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”

Some Estate Planning Actions for 2020

Many of us set New Year’s resolutions to improve our quality of life. While it’s often a goal to exercise more or eat more healthily, you can also resolve to improve your financial well-being. It’s a great time to review your estate plan to make sure your legacy is protected.

The Tennessean’s recent article entitled “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year” gives us some common updates for your estate planning.

Schedule a meeting with your estate planning attorney to discuss your situation and to help the attorney create your estate plan.

You should also regularly review and update all your estate planning documents.

Goals and priorities change, so review your estate documents annually to make certain that your plan continues to reflect your present circumstances and intent. You may have changes to family or friendship dynamics or a change in assets that may impact your estate plan. It could be a divorce or remarriage; a family member or a loved one with a disability diagnosis, mental illness, or addiction; a move to a new state; or a change in a family business. If there’s a change in your circumstances, get in touch with your estate planning attorney to update your documents as soon as possible.

Federal and state tax and estate laws change, so ask your attorney to look at your estate planning documents every few years in light of any new legislation.

Review retirement, investment, and trust accounts to make certain that they achieve your long-term financial goals.

A frequent estate planning error is forgetting to update the beneficiary designations on your retirement and investment accounts. Thoroughly review your accounts every year to ensure everything is up to snuff in your estate plan.

Communicate your intent to your heirs, who may include family, friends, and charities. It is important to engage in a frank discussion with your heirs about your legacy and estate plan. Because this can be an emotional conversation, begin with the basics.

Having this type of conversation now, can prevent conflict and hard feelings later.

Reference: Tennessean (Jan. 3, 2020) “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year”

Facts and Figures for Older Workers and Retirees in 2020

A new year always brings change, and this year is no exception. From Market Watch, the article “Numbers that older workers and retirees need to know in 2020” provides key information for this new year.

Retirement Plan Changes. Limits for how much can be saved in 401(k), 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan, and most 457 plans have increased by $500 to $19,500 for 2020. If you are 50 and older, the “catch-up” contribution has also increased by $500, so you can now save an additional $6,500 in those accounts.

For those with SIMPLE retirement plans, which are usually from small businesses with 100 or fewer employees, you can increase savings by $500 to $13,500.

What hasn’t changed—if you have an individual traditional IRA, you can save $6,000, with a catch-up contribution of $1,000.

Social Security Changes. The Social Security Administration reports that the average monthly benefit in 2019 was $1,356.05. This will rise by 1.6% in 2020, which will mean an increase of $21.69 per month. Last year, some 63.8 million Americans took Social Security benefits. It was the first year since the program began in 1935 that spending topped $1 trillion.

Another change to Social Security in 2020 is the longer period of time to reach full retirement age. For people born in 1958, this now increases to 66 years and eight months. If you were born in 1958, you’ll need to be that age to collect your full retirement benefit. The longer period is also going to increase in 2021 and 2022—making the full retirement age 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.

That doesn’t mean people can’t get Social Security benefits earlier—you can elect to take benefits as early as age 62—but you’ll receive less. If you take benefits at age 62, they’ll be 75% of the monthly benefits because you will have added 48 months. At age 65, you’ll receive 93.3% of full benefits because of adding an additional 12 months. If you are taking spousal benefits, there are more numbers to consider.

Medicare Changes. The good news was the increase from Social Security. The bad news? Standard monthly Part B premiums will increase 6.7%, from $135.50 in 2019 to $144.60. That’s the minimum premium. Depending upon your premium, they could go as high as $491.60 per month. Medicare officials blame higher drug prices on the increase.

Health care costs are part of a rising tide of costs facing retirees and older workers. Considering how few Americans have enough money saved for retirement, this is going to become more of a national issue as boomers and millennials age. It should serve as a reminder for all—save as much as you can for retirement, starting now.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 28, 2019) “Numbers that older workers and retirees need to know in 2020”

How Does the SECURE Act Change Your Estate Plan?

The SECURE Act has made big changes to how IRA distributions occur after death. Anyone who owns an IRA, regardless of its size, needs to examine their retirement savings plan and their estate plan to see how these changes will have an impact. The article “SECURE Act New IRA Rules: Change Your Estate Plan” from Forbes explains what the changes are and the steps that need be taken.

Some of the changes include revising wills and trusts which include provisions creating conduit trusts that had been created to hold IRAs and preserve the stretch IRA benefit, while the IRA plan owner was still alive.

Existing conduit trusts may need to be modified before the owner’s death to address how the SECURE Act might undermine the intent of the trust.

Rethinking and possibly completely restructuring the planning for the IRA account may need to occur. This may mean making a charity the beneficiary of the account, and possibly using life insurance or other planning strategies to create a replacement for the value of the charitable donation.

Another alternative may be to pay the IRA balance to a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) on death that will stretch out the distributions to the beneficiary of the CRT over that beneficiary’s lifetime under the CRT rules. Paired with a life insurance trust, this might replace the assets that will ultimately pass to the charity under the CRT rules.

The biggest change in the SECURE Act being examined by estate planning and tax planning attorneys is the loss of the “stretch” IRA for beneficiaries inheriting IRAs after 2019. Most beneficiaries who inherit an IRA after 2019 will be required to completely withdraw all plan assets within ten years of the date of death.

One result of the change of this law will be to generate tax revenues. In the past, the ability to stretch an IRA out over many years, even decades, allowed families to pass wealth across generations with minimal taxes, while the IRAs continued to grow tax tree.

Another interesting change: No withdrawals need be made during that ten-year period, if that is the beneficiary’s wish. However, at the ten-year mark, ALL assets must be withdrawn, and taxes paid.

Under the prior law, the period in which the IRA assets needed to be distributed was based on whether the plan owner died before or after the RMD and the age of the beneficiary.

The deferral of withdrawals and income tax benefits encouraged many IRA owners to bequeath a large IRA balance completely to their heirs. Others, with larger IRAs, used a conduit trust to flow the RMDs to the beneficiary and protect the balance of the plan.

There are exceptions to the 10-year SECURE Act payout rule. Certain “eligible designated beneficiaries” are not required to follow the ten-year rule. They include the surviving spouse, chronically ill heirs and disabled heirs. Minor children are also considered eligible beneficiaries, but when they become legal adults, the ten year distribution rule applies to them. Therefore, by age 28 (ten years after attaining legal majority), they must take all assets from the IRA and pay the taxes as applicable.

The new law and its ramifications are under intense scrutiny by members of the estate planning and elder law bar because of these and other changes. Speak with your estate planning attorney to review your estate plan to ensure that your goals will be achieved in light of these changes.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 25, 2019) “SECURE Act New IRA Rules: Change Your Estate Plan”

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”

What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

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