Should I Keep Beneficiary Designations Up to Date?

If you don’t know who your beneficiaries are, then it’s time for a beneficiary designation check. Even if you think you remember, every now and then, they should be checked, according to an article “Are your beneficiary designations up to date?” from Community Voice.

Your choices may change with time. When did you open your very first IRA? Do you even remember when you purchased your life insurance policies? If it was back in the 1990s, chances are good the people in your life have changed, as well as your priorities.

When we filled out those forms on paper, back in the day, we were all confident they’d be the same forever, but time and life have a way of changing things. In five, ten or twenty years, big changes may have happened in your life. Your beneficiary designations and your estate plan need to reflect where you are now, not where you were then.

Smart people review these items every year. If you’re still working, your employer may have changed custodians for your retirement plan and your insurance policy. When a new custodian takes over, sometimes beneficiary designations can get lost in the change.

If you don’t have a beneficiary designation on these accounts, or any account where you have the option to name a beneficiary, you may have a bigger problem. The tax-focused part of your estate plan could be undone if you thought your 401(k) would go to your spouse but your spouse predeceased you.

If you don’t want your spouse to inherit your 401(k) or other retirement plan, your spouse will need to waive the inheritance in writing, if you want those assets to go to children or others. By law, spouses are protected when it comes to certain kinds of retirement accounts.

What most people don’t realize is that whatever choice you make on the beneficiary designation overrides anything in their wills. If you named someone to be your beneficiary, whether or not they are in your life, they will still receive the inheritance. Your family can try to fight it out in court, but they most likely will lose.

Another pitfall: naming the financial whiz in the family, then forgetting to review documents. Problems can arise if the whiz-kid moves far away or dies. If you make big changes to how you wish your estate to be distributed and neglect to tell the person named to carry out your updated wishes, they spend a lot of time trying to effectuate an out-of-date plan.

If you name your spouse as a beneficiary, the tax consequences are simpler. However, you still need an estate plan to plan for when the second spouse dies. In other words, you need an estate plan, including a will and trusts, and you also need to review it at least every three to five years.

Reference: Community Voice (September 30, 2022) “Are your beneficiary designations up to date?”

Who Should Be Your Executor?

While the executor is usually a spouse or close family member, you can name anyone you wish to be your executor. A bank, estate planning attorney, or professional trustee at a trust company may also serve as the executor, according to a recent article from Twin Cities-Pioneer Press titled “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor.”

Regardless of who you select, the person has a legal duty to be honest, impartial, financially responsible and to put your interests ahead of their own. This person and one or two backup candidates should be named in your will, just in case the primary executor declines or is unable to serve.

How does someone become an executor? When your will is entered into probate, the court checks to be sure the person you name meets all of your state’s legal requirements. Once the court approves (and usually the court does), then their role is official and you executor can get to work.

The executor has many responsibilities. You can help your executor do a better job by making sure that financial and personal business documents are organized and readily available. Here are some, but not all, of the executor’s tasks:

  • Making an inventory of all assets and liabilities
  • Giving notice to creditors: credit card companies, banks, mortgage companies, etc.
  • Filing a final personal tax return and filing the estate tax return
  • Paying any debts and taxes
  • Distributing assets according to the directions in the will and in compliance with state law
  • Preparing and submitting a detailed report to the court of how the estate was settled

If there is no will, or if no executor is named in the will, or if the executor can’t serve, the court will appoint a professional administrator to settle your estate. It won’t be someone you know. Your family may not like all of the decisions made on your behalf, but there won’t be any options available.

Does an executor get paid? A family member may or may not wish to be paid. However, given how much time it takes to settle an estate, you might feel it’s fair for them to be compensated. The amount varies depending on where you live, but you can leave the person between 1% to 8% of your total estate. A professional administrator will likely cost considerably more.

How do you document your estate to help out the executor? If you think this task is too onerous, imagine how a family member will feel if they have to conduct a scavenger hunt to identify assets and debts. If a professional administrator ends up doing this work, it will take a bigger bite out of your estate and leave loved ones with a smaller inheritance.

