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?”

Short-Cuts to Estate Planning can Lead to Costly Consequences

It seems like a simple way for the children to manage mom’s finances: add the grown children as owners to a bank account, brokerage account or make them joint owners of the home. However, these short-cut methods create all kinds of problems for the parent’s estate and the children themselves, says the article entitled “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price” from Florida Today.

By adding an adult child as owner to the account, the child is being given 50% ownership. The same is true if the child is added to the title for the home as joint owner. If there is more than $30,000 in the account or if the asset is valued at more than $30,000, then the mother needs to file a gift tax return—even if no gift tax is due. If the gift tax return is not filed in a timely manner, there might be a gift tax due in the future.

There is also a carryover basis in the account or property when the adult child is added as an owner. If it’s a bank account, the primary issue is the gift tax return. However, if the asset is a brokerage account or the parent’s primary residence, then the child steps into the parent’s shoes for 50% of the amount they bought the property for originally.

Here is an example: let’s say a parent is in her 80s and you are seeing that she is starting to slow down. You decide to take an easy route and have her add you to her bank account, brokerage account and the deed (or title) to the family home. If she becomes incapacitated or dies, you’ll own everything and you can make all the necessary decisions, including selling the house and using the funds for funeral expenses. It sounds easy and inexpensive, doesn’t it? It may be easy, but it’s not inexpensive.

Sadly, your mom dies. You need some cash to pay her final medical bills, cover the house expenses and maybe a few of your own bills. You sell some stock. After all, you own the account. It’s then time to file a tax return for the year when you sold the stock. When reporting the stock sale, your basis in the stock is 50% step-up in value based on the value of the stock the day that your mom died, plus 50% of what she originally paid for the stock.

If your mom bought the stock for $100 twenty years ago, and the stock is now worth $10,500, when you were added to the account, you now step into her shoes for 50% of the stock—$50. You sold the stock after she died, so your basis in that stock is now $5,050—that’s $5,000 value of stock when she died plus $50: 50% of the original purchase. Your taxable gain is $5,450.

How do you avoid this? If the ownership of the brokerage account remained solely with your mother, but you were a Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiary, you would not have access to the account if your mom became incapacitated and had appointed you as her “attorney in fact” on her general durable power of attorney. What would be the result? You would get a step-up in basis on the asset after she died. The inherited stock would have a basis of $10,000 and the taxable gain would be $500, not $5,450.

A better alternative—talk with an estate planning attorney to create a will, a revocable trust, a general durable power of attorney and the other legal documents used to transfer assets and minimize taxes. The estate planning attorney will be able to create a way for you to get access or transfer the property without negative tax consequences.

Reference: Florida Today (May 20, 2021) , “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price”

Does a Prenup Make Sense?

Take the time to think about your financial plans before you get married to help set you on the right path. chase.com’s recent article entitled “How to prepare your finances for marriage” explains that a prenuptial agreement sets out each prospective spouse’s rights and responsibilities, if one spouse dies or the couple gets divorced.

This is a guide for dividing and distributing assets. A prenuptial agreement can also be a valuable tool for planning since it will take priority over presumptions about what’s deemed community property, separate property, and marital property. A prenup can also prevent one spouse from being responsible for premarital debts of the other in the event of death or divorce.

A prenup is used frequently when one spouse or one spouse’s family is significantly wealthier than the other; or when one family owns a business and wants to make sure only family members can own and manage it.

Negotiate a prenuptial agreement early. If you know that you want to have your fiancé to sign a prenuptial agreement, do it ASAP because some courts have found a prenup invalid because it was entered into under duress and signed and negotiated right before the wedding.

Examine employee benefits. Make certain that you understand know how marriage will impact your employee benefits, especially if you and your spouse are working. See what would be less expensive, and if one offers significantly better coverage. Marriage almost always is a life event that permits you to modify your benefits elections outside of annual open enrollment.

Review beneficiary designations and estate planning documents. It’s common for young people prior to marriage to name their parents or siblings as beneficiary of accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, life insurance and transfer on death (TOD) and payable on death (POD) accounts. Review these designations and accounts and, if needed, change your beneficiary to your new spouse after the wedding. You should also be sure you to update your estate planning documents, including wills, health care designations, powers of attorneys and others, to reflect your new situation.

Communication is critical. Start your marriage with strong communication to help you better face future challenges together.

Reference: chase.com (May 25, 2021) “How to prepare your finances for marriage”

What Happens If an Unmarried Partner Dies?

If you, like so many others, found yourself settling the affairs of a loved one in the last 18 months, you may be well aware of the challenges created when there is no estate plan. The lack of planning can create an enormous headache for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples” from The Street. If this is true for married couples, then it’s even more important for unmarried couples.

Planning for incapacity and death is not fun, but unmarried couples in serious relationships need to plan for the unknown. Even married same-sex couples may face hostility from family members, including will contests and custody battles over children. There are three key issues to address: inheritance, incapacity and end-of-life care and beneficiary designations.

