Can Beneficiary Designations Be Challenged?

The demise of traditional pension plans in the U.S. has been followed by a surge in assets held in participant directed retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s. The responsibility for investment decisions now belongs to the owners, says a recent article “Did you really intend for your ex to get your IRA?” from Chattanooga Times Free Press. The owner is also responsible for beneficiary distributions after death, which doesn’t always go well.

Retirement accounts are outside of the probate estate. Therefore, assets pass to heirs directly. When people first enroll in a retirement plan or open an IRA account, it’s up to the account owner to stipulate who will receive the asset upon their death, known as the beneficiary. This sounds easy enough. The heirs don’t need to worry about probate and if the ownership transfer is done correctly, they can get some tax advantages from the accounts.

When the owner doesn’t pay attention to beneficiary designations, expensive problems occur.

Failing to name a beneficiary. This is the simplest and most commonly made mistake when enrolling in a company’s retirement plan or rolling assets into an IRA. More than a third of all IRA death claims submitted for processing are lacking a named beneficiary, according to a national retirement plan administrator company. Instead of assets passing directly to heirs, the IRA account flows into the estate and becomes subject to probate and estate taxes.

Once included in the estate, the assets are subject to the will. While IRA assets have up to ten years to be withdrawn, the time limit for distributions in an estate can be as short as five years, and the resulting taxes will be much higher. Even worse, the assets in the IRA are now available to creditors of the estate. Until the estate is fully distributed, it must pay tax returns. Even a modest IRA is going to generate more estate taxes than if it were outside of the estate.

If there is no will, the state decides where the assets go.

Failing to name contingent beneficiaries. If the account owner and primary beneficiary are both dead, there should be at least one contingent beneficiary named on the account. Lacking contingent beneficiaries, the account flows to the estate as if no beneficiary had been named.

Neglecting to update beneficiaries after major life events. Divorce and death happen. Account owners often forget to update beneficiary designations, leading to unintended recipients. In some states, but not all, a divorce decree nullifies the prior designation. However, don’t count on it. If the state does nullify the prior designation, the asset will flow into the probate estate.

Naming a minor as a beneficiary. Most state laws do not permit minors to inherit significant assets without the oversight of a conservator. If a conservator is named by the court, the inheritance will be reduced substantially by court fees and the conservator’s salary. This may not be the worst part, if the asset is big. Here’s what’s worse: at age 18 or 21, a young adult will inherit the entire amount, with no restrictions.

After you’ve updated your beneficiaries, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how to protect assets, including retirement accounts and pensions.

Reference: Chattanooga Times Free Press (July 9, 2022) “Did you really intend for your ex to get your IRA?”

Can You Leave an IRA to a Beneficiary?

Conversations about death and legacies aren’t always easy. However, defining what matters most to a person is a good way to start estate planning. IRAs can play an important role in estate planning and legacy creation, as discussed in a recent article entitled “IRA Gifts at Death” from The Street.

Let’s say someone has a large portion of their assets in an investment account, a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. If they want to avoid having their estate go through probate but aren’t in love with the idea of building trusts, they need to be sure their IRAs have beneficiaries. At their passing, the assets will flow directly to the beneficiaries.

Make sure that at least one living beneficiary is on the account. If the primary beneficiary is a spouse, be sure to also have contingent beneficiaries, or designate the beneficiary as “per stirpes,” which means if the named beneficiary passes before the account owner, their share of the assets automatically passes to their lineal descendants.

If there’s no valid beneficiary, the contents of an IRA of any kind could end up in the probate estate, creating a nightmare for heirs.

If an intended beneficiary is a charitable organization, passing an IRA is a powerful giving strategy. The organization must be a 501(c)(3), a tax-exempt organization. When IRAs are passed to the charity, the charity doesn’t pay taxes on the gift.

Individual beneficiaries do have to pay taxes on assets received from traditional IRAs, and when and how much they pay depends upon their relationship to the IRA owner. If the recipient is not the spouse, not a minor and not a disabled adult, the heir will need to take taxable withdrawals from the traditional IRA over the course of ten years from the date of death of the original account owner. Some people take a set amount annually, so they can plan for the taxes due. For others, a low-income year is the time to take withdrawals, since their tax bracket may be lower.

