How Do You Survive Financially after Death of Spouse?

The financial issues that arise following the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It’s not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.

Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse’s income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.

Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.

If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse’s taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.

The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there’s a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse’s gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.

It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses’ passing.

There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased’s estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse’s unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don’t file in a timely manner, you’ll lose this exemption, so don’t neglect this task.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”

How 401(K) Beneficiaries Work with Your Estate Plan

For anyone who thinks that their will or trust can be used to distribute assets in a 401(k) after they pass, think again. The beneficiaries listed in a 401(k), insurance policy or any account with the option to name a beneficiary supersede whatever directions are placed in a will or a trust. If you’re not careful, warns the article “What You Should Know About 401(k) Beneficiaries” from The Motley Fool, your assets could end up in the wrong hands.

Here are some basics about beneficiaries that you need to know.

After you die, your estate goes through probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. However, assets like 401(k) plans that have named beneficiaries are typically passed to heirs outside of probate. The asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

When you opened a 401(k), you were almost certainly directed to name a beneficiary in the paperwork used to establish the account. That person is usually a spouse, child or a domestic partner.  The beneficiary is sometimes a trust (a legal entity that manages assets for the benefit of beneficiaries).

If no beneficiary was named and you were married when you established the account, most 401(k) plans designate your spouse as the default beneficiary. The surviving spouse is allowed to treat the account as if it is their own when they inherit it—they can delay withdrawing money until they are 72, when the IRS requires withdrawals to begin. The surviving spouse uses their own life expectancy, when calculating future withdrawals.

If someone other than a spouse was listed as the beneficiary, the assets are to be transferred into an inherited 401(k) and the amounts received are based on the percentage listed on the beneficiary designation form. Most plans give the beneficiaries the option to roll over an inherited 401(k) into an inherited IRA. This gives the account owners greater control over what they can do with their inheritance.

Once you have named a beneficiary on these accounts, it’s wise to list contingent beneficiaries, who will inherit the accounts, if the primary beneficiary is deceased. For most families, the children are the contingent beneficiaries and the spouse is the primary beneficiary.

The list of mistakes made when naming beneficiaries is a long one, but here are a few:

  • Setting up a trust to keep IRA or 401(k) assets from going to a minor or to protect services for a special needs child, then failing to list the trust as a beneficiary.
  • Not naming anyone as a beneficiary on an IRA or 401(k) plan.
  • Neglecting to check beneficiary names every few years or after big life changes.

If you set up a trust for your beneficiaries, you must list the trust as the beneficiary. If you don’t specifically list the trust, the account will pass to any person listed as a beneficiary, or the accounts will go through probate.

If you have had more than a few jobs and have more than a few 401(k) accounts, it can be challenging to track the accounts and the beneficiaries. Consolidating the accounts into one 401(k) account makes it easier for you and for your heirs.

If you do list a trust as a beneficiary, talk with your estate planning attorney about how to do this correctly. The trust’s language must take into consideration how taxes will be handled. This could have big costs for your heirs.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 24, 2020) “What You Should Know About 401(k) Beneficiaries”