Can You Make Heirs Behave from the Grave?

Imposing strange or amusing conditions upon heirs may make for good novels. However, in the real world, terms and conditions are limited by the law. A last will or trust contains language specifying how you want assets to be distributed after your death. There are some conditions and terms included, but others should be left for fiction authors, according to a recent article titled “What Can You Force Your Heirs to Do To Get Your Wealth” from Forbes.

If something is illegal or against public policy, it is not acceptable in a last will. Defining public policy is not as easy as whether something is illegal, but it can be described effectively enough, or clarified by your estate planning lawyer. For example, making a gift of land to the town on the condition that an offensive statue be placed in the middle of the land would be against public policy. Requiring an individual to not marry a specific person or type of person before they can inherit is considered illegal in a last will. Beneficiaries are not to be prevented to live their lives freely through the force of a last will.

Whether a condition is valid also depends upon whether it is a precedent that existed at the date of your death or a condition that occurs after your death. For instance, a requirement for a beneficiary to live in a specific location at the time of your death might be considered valid by a court. However, a condition requiring a spouse to never remarry would not be valid.

Blatantly illegal terms of an inheritance are easy terminated. Leaving money to a known terrorist organization or requiring an heir to commit a crime is an easy no-go. However, sometimes things get murky. Restraints on getting married or selling or transferring property are two of the biggest problems, and often the stories behind the last wills are sad ones.

A condition of not marrying, divorcing, or remarrying is not legal. However, a condition that the beneficiary does not marry outside of the faith has been enforced as a valid last will condition. A complete prohibition of a second marriage by a surviving spouse has been deemed void. It should be noted that certain requests have been permitted, like having a surviving spouse lose payments from a trust when they remarry. As antiquated as it may sound, courts have affirmed the concept of the specific limitation to provide financial support only until the surviving spouse remarries and is, therefore, not void.

A probate court will not void a condition on a bequest automatically, even if it is clearly illegal. The beneficiary, or another interested party, must file with the probate court to have the condition voided. If you fail to do so, when the last will or trust is allowed, it is possible to lose your right to void the condition.

A better way to go: don’t try to control your heir’s behavior from the grave. It creates terrible ill will and may cloud a lifetime of happy memories. If you don’t want to give something to someone, your estate planning attorney will help you create an estate plan, and possibly a trust, to control how your assets are distributed.

Reference: Forbes July 21, 2021 “What Can You Force Your Heirs to Do To Get Your Wealth”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

Does a Beneficiary on a Bank Account Override a Will?

You’ve named beneficiaries to accounts many times already, when you opened an IRA, bought an insurance annuity, a life insurance policy, started an investment account, signed up for a pension or bought shares in a mutual fund. These are the accounts that come to mind when people think about beneficiary designations. However, according to a recent article in Forbes titled “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?,” they are not the only financial instruments with beneficiary designations.

When you open a bank account, most retail banks don’t ask you to name a beneficiary, but it’s not because you can’t. If the bank allows beneficiaries on their accounts, it’s usually a pretty simple process. In most cases, you’ll be asked to fill out a form or go through the bank’s process online.

Banks don’t push for beneficiary accounts because they are not required to do so. However, this is a smart move and can be a helpful part of your estate plan. The biggest benefit: funds in the account will be distributed directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They won’t have to go through probate and won’t be part of your estate. Otherwise, whatever assets you keep in your bank accounts will be counted as part of your estate and subject to probate.

Probate is a court process to validate the will and the named executor, supervising the distribution of assets from your estate. In some cases, it can be complicated, take months to complete and depending on the size of your estate, be expensive. If the money in your bank accounts does not go to a beneficiary, it can be used to pay off estate debts instead of going straight to a beneficiary.

For married people, bank account funds are treated differently. Half of the balance goes to your spouse upon death, the rest goes through probate.

Naming a beneficiary is a better alternative. The beneficiary may collect the money immediately. They’ll need to go to the bank with an original or certified copy of a death certificate, required identification (usually a driver’s license) and the money is transferred to them.

If you are married and don’t live in a community property estate, a surviving spouse may be able to dispute the terms of a beneficiary arrangement, but that will take time.

Another means of transferring assets in a bank account is to change your accounts to POD, or Payable On Death accounts. There are other names: In Trust For (ITF), Totten Trust or Transfer on Death (TOD). The named beneficiary is referred to as the POD beneficiary.

There is considerable flexibility when naming a POD beneficiary. It may be a living person, or it can be an organization, including a nonprofit charity or other trusts. You are not allowed to name a non-living legal entity, like a corporation, limited liability company (LLC) or partnership.

Beneficiary designations override wills, so if you forget to change them, the person named will still receive the money, even if that was not your intent. You should review beneficiaries for all of your accounts every year or so. Divorce, death, marriages, births and any other lifetime events are also reasons to check on beneficiary designations.

