Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”

Your Estate Plan is a “Dynamic Document”

One of the most common mistakes people make about their estate planning is neglecting to coordinate all of the moving parts, reports the Dayton Business Journal’s article “Baird expert gives estate planning advice.” The second most common mistake is not thinking of your estate plan as a dynamic document. Many people believe that once their estate plan is done, it’s done forever. That creates a lot of problems for the families and their heirs.

In the last few years, we have seen three major federal tax law changes, including an increase in the federal estate tax exemption amount from $3,500,000 to an enormous $11,580,000. The estate tax exemption is also now portable. Most recently, the SECURE Act has changed how IRAs are distributed to heirs. All of these changes require a fresh look at estate plans. The same holds true for changes within families: births, deaths, marriages and divorces all call for a review of estate plans.

For younger adults in their 20s, an estate plan includes a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and a HIPAA authorization form. People in their 40s need a deeper dive into an estate plan, with discussions on planning for minor children, preparing to leave assets for children in trusts, ensuring that the family has the correct amount of life insurance in place, and planning for unexpected incapacitation. This is also the time when people have to start planning for their parents, with discussions about challenging topics, like their wishes for end-of-life care and long-term care insurance.

In their 60s, the estate plan needs to reflect the goals of the couple, and expectations of what you both want to happen on your passing. Do you want to create a legacy of giving, and what tools will be best to accomplish this: a charitable remainder trust, or other estate planning tools? Ensuring that your assets are properly titled, that beneficiaries are properly named on assets like life insurance, investment accounts, etc., becomes more important as we age.

This is also the time to plan for how your assets will be passed to your children. Are your children prepared to manage an inheritance, or would they be better off having their inheritance be given to them over the course of several years via a trust? If that is the case, who should be the trustee?

Some additional pointers:

  • Revise your estate plan every three or five years with your estate planning attorney.
  • Evaluate solutions to provide tax advantages to your estate.
  • Review asset titling and beneficiary designations.
  • Make sure your charitable giving is done in a tax efficient way.
  • Plan for the potential tax challenges that may impact your estate

Regardless of your age and state, your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through the process of creating and then reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: Dayton Business Journal (February 4, 2020) “Baird expert gives estate planning advice”

 

The Latest on Kirk Douglas’ Estate

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War” explains that Douglas worked steadily in a four-decade period but slowed down after the early 1980s. Since that’s almost 40 years ago, one might think that what would be considered a modest legacy by modern standards would be whittled down considerably. However, Kirk Douglas died extremely rich, despite a long life and decades of semi-retirement.

Douglas was one of the first to ask to participate in the profit of his movies and was one of the first stars to form his own production company. For example, Spartacus was big enough to gross $30 million on its $12 million budget. When he started his company, he refused to pay himself for that film. Instead he took 60% of the profit and wound up about $3 million ahead. His company owned the films and sold off distribution rights.

His widow Anne is now the only shareholder of record. She’s rolled the money into a family trust that over the decades created numerous tiers of holding companies and joint ventures. One of those joint ventures ended up owning half the land under Marina Del Rey’s high-rise Shores apartment complex, a property that cost a reported $165 million to build. The land is nearly priceless.

Now that it’s only Anne, the successor trustees will one day need to decide what to do with the land. She called the shots on the accounting side. Kirk remarked that he didn’t even know where the money was. However, when he found out, he got eager to give it all away. Tens of millions have already been committed to hospitals, schools and theaters.

Estate tax won’t be an issue because Kirk and Anne conducted thorough estate planning so that any wealth that goes to the family will transfer via a trust. That way, they’ll get a portion of the income without triggering estate tax concerns.

Thanks to all of Kirk’s films—many of which he owned like Spartacus—he compiled tens of millions of dollars in cash and stock during his lifetime. In almost 70 years of marital bliss, his planning added up to a lot of marital property. It was good life with good things yet to come.

It’s a testament to the power of long-term thinking. Kirk Douglas’ fortune has remained intact for generations and will undoubtedly keep helping the world for many years to come.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (Feb. 4, 2020) “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War”

Gray Divorces Changing the Future for Many Senior Americans

Add “gray divorce” to the factors leading to strife in estate planning. Minimizing discord among beneficiaries is one of the top three reasons people decide to have estate plans created, but with more gray divorces, things become complicated.

A survey at the 54th Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning conducted by TD Bank asked elder law attorneys, insurance advisors, wealth managers and other professionals on the biggest challenge to estate planning. An article in the Clare County Review titled “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated” explains the problem, and presents some solutions.

Gray divorce, blended families, naming heirs and changing family structures are making it more complicated—and more necessary—to create an estate plan and review it with an estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

More than a third of the 112 professionals participating in the survey said that gray divorce has the biggest impact on retirement planning and funding. It also impacts naming who becomes a person’s power of attorney and how Social Security benefits are determined.

