How Can I Choose an Estate Planning Lawyer?

Only about a third of Americans have an estate plan, according to the article “Choosing an estate planning lawyer” from Senior Matters. The number of people with wills is decreasing, rather than increasing, despite the events of recent years. Estate planning is worth doing, for the peace of mind, the personal and financial protection it provides, not to mention leaving a legacy of caring about the future for the next generation.

Estate planning involves making end-of-life decisions, with an emphasis on both finances and health. Most people think of it as “who gets what,” which is accomplished largely through wills and trusts. For people who have amassed significant assets, this can be complex. An estate planning attorney makes it streamlined and will explain the implications of all aspects of the plan.

Estate planning includes gifting, generation skipping transfers, taxes, advance directives, power of attorney, health care proxies, living wills, naming an executor, organ donations, burial preferences, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders and final wishes.

It is a highly personal process. This is why it’s important to find an attorney who is compassionate, as well as technically proficient. Estate planning attorneys tend to be caring individuals who chose this field of law because they sincerely wish to help others. They also know what happens when the planning is not done, because they also help children when their parents fail to do so.

Some people are reluctant to embark on estate planning, in part because they don’t wish to be reminded of their own mortality. Others are concerned about relatives with designs on their estate. However, not having a plan makes it more likely that relatives or others could challenge the estate and end up owning assets and provides protection.

When a person dies without an estate plan and assets subject to probate, their estate is considered to be “intestate.” Only the court will have any control over how the probate assets are distributed. The probate court will simply follow the laws of your state, which frequently are based on kinship. The exact details vary from state to state, and this is known as “intestate succession.”

The intestate laws may result in outcomes completely different than what you wished. An estranged spouse could end up owning everything, or a child with substance issues could inherit a substantial sum which will be gone in months. In most states, minor children may not receive inheritances, so trusts or custodial accounts are needed.

Estate planning is just as important for people of modest means as it is for wealthy people. If a senior owns their own home, the increase in property values could mean their estate is much bigger than they even realize.

Choosing an Attorney isn’t difficult. Ask friends and family for referrals, visit websites and find an estate planning attorney who shares your values, understands your family and feels like a good fit. Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll gain peace of mind.

Reference: Senior Matters (Aug. 17, 2022) “Choosing an estate planning lawyer”

Can You Leave an IRA to a Beneficiary?

Conversations about death and legacies aren’t always easy. However, defining what matters most to a person is a good way to start estate planning. IRAs can play an important role in estate planning and legacy creation, as discussed in a recent article entitled “IRA Gifts at Death” from The Street.

Let’s say someone has a large portion of their assets in an investment account, a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. If they want to avoid having their estate go through probate but aren’t in love with the idea of building trusts, they need to be sure their IRAs have beneficiaries. At their passing, the assets will flow directly to the beneficiaries.

Make sure that at least one living beneficiary is on the account. If the primary beneficiary is a spouse, be sure to also have contingent beneficiaries, or designate the beneficiary as “per stirpes,” which means if the named beneficiary passes before the account owner, their share of the assets automatically passes to their lineal descendants.

If there’s no valid beneficiary, the contents of an IRA of any kind could end up in the probate estate, creating a nightmare for heirs.

If an intended beneficiary is a charitable organization, passing an IRA is a powerful giving strategy. The organization must be a 501(c)(3), a tax-exempt organization. When IRAs are passed to the charity, the charity doesn’t pay taxes on the gift.

Individual beneficiaries do have to pay taxes on assets received from traditional IRAs, and when and how much they pay depends upon their relationship to the IRA owner. If the recipient is not the spouse, not a minor and not a disabled adult, the heir will need to take taxable withdrawals from the traditional IRA over the course of ten years from the date of death of the original account owner. Some people take a set amount annually, so they can plan for the taxes due. For others, a low-income year is the time to take withdrawals, since their tax bracket may be lower.

Another IRA distribution strategy is to divide IRAs into separate accounts, allowing for increased control over the amount of assets passing to a specific beneficiary. One IRA could be used for your charitable giving, while another IRA could be used to benefit family members.