Reference: Forbes (July 9, 2021) “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?”

How Do You Survive Financially after Death of Spouse?

The financial issues that arise following the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It’s not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.

Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse’s income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.

Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.

If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse’s taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.

The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there’s a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse’s gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.

It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses’ passing.

There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased’s estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse’s unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don’t file in a timely manner, you’ll lose this exemption, so don’t neglect this task.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”

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”

Why Is It Important to have a Will?

A Gallup poll released in June showed that slightly less than half of all Americans have a will to tell loved ones what they want to happen with their estate after they die. What’s surprising is that the results of this survey have been almost the same since 1990, explains the article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” from Real Simple. The survey also showed that upper-income Americans are more likely than lower-income Americans to have a will, and the younger people are, the less likely they are to have a will.

One of the lessons from the pandemic, is how fragile our lives are. It’s never too early to start planning and properly document your wishes. If you need more reasons to begin estate planning, here are six:

No will often leads to unwanted consequences. A major misconception is the idea that you don’t need a will because everything you own will go to your family. Not necessarily. Each state has its own laws about what happens if you have no will, and those laws are usually based on bloodlines or kinship. Most states leave two-thirds of your assets to your children and one-third to your spouse. Will your spouse be able to maintain the same standard of living, or even remain in the family home if this is how assets are distributed? A no-will situation is a no-win situation and can fracture even the best families.

Wills are used to name guardians for minor children. No parent, especially young parents, thinks that anything will happen to them, or even more unlikely, to both parents. However, it does. Creating a will offers the opportunity to name guardians to care for your children after death. If you don’t designate a guardian, a judge will. The judge will have never met your children, nor understand your family’s dynamics, and might even determine that the children should be raised by strangers.

Wills and pet trusts can protect pets after your demise. If you have beloved animal companions, it’s important to understand what can happen to them after you die. The law considers pets to be property, so you can’t leave money to your pet. However, you can create a pet trust and name a person to be the caregiver for your pet, if it survives you. The trust is enforceable, and the pet’s care can be detailed. Otherwise, there is no guarantee your pet will avoid being euthanized.

Taxes are part of death. Creating an estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about estate taxes, could save your heirs from losing a significant part of their inheritance. There are many tools and strategies to minimize taxes, including making charitable gifts. Plans for large estates can be structured in a way to avoid as much as 40% of tax exposure. It’s even more important to protect a smaller estate from being lost to taxes.

Peace of mind. Remember, wills and estate plans are not just for the benefit of the person who creates them. They are for the family, the surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren. If you did not take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan, they are the ones who will live with the consequences. In many cases, it could change their lives—and not for the better.

Putting it off never ends well. When you’re young and healthy, it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. However, live long enough, and you learn life has ups and downs and unexpected events—like death and serious illness—happen to everyone. Creating an estate plan won’t make you die sooner but having one can provide you and your loved ones with security, so you can focus on living.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

How Does an Inherited IRA or 401(k) Work?
Inherited IRA written on a piggy bank

How Does an Inherited IRA or 401(k) Work?

The rules for inheriting retirement assets are complicated—just as complicated as the rules for having 401(k)s and IRA to begin with. Mistakes can be hard to undo, warns the article “Here’s how to handle the complicated rules for an inherited 401(k) or IRA” from CNBC.

The 2019 Secure Act changed how inherited tax deferred assets are treated after the original owner’s death. The options depend upon the relationship between the owner and the heir. The ability to stretch out distributions across the heir’s lifetime if the owner died on or after January 1, 2020 ended for most heirs. Exceptions are the spouse, certain disabled beneficiaries, or minor children of the decedent. Otherwise, those accounts must be depleted within ten years.

Non-spouses with flexibility include minor children. That’s all well and fine, but once the minor child turns 18 (in most states), the 10-year rule kicks in and the individual has 10 years to empty the account. Before that time, the minor child must take annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) based on their own life expectancy.

These required withdrawals typically begin when a retiree reaches age 72, and the amount is based on the account owner’s anticipated lifespan.

Beneficiaries who are chronically ill or disabled, or who are not more than ten years younger than the decedent, may take distributions based on their own life expectancy. They are not subject to the ten- year rule.

Beneficiaries subject to that ten-year depletion rule should create a strategy, including creating an Inherited IRA and transferring the funds to it. If the inherited account is a Roth or a traditional IRA, the process is slightly different. Distributions from a Roth IRA are generally tax-free, and traditional IRA distributions are taxed when withdrawals occur. One point about Roths—if you inherit a Roth that’s less than five years old, any earnings withdrawn will be subject to taxes, but the contributed after-tax amounts remain tax-free.

