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”

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”

What are Typical Estate Planning Documents?

For many people, eight documents form the foundation of an estate plan. It’s not that difficult a project as it seems, explains the article “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate” from msn.com. When you’ve completed your estate plan, you’ll also gain the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done what was needed to protect your family. It’s well worth the effort.

Last will and testament. This is the basic document that gives you the ability to tell your family what you want to happen with your assets. It is used to name an executor—a person who will be in charge of managing your estate. Your will is also where you name a guardian who will be in charge of raising minor children. You can use the will to convey funeral instructions, but you may want to do that in a separate document, in case your will isn’t found right away. Your estate planning attorney will help you figure out the best way to handle that.

What happens if you don’t have a will? In that case, a probate court will determine who will be your executor. It might be a spouse, a grown child, or someone you don’t know or would not want to handle your estate. It’s best to have a will and select your executor yourself. When your estate goes through probate, all of the information in your will becomes part of the public record, so don’t put anything in your will, like passwords or account numbers.

Revocable living trust. Trusts are used to pass assets and property without going through probate. Your estate planning attorney will help create the trust and you’ll decide who will be in charge of it upon your death. You can be the trustee while you are living, but then you lose any estate tax benefits. If you have substantial property or wealth, trusts are a good tool to control assets and save on estate taxes.

Beneficiary designations. Any time you purchase a new insurance policy or a retirement plan, you are asked to name a beneficiary. If your first job came with a retirement plan, you likely also named a beneficiary for that plan. These designations allow the assets to pass directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They aren’t included in your will and they don’t go through probate. The biggest problem with beneficiary designations? Neglecting to update them through the many changes in life. Review and update your beneficiary designations on a regular basis.

Durable power of attorney. This document allows you to name the person to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. They can manage your legal and financial affairs. Here’s an important point: if you become incapacitated, you cannot assign this role to someone. It needs to be done when you are legally competent.

Health care power of attorney and living will. The health care power of attorney lets someone else make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are too sick to do so yourself. The living will gives you the opportunity to explain what kind of care you do or do not want if you are close to death. If the idea of staying alive on a heart machine makes you unhappy, for instance, you can document your wishes, so loved ones don’t have to wonder what you want.

Digital assets. Much of our lives are lived online, and we have assets that won’t be found in a search of the attic or basement. Each online platform that you use may have a directive process, where you can clearly state who you want to have access to your digital assets and what you would like to have happen to them upon your death.

A letter of intent. Writing a letter of intent is a way to convey your wishes to loved ones for what you’d like to happen after you die. It may not be legally enforceable, like a will or a trust, but your loved ones will appreciate knowing what you want for funeral planning or a memorial service.

List of important documents. Sparing your family a post-mortem scavenger hunt is a gift to the living. Make a list of documents and make sure they know where important documents can be found. Include a list of routine bills, the professionals you rely on, including contact information and account numbers. Some families use a briefcase to store the important papers, but a fireproof and waterproof safe is more secure.

Reference: msn.com (June 19, 2021) “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate”

What Is the Main Purpose of a Trust?

There are advantages and disadvantages of an irrevocable trust, and you’ll want to be fully informed before taking steps that may be costly to undo, explains the article “Understanding your trust” from The Sentinel. Once your home is deeded to an irrevocable trust, you won’t be able to make any changes without getting permission from the beneficiary or beneficiaries named in the trust. Your rights of ownership are transferred to the trust, when you deed it to the trust.

A separate legal agreement with the trustee, the person in charge of the trust, will be needed to give you a legal right to occupy the home also. Any changes could be made but will take time and could be costly. Changes can also only be made, if the beneficiaries agree.

There was a time when lenders inserted clauses into mortgages that any time a sale or transfer of the deed occurred, full payment of the mortgage would be due. This changed, and today the mortgage is not due just because of a change in the deed. However, it may be a challenge to refinance, if the home is held in an irrevocable trust.

For most people, the reason to put a home into an irrevocable trust is to prevent the home from being lost to a creditor, including protecting the home’s equity from the cost of nursing home care, during life or after death. In some states, like Pennsylvania, the state will initiate a collection action against the estate to recover the amount paid for the deceased homeowner’s nursing care costs.

