Coronavirus News Should Make You Think about Estate Planning

The global Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has many of us thinking about what could happen, if the disease spreads more fully across the general population. We all need to plan for what could possibly happen. To protect yourself and your family, it’s smart to be certain that you have the following these documents prepared and updated, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things.”

  1. A will or revocable trust. Be sure that your assets will pass to those who you want to receive them after your death. This is critical during crisis times. You don’t want to make things any harder than they need to be. Create an estate plan to avoid potentially expensive and time-consuming processes like probate, which will have greater importance, if your family is confined to their homes in a quarantine situation.

A simple will can cover what happens to your assets at death. This typically works well, especially for modest estates. State laws differ on how complicated a probate process would be with a basic will. Some people opt to use a fully funded revocable trust that doesn’t require probate. For either a will or a revocable trust, make sure that it’s up to date and reflects your current preferences and family circumstances.

  1. Updated beneficiary designations. If you have an IRA, 401(k) account, or life insurance policy, those you name as beneficiaries of that account will receive the proceeds, despite a totally different from arrangement in your will or trust. Many of us also don’t designate any beneficiary for these accounts, which means added complications in the event of death.
  2. Healthcare power of attorney. When we’re in the midst of this Coronavirus, it’s even more urgent that you’ll be able to get the healthcare you need, if you’re hit with this illness. A durable power of attorney for healthcare will give the individuals you choose the ability to make whatever medical decisions you specify on your behalf. An estate planning attorney can help you draft documents that match your specific wishes.
  3. Financial power of attorney. You can designate an agent to help take care of your finances, if you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to handle your financial affairs. A general durable power of attorney for financial matters is another document that lets you delegate responsibility and authority to make financial transactions to the person you name.

Estate planning may not be the highlight of your week, but the Coronavirus outbreak has more people thinking about what they need to do. Make sure your family will have what they need even if something happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 8, 2020) “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things”

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 Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people. The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion is an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The estate tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

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”

Fixing an Estate Plan Mistake

When an issue arises, you need to seek the assistance of a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney, who knows to fix the problems or find the strategy moving forward.

For example, an irrevocable trust can’t be revoked. However, in some circumstances it can be modified. The trust may have been drafted to allow its trustees and beneficiaries the authority to make certain changes in specific circumstances, like a change in the tax law.

Those kinds of changes usually require the signatures from all trustees and beneficiaries, explains The Wilmington Business Journal’s recent article entitled “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess.”

Another change to an irrevocable trust may be contemplated, if the trust’s purpose may have become outdated or its administration is too expensive. An estate planning attorney can petition a judge to modify the trust in these circumstances when the trust’s purposes can’t be achieved without the requested change. Remember that trusts are complex, and you really need the advice of an experienced trust attorney.

Another option is to create the trust to allow for a “trust protector.” This is a third party who’s appointed by the trustees, the beneficiaries, or a judge. The trust protector can decide if the proposed change to the trust is warranted. However, this is only available if the original trust was written to specify the trust protector.

A term can also be added to the trust to provide “power of appointment” to trustees or beneficiaries. This makes it easier to change the trust for the benefit of current or future beneficiaries.

There’s also decanting, in which the assets of an existing trust are “poured” into a new trust with different terms. This can include extending the trust’s life, changing trustees, fixing errors or ambiguities in the original language, and changing the legal jurisdiction. State trust laws vary, and some allow much more flexibility in how trusts are structured and administered.

The most drastic option is to end the trust. The assets would be distributed to the beneficiaries, and the trust would be dissolved. Approval must be obtained from all trustees and all beneficiaries. A frequent reason for “premature termination” is that a trust’s assets have diminished in value to the extent that administering it isn’t feasible or economical.

Again, be sure your estate plan is in solid shape from the start. Anticipating problems with the help of your lawyer, instead of trying to solve issues later is the best plan.

Reference: Wilmington Business Journal (Jan. 3, 2020) “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess”

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”

How Will the New SECURE Act Impact My IRAs and 401(k)?

The SECURE Act is the most substantial change to our retirement savings system in over a decade, says Covering Katy (TX) News’ recent article entitled “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans.” The new law, called the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, includes several important changes. Let’s take a look at them.

There is a higher age for RMDs. The current law says that you must start taking withdrawals or required minimum distributions from your traditional IRA and 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan when you turn 70½. The new law delays this to age 72, so you can hold on to your retirement savings a while longer.

No age limit for contributions to traditional IRAs. Before the new law, you could only contribute to your traditional IRA until you were 70½. However, now you can now fund your traditional IRA for as long as you have taxable earned income.