Start by making a list of all of your assets and liabilities, plus a list of all advisors who help with the business side of your life. Recent tax returns will be helpful, as will contact information for your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. You should include retirement accounts, life insurance policies and any assets without beneficiary designations.

Reference: Twin Cities-Pioneer Press (June 25, 2022) “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor”

Senior Second Marriages and Estate Planning

For seniors enjoying the romance and vitality of an unexpected late-in-life engagement, congratulations! Love is a wonderful thing, at any age. However, anyone remarrying for the second, or even third time, needs to address their estate planning as well as financial plans for the future. Pre-wedding planning can make a huge difference later in life, advises a recent article from Seniors Matter titled “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas.”

A careful review of your will, powers of attorney, healthcare proxy, living will and any other advance directives should be made. If you have new dependents, your estate planning attorney will help you figure out how your children from a prior marriage can be protected, while caring for new members of the family. Failing to adjust your estate plan could easily result in disinheriting your own offspring.

Deciding how to address finances is best done before you say, “I do.” If one partner has more assets than the other, or if one has more debts, there will be many issues to resolve. Will the partner with more assets want to help resolve the debts, or should the debts be cleared up before the wedding? How will bills be paid? If both partners own homes, where will the newlyweds live?

Do you need a prenuptial agreement? This document is especially important when there are significant assets owned by one or both partners. One function of a prenup is to prevent one partner from challenging the other person’s will and trusts. There are a number of trusts designed to protect loved ones including the new spouse, among them the Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust, known as a QTIP. This trust provides support for the new spouse. When the spouse dies, the entire trust is transferred to the persons named in the trust, usually children from a first marriage.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend two separate wills for people who wed later in life. This makes distribution of assets easier. Don’t neglect updating Powers of Attorney and any health care documents.

Before walking down the aisle, make an inventory, if you don’t already have one, of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This should include life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts and any other property with a beneficiary designation. Make sure that the accounts reflect your current circumstances.

Sooner or later, one or both spouses may need long-term care. Do either of you have long-term care insurance? If one of you needed to go into a nursing home or have skilled care at home, how would you pay for it? An estate planning attorney can help you create a plan for the future, which is necessary regardless of how healthy you may be right now.

Once you are married, Social Security needs to be updated with your new marital status and any name change. If a parent marries after full retirement age and their new spouse’s benefit is higher than their own, they may be able to increase their benefits to 50% of the new spouse’s benefits. If they were receiving divorced spousal benefits, those will end. The same goes for survivor benefits, if the person marries before age 60. If they’re disabled, they may still receive those benefits after age 60.

Setting up an appointment with an estate planning attorney a few months before a senior wedding is a good idea for all concerned. It provides an opportunity to review important legal and financial matters, while giving both spouses time to focus on the “business” side of love.

Reference: Seniors Matter (April 29, 2022) “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas”

Why Naming Beneficiaries Is Important to Your Estate Plan

For the loved ones of people who neglect to update the beneficiaries on their estate plan and assets with the option of naming beneficiaries, the cost in time, money and emotional stress is quite high, says the recent article “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries” from The Chattanoogan.

The biggest mistake is failing to name a beneficiary on all of your accounts, including retirement, investment and bank accounts as well as insurance policies. What happens if you fail to name a beneficiary? Assets in the accounts and proceeds from life insurance policies will automatically become part of your estate.

Any planning you’ve done with your estate planning attorney to avoid probate will be undercut by having all of these assets go through probate. Beneficiaries may not see their inheritance for months, versus receiving access to the assets much sooner. It’s even worse for retirement accounts like IRAs. Any ability your heir might have had to withdraw assets over time will be lost.

Next is forgetting to name a contingency beneficiary. Most people name their spouse, an adult child, or a sibling as their primary beneficiary. However, if the primary beneficiary should predecease you and there is no contingency beneficiary, it is as if you didn’t have a beneficiary at all.

