Can I Avoid Probate?

If you have life insurance, lifetime survivor benefits, a home or other investments, who gets them and when depends on what you have done or should do: have an estate plan. This is how you legally protect your family and friends to be sure that they receive what you want after you die, says the article “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!” from Federal News Network.

A common goal is to simplify your estate plan to make administering it as easy as possible for your loved ones. This usually involves structuring an estate plan to avoid probate, which can be time-consuming and, depending on where you live, add a considerable cost to settle your estate.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this through an estate plan, including jointly owned property, beneficiary designations and the use of trusts.

Many individuals hold property in joint names, also known as “tenant by the entirety” with a spouse. When one spouse dies, the other becomes the owner without probate. It should be noted that this supersedes the terms of a will or a trust.

Another type of joint ownership is “tenancy in common,” However, property held as tenants in common does not avoid probate. The distribution of property titled this way is governed by the will. If there is no will, the state’s estate laws will govern who receives the property on death of one of the owners.

Beware: property owned jointly is subject to any litigation or creditor issues of a joint owner. It can be risky.

Beneficiary designations are a seamless way to transfer property. This can take the form of a POD (payable on death) or TOD (transfer on death) account. Pensions, insurance policies and certain types of retirement accounts provide owners with the opportunity to name a beneficiary. Upon the death of the owner, the assets pass directly to the beneficiary. The asset is not subject to probate and the designations supersede the terms of a will or trust.

Review beneficiary designations every time you review your estate plan. If you opened a 401(k) account at your first job and have not reviewed the beneficiary designation in many years, you may be unwittingly giving someone you have not seen for years a nice surprise upon your passing.

If you own assets other than joint property or assets without beneficiary designation, an estate planning attorney can structure your estate plan to include trusts. A trust is a legal entity owning any property transferred into it. A trust can avoid probate and provide a great deal of control by the grantor as to what they want to happen to the property.

Reference: Federal News Network (March 30, 2022) “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!”

What’s the Difference between Probate Assets and Non-Probate Assets?

Updating estate plans and reviewing beneficiary designations are both important estate planning tasks, more important than most people think. They’re easy to fix while you are alive, but the problems created by ignoring these tasks occur after you have passed, when they can’t be easily fixed or, can’t be fixed at all. The article “Who gets the brokerage account?” from Glen Rose Reporter shares one family’s story.

The father of three children had an estate plan done when the children were in their twenties. His Last Will and Testament directed all assets in a substantial brokerage account to be equally divided between the three children.

His Last Will was never updated.

Thirty years later, his two sons are successful, affluent physicians with high incomes. His daughter is a retired educator who had raised two children as a single mom and struggled financially for many years.

When her father met with his investment advisor, he signed a beneficiary designation leaving the substantial brokerage account, including the substantial growth occurring over the years, to his daughter.

When he dies, the two brothers claim his Last Will, dividing all assets equally, must be the final word. They insist the brokerage account is to be divided equally among the three children.

Any assets held in an account with a beneficiary designation are considered non-probate assets. They do not pass through the probate process. Their disposition is not controlled by the Last Will. The contract between the institution and the individual is paramount.

Insurance policies, retirement accounts, bank and brokerage accounts usually have these designations. They often include a pay-on-death provision, and the person who is to receive the assets upon death of the owner is clearly named.

If the owner of the account fails to sign a right of survivorship, pay-on-death or to name a beneficiary designation before they die, then the assets are paid by the financial institution to the probate estate. This is to be avoided, however, since it complicates what could be a simple transaction.

The two sons were correctly advised by an estate planning attorney of their sister’s full and protected right to receive the investment account, despite their wishes. When the provisions in the Last Will conflict with a contract made between an owner and a financial institution, the contract prevails.

In this case, a less financially secure daughter and her family benefited from the wishes and foresight of her father.

Last Wills and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed and revised to ensure that they reflect the wishes of the parent as time goes by.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Jan. 13, 2022) “Who gets the brokerage account?”

