What If Grandma Didn’t Have a Will and Died from COVID-19?

The latest report shows about 1.87 million reported cases and at least 108,000 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to data released by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Here’s a question that is being asked a lot these days: What happens if someone dies “intestate,” or without having established a will or estate plans?

If you die without a will in California and many other states, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” statutes.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “My loved one died without a will – now what?” explains that there are laws in each state that will dictate what happens, if you die without a will.

In Pennsylvania, the laws list the order of who receives upon your death, if you die without a will: your spouse, your children, and then your parents (if still alive), your siblings, and then on down the line to cousins, aunts and uncles, and the like. Typically, first on every state’s list is the spouse and the children.

You may also have some valuable assets that will not pass via your will and aren’t affected by your state’s intestate succession laws. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Any property that you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • Your life insurance proceeds
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • A payable-on-death bank account
  • Your vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration; or
  • Property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship.

These types of assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

It’s quite unusual for the government to claim a deceased person’s estate. While it might be allowed in some states, it’s considered a last resort. Typically, we all have some relatives.

If you have a loved one who has died without a will, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your next steps.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (June 1, 2020) “My loved one died without a will – now what?”

What You Need to Know about Drafting Your Will

A last will and testament is just one of the legal documents that you should have in place to help your loved ones know what your wishes are, if you can’t say so yourself, advises CNBC’s recent article entitled, “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will.” In this pandemic, the coronavirus may have you thinking more about your mortality.

Despite COVID-19, it’s important to ponder what would happen to your bank accounts, your home, your belongings or even your minor children, if you’re no longer here. You should prepare a will, if you don’t already have one. It is also important to update your will, if it’s been written.

If you don’t have a valid will, your property will pass on to your heirs by law. These individuals may or may not be who you would have provided for in a will. If you pass away with no will —dying intestate — a state court decides who gets your assets and, if you have children, a judge says who will care for them. As a result, if you have an unmarried partner or a favorite charity but have no legal no will, your assets may not go to them.

The courts will typically pass on assets to your closest blood relatives, despite the fact that it wouldn’t have been your first choice.

Your will is just one part of a complete estate plan. Putting a plan in place for your assets helps ensure that at your death, your wishes will be carried out and that family fights and hurt feelings don’t make for destroyed relationships.

There are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, 401(k) plans, pensions, IRAs and life insurance policies.

Therefore, the individual designated as beneficiary on those accounts will receive the money, despite any directions to the contrary in your will. If there’s no beneficiary is listed on those accounts, or the beneficiary has already passed away, the assets automatically go into probate—the process by which all of your debt is paid off and then the remaining assets are distributed to heirs.

If you own a home, be certain that you know the way in which it should be titled. This will help it end up with those you intend, since laws vary from state to state.

Ask an estate planning attorney in your area — to ensure familiarity with state laws—for help with your will and the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: CNBC (June 1, 2020) “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will”

Are You Making the Most of the SECURE and CARES Acts?
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act: Letter Tiles CARES Act On US Flag, 3d illustration

Are You Making the Most of the SECURE and CARES Acts?

The SECURE Act made a number of changes to IRAs, effective January 1, 2020. It was followed by the CARES Act, effective March 27, 2020, which brought even more changes. A recent article from the Milwaukee Business Journal, titled “IRA planning tips for changes associated with the SECURE and CARES acts,” explains what account owners need to know.

Setting Every Community Up for Retirement (SECURE) Act

The age when you have to take your RMD increased from 70½ to 72, if you turned 70½ on or before December 31, 2019. Younger than 70½ before 2020? You still must take your RMDs. But, if you can, consider deferring any distributions from your RMD, until you must. This gives your IRA a chance to rebound, rather than locking in any losses from the current market.

Beneficiary rules changed. The “stretch” feature of the IRA was eliminated. Any non-spousal beneficiary of an IRA owner who dies after Dec. 31, 2019, must take the entire amount of the IRA within 10 years after the date of death. The exceptions are those who fall into the “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” category. That includes the surviving spouse, a child under age 18, a disabled or chronically ill beneficiary, or a beneficiary who is not more than ten years younger than the IRA owner. The Eligible Designated Beneficiary can take distributions over their life expectancy, starting in the year after the death of the IRA holder. If your estate plan intended any IRA to be paid to a trust, the trust may include a “conduit IRA” provision. This may not work under the new rules. Talk with your estate planning attorney.

IRA contributions can be made at any age, as long as there is earned income. If you have earned income and are 70 or 71, consider continuing to contribute to a Roth IRA. These assets grow tax free and qualified withdrawals are also tax free. If you plan on making Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD), you’ll be able to use that contribution (up to $100,000 per year) from the IRA to offset any RMDs for the year and not be treated as a taxable distribution.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act

The deadline for contributions for traditional or Roth IRAs this year is July 15, 2020. The 2019 limit is $6,000 if you are younger than 50 and $7,000 if you are 50 and older.

RMDs have been waived for 2020. This applies to life expectancy payments. It may be possible to “undo” an RMD, if it meets these qualifications:

  • The RMD must have been taken between February 1—May 15 and must be recontributed or rolled over prior to July 15.
  • RMDs taken in January or after May 15 are not eligible.
  • Only one rollover per person is permitted within the last 12 months.
  • Life expectancy payments may not be rolled over.