Changing beneficiaries on your IRA is relatively easy. Checking on beneficiary names should be done every time you review your estate plan, which should happen every three to five years. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help determine the best strategy for your IRAs. Generally speaking, traditional IRAs are best to gift for charities. Roth IRAs are best to gift to family or loved ones. This is because the money in a Roth IRA is inherited tax free and can remain tax free for a number of years.

Reference: The Street (July 17, 2022) “IRA Gifts at Death”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

Special Needs Planning
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Special Needs Planning

When a family includes a disabled individual, sometimes referred to as a “person with special needs,” estate planning needs to address the complexities, as described in a recent article titled “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries” from The News-Enterprise. Failing to do so can have life-long repercussions for the individual.

This often occurs because the testator, the person creating the estate plan, does not know the implications of failing to take the disabled person’s situation into consideration, or when there is no will.

The most common error is leaving the disabled beneficiary receiving an outright inheritance. With a simple will, or no will, the beneficiary receives the inheritance and becomes ineligible for public benefits they may be receiving. The disruption can impact their medical care, housing, work and social programs. It may also lead to the loss of their inheritance.

If the disabled beneficiary does not currently receive benefits, it does not mean they will never need them. After the death of a parent, for instance, they may become completely reliant on public benefits. An inheritance will put them in jeopardy.

A second common error is naming the caregiver as the beneficiary, rather than the disabled individual. This causes numerous problems. The caregiver has the right to do whatever they want with the assets. If they no longer wish to care for the beneficiary, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

If the caregiver has any liabilities of their own, or when the caregiver becomes incapacitated or dies, the assets intended for the disabled individual will be subject to any estate taxes or creditors of the caregiver. If the caregiver has any children of their own, they will inherit the assets and not the disabled person.

The caregiver does not enjoy any kind of estate tax protection, so the estate may end up paying taxes on assets intended for the beneficiary.

The third major planning mistake is using a will instead of a trust as the primary planning method. A Special Needs Trust is designed to benefit a disabled individual to protect the assets and protect the individual’s public benefits. The trust assets can be used for continuity of care, while maintaining privacy for the individual and the family.

Planning for individuals with special needs requires great care, specifically for the testator and their beneficiaries. Families who appear to be similar on the outside may have very different needs, making a personalized estate plan vital to ensure that beneficiaries have the protection they deserve and need.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (March 15, 2022) “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries”

Do You Have to Pay Taxes on Inherited IRAs?

If you’ve inherited an IRA, you won’t have to pay a penalty on early withdrawals if you take money out before age 59½. However, you may have to make those withdrawals earlier than you’d wanted. Doing so may trigger additional income taxes, and even push you into a higher tax bracket. The IRA has always been a complicated retirement account. While changes from the SECURE Act have simplified some things, it’s made others more stringent.

A recent article titled “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?” from Aol.com explains how the traditional IRA allows tax-deductible contributions to be made to the account during your working life. If the IRA includes investments, they grow tax—free. Taxes aren’t due on contributions or earnings, until you make withdrawals during retirement.

A Roth IRA is different. You fund the Roth IRA with after-tax dollars, earnings grow tax free and there are no taxes on withdrawals.

With a traditional inherited IRA, distributions are taxable at the beneficiary’s ordinary income tax rate. If the withdrawals are large, the taxes will be large also—and could push you into a higher income tax bracket.

If your spouse passes and you inherit the IRA, you may take ownership of it. It is treated as if it were your own. Howwever, if you inherited a traditional IRA from a parent, you have just ten years to empty the entire account and taxes must be paid on withdrawals.

There are exceptions. If the beneficiary is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child, or ten years younger than the original owner, you may treat the IRA as if it is your own and wait to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) at age 72.

Inheriting a Roth IRA is different. Funds are generally considered tax free, as long as they are considered “qualified distributions.” This means they have been in the account for at least five years, including the time the original owner was alive. If they don’t meet these requirements, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. Your estate planning attorney will know whether the Roth IRA meets these requirements.

If at all possible, always avoid immediately taking a single lump sum from an IRA. Wait until the RMDs are required. If you inherited an IRA from a non-spouse, use the ten years to stretch out the distributions.

