Beneficiary Designations

Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family

Regularly reviewing your estate plan and transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death are basic components of estate plan maintenance. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. Maintaining your estate plan can be simple, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

reviewing your estate plan
You should have your estate plan reviewed every three to five years to ensure it is aligned with your goals.

To take more control over your estate, you’ll want to have an estate planning attorney create and review an estate plan to ensure it continues to achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you haven’t done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You’ll need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

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 to Improve Beneficiary Designations

Beneficiary designations supersede all other estate planning documents, so getting them right makes an important difference in achieving your estate planning goals. Mistakes with beneficiary designations can undo even the best plan, says a recent article from The Street, “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”. Periodically reviewing beneficiary forms, including confirming the names in writing with plan administrators for workplace plans and IRA custodians, is important.

Beneficiary Designations
Keeping your beneficiary designations up to date is one of the most important (and easy) things you can do.

Post-death changes, if they can be made (which is rare), are expensive and generally involve litigation or private letter rulings from the IRS. Avoiding these five commonly made mistakes is a much better way to go.

1—Neglecting to name a beneficiary. If no beneficiary is named for a retirement plan, the estate typically becomes the beneficiary. In the case of IRAs, language in the custodial agreement will determine who gets the assets. The distribution of the retirement plan is accelerated, which means that the assets may need to be completely withdrawn in as little as five years, if death occurs before the decedent’s required beginning date for taking required minimum distributions (RMDs).

With no beneficiary named, retirement plans become probate accounts and transferring assets to heirs becomes subject to delays and probate fees. Assets might also be distributed to people you didn’t want to be recipients.

2—Naming the estate as the beneficiary. The same issues occur here, as when no beneficiary is named. The asset’s distributions will be accelerated, and the plan will become a probate account. As a general rule, estates should never be named as a beneficiary.

3—Not naming a spouse as a primary beneficiary. The ability to stretch out the distribution of retirement plans ended when the SECURE Act was passed. It still allows for lifetime distributions, but this only applies to certain people, categorized as “Eligible Designated Beneficiaries” or “EDBs.” This includes surviving spouses, minor children, disabled or special needs individuals, chronically ill people and individuals who are not more than ten years younger than the retirement plan’s owner. If your heirs do not fall into this category, they are subject to a ten-year rule. They have only ten years to withdraw all assets from the account(s).

If your goal is to maximize the distribution period and you are married, the best beneficiary is your spouse. This is also required by law for company plans subject to ERISA, a federal law that governs employee benefits. If you want to select another beneficiary for a workplace plan, your spouse will need to sign a written spousal consent agreement. IRAs are not subject to ERISA and there is no requirement to name your spouse as a beneficiary.

4—Not naming contingent beneficiaries. Without contingency, or “backup beneficiaries,” you risk having assets being payable to your estate, if the primary beneficiaries predecease you. Those assets will become part of your probate estate and your wishes about who receives the asset may not be fulfilled.

5—Failure to revise beneficiaries when life changes occur. Beneficiary designations should be checked whenever there is a review of the estate plan and as life changes take place. This is especially true in the case of a divorce or separation.

Any account that permits a beneficiary to be named should have paperwork completed, reviewed periodically and revised. This includes life insurance and annuity beneficiary forms, trust documents and pre-or post-nuptial agreements.

Reference: The Street (Aug. 11, 2020) “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”

What Happens If I Don’t Fund My Trust?

Trust funding is a crucial step in estate planning that many people forget to do.

However, if it’s done properly, funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” looks at some of the benefits of trusts.

Avoiding probate and problems with your estate. If you’ve created a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You are also able to fund it, while you are alive. You can fund the trust now or on your death. If you don’t transfer assets to the trust during your lifetime, then your last will must be probated, and an executor of your estate should be appointed. The executor will then have the authority to transfer the assets to your trust. This may take time and will involve court. You can avoid this by transferring assets to your trust now, saving your family time and aggravation after your death.

Protecting you and your family in the event that you become incapacitated. Funding the trust now will let the successor trustee manage the assets for you and your family, if your become incapacitated. If a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

Taking advantage of estate tax savings. If you’re married, you may have created a trust that contains terms for estate tax savings. This will often delay estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during his or her lifetime while the ultimate beneficiaries are your children. Depending where you live, the trust can also reduce state estate taxes. You must fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Remember that any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Your beneficiary designations on life insurance policies should be examined to determine if the beneficiary can be updated to the trust.

You may also want to move tangible items to the trust, as well as any closely held business interests, such as stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC). Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the assets to transfer to your trust.

Fund your trust now to maximize your updated estate planning documents.

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

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”

How Do I Avoid Unintentionally Disinheriting a Family Member?