Another IRA distribution strategy is to divide IRAs into separate accounts, allowing for increased control over the amount of assets passing to a specific beneficiary. One IRA could be used for your charitable giving, while another IRA could be used to benefit family members.

Changing beneficiaries on your IRA is relatively easy. Checking on beneficiary names should be done every time you review your estate plan, which should happen every three to five years. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help determine the best strategy for your IRAs. Generally speaking, traditional IRAs are best to gift for charities. Roth IRAs are best to gift to family or loved ones. This is because the money in a Roth IRA is inherited tax free and can remain tax free for a number of years.

Reference: The Street (July 17, 2022) “IRA Gifts at Death”

How Do IRAs and 401(k)s Fit into Estate Planning?

When investing for retirement, two common types of accounts are part of the planning: 401(k)s and IRAs. J.P. Morgan’s recent article entitled “What are IRAs and 401(k)s?” explains that a 401(k) is an employer-sponsored plan that lets you contribute some of your paycheck to save for retirement.

A potential benefit of a 401(k) is that your employer may match your contributions to your account up to a certain point. If this is available to you, then a good goal is to contribute at least enough to receive the maximum matching contribution your employer offers. An IRA is an account you usually open on your own. As far as these accounts are concerned, the key is knowing the various benefits and limitations of each type. Remember that you may be able to have more than one type of account.

IRAs and 401(k)s can come in two main types – traditional and Roth – with significant differences. However, both let you to delay paying taxes on any investment growth or income, while your money is in the account.

Your contributions to traditional or “pretax” 401(k)s are automatically excluded from your taxable income, while contributions to traditional IRAs may be tax-deductible. For an IRA, it means that you may be able to deduct your contributions from your income for tax purposes. This may decrease your taxes. Even if you aren’t eligible for a tax-deduction, you are still allowed to make a contribution to a traditional IRA, as long as you have earned income. When you withdraw money from traditional IRAs or 401(k)s, distributions are generally taxed as ordinary income.

With Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s, you contribute after-tax dollars, and the withdrawals you take are tax-free, provided that they’re a return of contributions or “qualified distributions” as defined by the IRS. For Roth IRAs, your income may limit the amount you can contribute, or whether you can contribute at all.

If a Roth 401(k) is offered by your employer, a big benefit is that your ability to contribute typically isn’t phased out when your income reaches a certain level. 401(k) plans have higher annual IRS contribution limits than traditional and Roth IRAs.

When investing for retirement, you may be able to use both a 401(k) and an IRA with both Roth and traditional account types. Note that there are some exceptions to the rule that withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s before age 59½ typically trigger an additional 10% early withdrawal tax.

Reference: J.P. Morgan (May 12, 2021) “What are IRAs and 401(k)s?”

Is a Roth Conversion a Good Idea when the Market Is Down?

A stock market downturn may be a prime time for a Roth IRA conversion, reports CNBC’s recent article titled “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market.” This is especially true if you were considering a Roth conversion and never got around to it.

A Roth conversion allows higher earners to sidestep earnings limits for Roth IRA contributions, which are capped at $144,000 MAGI (Modified Adjusted Gross Income) for singles and $214,000 for married couples filing jointly in 2022.

Investors make non-deductible contributions to a pre-tax IRA, before converting funds to a Roth IRA. The tradeoff is the upfront tax bill created by contributions and earnings. The bigger the pre-tax balance, the more taxes you’ll pay on the conversion. However, the current market may make this a perfect time for a Roth conversion.

Let’s say you own a traditional IRA worth $100,000, and its value drops to $65,000. Ouch! However, you can save money by converting $65,000 to a Roth instead of $100,000. You’ll pay taxes on the $65,000, not $100,000.

According to Fidelity Investments, the first quarter of 2022 saw Roth conversions increase by 18%, compared to the first quarter of 2021. That was before the second quarter’s market volatility, which has been more dramatic.