If you need to empty the account in ten years, you don’t have to withdraw equal amounts. If your income varies, take a larger withdrawal when your income is lower and take a bigger withdrawal when your income is higher. This can result in a lower overall tax liability.

If you’ve inherited a Roth IRA and funds were deposited less than five years ago, wait to take those funds out for at least five years. When the five years have elapsed, withdrawals will be treated as tax-free distributions.

One of the best ways for heirs to avoid paying taxes on an IRA is for the original owner, while still living, to convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, paying taxes on contributions and earnings. This reduces the taxes paid if the owner is in a lower tax bracket than beneficiaries, and lets the beneficiaries withdraw funds as they want with no income tax burden.

Reference: Aol.com (Feb. 25, 2022) “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?”

What Is Considered an Asset in an Estate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if a particular asset will be included in an estate, from life insurance and real estate to employment contracts and Health Savings Accounts. The answer is explored in the aptly-titled article, “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?” from Kiplinger.

When you die, your estate is defined in different ways for different planning purposes. You have a gross estate for federal estate taxes. However, there’s also the probate estate. You may also be thinking of whether an asset is part of your estate to be passed onto heirs. It depends on which part of your estate you’re focusing on.

Let’s start with life insurance. You’ve purchased a policy for $500,000, with your son as the designated beneficiary. If you own the policy, the entire $500,000 death benefit will be included in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your estate is big enough ($12.06 million in 2022), the entire death benefit above the exemption is subject to a 40% federal estate tax.

However, if you want to know if the policy will be included in your probate estate, the answer is no. Proceeds from life insurance policies are not subject to probate, since the death benefit passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.

Next, is the policy an estate asset available for heirs, creditors, taxing authorities, etc.? The answer is a little less clear. Since your son was named the designated beneficiary, your estate can’t use the proceeds to fulfill bequests made to others through your will. Even if you disowned your son since naming him on the policy and changed your will to pass your estate to other children, the life insurance policy is a contract. Therefore, the money is going to your son, unless you change this while you are still living.

However, there’s a little wrinkle here. Can the proceeds of the life insurance policy be diverted to pay creditors, taxes, or other estate obligations? Here the answer is, it depends. An example is if your son receives the money from the insurance company but your will directs that his share of the probate estate be reduced to reflect his share of costs associated with probate. If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to cover the cost of probate, he may need to tap the proceeds to pay his share.

Another aspect of figuring out what’s included in your estate depends upon where you live. In community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—assets are treated differently for estate tax purposes than in states with what’s known as “common law” for married couples. Also, in most states, real estate owned on a fee simple basis is simply transferred on death through the probate estate, while in other states, an alternative exists where a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is used.

This legal jargon may be confusing, but it’s important to know, because if property is in your probate estate, expenses may vary from 2% to 6%, versus assets outside of probate, which have no expenses.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence to know what assets are included in your federal estate, what are part of your probate estate and what taxes will be levied on your estate from the state or federal governments and don’t forget, some states have inheritance taxes your heirs will need to pay.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 13, 2021) “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?”

How Much can You Inherit and Not Pay Taxes?

Even with the new proposed rules from Biden’s lowered exception, estates under $6 million won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes for a few years—although state estate tax exemptions may be lower. However, what about inheritances and what about inherited IRAs? This is explored in a recent article titled “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money” from Kiplinger.

If you inherit an IRA from a parent, taxes on required withdrawals could leave you with a far smaller legacy than you anticipated. For many couples, IRAs are the largest assets passed to the next generation. In some cases they may be worth more than the family home. Americans held more than $13 trillion in IRAs in the second quarter of 2021. Many of you reading this are likely to inherit an IRA.

Before the SECURE Act changed how IRAs are distributed, people who inherited IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts transferred their assets into a beneficiary IRA account and took withdrawals over their life expectancy. This allowed money to continue to grow tax free for decades. Withdrawals were taxed as ordinary income.