When an account owner dies, their assets go directly to beneficiaries named on the account. This bypasses and overrides the will or trust. Therefore, you should use care in coordinating your overall estate plan. You don’t want the wrong person ending up with the financial benefits.

The News-Enterprise recent article, “Don’t accidentally leave your estate to the wrong person,” tells the story of the widower who remarried after the death of his first wife. Because he didn’t change his IRA beneficiary form, at his death, his second wife was left out. She received no money from the IRA, and the retirement money went to his first wife, the named beneficiary.

Many types of accounts have beneficiary forms, like U.S. savings bonds, bank accounts, certificates of deposit that can be made payable on death, investment accounts that are set-up as transfer on death, life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts.

Remember that beneficiary designations don’t carry over, when you roll your 401(k) to a new plan or IRA.

You can name as your beneficiaries individuals, trusts, charities, organizations, your estate, or no one at all. You can name groups, like “all my living grandchildren who survive me.” However, be certain that the beneficiary form lets you to pass assets “per stirpes,” meaning, equally among the branches of your family. For example, say you’re leaving your life insurance to your four children. One predeceases you. Without the “per stirpes” clause, the remaining three remaining children would divide the death proceeds. With the “per stirpes” clause, the deceased child’s share would pass to the late child’s children (your grandchildren).

Don’t leave assets to minors outright, because it creates the process of having a court appointed guardian care for the assets, until the age of 18 in most states. Instead, you might create trusts for the minor heirs, have the trust as the beneficiary of the assets, and then have the trust pay the money to heirs over time, after they have reached legal age or another milestone.

You should also not name disabled individuals as beneficiaries, because it can cause them to lose their government benefits. Instead, ask your attorney about creating a special needs or supplemental needs trust. This preserves their ability to continue to receive the government benefits.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (November 30, 2019) “Don’t accidentally leave your estate to the wrong person”

What Estate Planning Do I Need With a New Baby?

Congratulations, you’re a new mom or dad. There’s a lot to think about, and there is one vital task that should be a priority. That is making an estate plan. People usually don’t worry about estate planning, when they’re young, healthy and starting a new family. However, your new baby is depending on you to make decisions that will set him or her up for a secure future.

What estate planning do I need with a new baby
Having an estate plan is the only way to legally name a guardian for your child.

Motley Fool’s recent article, “If You’re a New Parent, Take These 4 Estate Planning Steps” says there are a few key estate planning steps that every parent should take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future holds.

  1. Purchase Life Insurance. If a parent passes away, life insurance will make sure there are funds available for the other spouse to keep providing for the children. If both parents pass away, life insurance can be used to raise the child or to fund the cost of college. For most parents, term life insurance is used because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect long enough for your child to grow to an adult.
  2. Draft a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents of minor children, the most important reason to make a will, is to name a guardian for your children. When you designate a guardian, select a person who shares your values and who will do a good job raising your children. By being proactive and naming a guardian to raise your children, it’s not left to a judge to make that selection. Do this as soon as your children are born.
  3. Update Beneficiaries. Your will should say what happens to most of your assets, but you probably have some accounts with a designated beneficiary, like a 401(k), and IRA, or life insurance. When you have children, you’ll need to update the beneficiaries on these accounts for your children to inherit these assets as secondary beneficiaries, so they will inherit them in the event of your and your spouse’s passing.
  4. Look at a Trust. If you pass away prior to your children turning 18, they can’t directly take control of any inheritance you leave for them. This means that a judge may need to appoint someone to manage assets that you leave to your child. Your child could also wind up inheriting a lot of money and property free and clear at age 18. To have more control, like who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust. With a trust, you can designate an individual who will manage money on behalf of your children and provide instructions for how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children, as they age. You can also create conditions on your children receiving a direct transfer of assets, such as requiring your children to reach age 21 or requiring them to use the money to cover college costs. Trusts are for anyone who wants more control over how their property will help their children, after they’ve passed away.

When you have a new baby, working on your estate planning probably isn’t a big priority. However, it’s worth taking the time to talk to an attorney for the security of knowing your bundle of joy can still be provided for, in the event that the worst happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (September 28, 2019) “If You’re a New Parent, Take These 4 Estate Planning Steps”

Having a Will Is Not The Same As Having An Estate Plan

A last will and testament is an important part of an estate plan, and every adult should have one. But, there is only so much that a will can do, according to the article “Estate planning involves more than a will” from The News-Enterprise.

estate plan
Having a Will and having an Estate Plan are as different as apples and oranges.

First, let’s look at what a will does. During your lifetime, you have the right to transfer property. If you have a Power of Attorney it gives someone you name the authority to transfer your property or manage your affairs, while you are alive. In most states, this document expires upon your death.