The biggest way to help avoid family conflict in a gray divorce is the same as in any other divorce: regular communication. The family members need to know what is being planned, including who will be the designated beneficiaries and who will be named as executor.

The divorce process is complicated at any age, but after 50, there are usually more assets involved. The spouse is usually listed as the beneficiary on most, if not all, assets. Each asset document must be changed to reflect the new beneficiaries. Dividing pension plans, IRAs, and other retirement funds entails more work than simply changing names on bank accounts (although that also has to happen).

Wills, trusts, life insurance, and titles on real estate must also be changed. Institutions and companies that have accounts must be contacted, with information updated and verified.

Trusts are growing in popularity as a means of leaving assets to heirs, since they can minimize costs and delays when property is transferred. Trusts make it easier to pass assets, if family conflict is expected.

Even when beneficiaries aren’t expecting any cash assets to be left to them, controversies can still erupt over other assets. Adult children may not care about IRAs or trusts, but often the family home has great sentimental value. Deciding what to do with it can lead to fighting among siblings.

For those considering a gray divorce, talking with an estate planning attorney, in addition to a matrimonial attorney, could make this large life change less stressful. The estate planning attorney will be able to work with the matrimonial attorney, to ensure that estate issues are handled properly.

Reference: Clare County Review (February 10, 2020) “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”

Not a Billionaire? Trusts Can Still Be Beneficial

You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of a trust. A trust is a legal arrangement by which one person transfers his or her assets to a trustee who will hold those assets in trust for third parties, explains the Stamford Advocate’s article “Trusts are not for the wealthy only.” As the person who created the trust, referred to as “the settlor,” you determine who the trustee is, as well as naming the beneficiaries.

There are many different types of trusts which serve different purposes. However, the two basic categories of trusts are revocable (also known as “living” trusts) and irrevocable trusts. Their names reflect two chief characteristics: the revocable trust can be changed and controlled by the settlor. The irrevocable trust cannot be changed, and the settlor gives up the control of the trust. However, it should be noted that the irrevocable trust has certain tax and other benefits not offered by the revocable trust.

A will is definitely necessary to pass assets on according to your wishes, but a trust can serve other purposes. Here’s a look at some common reasons why people use trusts:

  • Protect assets from creditors
  • Allow heirs to avoid probate of assets in the trusts
  • Avoid, minimize or delay estate taxes, transfer taxes or income taxes
  • Control how assets are disbursed or invested
  • Facilitate business succession planning and manage business assets
  • Shelter assets for descendants, if a spouse remarries
  • Establish a family tradition of philanthropy

Trusts allow assets to be passed on quickly and privately, while eliminating some expenses for heirs. They also permit closer management of who will benefit from your assets.

The cost of setting up a trust depends on the complexity of the trust and the estate, as well as other factors, like the number of beneficiaries and how many generations are being planned for. Bear in mind that the cost of setting up a trust should be measured against the future cost of not just taxes, but any litigation that might occur if the estate is probated and becomes public knowledge, or if family members are dissatisfied with the distribution of assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to first determine what kind of trusts are needed for your estate plan to achieve your wishes. Discuss the role of a Special Needs trust, if any family members have mental or physical needs that make them eligible for public assistance. An experienced estate planning attorney will know which planning strategies are best in your unique circumstances.

Reference: Stamford Advocate (Jan. 19, 2020) “Trusts are not for the wealthy only”

What’s the Best Thing to Do with an Inherited Investment?

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Handle Inherited Investments” provides us with some of the top inheritance considerations:

Consider Cash. Besides cash, the most common inheritances are securities, real estate and art. These assets usually go up in value, but another big benefit is their favorable tax treatment. The heirs won’t pay capital gains on unsold investments that went up in value during the lifetime of the deceased (estate taxes would apply). Those taxes would only apply to the gains that happened after they took possession.  There’s a good reason to hang onto these investments. These types of property carry some risks, so you may consider putting some of your inherited investments into cash, cash equivalents, or life insurance with a guaranteed payout to avoid exposure to undue risk.

Beware of Concentration Risk. It’s not unusual for an inheritance to be heavily concentrated within a specific asset. While the deceased’s instincts may have been accurate at the time of their initial investment, there’s no guarantee that their strategy will continue to pay dividends long term.  Diversifying into other areas—even with high-volatility vehicles that are unrelated to the original inherited investment—can lessen that concentration risk. An even safer strategy would be to build a portfolio of diverse holdings that includes multiple asset classes across different sectors.

Learn about Trusts. Sometimes when people inherit assets through a trust, they don’t think it’s critical to require anything but a superficial understanding of how these work. This is because the trustee assumes nearly all the fiduciary duties. However, this could change when a beneficiary attains a certain age, which often triggers a dissolution of the trust or stipulates a transfer of trustee responsibilities to them. You should understand what will happen at that point. You may want to create your own trust to distribute part or all of your unmanaged inherited assets to heirs in a framework that suits you best, and without having to go through the probate process. In any event, you should learn how trusts work and the difference between revocable and irrevocable trusts. Ask your estate planning attorney about your specific situation and whether there is a trust that may be best for your circumstances.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 7, 2020) “How to Handle Inherited Investments”

What Does a Successor Trustee Do?

