Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”

Alternatives for Stretch IRA Strategies

The majority of many people’s wealth is in their IRAs, that is saved from a lifetime of work. Their goal is to leave their IRAs to their children, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “Three Replacements for Stretch IRAs.” The ability to distribute IRA wealth over years, and even decades, was eliminated with the passage of the SECURE Act.

The purpose of the law was to add an estimated $428 million to the federal budget over the next 10 years. Of the $16.2 billion in revenue provisions, some $15.7 billion is accounted for by eliminating the stretch IRA.

Existing beneficiaries of stretch IRAs will not be affected by the change in the law. But going forward, most IRA heirs—with a few exceptions, including spousal heirs—will have to take their withdrawals within a ten year period of time.

The estate planning legal and financial community is currently scrutinizing the law and looking for strategies will protect these large accounts from taxes. Here are three estate planning approaches that are emerging as front runners.

Roth conversions. Traditional IRA owners who wished to leave their retirement assets to children may be passing on big tax burdens now that the stretch is gone, especially if beneficiaries themselves are high earners. An alternative is to convert regular IRAs to Roth IRAs and take the tax hit at the time of the conversion.

There is no guarantee that the Roth IRA will never be taxed, but tax rates right now are relatively low. If tax rates go up, it might make converting the Roth IRAs too expensive.

This needs to be balanced with state inheritance taxes. Converting to a Roth could reduce the size of the estate and thereby reduce tax exposure for the state as well.

Life insurance. This is being widely touted as the answer to the loss of the stretch, but like all other methods, it needs to be viewed as part of the entire estate plan. Using distributions from an IRA to pay for a life insurance policy is not a new strategy.

Charitable Remainder Trusts (CRT). The IRA could be used to fund a charitable remainder trust. This allows the benefactor to establish an income stream for heirs with part of the IRA assets, with the remainder going to a named charity. The trust can grow assets tax free. There are two different ways to do this: a charitable remainder annuity trust, which distributes a fixed annual annuity and does not allow continued contributions, or a charitable remainder unitrust, which distributes a fixed percentage of the initial assets and does allow continued contributions.

Speak with your estate planning lawyer about what options may work best in your unique situation.

Reference: Think Advisor (Jan. 24, 2020) “Three Replacements for Stretch IRAs”

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”

What’s the Best Thing to Do with an Inherited Investment?

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Handle Inherited Investments” provides us with some of the top inheritance considerations:

Consider Cash. Besides cash, the most common inheritances are securities, real estate and art. These assets usually go up in value, but another big benefit is their favorable tax treatment. The heirs won’t pay capital gains on unsold investments that went up in value during the lifetime of the deceased (estate taxes would apply). Those taxes would only apply to the gains that happened after they took possession.  There’s a good reason to hang onto these investments. These types of property carry some risks, so you may consider putting some of your inherited investments into cash, cash equivalents, or life insurance with a guaranteed payout to avoid exposure to undue risk.

Beware of Concentration Risk. It’s not unusual for an inheritance to be heavily concentrated within a specific asset. While the deceased’s instincts may have been accurate at the time of their initial investment, there’s no guarantee that their strategy will continue to pay dividends long term.  Diversifying into other areas—even with high-volatility vehicles that are unrelated to the original inherited investment—can lessen that concentration risk. An even safer strategy would be to build a portfolio of diverse holdings that includes multiple asset classes across different sectors.

Learn about Trusts. Sometimes when people inherit assets through a trust, they don’t think it’s critical to require anything but a superficial understanding of how these work. This is because the trustee assumes nearly all the fiduciary duties. However, this could change when a beneficiary attains a certain age, which often triggers a dissolution of the trust or stipulates a transfer of trustee responsibilities to them. You should understand what will happen at that point. You may want to create your own trust to distribute part or all of your unmanaged inherited assets to heirs in a framework that suits you best, and without having to go through the probate process. In any event, you should learn how trusts work and the difference between revocable and irrevocable trusts. Ask your estate planning attorney about your specific situation and whether there is a trust that may be best for your circumstances.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 7, 2020) “How to Handle Inherited Investments”

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”

SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review
401k concept photo

SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review

The most significant legislation affecting retirement was signed into law on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. After stalling for months, Congress suddenly passed several bills, as attachments to budget appropriations, as reported by Advisor News’ article “SECURE Act, Signed by Trump, A Game-Changer For Retirement Plans.”

Here are some of the key points that retirees and those planning their retirements need to know:

Changes to Age Limits for IRA and 401(k) Accounts. The age for taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) has increased from 70½ to 72 years. Adding a year and a half for investors to put away money for retirement gives a little more time to prepare for longer lifespans. The change recognizes the prior limits were arbitrary, and that Americans need to save more.

However, the SECURE Act also brought about the demise of the “stretch” IRA. Americans who inherit an IRA must now withdraw the money within 10 years of the account owner’s death, along with paying taxes. Surviving spouses and minor children are still exempt. The exempt heirs can still spend down inherited IRA accounts over their lifetime, which is an estate planning strategy known as the “stretch.”