Having a contingency beneficiary has another benefit: the primary beneficiary has the option to execute a qualified disclaimer, so some assets may be passed along to the next-in-line heir. Let’s say your spouse doesn’t need the money or doesn’t want to take it because of tax implications. Someone else in the family can more easily receive the assets.

Naming beneficiaries without taking care to use their proper legal name or identify the person with specificity has led to more surprises than you can imagine. If there are three generations of Geoffrey Paddingtons in the family and the only name on the document is Geoffrey Paddington, who will receive the inheritance? Use the person’s full name, their relationship to you (“child,” “cousin,” etc.) and if the document requires a Social Security number for identification, use it.

When was the last time you reviewed beneficiary documents? The only time many people look at these documents is when they open the account, start a new job, or buy an insurance policy. Every few years, around the same time you review your estate plan, you should gather all of your financial and insurance documents and make sure the same people named two decades ago are still the ones you want to receive your assets on death.

Finally, talk with loved ones about your legacy and your wishes. Let them know that an estate plan exists and you’ve given time and thought to what you want to happen when you die. There’s no need to give exact amounts. However, a bird’s eye view of your plan will help establish expectations.

If naming beneficiaries is challenging because of a complex situation, your estate planning attorney will be able to help as a sounding board or with estate planning strategies to accomplish your goals.

Reference: The Chattanoogan (Dec. 6, 2021) “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries”

How to Manage a Will and Trust

A last will and testament is used to point out the beneficiaries and trustees and the legal professionals you want to be involved with your estate when you have passed, explains this recent article What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One” from North Forty News. If there are minor children in the picture, the last will is used to direct who will be their guardians.

A trust is different than the last will. A trust is a legal entity where one person places assets in the trust and names a trustee to be in charge of the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The assets are legally protected and must be distributed as per the instructions in the trust document. Trusts are a good way to reduce paperwork, save time and reduce estate taxes.

Don’t go it alone. If your loved one had a last will and trust, chances are they were prepared by an estate planning lawyer. The estate planning attorney can help you go through the legal process. The attorney also knows how to prepare for any possible disputes from relatives.

It may be more complicated than you expect. There are times when honoring the wishes of the deceased about how their property is distributed becomes difficult. Sometimes, there are issues between the beneficiaries and the last will and trust custodians. If you locate the attorney who was present at the time the last will was signed and the trusts created, she may be able to make the process easier.

Be prepared to get organized. There’s usually a lot of paperwork. First, gather all of the documents—an original last will, the death certificate, life insurance policies, marriage certificates, real estate titles, military discharge papers, divorce papers (if any) and any trust documents. Review the last will and trust with an estate planning attorney to understand what you will need to do.

Protect personal property and assets. Homes, boats, vehicles and other large assets will need to be secured to protect them from theft. Once the funeral has taken place, you’ll need to identify all of the property owned by the deceased and make sure they are property insured and valued. If a home is going to be empty, changing the locks is a reasonable precaution. You don’t know who has keys or feels entitled to its contents.

Distribution of assets. If there is a last will, it must be filed with the probate court and all beneficiaries—everyone mentioned in the last will has to be notified of the decedent’s passing. As the executor, you are responsible for ensuring that every person gets what they have been assigned. You will need to prepare a document that accounts for the distribution of all properties, which the court has to certify before the estate can be closed.

Taking on the responsibility of finalizing a person’s estate is not without challenges. An estate planning attorney can help you through the process, making sure you are managing all the details according to the last will and the state’s laws. There may be personal liability attached to serving as the executor, so you’ll want to make sure to have good guidance on your side.

Reference: North Forty News (Feb. 3, 2021) What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One”

How Do You Plan for the Death of a Spouse?

The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. Make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

Estate Planning and Probate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state, and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there’s not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed, and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful, if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public, which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they’ll be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed, and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What’s the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.

These limits don’t include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here’s where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”