directly to pets. However, most states allow pet trusts, where owners can fund a trust and designate a trustee and a caretaker. Make sure to fund the account once it has been created, so your beloved companion will be cared for as you want. An informal agreement is not enforceable, and your pet may end up in a shelter or abandoned.

Sentimental possessions also need to be planned for. Your great-grandmother’s soup tureen may be available for $20 on eBay, but it’s not the same as the one she actually used and taught her daughter and her granddaughter how to use. The same goes for more valuable items, like jewelry or artwork. Identifying who gets what while you are living, can help prevent family quarrels when you are gone. In some families, there will be quarrels unless the items are in the will. Another option: distribute these items while you are living.

If you can, it’s also a good idea and a gift to your loved ones to write down what you want in the way of a funeral or memorial service. Do they want to be buried, or cremated? Do they want a religious service in a house of worship, or a simple graveside service?

If you are among those who have a will, you probably need it to be reviewed. If you don’t have a will or a comprehensive estate plan, you should meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to address distribution of assets, planning for incapacity and preparing for the often overlooked aspects of your life. You’ll have the comfort of expressing your wishes and your loved ones will be grateful.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 18, 2022) “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked”

What Happens to IRAs and 401(k) when Spouse Dies?

For married couples who own large IRA and 401(k) accounts, the question is often whether the couple should consider paying all or a portion of their accounts to a bypass trust to benefit the surviving spouse. This takes the designated portion of the IRA or 401(k) proceeds out of the surviving spouse’s taxable estate and helps with asset distribution, according to the article “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s” from Financial Advisor.

In 2013, the portability election became law. Portability allows the surviving spouse to use the unused federal estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse, thereby capturing not one but two estate tax exemptions. Why would a couple need a bypass trust?

The portability election does not remove appreciation in the value of the assets moved from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate. A bypass trust removes all appreciation. An estate planning attorney will review your entire situation to determine the optimal path.

There are also situations when the portability election does not apply. One is if the surviving spouse remarries and then the new spouse predeceases them. With a bypass trust, remarriage does not matter (although estate planning documents do need to be updated).

The portability election also does not apply for federal generation-skipping transfer tax purposes. In other words, the amount that could have passed to an estate and generation-skipping transfer tax-exempt bypass trust, including appreciated value, could now be subject to federal transfer tax in the heir’s estate.

If you use the portability election, those assets are subject to potential lawsuits against the surviving spouse and, if remarriage occurs, to any potential claims of a new spouse. A bypass trust provides better protection from lawsuits and claims.

Using the portability election may result in the first spouse to die losing the option to control where those assets go upon the death of the surviving spouse. A bypass trust provides more control for asset distribution.

The calculations for each situation must be considered, but the bypass trust can help reduce the taxable estate for children, after the surviving spouse has passed. It may also make sense for a portion of the IRA or 401(k) plan proceeds to go to the bypass trust and another portion to the surviving spouse outright. The use of the beneficiary designation may allow for a full or partial disclaimer by the surviving spouse. However, the bypass trust could provide more flexibility than keeping assets in the original accounts.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Jan. 7, 2022) “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s”

What Is Considered an Asset in an Estate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if a particular asset will be included in an estate, from life insurance and real estate to employment contracts and Health Savings Accounts. The answer is explored in the aptly-titled article, “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?” from Kiplinger.

When you die, your estate is defined in different ways for different planning purposes. You have a gross estate for federal estate taxes. However, there’s also the probate estate. You may also be thinking of whether an asset is part of your estate to be passed onto heirs. It depends on which part of your estate you’re focusing on.

Let’s start with life insurance. You’ve purchased a policy for $500,000, with your son as the designated beneficiary. If you own the policy, the entire $500,000 death benefit will be included in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your estate is big enough ($12.06 million in 2022), the entire death benefit above the exemption is subject to a 40% federal estate tax.

However, if you want to know if the policy will be included in your probate estate, the answer is no. Proceeds from life insurance policies are not subject to probate, since the death benefit passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.

Next, is the policy an estate asset available for heirs, creditors, taxing authorities, etc.? The answer is a little less clear. Since your son was named the designated beneficiary, your estate can’t use the proceeds to fulfill bequests made to others through your will. Even if you disowned your son since naming him on the policy and changed your will to pass your estate to other children, the life insurance policy is a contract. Therefore, the money is going to your son, unless you change this while you are still living.

However, there’s a little wrinkle here. Can the proceeds of the life insurance policy be diverted to pay creditors, taxes, or other estate obligations? Here the answer is, it depends. An example is if your son receives the money from the insurance company but your will directs that his share of the probate estate be reduced to reflect his share of costs associated with probate. If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to cover the cost of probate, he may need to tap the proceeds to pay his share.

Another aspect of figuring out what’s included in your estate depends upon where you live. In community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—assets are treated differently for estate tax purposes than in states with what’s known as “common law” for married couples. Also, in most states, real estate owned on a fee simple basis is simply transferred on death through the probate estate, while in other states, an alternative exists where a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is used.

This legal jargon may be confusing, but it’s important to know, because if property is in your probate estate, expenses may vary from 2% to 6%, versus assets outside of probate, which have no expenses.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence to know what assets are included in your federal estate, what are part of your probate estate and what taxes will be levied on your estate from the state or federal governments and don’t forget, some states have inheritance taxes your heirs will need to pay.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 13, 2021) “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?”

When Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets don’t have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they won’t perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”