If a partner in an unmarried relationship dies and there is no will, assets belonging to the decedent pass to their family, which could leave their partner with nothing. With no will, the estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. These laws almost always direct the court to distribute the property based on kinship.

A will establishes an unmarried partner’s right to inherit property from the decedent. It is also used to name a guardian for any minor children. Concern about the will being contested by family members is often addressed by the use of trusts. When property is transferred to a trust, it no longer belongs to the individual, but to the trust. A trustee is named to be in charge of the trust. If the surviving partner is the trustee, he or she has access and control of the trust.

A trust helps to avoid probate, as property does not go through probate. A will also only goes into effect after the person who created the will passes away. A revocable living trust is effective as soon as it is established. Trusts allow for more control of assets before and after you pass. The trustee is legally bound to carry out the precise intentions in the trust document.

Establishing a trust is step one—the next step is funding the trust. If the trust is established but not funded, there is no protection from probate for the assets.

Incapacity and end-of-life planning allows you to make decisions about your care, while you are living. Without it, your unmarried partner could be completely shut out of any decision-making process. Here are the documents needed to convey your wishes in an enforceable manner:

Healthcare power of attorney (proxy). This document allows you to name the person you wish to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. You may be very specific about what treatments and care you want—and those you don’t want.

Healthcare directive. The healthcare directive lets you designate your wishes for end-of-life care or any potentially lifesaving treatments. Do you want to be resuscitated, or to have CPR performed?

Durable financial power of attorney. By designating someone in a financial power of attorney, you give that person the right to conduct all financial and legal matters on your behalf. Note that every state has slightly different laws, and the POA must adhere to your state’s guidelines. You may also make the POA as broad or narrow as you wish. It can give someone the power to handle everything on your behalf or confine them to only one part of your financial life.

Beneficiary designations. Almost all tax-deferred retirement accounts and pensions permit a beneficiary to be named to inherit the assets on the death of the original owner. These accounts do not go through probate. Check on each and every retirement account, insurance policies and even bank accounts. Any account with a beneficiary designation should be reviewed every few years to be sure the correct party is named. Estranged ex-spouses have received more than their fair share of happy surprises, when people neglect to update their beneficiaries after divorce.

Some accounts that may not have a clear beneficiary designation may have the option for a Transfer on Death designation, which helps beneficiaries avoid probate.

Review these steps with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your partner and you have made proper plans to protect each other, even without the legal benefits that marriage bestows.

Reference: The Street (June 2, 2021) “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples”

Do Unrecorded Deeds Help or Hurt Estate Planning?

Using an unrecorded deed to transfer property without probate sounds like an easy way to transfer ownership of the family home, but is it asking for trouble? That’s the topic of an article from NWI Times entitled, “Estate Planning: Are unrecorded deeds a good idea?” The fact that the idea came from a family’s attorney makes the question even more important. The attorney told the parents the children could record the deed after their deaths and transfer the property without probate.

Most estate planning attorneys haven’t seen this technique used in a long time, and some may never have heard of it. There’s probably a good reason for this—it’s an estate mess waiting to happen.

First of all, what if the deed itself goes missing? One of the most common questions estate planning attorneys hear is “What do I do because Mom lost the_____?” Fill in the blanks—the deed, the title to the car, the bank statement, etc. Important documents often get lost. If a deed is missing and can’t be recorded, title can’t be transferred. Hoping an important piece of paper doesn’t get lost is not an estate plan.

Until the deed is recorded, and title transferred, the holders of the title still own the property. They can mortgage the property or sell it. The plan for the children to receive and record the deed may not have legal authority.

Laws about how deeds must be created change. Indiana made a change to the law in 2020 that required signatures on deeds to be witnessed. Without the witness, the deeds can’t be recorded. If the adult child is holding a deed for the recording and it’s not witnessed because the parents have died, it can’t be recorded.

There are better ways to transfer ownership of the family home that adhere to the general principles of estate planning.

There are also different types of deeds that are more commonly used in estate planning to transfer home ownership without going through probate. One is a Transfer on Death Deed (TOD Deeds). A TOD deed allows a person to name beneficiaries on their real estate property without giving up any rights of ownership. The TOD deed is recorded, so there’s no worry about mom or pop losing the paperwork.  The TOD deed can also be changed by recording another deed or using an affidavit.

Trusts can also be used to transfer home ownership and keep the transaction out of probate. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain the different types of trusts used to transfer a home. State laws vary, and allowable trusts vary, so talking with a local estate planning attorney is the best option.

Reference: NWI Times (May23, 2021) “Estate Planning: Are unrecorded deeds a good idea?”

What Is a POD Account?
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What Is a POD Account?

Also called a “POD” account, a payable on death account can be created at a bank or credit union and is transferrable without probate at your death to the person you name.

Sports Grind Entertainment’s recent article entitled “Payable on Death (POD) Accounts” explains that there are different reasons for including a payable on death account in your estate plan. You should know how they work, when deciding whether to create one. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you coordinate your investment goals with your end-of-life wishes.

The difference between a traditional bank account and a POD account is that a POD account has a designated beneficiary. This person is someone you want to receive any assets held in the account when you die. A POD account is really any bank account that has a named beneficiary.

There are several benefits with POD accounts to transfer assets. Assets that are passed to someone else through a POD account are not subject to probate. This is an advantage if you want to make certain your beneficiary can access cash quickly after you die. Even if you have a will and a life insurance policy in place, those do not necessarily guarantee a quick payout to handle things like burial or funeral expenses or any outstanding debts that need to be paid. A POD account could help with these expenses.

Know that POD account beneficiaries cannot access any of the money in the account while you are alive. That could be an issue if you become incapacitated, and your loved ones need money to help pay for medical care. In that situation, having assets in a trust or a jointly owned bank account could be an advantage. You should also ask your estate planning attorney about a financial power of attorney, which would allow you to designate an agent to pay bills and the like in your place.

If you are interested in creating a payable on death account, the first step is to talk to your bank to see if it is possible to add a beneficiary designation to any existing accounts you have, or if you need to create a new account. Next, decide who you want to add as a beneficiary.

Reference: Sports Grind Entertainment (May 2, 2021) “Payable on Death (POD) Accounts”

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.

The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

What Is a Transfer on Death Deed?

If a will is overlooked, state law and beneficiary designations on financial accounts or property will control what happens next.

The Williamson Daily News’ recent article entitled “Estate planning ensures your wishes are carried out” explains that intestate succession, which means the deceased didn’t have a will, isn’t always a simple process. For example, there might be issues with multiple marriages with children.

If only living children survive the decedent, the children will get equal shares. That may or may not be a fantastic idea, especially when all of the children may not have been a positive part of their parent’s life.

If some helped a lot and others caused problems, a parent might opt to give more to some than to others. The best way to assure that result is with a will.

That’s especially true in cases where one or more of the children served as the caregiver. Thus, the intent of the parent may be to pass the family home to the primary caregiver.

In some states, for this to occur, a will is no longer needed.

For example, in West Virginia, a property transfer called a transfer on death deed can make sure that a specific person or caregiver gets the home and property at a future time.

You need to work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a transfer on death deed.

Under the terms of the deed, the property ownership won’t change until the owner dies. The transfer to the new owner will then be automatic without any probate.

At any time during the owner’s life, the TOD deed can be revoked, if circumstances change.

In addition to West Virginia, these states have some form of transfer on death deed: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming and DC.

Reference: Williamson (WV) Daily News (April 21, 2021) “Estate planning ensures your wishes are carried out”

How to Avoid Probate

Avoiding probate and minimizing estate taxes are sound estate planning goals, but they shouldn’t be the only focus of an estate plan.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we avoid probate and avoid taxes for our children?” says that proper estate planning is a much broader discussion you should have with a qualified estate attorney. However, the article offers some topics to discuss with an attorney, who can review all the specifics of your situation.

Probate is the legal process for settling the debts, taxes and last expenses of a deceased person and distributing the remaining assets to his or her heirs. The costs and time needed to settle an estate can be burdensome in some states. However, steps can be taken to significantly limit probate.

Without any special planning, there are a few types of assets that can be transferred outside of probate. Items owned jointly with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) automatically become the sole property of the survivor at the first joint owner’s death. This property doesn’t go through probate.

Accounts with beneficiary designations, like retirement accounts, annuities, and life insurance policies also pass outside probate. There is a payable on death (POD) feature that provides for a beneficiary designation on non-retirement accounts (like a bank account), so POD accounts can also be transferred outside of probate.

You can also create a living trust and transfer assets into the trust during your lifetime to avoid probate. Since the trust document dictates the way in which assets are distributed upon the death of the grantor rather than the will, probate is not needed here either.

In addition, ancillary probate is a second, simultaneous process that is needed when real estate is owned in a state outside the decedent’s state of residence.

Placing out-of-state real estate in a living trust is a useful way to avoid ancillary probate. You can also place the out-of-state real estate in a Limited Liability Company (LLC), so the estate owns an interest in an LLC rather than real property. That way, the entire probate process can be handled in the decedent’s state of residence. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to review which of these options — or perhaps another option — would be best for your unique situation and goals.

Other types of trusts, whether created during your lifetime or at your death, can provide creditor protection and ensure that an inheritance stays in the family, as well as help minimize estate taxes.

Under current law, federal estate tax is only due if your estate is worth more than $11.7 million (double that if you are married). A few states also have an estate tax. Other states also have an inheritance tax, but in many instances it does not apply to amounts left to the decedent’s closest relatives, including their children.

Reference: nj.com (March 24, 2021) “How can we avoid probate and avoid taxes for our children?”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”