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”

When Should You Fund a Trust?

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it doesn’t happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you’ll need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

Can You Have Bitcoin in IRA?

Experts on both sides of the cryptocurrency world agree on one thing: it’s still early to put these kinds of investments into retirement accounts, especially IRAs. A recent article from CNBC, “Want to put bitcoin in your IRA? Why experts say you may want to rethink that, explains why this temptation should be put on pause for a while.

Investors who have remained on the sidelines on cryptocurrency are taking a second look as this new asset class surpassed the $2 trillion mark in late August. Looking at retirement accounts flush with positive growth from stocks, it seems like a good time to take some gains and test the crypto waters.

However, the pros warn against using cryptocurrency in retirement accounts. “Not just yet” is the message from both bulls and bears. One expert says using cryptocurrency in a retirement account is like taking a delicate and exotic animal out of its natural element and putting it in a concrete zoo. Cryptocurrency is not like “regular” money.

The accounts are structured differently The average investor also won’t be able to hold the keys to their own cryptocurrency investment. It’s a buy and hold, with no individual ability to move the assets around. While there are some investment platforms working to change that, an inability to move assets, especially such volatile assets, is not for everyone.

Cryptocurrency is a much riskier investment. A quarterly look at account updates would be like only checking your retirement accounts every five years. Cryptocurrency values are volatile, and an account balance can change dramatically from one week, one day or even one hour to the next one. Crypto is a 24/7/365-day market.

Self-directed IRAs are allowed to have crypto assets, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Another reason: stocks, bonds and real estate have a stated market value, which means they are taxed when withdrawals are taken. However, the expected value of cryptocurrencies is not clear. They are not regulated, while IRAs are among the most highly regulated accounts. This is a big reason as to why most IRA account administrators don’t permit cryptocurrencies in their accounts.

Investment decisions are based on the eventual use of the funds. For IRAs, the intention is not to lose money, and ideally for it to grow, so there is more money for your retirement, not less. Separate margin or trading accounts are typically used for riskier investments.

One expert advised limiting cryptocurrency investments to 5% of your total retirement accounts. If money is lost, it won’t destroy your retirement, and any wins are extra money. Another expert says investing such a small amount won’t be worth the time or effort, so don’t even bother.

For those who are determined to get in the game, a Roth IRA may be preferable if you have an extended time horizon and can stand the ups and downs of cryptocurrency investments. The appreciation in a Roth IRA will be tax-free.

Reference: CNBC (Aug. 17, 2021) “Want to put bitcoin in your IRA? Why experts say you may want to rethink that

How Is Insurance Used in Estate Planning?

It’s possible that life insurance may play a much bigger role in your estate planning than you might have thought, says a recent article in Kiplinger titled “Other Uses for Life Insurance You May Not Know About.”

If you own a life insurance policy, you’re in good company—just over 50% of Americans own a life insurance policy and more say they are interested in buying one. When the children have grown up and it feels like your retirement nest egg is big enough, you may feel like you don’t need the policy. However, don’t do anything fast—the policy may have far more utility than you think.

Tax benefits. The tax benefits of life insurance policies are even more valuable now than when you first made your purchase. Now that the SECURE Act has eliminated the Stretch IRA, most non-spouse beneficiaries must empty tax-deferred retirement accounts within ten years of the original owner’s death. Depending on how much is in the account and the beneficiary’s tax bracket, they could face an unexpected tax burden and quick demise to the benefits of the inherited account.

Life insurance proceeds are usually income tax free, making a life insurance policy an ideal way to transfer wealth to the next generation. For business owners, life insurance can be used to pay off business debt, fund a buy-sell agreement related to a business or an estate, or fund retirement plans.

What about funding Long-Term Care? Most Americans do not have long-term care insurance, which is potentially the most dangerous threat to their or their spouse’s retirement. The median annual cost for an assisted living facility is $51,600, and the median cost of a private room in a nursing home is more than $100,000. Long-term care insurance is not inexpensive, but long-term care is definitely expensive. Traditional LTC care insurance is not popular because of its cost, but long-term care is more costly. Some insurance companies offer life insurance with long-term care benefits. They can still provide a death benefit if the owner passes without having needed long-term care, but if the owner needs LTC, a certain amount of money or time in care is allotted.

Financial needs change over time, but the need to protect yourself and your loved ones as you age does not change. Speak with an estate planning attorney about your overall plan for the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 21, 2021) “Other Uses for Life Insurance You May Not Know About”

How Do You Split Estate in a Blended Family?

When it comes to blended families and estate planning, there are no guarantees, especially concerning estate planning. However, there are some classic mistakes to avoid, reports this recent article from AARP titled “Remarried With Children? 5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid.”

Most people mean well. They want to protect their spouses and hope that their heirs will share in any proceeds when the second spouse dies. They want all the children to be happy. They also hope that the step siblings will still regard each other as “siblings” after the parents are passed. However, there are situations where children get shut out of their inheritance or an ex-spouse inherits it all, even if that wasn’t the plan. Here are five mistakes to avoid:

#1: Not changing named beneficiaries. People neglect to update their wills and beneficiary designations. This is something to do immediately, before or after the wedding. By changing the name of the beneficiary on your 401(k), for instance, it passes directly to the surviving spouse without probate. All financial accounts should be checked, as should life insurance beneficiaries. You can designate children as secondary beneficiaries, so they receive assets, in the event that both parents die.

While you’re doing that, update legal directives: including the medical power of attorney and the power of attorney. That is, unless you’d like your ex to make medical and financial decisions for you!

#2 Not updating your will. Most assets pass through the will, unless you have planned otherwise. In many second marriages, estate planning is done hoping the spouse inherits all the assets and upon their death, the remaining assets are divided among all of the children. There is nothing stopping a surviving spouse from re-writing their will and for the late spouses’ children to be left without anything from their biological parent. An estate planning attorney can explore different options to avoid this from occurring.

#3 Treating all heirs equally. Yes, this is a mistake. If one person came to the marriage with significantly more assets than another, care must be taken if the goal is to have those assets remain in the bloodline. If one person owned the house, for instance, and a second spouse and children moved into the house, the wish might be to have only the original homeowner’s children inherit the proceeds of the sale of the house. The same goes for pension and retirement accounts.

#4 Waiting to give until you’ve passed. If you are able to, it may be worth gifting to your heirs while you are still living, rather than gifting through a will. You may give up to $15,000 per person or $30,000 to a couple without having to pay a federal gift tax. Recipients don’t pay tax on most gifts. Let’s say you and your spouse have four children and they are all married. You may give each child and their spouse $30,000, without triggering any taxes for you or for them. It gets better: your spouse can also make the same size gift. Therefore, you and your spouse can give $60,000 to each couple, a total of $240,000 per year for all eight people and no taxes need be paid by anyone. This takes assets out of your estate and is not considered income to the recipients.

#5 Doing it yourself. If you’re older with a second marriage, ex-spouses, blended families and comingled assets, your estate planning will be complicated. Add a child with special needs or an aging parent and it becomes even more complex. Trying to create your own estate plan without a current and thorough knowledge of the law (including tax law) is looking for trouble, which is what you will leave to your children. The services of an estate planning attorney are a worthwhile investment, especially for blended families.

Reference: AARP (July 9, 2021) “Remarried With Children? 5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid”

What Is the Required Minimum Distribution for 2021?

There have been a number of changes to the requirements for RMDs—Required Minimum Distributions—from traditional retirement accounts, says a recent article titled “2 Essential Strategies for Taking Your RMDs” from Kiplinger. In 2019, the age for RMDs was raised from 70½ to 72. In 2020, they were waived altogether because of the pandemic. Now they’re back, and you want to know how to make good decisions about them.

Most people take the default approach, taking a lump sum of cash at the start or the end of the year. This is not the best approach. Investment markets and your own need for income are better indicators for how and when to take your RMD. If you can at all avoid it, never take an RMD from a declining market.