The SECURE Act made it mandatory for anyone who inherited an IRA (with some exceptions) to decide between two options: take the money in a lump sum and lose a huge part of it to taxes or transfer the money to an inherited or beneficiary IRA and deplete it within ten years of the date of death of the original owner.

The exceptions are a surviving spouse, who may roll the money into their own IRA and allow it to grow, tax deferred, until they reach age 72, when they need to start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). If the IRA was a Roth, there are no RMDs, and any withdrawals are tax free. The surviving spouse can also transfer money into an inherited IRA and take distributions on their life expectancy.

If you’re not eligible for the exceptions, any IRA you inherit will come with a big tax bill. If the inherited IRA is a Roth, you still have to empty it out in ten years. However, there are no taxes due as long as the Roth was funded at least five years before the original owner died.

Rushing to cash out an inherited IRA will slash the value of the IRA significantly because of the taxes due on the IRA. You might find yourself bumped up into a higher tax bracket. It’s generally better to transfer the money to an inherited IRA to spread distributions out over a ten-year period.

The rules don’t require you to empty the account in any particular order. Therefore, you could conceivably wait ten years and then empty the account. However, you will then have a huge tax bill.

Other assets are less constrained, at least as far as taxes go. Real estate and investment accounts benefit from the step-up in cost basis. Let’s say your mother paid $50 for a share of stock and it was worth $250 on the day she died. Your “basis” would be $250. If you sell the stock immediately, you won’t owe any taxes. If you hold onto to it, you’ll only owe taxes (or claim a loss) on the difference between $250 and the sale price. Proposals to curb the step-up have been bandied about for years. However, to date they have not succeeded.

The step-up in basis also applies to the family home and other inherited property. If you keep inherited investments or property, you’ll owe taxes on the difference between the value of the assets on the day of the original owner’s death and the day you sell.

Estate planning and tax planning should go hand-in-hand. If you are expecting a significant inheritance, a conversation with aging parents may be helpful to protect the family’s assets and preclude any expensive surprises.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money”

Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning is crucial to ensure that wealth accumulated over a lifetime is distributed according to your wishes and will take care of your family when you are no longer able to do so. Many well-intentioned people make common mistakes, which could be avoided with the guidance of an estate planning attorney, says the article “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes” from Physician’s Weekly.

Do you have a will? Many families must endure the red tape and expenses of “intestate” probate because a parent never got around to having a will prepared. The process is relatively straightforward: identify an estate planning attorney and make an appointment. Once the will is completed, make sure several trusted people, likely family members, know where it is and can access it.

Are you properly insured? If the last time you looked at your life insurance coverage was more than ten years ago, it’s probably not kept pace with your life. Although every person’s situation is different, high- income earners, like physicians or other professionals, need to understand that life insurance “replaces” income. This means enough to pay for college, pay off a mortgage and provide for your surviving spouse and children’s lifestyles.

When was the last time you spoke with your estate planning attorney, CPA, or financial advisor? Tax laws are constantly changing, and if your estate plan is not keeping up with those changes, you may be missing out on planning opportunities. Your family also may end up with a big tax bill, if your estate plan hasn’t been revised in the last three or four years. Your team of professionals is only as good as you let them be, so stay in touch with them.

When was the last time you reviewed your estate plan with your attorney? If you thought an estate plan was a set-it-and-forget-it plan, think again. Tax laws aren’t the only thing that changes. If you’ve divorced and remarried, you definitely need a new estate plan—and possibly a post-nuptial agreement. Have your children grown up, married and perhaps had children of their own? Do you have a new and troublesome son-in-law and want to protect your daughter’s inheritance? All of the changes in your life need to be reflected in your estate plan.

Having “the talk” with your family. No one wants to think about their own mortality or their parent’s mortality. However, if you don’t discuss your estate plan and your wishes with your family, they will not know what you want to happen. It doesn’t need to be a summit meeting, but a series of conversations to allow your loved ones to become comfortable with the discussion and make it more likely your wishes will be fulfilled. This includes your estate plan and your wishes for burial or cremation and what kind of memorial service you want.

Reference: Physician’s Weekly (Oct. 8, 2021) “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes”

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”