The move to put a home into an irrevocable trust can work as long as the trust remains intact, and the homeowner does not apply for financial assistance for nursing home care for at least five years from the date that the deed was transferred as recorded in the courthouse.

If long-term care needs arise before that time, putting the home into an irrevocable trust may not serve its intended purpose.

There are some tax benefits from an irrevocable trust. If the homeowner lives at least one year after the home is deeded to the trust, in some states no inheritance taxes will be due on the home. Check with a local estate planning attorney to learn what the rules are in your state.

If the trust is prepared by an experienced elder law attorney, it is likely that the capital gain on the sale of the home by the trust after the homeowner’s death will be taxed based on the home’s value at the time of sale, rather than the value at the time it is placed into the trust or on the day of death.

If the home is the only asset in the trust, the taxpayer ID of the trust will be the homeowner’s Social Security number, and no annual tax return is required. If, however, other assets, particularly income-producing assets, are placed in the trust, then the trust needs to have its own EIN (a federal tax identification number) and annual tax returns will need to be paid. Taxes on a trust are normally at a higher rate than individual income rates.

Your estate planning attorney will explain the numerous strategies that can be used to protect your assets and your home from the high cost of long-term care. There are many Medicaid compliant techniques and tools, depending upon the situation of the individual and the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (April 23, 2021) “Understanding your trust”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning attorneys aren’t the only professionals to advise anyone who is a legal adult and of sound mind to have a will. Financial advisors, CPAs and other professional advisors recognize that without a will, a person places themselves and their family in an unnecessarily difficult position. A recent article titled “One document everyone should have” from the Aiken Standard explains why this document is so important and what else is needed for an estate plan. A will is a “testamentary” document, meaning it becomes operative, only when the person who makes the will (the “testator”) dies.

The process of probate can only begin upon death. Each county or jurisdiction has a probate court, where the estate assets of deceased individuals are administrated. On the date a person dies, those assets must be identified. Some assets must be used to pay debts, if there are any, and the balance is distributed either according to the directions in the will or, if there is no will or the will has been deemed to be invalid, according to the laws of the state.

All this assumes, by the way, that the decedent did not arrange for his or her assets to pass without probate, by various non-probate transfer methods. For example, there is no probate required, if there is a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary.

When there is no will and assets are subject to probate, then such assets are passed by intestacy, which usually means they are distributed along the lines of kinship. This may not always be the desired outcome, but with no will, the law controls asset distribution.

Why is a will important?

  • It allows you to leave specific property to specific loved ones, friends, or charities.
  • It may be used to provide funeral and burial instructions, although they can also be provided in a different document, so they are available to family or friends immediately.
  • A will can direct how you want assets to be used to pay debts, any taxes and payment of estate administration expenses, which include the cost of probate, legal fees and executor fees.
  • A will can be used to minimize estate taxes, which may be levied not just by the federal government but also by the state.
  • The will names the estate’s executor and the extent of his or her powers.
  • If there are minor children, the will is used to name a guardian to raise the children.
  • If you would like to disinherit any relative, the will provides the means to doing so.

Everyone needs a will, regardless of how large or small their personal assets may be. Every adult should also have an estate plan that includes other important documents, like a Power of Attorney to name another individual to act on your behalf, if you are unable to do so because of an injury or illness. A Healthcare Proxy and a Living Will are also important, so those who love you can follow your end of life care wishes.

Reference: Aiken Standard (March 13,2021) “One document everyone should have”

Roth IRA has a 5-Year Rule

Roth IRAs are popular for their flexibility and the simplicity of putting after-tax dollars in and not paying taxes on withdrawals during retirement. However, making the most of a Roth IRA requires paying attention to the details, according to a recent article “What is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?” from U.S. News & World Report.

More specifically, there are certain five-year rules that can undo all the good that comes from using a Roth, if you don’t know them. Avoid paying penalties or fees, by understanding how the Roth IRA rules work.