If an heir ends up with a retirement account via an estate, versus being the named beneficiary on the account, the account must be depleted within five years, if the original owner had not started taking RMDs. If RMDs were underway, the heir would need to keep those withdrawals going as if the original owner continued to live.

For spouses, there are more options. First, roll the money into your own IRA and follow the standard RMD rules. At age 72, start taking required withdrawals based on your own life expectancy. If you don’t need the income, you can leave the money in the account, where it can continue to grow. However, if you are not yet age 59½, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take money from the account. In that case, put the money into an Inherited IRA account, with yourself as the beneficiary.

IRAs and 401(k)s are complicated. Speak with your estate planning attorney to make an informed decision when creating an estate plan, so your inherited assets will work with, not against, your overall strategy.

Reference: CNBC (April 11, 2021) “Here’s how to handle the complicated rules for an inherited 401(k) or IRA”

What Is a SLAT in Estate Planning?

A SLAT is a type of irrevocable trust that can only be used by married couples for the benefit of a spouse, children, or other beneficiaries. Is a SLAT right for your family? The recent article titled “Should a SLAT Be Part Of Your Estate Planning?” from Forbes examines when a SLAT works, and when it doesn’t.

A SLAT works well while your spouse is alive. They have access to it and the assets it contains, since they are the beneficiary. As of this writing, up to $11,700,000 of assets can be removed from a taxable estate using your federal estate tax exemption, while your spouse continues to have access to the assets.

Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it? However, there are drawbacks. If your spouse dies, you lose access to the assets. They will pass to the remainder beneficiaries in the trust, typically children, but they can be other beneficiaries of your choice.

If you and your spouse divorce, the spouse is still a beneficiary of the SLAT. Ask your estate planning attorney if this is something they can build into the SLAT but be mindful that if the attorney is representing both spouses for estate planning, there will be ethical considerations that could get tricky.

What about a SLAT for each spouse? If you and your spouse both establish SLATs to benefit each other, you run the risk of the “reciprocal trust doctrine.” The IRS could take the position that the trusts cancel each other out, and rule that the only reason for the SLAT was to remove taxable assets from your estate.

The SLATs need to be different from each other in more than a few ways. Your estate planning attorney will need to develop this with you. A few ways to structure two SLATs:

  • Create them at different times. The more time between their creation, the better.
  • Consider establishing the trusts in different states.
  • Have different trustees.
  • Vary the distribution rules for the surviving spouse and the distribution rules upon the death of the second spouse. For instance, one spouse’s trust could hold the assets in lifetime trusts for the children, while the other spouse’s trust could terminate, and assets be distributed to the children when they reach age 40.

The SLAT is an especially useful way to address tax liability. If you have not maxed out lifetime gifts in 2020, now is the time to start this process. December 2025, when the federal estate tax exemption reverts back to $5 million, will be here faster than you think. If the country needs to find revenue quickly, that change may come even sooner. Tax reform that occurs in 2021 is not likely to be retroactive to January 1, 2021, but there are no guarantees.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2021) “Should a SLAT Be Part Of Your Estate Planning?”

Some States Have No Estate or Inheritance Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in state death taxes.

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own inheritance or estate taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. In 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.

President Joseph Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and the “infrastructure improvements” he plans, but many believe such a move would potentially destroy family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy in the first place. If that were not troubling enough, President Biden has threatened to eliminate the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

This change at the federal level is likely to push changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that tax planning as a part of estate planning will become important in the near future.

States with high estate tax exemptions could reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased the estate tax exemption from $4.25 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021, after sitting at $2.75 million from 2011 to 2019.

Connecticut’s estate tax exemption had been $2 million for more than ten years, but in 2021 it will be $7.1 million. Connecticut has many millionaires that the state does not wish to scare away, so the Nutmeg state is keeping a $15 million cap, which would be the tax due on an estate of about $129 million.

Three states increased their exemptions because of inflation. Maine has slightly increased its exemption because of inflation to $5.9 million, up from $5.8 million in 2020. Rhode Island is at $1,595.156 in 2021, up from $1,579,922 in 2020. In New York, the exemption amount increased to $5.93 million in 2021, from $5.85 million in 2020.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped the estate tax, but kept an inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount. Most states do not have a portability provision.

Another way to grab revenue is targeting the richest estate with rate hikes, which is what Hawaii did. As of January 1, 2020, Hawaii boosted its state estate tax on estates valued at more than $10 million to 20%.

If you live in or plan to move to a state where there are state death taxes, talk with your estate planner to create a flexible estate plan that will address the current and future changes in the federal or state exemptions. Some strategies could include the use of disclaimer trusts or other estate planning techniques. While you’re at it, keep an eye on the state’s legislature for what they’re planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”