The decision to do a Roth conversion can’t take place in a vacuum. Consider how many years of tax savings it will take to break even on the upfront tax bill. Weigh combined balances across any other IRA accounts, because of the “pro-rata rule,” which factors in your total pre-tax and after-tax funds to determine your tax costs.

Attractive features of the Roth IRA are the freedom to take—or not take—distributions when you want, and there are no taxes on the withdrawals. However, there is an exception, and it pertains to conversions—the five year rule.

If you do a conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before making any withdrawals of the converted balance, regardless of your age. It’s an expensive mistake, with a 10% penalty. The clock begins running on January 1 of the year of the conversion. If you are close to retirement and will need funds within that timeframe, you’ll need other assets to live on.

However, there’s more. If the conversion increases your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), it may create other issues. Medicare Part B calculates monthly premiums using Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) from two years prior, which means a higher income in 2022 will lead to higher Medicare bills in 2024.

Before doing a Roth conversion, evaluate your entire financial and retirement situation.

Reference: CNBC (May 10, 2022) “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”

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”

What Needs to Be Reviewed in Estate Plan?

When it comes to drafting a will and other estate planning documents, note that you probably should revisit them many times before they actually are needed, advises, CNBC’s recent article entitled “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why.”

You should give these end-of-life legal papers a review at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more often. Things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child should necessitate a review. Coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or moving to another state where estate laws differ from the one where your will was drawn up, mean that you should review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney.

About 46% of U.S. adults have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. If you are among those who have a will or full-blown estate plan, here are some things to review and why.

Even though your will is all about you, there are other people you need to rely on to carry out your wishes. This makes it important to review who you have named to be executor. He or she must liquidate accounts, ensure your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, pay any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed), and sell your home. You should also be sure that the guardian you have named to care for your children is still the person you would want in that position.

As part of estate planning, you may create other documents related to end-of-life issues, such as powers of attorney. The person who is given this responsibility for decisions related to your health care is frequently different from whom you would name to handle your financial affairs. You should look at both of those choices.

Even if you have experienced no major life events, those you previously chose to handle certain duties may no longer be your best option.

Remember that some assets pass outside of the will, including retirement accounts like a 401(k) plan, IRAs and life insurance policies. This means the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money no matter what your will states. Bank accounts can have beneficiaries listed on a pay-on-death form, which your bank can supply.

If a beneficiary is not listed on those non-will items or the named person has already passed away (and there is no contingent beneficiary listed), the assets automatically go into probate.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 27, 2022) “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why”

How Do I Avoid Probate?

Probate can tie up the estate for months and be an added expense. Some states have a streamlined process for less valuable estates, but probate still has delays, extra expense and work for the estate administrator. A probated estate is also a public record anyone can review.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust” says that avoiding probate often is a big estate planning goal. You can structure the estate so that all or most of it passes to your loved ones without this process.

A living trust is the most well-known way to avoid probate. However, retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, avoid probate. The beneficiary designation on file with the account administrator or trustee determines who inherits them. Likewise, life insurance benefits and annuities are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the contract.

Joint accounts and joint title are ways to avoid probate. Married couples can own real estate or financial accounts through joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The surviving spouse automatically takes full title after the other spouse passes away. Non-spouses also can establish joint title, like when a senior creates a joint account with an adult child at a financial institution. The child will automatically inherit the account when the parent passes away without probate. If the parent cannot manage his or her affairs at some point, the child can manage the finances without the need for a power of attorney.

Note that all joint owners have equal rights to the property. A joint owner can take withdrawals without the consent of the other. Once joint title is established you cannot sell, give or dispose of the property without the consent of the other joint owner.

A transfer on death provision (TOD) is another vehicle to avoid probate. You might come across the traditional term Totten trust, which is another name for a TOD or POD account (but there is no trust involved). After the original owner passes away, the TOD account is transferred to the beneficiary or changed to his or her name, once the financial institution gets the death certificate.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and specify the percentage of the account each will inherit. However, beneficiaries under a TOD have no rights in or access to the account while the owner is alive.

Reference: Forbes (March 28, 2022) “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust”