401(k)

Is an Ex-Wife Entitled to an Inheritance from Her Former Husband?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My brother died of COVID-19. Should his ex-wife get an inheritance?” says that it’s unlikely that an ex-wife is entitled to an inheritance from her former husband’s estate.  However, the answer is highly dependent on state law.

There are three main ways property can transfer at death. They each have different rules.

ex-wife entitled to inheritance from her husband
It is not likely that an ex-wife is entitled to an inheritance from her former husband’s estate.

Joint assets. When property is held as Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS), the surviving joint owner automatically becomes the sole owner of the property. Usually, jointly owned property is retitled into individually owned property after the divorce. If this was never done, some states automatically change JTWROS property to a different form of joint ownership, called Tenancy In Common when a divorce is finalized. As a result, with tenants in common property, when one owner dies, his or her 50% ownership interest becomes a probate asset and passes pursuant to his or her will (or the state’s intestacy laws, if they didn’t have a will).

This means that even if the husband in this scenario still owned JTWROS property with his ex-wife when he passed away, she wouldn’t automatically inherit his share. She still has her own 50% share that she owned all along.

Beneficiary designations.  Property can also pass by beneficiary designation, like with life insurance or retirement accounts.

Beneficiary designations are typically updated after a divorce. However, again, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about your state laws. For example, some state’s laws revoke a divorced spouse as beneficiary, even if the beneficiary designation was never updated.

In this situation, even if the husband named his wife as a beneficiary on an insurance policy or retirement accounts and never changed it, she wouldn’t be able to collect.

Probate.  Finally, the third way that property can pass, is through the probate process. This means there’s a will.  If there was no will, it would be pursuant to the state’s intestacy laws.

An ex-spouse is never entitled to inherit property under state intestate statutes.

There’s an important caveats for these rules. They can be superseded by a divorce decree. Therefore, review the divorce decree to see whether it has any relevant language.

Reference: nj.com (Aug. 4, 2020) “My brother died of COVID-19. Should his ex-wife get an inheritance?”

How the CARES Act has Changed RMDs for 2020

Before the CARES Act, most retirees had to take withdrawals from their IRAs and other retirement accounts every year after age 72. However, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, has made some big changes that help retirees. Whether you have a 401(k), IRA, 403(b), 457(b) or inherited IRA, the rules have changed for 2020. A recent article in U.S. News & World Report, “How to Skip Your Required Minimum Distribution in 2020,” explains how it works.

For starters, remember that taking money out of any kind of account that has been hit hard by a market downturn, locks in investment losses. This is especially a hard hit for people who are not working and won’t be able to put the money back. Therefore, if you don’t have to take the money, it’s best to leave it in the retirement account until markets recover.

RMDs are based on the year-end value of the previous year, so the RMD for 2020 is based on the value of the account as of December 31, 2019, when values were higher.

Remember that distributions from traditional 401(k)s and IRAs are taxed as ordinary income. A retiree in the 24% bracket who takes $5,000 from their IRA is going to need to pay $1,200 in federal income tax on the distribution. By postponing the withdrawal, you can continue to defer taxes on retirement savings.

Beneficiaries who have inherited IRAs are usually required to take distributions every year, but they too are eligible to defer taking distributions in 2020. Experts recommend that if at all possible, these distributions should be delayed until 2021.

Automatic withdrawals are how many retirees receive their RMDs. That makes it easier for retirees to avoid having to pay a huge 50% penalty on the amount that should have been withdrawn, in addition to the income tax that is due on the distribution. However, if you are planning to skip that withdrawal, make sure to turn off the automated withdrawal for 2020.

If you have already taken the distribution before the law was passed (in March 2020), you might be able to roll the money over to an IRA or workplace retirement account, but only within 60 days of the distribution. You can also only do that once within a 12-month period. If the deadline for a rollover contribution falls between April 1 and July 14, you have up to July 15 to put the funds into a retirement account.

For those who have contracted COVID-19 or suffered financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, the distribution might qualify as a coronavirus hardship distribution. Talk with your accountant about classifying the distribution as a COVID-19 related distribution. This will give you an option of spreading the taxes over a three-year period or putting the money back over a three-year period.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 4, 2020) “How to Skip Your Required Minimum Distribution in 2020

Coronavirus Stimulus Allows Retirees to Tap Funds Early, With Little or No Penalties

For a limited time, Americans will now be able to withdraw money from tax-deferred accounts without penalties, under the Coronavirus Stimulus law. Rules on taking loans from 401(k)s will also be loosened up, and some retirees will be able to avoid Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) that otherwise would have been costly, says the article “Coronavirus stimulus lets struggling Americans tap retirement accounts early” from the Los Angeles Times.

In some cases, these changes reflect what has been done for retirement savers in previous disasters. However, for the most part, these are more intense than in other events. The chief government affairs officer of the American Retirement Association, Will Hansen, says that we are now in uncharted territory as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The numbers of people filing for unemployment make it likely that many people will be tapping their retirement accounts.

One provision in the bill would allow investors of any age to take as much as $100,000 from their retirement accounts without any early withdrawal penalties. If the money is put back in the account within three years, there won’t be any taxes due. If the money is not put back, taxes can be paid over the course of three years. The law says that the money must be a “coronavirus-related distribution,” but the rules are loose.

People who test positive for the virus, along with anyone who experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of the pandemic, including being unable to find work or childcare, are permitted to make these withdrawals.

The bill also makes it easier to borrow money from 401(k) accounts, raising the limit on these loans from $50,000 to $100,000. The payment dates for any loans due in 2020 are extended for a year.

Retirees in their early 70s were previously required to start taking money out of tax-deferred accounts and start paying taxes on those distributions. The bill also waives these rules.

U.S. individual retirement accounts held nearly $20 trillion in assets at the end of 2019. While those amounts have certainly dropped due to market volatility, Americans still hold a lot of money in retirement accounts.

However, pre- and post-retirees need to think carefully about withdrawing large sums of money now. For pre-retirees, this should only be a last resort. Some professionals think the 401(k)-loan amount is too high and that people will jump to take out too much money, which will never find its way back.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2019, Americans ages 25-55 take approximately $69 billion a year from their retirement accounts. Once the money is gone, it’s not able to earn future tax-deferred returns.

Reference: Los Angeles Times (March 27, 2020) “Coronavirus stimulus lets struggling Americans tap retirement accounts early”

What Should I Know about Beneficiary Designations?

A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy or some type of investment account as the designated recipient of those assets, in the event of the account holder’s death. The beneficiary designation doesn’t replace a signed will but takes precedence over any instructions about these accounts in a will. If the decedent doesn’t have a will, the beneficiary may see a long delay in the probate court.

If you’ve done your estate planning, most likely you’ve spent a fair amount of time on the creation of your will. You’ve discussed the terms with an established estate planning attorney and reviewed the document before signing it.

FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Customizing Your Beneficiary Designations” points out, however, that with your IRA, you probably spent far less time planning for its ultimate disposition.

The bank, brokerage firm, or mutual fund company that acts as custodian undoubtedly has a standard beneficiary designation form. It is likely that you took only a moment or two to write in the name of your spouse or the names of your children.

A beneficiary designation on account, like an IRA, gives instructions on how your assets will be distributed upon your death.

If you have only a tiny sum in your IRA, a cursory treatment might make sense. Therefore, you could consider preparing the customized beneficiary designation form from the bank or company.

You can address various possibilities with this form, such as the scenario where your beneficiary predeceases you, or she becomes incompetent. Another circumstance to address, is if you and your beneficiary die in the same accident.

These situations aren’t fun to think about but they’re the issues usually covered in a will. Therefore, they should be addressed, if a sizeable IRA is at stake.

After this form has been drafted to your liking, deliver at least two copies to your custodian. Request that one be signed and dated by an official at the firm and returned to you. The other copy can be kept by the custodian.

Reference: FEDweek (Dec. 26, 2019) “Customizing Your Beneficiary Designations”

What has the Average American Saved for Retirement?

It’s the question we all wonder about, but not very many of us will come out and ask. A 2019 analysis of more than 30 million retirement accounts by Fidelity Investments found that the average balance in corporate sponsored 401(k) plans at the end of 2018 was $95,600. When it came to traditional, Roth and rollover IRAs, the number was $98,400, reports Investopedia in a recent article titled “What Is the Size of the Average Retirement Nest Egg?” A look at 403(b) and other defined contribution retirement plans in the non-profit sector found that it was $78,7000. These numbers were down between 7.8%-8% from the same quarter of the prior year. Blame the stock market for that.

Averages like this only indicate a few things. Younger workers, for example, tend to have less in their retirement accounts than older workers. Their salaries are smaller, and they haven’t had decades to accumulate tax deferred income in their accounts. However, that gap is wide.

A June 2018 report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies looked at a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 workers and broke out retirement savings by generation. The boomer members had estimated median retirement savings of $164,000 in 2017, while Gen Xers had $72,000 and millennials had $37,000.

Aside from age, the big factors in retirement savings success seem to be education and income. People with higher income put more money into their retirement accounts. The Transamerica study shows that households with incomes of under $50,000 had estimated median retirement savings of $11,000. Households with incomes between $50,000 and $99,999 had median savings of $61,000 and those with incomes of $100,000 or more had $215,000.

The higher the level of education, the more money people have set aside for retirement.

Therefore, if you’re wondering how your nest egg compares to the average nest egg, the first thing you’ll want to do is decide to whom you want to compare yourself and your nest egg. You can compare yourself to the U.S. population in general, or to people who are more like you in education, age and income.

Here’s an unnerving thought: no matter if your nest egg is way above your peer group, that doesn’t mean it will be enough when retirement rolls around. Everyone’s situation is different, and life hands us unexpected surprises.

One way to prepare is to have an estate plan. If you don’t already have an estate plan, which includes a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, possibly trusts and other strategic tools for tax planning and wealth transfer, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 24, 2019) “What Is the Size of the Average Retirement Nest Egg?”

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. And once you have a will, that’s not the end of your estate planning.  There’s still some work to be done to make sure your family isn’t left with an expensive mess to clean up.  Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.

Your Will is only one piece of your estate planning.

Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.

However, not all assets are disposed of by a will—they pass to beneficiaries regardless of the intentions stated in the will. Your will only controls the disposition of assets that fall within your probated estate.

An example of when a designated beneficiary controls the disposition of a financial asset is life insurance. Other examples are retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. When there’s a named beneficiary, assets will be distributed accordingly, which may be different than the intentions stated in a will.

The title of real estate controls its disposition. When property is jointly owned, how it is titled determines if the decedent’s interest in the property passes to the surviving partner, becomes part of the decedent’s estate, or passes to a third party. Titling of jointly owned property can be complicated in community property states.

In the same light, a revocable trust is an inter vivos or living trust that’s created during the grantor’s life, as part of an estate plan.

Such a trust can be used to ensure privacy, avoid the expenses and delays in the probate process and provide for continuity of asset management. A critical part of the planning is that the grantor must transfer (or retitle) assets to the trust.

Wills are very important in estate planning. To ensure that your estate plan fulfills your intentions, talk to an estate planning attorney about the proper titling of your assets.

Reference: Forbes (May 20, 2019) “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled”

Will the RMD Age Be Raised by New Legislation?

RMD Age
The new retirement bill may boost the RMD age to 75.

Senator Ben Cardin and Rob Portman’s Retirement Security and Savings Act of 2019 overlaps with some provisions in the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA) of 2019. That bill was introduced on April 1, but RESA only raised the RMD age to 72.

Think Advisor reports in the article “New Retirement Bill Would Boost RMD Age to 75” that the RESA bill, which was introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is similar to H.R. 1994, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019. The latter bill is expected to get a vote on the House floor very soon.

The Portman-Cardin bill phases in the RMD age increase over several years. The bill would also update mortality tables to reflect longer life expectancies.

The bill would also broaden the ability of employer-sponsored 403(b) plans to offer collective investment trusts (CITs). A CIT is a mutual fund-like vehicle used in some 401(k)s and pension plans that can help plan sponsors save on expenses.

The Insured Retirement Institute, a lobbying group for the annuity industry, added its support for the bill.

“Section 117 [of the bill] would level the playing field, by providing insurance products with the same exemptions as CITs,” the group said in a letter to senators, sparking “a robust and competitive marketplace which is vital to ensure Americans have access to the appropriate savings option for their financial situation.”

The bill would also let those with Roth accounts in 457(b), 401(k), 401(a), and 403(b) plans roll Roth IRA assets into these plans. It would also allow 457(b), 401(a), 401(k) and 403(b) plan participants to make qualifying charitable distributions. Right now they are only allowed from IRAs.

Reference: Think Advisor (May 14, 2019) “New Retirement Bill Would Boost RMD Age to 75”

Common Mistakes with Beneficiary Designations

Questions about beneficiary designations are among the most common we hear from new clients in our law practice.  This is a topic that should be among those discussed by an estate planning attorney during your first meeting.

Many people don’t understand that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they pass away. Some of a person’s assets pass by beneficiary designation. That’s accomplished by completing a form with the company that holds the asset and naming who will inherit the asset, upon your death.

Estate Planning Attorney
Assets with a beneficiary designation will not be distributed according to your will.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid,” explains that assets including life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts (think 401(k)s, IRAs, 403bs and similar accounts) all pass by beneficiary designation. Many financial companies also let you name beneficiaries on non-retirement accounts, known as TOD (transfer on death) or POD (pay on death) accounts.

Naming a beneficiary can be a good way to make certain your family will get assets directly. However, these beneficiary designations can also cause a host of problems. Make sure that your beneficiary designations are properly completed and given to the financial company, because mistakes can be costly. The article looks at five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to name a beneficiary. Many people never name a beneficiary for their retirement accounts. If you don’t name a beneficiary for retirement accounts, the financial company has it owns rules about where the assets will go after you die. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely get the assets. If you’re single, the retirement account will likely be paid to your estate, which has negative tax ramifications and may need to be handled through the costly and time-consuming probate courts. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, the assets must be paid out of the retirement account within five years of death. This means an acceleration of the deferred income tax—which must be paid earlier, than would have otherwise been necessary.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every person should receive an asset directly. These are people like minors, those with specials needs, or people who can’t manage assets or who have creditor issues. Minor children aren’t legally competent, so they can’t claim the assets. A court-appointed conservator will claim and manage the money, until the minor turns 18. Those with special needs who get assets directly, will lose government benefits because once they receive the inheritance directly, they’ll own too many assets to qualify. People with financial issues or creditor problems can lose the asset through mismanagement or debts. Ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to be named as the beneficiary.
  3. Designating the wrong beneficiary. Sometimes a person will complete beneficiary designation forms incorrectly. For example, there can be multiple people in a family with similar names, and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names in marriage or divorce. Assets owners can also assume a person’s legal name that can later be incorrect. These mistakes can result in delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, can mean litigation.
  4. Failing to update your beneficiaries. Since there are life changes (like marriage and divorce for example), make sure your beneficiary designations are updated on a regular basis.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary designations with your estate planning attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall financial and estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best approach for your specific situation.

Beneficiary designations are designed to make certain that you have the final say over who will get your assets when you die. Take the time to carefully and correctly choose your beneficiaries and periodically review those choices and make the necessary updates to stay in control of your money.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

What’s the Difference Between Per Capita And Per Stirpes Beneficiary Designations?

A will covers the distribution of most assets upon your death. However, any assets that require beneficiary designations, like 401(k), IRAs, annuities, or life insurance policies, are distributed according to the designation for that account. A beneficiary designation takes precedence over the instructions in a will or trust.