Small Business 401(k)s. The SECURE Act expands access to Multiple Employer Plans, known as MEPs, so that employers can pool resources and share the costs of retirement plans for employees. This will cut administration and management costs and ideally, will allow more small businesses to offer higher-quality plans available to their employees.

The law also enhances automatic enrollment and auto-escalation, letting companies automatically enroll employees into a retirement plan at a rate of 6%, instead of 3%. Employers can now raise employee contributions to a maximum of 15% of their annual pay, although workers can opt out of these plans at any time.

Annuities Options. The SECURE Act now allows 401(k) plans to offer annuities as a retirement plan option. Experts have mixed opinions on this. Annuities are a type of life insurance that convert retirement savings into lifetime income. However, fees are often high, and if the insurance company closes its doors, those lifetime income payments may vanish. Under the new law, employers also have what’s called a “safe harbor” from being sued, if annuity providers go out of business or stop making payments to annuity purchasers. Being freed from liability may make employers more likely to offer annuities, but that may put 401(k) investors at more risk, say consumer advocates.

529 Plans and Saving for Children. The new law expands 529 accounts to cover many more types of education, from registered apprenticeships, homeschooling, private elementary, secondary or religious schools. Up to $10,000 can be used for qualified student loan repayments, including for siblings.

Reference: Advisor News (December 23, 2019) “SECURE Act, Signed by Trump, A Game-Changer For Retirement Plans”

Life Insurance Is a Good Estate Planning Tool but Needs to Be Done Carefully

With proper planning and the help of a seasoned estate planning or probate attorney, insurance money can pay expenses, like estate tax and avoid the need to liquidate other assets, says FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Errors to Avoid in Using Life Insurance for Estate Planning.”

As an example, let’s say that Reggie passes away and leaves a large estate to his daughter Veronica. There’s a big estate tax that’s due. However, the majority of Reggie’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. In light of this, Veronica might not want to proceed directly into a forced sale of the real estate. However, if she taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll be required to pay income tax on the withdrawal and forfeit a very worthwhile opportunity for extended tax deferral.

If Reggie plans ahead, he could purchase insurance on his own life. The proceeds could be used to pay the estate tax bill. As a result, Veronica can retain the real estate, while taking only minimum required distributions (RMDs) from the inherited IRA.

If the insurance policy is owned by Veronica or by a trust, the proceeds probably won’t be included in Reggie’s estate and won’t increase her estate taxes.

Along these same lines, here are some common life insurance errors to avoid:

Designating your estate as beneficiary. When you make this move, it puts the insurance policy proceeds into your estate, exposing it to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have to deal with more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people or charities.

Designating just a single beneficiary. You should name at least two “backup” beneficiaries. This will decrease any confusion, if the primary beneficiary predeceases you.

Throwing the copy of your life insurance policy in the “file and forget” drawer. You should review your policies at least once every few years. If the beneficiary is an ex-spouse or someone who’s passed away, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation from the insurance company in writing.

Failing to carry adequate insurance. If you have a youngster, it undoubtedly requires hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college bills, in the event of your untimely death.

Talk to a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney about the particulars of your situation.

Reference: FEDweek (Dec. 12, 2019) “Errors to Avoid in Using Life Insurance for Estate Planning”

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 Rules About an Inheritance Received During Marriage?

A good add-on to that sentence is something like, “provided that it is kept separate from marital assets.” To say it another way, when an inheritance or any other exempt asset (like a premarital asset) is “commingled” with marital assets, it can lose its exempt status.

Trust Advisor’s recent article asks, “Do I Have To Divide The Inheritance I Received During My Marriage?” As the article explains, this is the basic rule, but it’s not iron-clad.

A few courts say that an inheritance was exempt, even when it was left for only a short time in a joint account. This can happen after a parent’s death. The proceeds of a life insurance policy that an adult child beneficiary receives, are put into the family account to save time in a stressful situation. You may be too distraught to deal with this issue when the insurance check arrives, so you or your spouse might deposit it into a joint account. However, in one case, the wife took the check and opened an investment account with the money. That insurance money deposited in the investment account was never touched, but the wife still wanted half of it when the couple divorced a few years later. However, in that case, the judge ruled that the proceeds from the insurance policy were the husband’s separate property.

The law generally says that assets exempt from equitable distribution (like insurance proceeds) may become subject to equitable distribution, if the recipient intends them to become marital assets. The comingling of these assets with marital assets may make them subject to a division in a divorce. However, if there’s no intent for the assets to become martial property, the assets may remain the recipient spouse’s property.

Courts will look at “donative intent,” which asks if the spouse had the intent to gift the inheritance to the marriage, making it a marital asset. Courts may look at a commingled inheritance for donative intent, but also examine other factors. This can include the proximity in time between the inheritance and the divorce. Therefore, if a spouse deposited an inheritance into a joint account a year before the divorce, she could argue that there should be a disproportionate distribution in her favor or that she should get back the whole amount. Of course, the longer amount of time between the inheritance and the divorce, the more difficult this argument becomes.

Be sure to speak with your estate planning attorney about the specific laws in your state. If there is a hint of trouble in the marriage, it might be wiser to simply open a new account for the inheritance.

Reference: Trust Advisor (October 29, 2019) “Do I Have To Divide The Inheritance I Received During My Marriage?”

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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