The Roth IRA five-year rule applies to investment earnings, and not to initial contributions. If you make withdrawals of investment earnings before the five-year time period, you’ll get hit with taxes and penalties, no matter how old you are. Many people think that once they turn 65 or 70, they can tap their Roth IRA whenever they want, but that’s not true.

Once you’ve opened and funded a Roth IRA, you’ll have to wait five years until you can start taking tax-free withdrawals of your investment earnings. The clock starts ticking on the date you open the account and make your very first contribution.

After five years, there are still certain requirements that must be met to take out earnings without a penalty. Before you can take out tax-free withdrawals, you will need to be at least 59½ or older.

That’s even if your first contribution was made the year you celebrated your 58th birthday. You’ll need to wait until age 63 before you may take qualified distributions from the account. The five-year rule applies, even if you opened the Roth IRA at age 70.

How is this time frame calculated? The IRS does it based on tax years. A tax year runs from January 1 to December 31. The deadline for contributions is the same as the deadline for filing taxes. Let’s say you funded a Roth IRA in April 2021 for the calendar year of 2020. The five-year rule begins on January 1, 2020. Apply the five-year rule, and you could begin taking withdrawals from the account on or after January 1, 2025.

What happens if you need to make withdrawals before the account hits that five-year mark? In that case, withdraw contributions to the account and not investment earnings.

If you’ve contributed money to a Roth IRA account, you can take that money out with no tax or penalty, no matter how old you are. However, make sure you meet all of the requirements. Remember that to avoid any taxes or penalties, you’ll need to leave the earnings in the account.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (March 10, 2021) “What is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate planning should be a business-like process, where people evaluate the assets they have accumulated over time and make clear decisions about how to leave their assets and legacy to those they love. The reality, as described in the article “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe,” from Kiplinger, is not so straightforward. Emotions take over, as does a feeling that time is running short, which is sometimes the case.

Reactive decisions rarely work as well in the short and long term as decisions made based on strategies that are set in place over time. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make, when creating an estate plan or revising one in response to life’s inevitable changes.

Estate plans are all about tax planning. Strategies to minimize taxes are part of estate planning, but they should not be the primary focus. Since the federal exemption is $11.58 million for 2020, and fewer than 3% of all taxpayers need to worry about paying a federal estate tax, there are other considerations to prioritize. If there is a family business, for example, what will happen to the business, especially if the children have no interest in keeping it? In this case, succession or exit planning needs to be a bigger part of the estate plan.

The children should get everything. This is a frequent response, but not always right. You may want to leave your descendants most of your estate, but ask yourself, could your lifetime’s work be put to use in another way? You don’t need to rush to an automatic answer. Give consideration to what you’d like your legacy to be. It may not only be enriching your children and grandchildren’s lives.

My children are very different, but it’s only fair that I leave equal amounts to all of them. Treating your children equally in your estate plan is a lot like treating them exactly the same way throughout their lives. One child may be self-motivated and need no academic help, while another needs tutoring just to maintain average grades. Another may be ready to step into your shoes at the family business, with great management and finance skills, but her sister wants nothing to do with the business. The same family includes offspring with different dreams, hopes, skills and abilities. Leaving everyone an equal share doesn’t always work.

Having a trust takes care of everything. Well, not exactly. In fact, if you neglect to fund a trust, your family may have a mess to deal with. A sizable estate may need revocable or irrevocable trusts, but an estate plan is more complicated than trust or no trust. First, when an asset is placed into an irrevocable trust, the grantor loses control of the asset and the trustee is in control. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, not the grantor of the trust. The beneficiaries include the current and future beneficiaries, so the trustee may have to answer to more than one generation of beneficiaries. Problems can arise when one family member has been named a trustee and their siblings are beneficiaries. Creating that dynamic among family members can create a legacy of distrust and jealousy.

My estate advisors are all working well with each other and looking out for me. In a perfect world, this would be true, but it doesn’t always happen. You have to take a proactive stance, contacting everyone and making sure they understand that you want them to cooperate and act as a team. With clear direction from you, your professional advisors will be able to achieve your goals.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 17, 2020) “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe”

That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”