Benzinga’s recent article addresses this question: “Estate Planning: What Are Per Capita And Per Stirpes Beneficiary Designations?” Have you changed the beneficiary designations, since the account or policy was first started? If you need to update your beneficiary designation, talk to the company responsible for maintaining the account. They’ll send you a form to complete, sign and return. Keep a copy for your own records.

You should also name a contingent beneficiary to receive the account, in case the primary beneficiary passes away before you can update the beneficiary list. Without a listed contingency, your account designation goes to a default, based on the original agreement you signed and the state law.

With per capita distribution, all members of a particular group receive an equal share of the distribution. Within a will or trust, that group can be your children, all your combined descendants, or named individuals. Under per capita, the share of any beneficiary that precedes you in death is shared equally among the remaining beneficiaries. Within a beneficiary designation, per capita typically means an equal distribution among your children.

Per stirpes distribution uses a generational approach. If a named beneficiary precedes you in death, then the benefits would pass on to that person’s children in equal parts. Spouses are generally not part of a per stirpes distribution.

Assume that you had two children. With per stirpes, if one child were to precede you in death, the other child would receive half, and the children of the deceased child would get the other half.

Create a list of all your accounts that have beneficiary designations and keep it with your will. If you don’t have a copy of the latest beneficiary designation form, write down the primary beneficiary, contingent beneficiary, and the date the beneficiary designation was last updated for each one.

Remember, it’s important to keep both your will and all beneficiary designations up to date.

Reference: Benzinga (December 26, 2018) “Estate Planning: What Are Per Capita And Per Stirpes Beneficiary Designations?”

Celebrated Your 50th Birthday? Here’s What You Need to Do Next

The 50s are the time of life when your kids are starting to become more independent and may have moved out. If that’s true, you may have a little more disposable income. That presents a good opportunity to ramp up your retirement savings, advises Sioux City Journal in the article “In Your 50s? Do These 3 Things to Plan for Your Retirement.”

Unfortunately, many people who turn 50 start thinking now is the time to retire early, go on extravagant vacations or buy themselves big ticket items that they’ve always wanted. A better approach: consider this a time to make the most of your income, keep saving for retirement and stay on a steady course.

Use the catch-up options available to you. The federal government knows that many people don’t have the means or the motivation to save for retirement until later in their careers. That’s why there are several provisions in the tax laws that let you catch up, once you reach 50.

  • You can put away an additional $1,000 above the annual contribution limit to an IRA.
  • You can add $6,000 in annual contribution to 401(k)s and similar employer-sponsored plans after age 50.
  • Once you pass your 55th birthday, you can make an additional $1,000 annual contribution to health savings accounts.

If you’ve got the cash to spare, these are great opportunities.

Educate yourself about Social Security. Many people rely on Social Security for their retirement, while others use it as a safety net. You’ll want to start learning about the rules.

When you take your first benefits has an impact on how much you’ll receive over your lifetime. Yes, you can start at age 62, but the difference in the amount you’ll get at 62 versus 70 is substantial. If you plan to keep working indefinitely, maximizing earnings is the best way to boost your Social Security benefits.

Get access to savings in the early years of retirement. If you can afford to retire in your 50s, know when you can tap your retirement savings. If you’ve used regular taxable accounts to invest your savings, it won’t matter when you make withdrawals. However, if your money is locked up in 401(k)s, SEPs, IRAs and other tax favored accounts, you’ll need to know the rules. Penalties for taking withdrawals before the specified age, can take a big bite out of your retirement accounts.

It is hard to think about working every day for another 15 or 20 years, once you’ve celebrated your 50th birthday.  However, keeping these three key ideas in mind as you plan for the future will help put you in the best financial state possible.

Another post-50th birthday task? Meet with an estate planning attorney and make sure you have a will, Power of Attorney and other legal documents to protect yourself and your loved ones in case something unexpected should happen.

Reference: Sioux City Journal (Aug. 25, 2018) “In Your 50s? Do These 3 Things to Plan for Your Retirement”

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