When you die, a will is one piece of your estate plan that is used to transfer your property, according to your wishes. If you do not have a will, the court must determine who receives the property, as determined by your state’s law. However, only certain property passes through a will.

Individually owned property that does not have a beneficiary designation must be transferred though the process of probate. This includes real property, like house or a land, if there is no right of survivorship provision within the deed. The deed to the property determines the type of ownership each person has.

Couples who purchase property after they are married, usually own the property with the right of survivorship. This means that the surviving owner continues to own the property without it going through probate.

However, when deeds do not have this provision, each owner owns only a portion of the property. When one owner dies, the remaining owner’s portion must be passed through probate to the beneficiaries of the decedent.

Assets that have a designated beneficiary do not pass through probate, but are paid directly to the beneficiary. These are usually life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment and/or bank accounts. Your will does not control these assets.

Beneficiaries through the will only receive whatever property is left over, after all reasonable expenses and debts are paid.

If you wish to ensure that beneficiaries receive assets over time through your estate plan, that can be done through a trust. The trust can be the beneficiary of a payable-on-death account. A revocable trust avoids property going through the probate process and can be established with your directions for distribution.

A will is a good start to an estate plan, but it is not the whole plan. Speak with an estate planning attorney about your situation and they will be able to create a plan that addresses distribution of your assets, as well as protect you from incapacity.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (September 30, 2019) “Estate planning involves more than a will”

Estate Planning Is for Everyone

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, it’s important to remember that estate planning is for everyone, and having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

Estate planning is for everyone
Estate planning is the most effective way to protect against life’s unforeseen events, no matter what stage of life you may be in.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, as proof that estate planning is for everyone, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All young adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow their parents to step in and help, if something happens.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should also be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be merged, and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, in case someone needs to access accounts.

When a child is born. When a new child joins the family, having an estate plan becomes especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for about half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any beneficiary designations are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

What Goes into an Estate Plan?

The thought of creating an estate plan can be intimidating, but this article from Brainerd Dispatch, “Navigating your estate plan,” wisely advises breaking down the process into smaller pieces, making it more manageable. By taking it step by step, it’s more likely that you’ll be comfortable getting started with the process.  The first step is understanding what goes into an estate plan.

What goes into an estate plan?
Deciding what goes into an estate plan that fits your life and accomplishes your goals should be done with the help of an estate planning attorney.

Start with Beneficiaries. This may be the easiest way to start. If you have retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other retirement accounts, chances are you have already written down the name of the people you want to receive your assets after you pass away. The same goes for life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation tells who receives the assets on your death. You should also note that there are tax ramifications, if you don’t have a beneficiary. Your assets could become taxable five years after you die, without a named beneficiary.

Be aware that no matter what your will says, the name on your beneficiary designations on these accounts determines who gets those assets. You need to check on these from time-to-time to be sure the people you have named are still the people who you want to receive your accounts. You should review the designations every time you review your estate plan, which should be every three or four years.

You should also name a contingent beneficiary on all accounts that allow it.  The contingent beneficiary is the person who will receive the asset is the primary beneficiary is unable to receive it for any reason.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. The will is a key ingredient that goes into an estate plan. It can be used to ensure that your family has the management assistance they need, and, if you have minor children, establish who will raise them is you’re unable to (in fact, a will is the only way you can name a guardian for your children.)

Not having a will leaves your family in a terrible position, where they will have to endure unnecessary expenses and added stress. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state, and not according to your own wishes.

Directives for Difficult Times. Health care directives give your loved ones direction when a difficult situation occurs. If you become incapacitated, through an accident or serious illness, the health care directive tells your family members what kind of care you want—or do not want. You should also name a health care surrogate, so that a person can make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to speak for yourself. Working with an estate planning attorney who is licensed in your state is is important for this item because different states have different laws concerning naming a healthcare surrogate and the decisions they can make.

In addition, you’ll need a financial power of attorney. This allows you to designate someone to step in and manage your finances in the case of incapacity. This is especially important if you are single, because otherwise a court may have to name someone to be your financial guardian.

What About Trusts? If you own a lot of assets or if your estate is complicated, a trust may be helpful. Trusts are legal entities that hold assets on behalf of your beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts that are used to serve different purposes, from Special Needs Trusts that are designed to help families plan for an individual with special needs, to revocable trusts used to avoid probate and testamentary trusts, which are created only when you die. An estate planning attorney will know which trusts are appropriate for your individual situation.

Working with a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney will help you understand what goes into an estate plan that makes the most sense for you and accomplishes your goals.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Aug. 11, 2019) “Navigating your estate plan”

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