This is a common concern of people when they learn they have been named as a successor trustee, says nwi.com in the article “Estate Planning: The role of a successor trustee.” The first thing to do? Verify that you are a successor trustee and what authority and powers you have. If the settler is disabled, rather than deceased, you’ll need to be sure that you have complied with any requirements to take the position.

The trust that names you as a successor trustee is likely where you will find details of what you must obtain to assume the authority. For example, you may need to have a letter from a physician stating that the settler is incapacitated and can no longer manage his own affairs.

If the settlor is deceased, establishing your authority as successor trustee is easier. Usually, all you’ll need is a death certificate.

Once this has been established, you’ll need to be able to prove that you have this role. Usually this is done through the use of an Affidavit of Trust and Acceptance and Oath. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you with these documents. Some affidavits affirm until the “pain and penalty of perjury that the affiant is the successor trustee” and that you are accepting the designation and agree to serve under the terms of the trust and the laws of your state.

Different estate planning attorneys may approach this differently. Some may use a “certificate of trust,” while others will simply rely on the trust agreement. The important thing is that the successor trustee’s authority is demonstrable.

Once the successor trustee has established that he is appointed properly, he can start administering the trust.

What about selling the family home? Real estate transfers are handled through the local government. To sell a home, you’ll need to transfer the deed, so you will need the deed to the home.

When a successor trustee transfers real estate, a copy of the affidavit of his appointment as the successor trustee and relevant documents could be recorded with the transfer documents. The transfer needs to be approved by a title examiner, and the examiner will want proof that the person in charge of the transaction has the legal authority to do so.

Other assets are transferred in a similar fashion. The asset holder is contacted, a copy of the affidavit and proof of designation as a successor trustee will be needed.

Some estate planning attorneys will add a letter of instruction to the successor trustee providing them with helpful information and tips about estate administration.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 12, 2020) “Estate Planning: The role of a successor trustee”

How Do I Incorporate My Business into My Estate Planning?

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about having it continue after you retire or pass away.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen next or what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.

Business continuity is the biggest concern for entrepreneurs. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge rather than leaving the company’s future in the hands of others who are emotionally invested in you or in your work. One option is to create a living trust and will to put in place parameters that a trustee can carry out. With these names and decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.

Let them be upset with you, rather than with each other. This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names successor trustees to be in charge of operating the business, if you become incapacitated or die.

A power of attorney document will nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning will also preserve your business assets, as advanced tax planning strategies might be implemented to establish specific trusts to minimize the estate tax.

Estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

Business Owners Should Start End-Game Planning Now
Business Strategy Signpost Showing Teamwork Marketing And Plan

Business Owners Should Start End-Game Planning Now

Most parents understand that the ultimate goal of child-rearing is to help a child become an independent adult. For the business owner, this means building a business that would continue after they have retired or passed away. However, when it comes to estate planning, says the article “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later,” from Forbes, many business owners think only about their personal assets and their children.

For a successful business owner who wants to see their business continue long after they have moved on to the next chapter in their lives, the best time to start succession planning is now.

Succession and estate planning should not be something you wait to do until the end of your life. Most people make this mistake. They don’t want to think about their own mortality or what will happen after they’ve died. Very rarely do people realize the value of estate planning and succession planning when they are engaged in a start-up or when their companies are just getting solid footing. They are too busy with the day-to-day concerns of running a business than they are with developing a succession plan.

However, any estate planning attorney who has been practicing for more than a few years knows that this is a big mistake. Securing assets and business planning sooner, not later, is a far better way to go.

Business continuity is the first concern for entrepreneurs. It’s not an easy topic. It’s far better to have this addressed when the owner is well and the business is flourishing. Therefore, the business owner is making decisions and not others, who may be emotionally invested but not knowledgeable about the business.

A living trust and will can put in place certain parameters that a trustee can carry out. This should include naming the individuals who are trusted to make decisions. Having those names and decisions made will minimize the amount of arguing between recipients of assets. Let them be mad at you for your choices, rather than squabbling between each other.

Create a business succession plan that designates successor trustees who will be in charge of managing the business, in the event of the owner’s incapacity or death. A power of attorney document is used to nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf if you should become incapacitated, but a trust should be considered to provide for a smoother transition of the business to successor trustees.

By transferring a business to a trust, the inconvenience and costs of probate may be avoided and assets will be passed along to chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning also preserves business assets, since they can take advantage of advanced tax planning strategies.

Estate and succession planning is usually not top-of-mind for young business owners, but it is essential planning. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to get yourself and your business ahead of the game.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

Image of Sigerson Book

Request a No-Cost, No-Obligation Consultation, and Receive a Complimentary Copy of our new book: The Family Estate Planning and Elder Law Guide