You can take your RMD anytime during the calendar year, from January 1 to December 31. If it’s the first time you’ve taken an RMD, you get a bonus: you can wait until April 1 of the year after your 72nd birthday. The RMD is calculated, by dividing the account balance on December 31 of the preceding year by your life expectancy factor, based on your age. You can find it in the IRS’s Uniform Lifetime Table.

2021 distributions will be bigger, and not just because of the market’s 2020 performance. Instead, distributions will be bigger because of how the accounts are designed, with RMDs becoming a larger percentage over time. It starts as a small percentage and eventually becomes the entire account, which is then depleted. Remember, the sole purpose of the RMD is to force retirees to take money out of their retirement accounts and pay taxes on the money.

Many retirees take RMDs because they need the money to live on. Here’s where money management gets tricky. It’s far easier to take smaller amounts of money at regular intervals, kind of like a paycheck, than taking a big amount once a year. We’re creatures of habit and are used to receiving income and managing it that way.

Distributions on a regular basis also fosters a better sense of how much money you have to live on, encouraging you to create and adhere to a budget.

If you don’t need the income, taking money through regular installments also has an advantage. It’s like the opposite of dollar-cost averaging. Instead of putting money into the market in small increments over time to even out market ups and downs, you’re taking money out of the market at regular intervals. You’re not cashing out at the market’s lowest point, or at the highest. And if you’re reinvesting RMDs in a taxable account, this strategy works especially well.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 10, 2021) “2 Essential Strategies for Taking Your RMDs”

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?
Businessman looking through a magnifying glass to documents

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?

If your parents don’t remember when they last reviewed their estate plan, then chances are it’s time for a review. Over the years, wishes, relationships and circumstances change, advises the recent article, “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” from Forbes. An out-of-date estate plan may not achieve your parent’s wishes, or be declared invalid by the court. Having an estate planning attorney review the estate plan may save you money in the long run, not to mention the stress and worry created by an estate disaster. If you need reasons, here are five to consider.

Financial institutions are wary of dated documents. Banks and other financial institutions look twice at documents that are not recent. Trying to use a Power of Attorney that was created twenty years ago is bound to create problems. One person tried to use a document, but the bank insisted on getting an affidavit from the attorney who prepared it to be certain it was valid. While the son was trying to solve this, his mother died, and the account had to be probated. A “fresh” power of attorney would have solved the problem.

State laws change. Things that seem small become burdensome in a hurry. For example, if someone wants to leave a variety of personal effects to many different people, each and every one of the people listed would need to be located and notified. Many states now allow a separate writing to dispose of personal items, making the process far easier. However, if the will is out of date, you may be stuck with a house-sized task.

Legal document language changes. The SECURE Act changed many aspects of estate planning, particularly with regard to retirement accounts. If your parents have retirement accounts that are payable to a trust, the trust language must be changed to comply with the law. Not having these updates in the estate plan could result in an increase in income taxes or costly fees to fix the situation.

Estate tax laws change. In recent years, there have been many changes to federal tax laws. If your parents have not updated their estate plan within the last five years, they have missed many changes and many opportunities. It is likely that your parents’ assets have also changed over the years, and the documents need to reflect how the estate taxes will be paid. Are their assets titled so that there are enough funds in the estate or trust to cover the cost of any liability? Here’s another one—if all of the assets pass directly to beneficiaries via beneficiary designations, who is going to pay for the tax bills –and with what funds?

Older estate plans may contain wishes from decades ago. For one family, an old will led to a situation where a son did not inherit his father’s entire estate. His late sister’s children, who had been estranged from him for decades, received their mother’s share. If the father and son had reviewed the will earlier, a new will could have been created and signed that would have given the son what the father intended.

These types of problems are seen daily in your estate planning attorney’s office. Take the time to get a proper review of your parent’s estate plan, to prevent stress and unnecessary costs in the future.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”