Stretch IRA Limitations. Previously, beneficiaries could stretch taxable RMDs from a retirement account over his or her lifetime. Under the SECURE Act, spouse beneficiaries can still take advantage of this “stretch” distribution, but most non-spouse beneficiaries will have to take all the RMDs by the end of the 10th year after the account owner dies. Therefore, non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA or other retirement plan could have tax issues, because of the need to take larger distributions in a shorter amount of time.

Early withdrawal penalty eliminated for IRAs and 401(k)s when new child arrives. Usually, you must pay a 10% penalty when you withdraw funds from your IRA or 401(k) if done prior to 59½. However, the new legislation allows you take out up to $5,000 from your retirement plan without paying the early withdrawal penalty, provided you withdraw the money within a year of a child being born or an adoption becoming final.

There are provisions of the SECURE Act that primarily impact business owners, which include the following:

New multi-employer retirement plans. The new law allows unrelated companies to coordinate to offer employees a 401(k) plan with less administrative work, lower costs and fewer fiduciary responsibilities than individual employers now have when offering their own retirement plans.

Tax credit for automatic enrollment. There’s now a tax credit of $500 for some small businesses that create automatic enrollment in their retirement plans. A tax credit for establishing a retirement plan has also been increased from $500 to $5,000.

Annuities in 401(k) plans. The Act makes it easier for employers to add annuities as an investment option within 401(k) plans. Before the SECURE Act, businesses avoided annuities in these plans because of the liability related to the annuity provider. However, the new rules should help decrease any concerns.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to examine the potential impact on your investment strategies and determine any possible tax and estate planning implications of the SECURE Act.

Reference: Covering Katy (TX) News “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans”

How Do I Incorporate My Business into My Estate Planning?

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about having it continue after you retire or pass away.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen next or what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.

Business continuity is the biggest concern for entrepreneurs. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge rather than leaving the company’s future in the hands of others who are emotionally invested in you or in your work. One option is to create a living trust and will to put in place parameters that a trustee can carry out. With these names and decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.

Let them be upset with you, rather than with each other. This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names successor trustees to be in charge of operating the business, if you become incapacitated or die.

A power of attorney document will nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning will also preserve your business assets, as advanced tax planning strategies might be implemented to establish specific trusts to minimize the estate tax.

Estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

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”

What Should I Know about Estate and Inheritance Taxes with Property in Two States?

If you’re set to receive your full Social Security benefits next year, you may want to make sure you understand the estate and inheritances taxes of owning property, especially if it’s in more than one state.

Let’s say you own two co-ops in Manhattan and a home in New Jersey. All are all mortgage-free but you have a $69,000 home equity loan on the house. You may wonder if it’s better to continue to live in New Jersey with assets in New York or to move back to New York—or even somewhere else. This decision should be based at least in part on how your assets will be taxed, when you pass away. You also want to think about the beneficiaries of your property.

nj.com’s recent article asks, “Are estate and inheritances taxes worse in New York or New Jersey?” The article explains that estate and inheritance taxes are two different things, and it’s important to understand them.

An estate tax is levied on the estate of the decedent. An inheritance tax is paid by the beneficiary who gets the distribution from the estate. Few states have inheritances taxes. New Jersey abandoned their estate tax effective Jan. 1, 2018. However, New Jersey still has an inheritance tax. It is only applicable to non-Class A beneficiaries, which typically are heirs who are not lineal descendants. Children or grandchildren are Class A beneficiaries, so the inheritance tax would not apply to them.

There’s no inheritance tax in New York. However, the estate tax is imposed on taxable estates in excess of the state exemption. That’s $5.49 million in 2019 and will go up to $5.85 million in 2020. New York estate tax rates begin at 3.06% and increase to 16.0% for taxable estates in excess of $10.1 million.

An estate of a New York non-resident is required to file a New York State estate tax return, if the estate includes any real or tangible property in New York State and the amount of the non-resident’s federal gross estate, plus the amount of any “includable gifts,” is more than the state’s exclusion amount at the time of death. “Includable gifts” are gifts made while the decedent was a New York resident during the preceding three-year period ending on the date of death. These aren’t included in the decedent’s federal gross estate.

In the example above, it looks like New Jersey would be the better domicile in which to claim residency, because no estate or inheritance tax would be due. Depending on the value of the two co-ops in New York, he may owe New York estate tax, if the value exceeds the New York State estate exclusion amount. That’s true whether he’s a New York or New Jersey resident.

Under current New Jersey law, moving to another non-estate tax state, like Florida, won’t help him with any additional estate tax benefit. As always, talk with an estate planning attorney regarding the above specifics and to make certain that your estate plan is complete and follows your goals.

Reference: nj.com (December 4, 2019) “Are estate and inheritances taxes worse in New York or New Jersey?”

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