Individuals impacted by coronavirus may be permitted to take out $100,000 from an IRA with no penalties. They are eligible if they have:

  • Been diagnosed with SARS-Cov-2 or COVID-19
  • A spouse or dependent has been diagnosed
  • Have experienced adverse consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed or laid off or having work hours reduced due to the virus, are unable to work because of a lack of child care, closed or reduced hours of a business owned or operated by the individual or due to other factors, as determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.
  • Note that these distributions are still taxable, but the income taxes can be spread ratably over a three-year period and are not subject to the 10% early distribution penalty.

Keep careful records, as it is not yet known how any of these distributions/redistributions will be accounted for through tax reporting.

Reference: Milwaukee Business Journal (June 1, 2020) “IRA planning tips for changes associated with the SECURE and CARES acts”

How the CARES Act has Changed RMDs for 2020

Before the CARES Act, most retirees had to take withdrawals from their IRAs and other retirement accounts every year after age 72. However, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, has made some big changes that help retirees. Whether you have a 401(k), IRA, 403(b), 457(b) or inherited IRA, the rules have changed for 2020. A recent article in U.S. News & World Report, “How to Skip Your Required Minimum Distribution in 2020,” explains how it works.

For starters, remember that taking money out of any kind of account that has been hit hard by a market downturn, locks in investment losses. This is especially a hard hit for people who are not working and won’t be able to put the money back. Therefore, if you don’t have to take the money, it’s best to leave it in the retirement account until markets recover.

RMDs are based on the year-end value of the previous year, so the RMD for 2020 is based on the value of the account as of December 31, 2019, when values were higher.

Remember that distributions from traditional 401(k)s and IRAs are taxed as ordinary income. A retiree in the 24% bracket who takes $5,000 from their IRA is going to need to pay $1,200 in federal income tax on the distribution. By postponing the withdrawal, you can continue to defer taxes on retirement savings.

Beneficiaries who have inherited IRAs are usually required to take distributions every year, but they too are eligible to defer taking distributions in 2020. Experts recommend that if at all possible, these distributions should be delayed until 2021.

Automatic withdrawals are how many retirees receive their RMDs. That makes it easier for retirees to avoid having to pay a huge 50% penalty on the amount that should have been withdrawn, in addition to the income tax that is due on the distribution. However, if you are planning to skip that withdrawal, make sure to turn off the automated withdrawal for 2020.

If you already took the distribution before the law was passed (in March 2020), you might be able to roll the money over to an IRA or workplace retirement account, but only within 60 days of the distribution. You can also only do that once within a 12-month period. If the deadline for a rollover contribution falls between April 1 and July 14, you have up to July 15 to put the funds into a retirement account.

For those who have contracted COVID-19 or suffered financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, the distribution might qualify as a coronavirus hardship distribution. Talk with your accountant about classifying the distribution as a COVID-19 related distribution. This will give you an option of spreading the taxes over a three-year period or putting the money back over a three-year period.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 4, 2020) “How to Skip Your Required Minimum Distribution in 2020”

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”

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 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”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”

The SECURE Act and Your Retirement

For anyone who has saved a high six- or seven-figure balance in their retirement accounts, the SECURE Act will definitely affect their retirement plans. That includes 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other workplace plans, as well as traditional IRAs and Roth IRA accounts. The article “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement” from the Daily Camera provides a clear picture of the changes.

Stretch IRAs are Curtailed. Anyone who inherited an IRA (traditional or Roth) from a parent before 2020, may take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from those accounts over their own life expectancy. Let’s say a parent died when you were 48—you could stretch those distributions out over the course of 36 years. This option gave heirs the ability to spread income and the taxes that come with the income out over decades—with little distributions having little impact on taxes. If you inherited a Roth IRA, you could benefit from its tax-free growth over your entire lifetime.

All that’s changed now. A non-spousal heir (or one who is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child) now has ten years in which to take their distributions. They have to pay ordinary income taxes on the amount they take out, over a far shorter period of time. Newly inherited Roth IRAs have the same rules, but usually there are no taxes due. If a minor inherits an IRA, once they reach the age of majority, they have ten years in which to take their distributions.

A Small Break for Required IRA Distributions. Until the SECURE Act, retirees had to start taking their RMDs out of IRAs soon after turning 70½. The new age for taking RMDs is now 72 for those who are younger than age 70½ at the end of 2019. This won’t alter the plans of most retirees, since they usually start taking those distributions well before age 72 to cover expenses. Roth IRAs have another benefit: they continue to escape distribution requirements, unless they are inherited.

No Age Cap for Traditional IRA Contributions. Workers may now continue to contribute funds into a traditional IRA at any age. Before the SECURE Act, workers had to stop contributing funds once they turned 70½. Note that you or your spouse are still required to have earned income to put funds in a traditional or Roth IRA.

Other Changes. There are many more changes from the SECURE Act and thought leaders in the estate planning community will be reviewing and analyzing the law for months, or perhaps years, to come. Some of the changes that are widely recognized already include the ability to withdraw $5,000 penalty-free from retirement plan accounts per newly born or adopted child, although in most cases, income tax will need to be paid on the withdrawal.

Section 529 educational savings accounts can be used, up to a lifetime limit of $10,000 per student, to pay off student loans. In most states, this will be considered a non-qualified withdrawal and state income taxes will be due, but at least the money can be used for this purpose.

Lastly, there are new tax credits available to smaller companies that set up new retirement plans, and there are new rules regarding including part-time employees in company sponsored 401(k) plans.

The changes from the SECURE Act, particularly regarding the loss of the IRA Stretch, have created a need for people to review their estate plans, if they included leaving large retirement accounts to their children. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your plan still works.

Reference: Daily Camera (Jan. 11, 2020) “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement”