Heirs

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work?

Almost all estates with wills go to probate court. This is not a major issue in some states and an expensive headache in others. By learning how Transfer on Death accounts work, and using them as an additional estate planning tool, you can avoid some assets going through probate, says Yahoo! Finance in the article “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning.”  

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work
Assets in a Transfer on Death account avoid probate court in Florida.

So, how do Transfer on Death accounts work?

A TOD account automatically transfers the assets to a named beneficiary, when the account holder dies. Let’s say you have a savings account with $100,000 in it. Your son is the beneficiary for the TOD account. When you die, the account’s assets are transferred directly to him without having to go through probate.

A more formal definition: a TOD is a provision of an account that allows the assets to pass directly to an intended beneficiary.  This is the equivalent of a beneficiary designation. (Note that the laws that govern estate planning vary from state to state, but most banks, investment accounts and even real estate deeds can become TOD accounts.)  If you own part of a TOD property, only your ownership share will be transferred.

TOD account holders can name multiple beneficiaries and split up assets any way they wish. You can open a TOD account to be split between two children, for instance, and they’ll each receive 50% of the holdings, when you pass away.

A couple of additional benefits to keep in mind: the beneficiaries have no right or access to the TOD account, while the owner is living. And the beneficiaries can be changed at any time, as long as the TOD account owner is mentally competent. Just as assets in a will can’t be accessed by heirs until you die, beneficiaries on a TOD account have no rights or access to a TOD account, until the original owner dies.

Simplicity is one reason why people like to use the TOD account. When you have a properly prepared will and estate plan, the process is far easier for your family members and beneficiaries. The will includes an executor, who is the person who takes care of distributing your assets and a guardian to take care of any minor children. Absent a will, the probate court will determine who the next of kin is and distribute your property, according to the laws of your state.

A TOD account usually requires only that a death certificate be sent to an agent at the account’s bank or brokerage house. The account is then re-registered in the beneficiary’s name.

Whatever is in your will does not impact how the Transfer on Death account works. If your will instructs your executor to give all of your money to your sister, but the TOD account names your brother as a beneficiary, any money in that account is going to your brother. Your sister will get any other assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney about how a Transfer on Death account works and whether one might be useful for your purposes.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (June 26, 2019) “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning”

Which Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate?

Everything that has to be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before someone passes away. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the personal representative. What has to be paid, and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

probate
Knowing which debts have to be paid before and after probate is important.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses, before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. The process of paying the debts of a deceased person can typically begin before probate officially starts.

Making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and looking for the following bills or statements is the best way to begin:

  • Mortgages (and reverse mortgages)
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The personal representative and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The personal representative deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The personal representative decides which bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries, is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen, while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

Estate Planning Hacks Create More Problems

“My idea: put our accounts in my wife’s name and put the land in our children’s names. The way I figure it, when something happens to me, they won’t need to do any of that courtroom mumbo jumbo that costs a few thousand dollars.”

The estate planning attorney in this gentleman’s neighborhood isn’t worried about this man’s plan to avoid the “courtroom mumbo jumbo.” It’s not the first time someone thought they could make a short-cut work, and it won’t be the last. However, as described in the article “Estate planning workaround idea needs work” from My San Antonio, the problems this rancher will create for himself, his wife, and his children, will easily eclipse any savings in time or fees he thinks he may have avoided.

Estate Planning Hacks
Estate planning hacks, or “work-arounds” almost always end up costing the family more time and money in the end.

Let’s start with the idea of putting all the man’s assets in his wife’s name. For starters, that means she has complete control and access to all the accounts. Even if the accounts began as community property, once they are in her name only, she is the sole manager of these accounts.

If the husband dies first, she will not have to go into probate court. That is true. However, if she dies first, the husband will need to go to probate court to access and claim the accounts. If the marriage goes sour, it’s not likely that she’ll be in a big hurry to return access to everything.

Another solution: set the accounts up as joint accounts with right of survivorship. The bank would have to specify that when spouse dies, the other owns the accounts. However, that’s just one facet of this estate planning hack.

The next proposal is to put the land into the adult children’s names. Gifting the property to children has a number of irreversible consequences.

First, the children will all be co-owners. Each one of them will have full legal control. What if they don’t agree on something? How will they break an impasse? Will they own the property by majority rule? What if they don’t want to honor any of the parent’s requests?  In addition, if one of them dies, their spouse or their child will inherit their share. If they divorce, will their future ex-spouse retain ownership of their shares of the property?

Second, you can’t gift the property and still be an owner. The husband and wife will no longer own the property. If they don’t agree with the kid’s plans for the property, they can be evicted. After all, the parents gave them the entire property.

Third, the transfer to the children is a gift. There will be a federal gift tax return form to be filed. Depending on the value of the property, the parents may have to pay gift tax to the IRS.  Because the children have become owners of the property by virtue of a gift, they receive the tax-saving “free step-up in basis.” If they sell (and they have that right), they will get hit with capital gains taxes that will cost a lot more than the cost of an estate plan with an estate planning attorney and the “courtroom mumbo jumbo.”

Finally, the property is not the children’s homestead. If it has been gifted it to them, it’s not the parent’s homestead either. Therefore, they can expect an increase in the local property taxes. Those taxes will also be due every year for the rest of the parent’s life and again, will cost more over time than the cost of creating a proper estate plan. Since the property is not a homestead, it is subject to a creditor’s claim, if any of the new owners—those children —have a financial problem.

Estate plans exist to protect the current owners and their heirs. If the goal is to keep the property in the family and have the next generation take over, everyone concerned will be better served by sitting down with an estate planning attorney and discussing the many different ways to make this happen.

Reference: My San Antonio (April 29, 2019) “Estate planning workaround idea needs work”

Smart Women Protect Themselves with Estate Planning

The reason to have an estate plan is two-fold: to protect yourself, while you are living and to protect those you love, after you have passed. If you have an estate plan, says the Boca Newspaper in the article titled “Smart Tips for Women: Estate Planning,” your wishes for the distribution of your assets are more likely to be carried out, tax liabilities can be minimized and your loved ones will not be faced with an extended and expensive process of settling your estate.

Smart Women have Estate Plans
Smart women protect themselves and their families by making sure they have an estate plan in place.

Here are some action items every woman should consider when putting your estate plan in place:

If you have an estate plan but aren’t really sure what’s in it, it’s time to get those questions answered. Make sure that you understand everything. Don’t be intimidated by the legal language: ask questions and keep asking until you fully understand the documents.

If you have not reviewed your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for a review. There have been new tax laws that may have changed the outcomes from your estate plan. Anytime there is a big change in the law or in your life, it’s time for a review. Triggering events include births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, purchases of a home or a business or a major change in financial status, good or bad.

If you don’t have an estate plan, stop postponing and make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, as soon as possible.

Your estate plan should include advance directives, including a Durable Power of Attorney, Health Care Surrogate (and HIPAA Release), and a Living Will. You may not be capable of executing these documents during a health emergency and having them in place will make it possible for those you name to make decisions on your behalf.

Anyone who is over the age of 18, needs to have these same documents in place. Parents do not have a legal right to make any decisions or obtain medical information about their children, or even review their healthcare documents, once they celebrate their 18th birthday.

Make a list of your trusted professionals: your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, your insurance agent and anyone else your executor will need to contact.

Tell your family where this list is located. Don’t ask them to go on a scavenger hunt, while they are grieving your loss.

List all your assets. You don’t have to include every single item you own, but you large and expensive items, as well as family heirlooms and those items with sentimental value.  You should include where they are located, account numbers, contact phone numbers, etc. Tell your family that this list exists and where to find it.

If you have assets with primary beneficiaries, make sure that they also have contingent beneficiaries.

If you have assets from a first marriage and remarry, be smart and have a prenuptial agreement drafted that aligns with a new estate plan.

If you have children and assets from a first marriage and want to make sure that they continue to be your heirs, work with an estate planning attorney to determine the best way to make this happen. You may need a will, or you may simply need to have your children become the primary beneficiaries on certain accounts. A trust may be needed. Your estate planning attorney will know the best strategy for your situation.

If you own a business, make sure you have a plan for what will happen to that business, if you become incapacitated or die unexpectedly. Who will run the business, who will own it and should it be sold? Consider what you’d like to happen for long-standing employees and clients.

Smart women make plans for themselves and their loved ones. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you navigate through an estate plan. Remember that an estate plan needs upkeep on a regular basis.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (March 4, 2019) “Smart Tips for Women: Estate Planning”

Thinking about Giving It All Away? Here’s What You Need to Know

There are some individuals who just aren’t interested in handing down their assets to the next generation when they die. Perhaps their children are so successful, they don’t need an inheritance. Or, according to the article “Giving your money away when you die: 10 questions to ask” from MarketWatch, they may be more interested in the kind of impact they can have on the lives of others.

If you haven’t thought about charitable giving or estate planning, these 10 questions should prompt some thought and discussion with family members:

Should you give money away now? Don’t give away money or assets you’ll need to pay your living expenses, unless you have what you need for retirement and any bumps that may come up along the way. There are no limits to the gifts you can make to a charity.

Do you have the right beneficiaries listed on retirement accounts and life insurance policies? If you want these assets to go to the right person or place, make sure the beneficiary names are correct. Note that there are rules, usually from the financial institution, about who can be a beneficiary—some require it be a person and do not permit the beneficiary to be an organization.

Who do you want making end-of-life decisions, and how much intervention do you want to prolong your life? A health care power of attorney and living will are used to express these wishes. Without these documents, your family may not know what you want. Healthcare providers won’t know and will have to make decisions based on law, and not your wishes.

Do you have a will? Many Americans do not, and it creates stress, adds costs and creates real problems for their family members. Make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to put your wishes into a will.

Are you worried about federal estate taxes? Unless you are in the 1%, your chances of having to pay federal taxes are slim to none. However, if your will was created to address federal estate taxes from back in the days when it was a problem, you may have a strategy that no longer works. This is another reason to meet with your estate planning attorney.

Does your state have estate or inheritance taxes? This is more likely to be where your heirs need to come up with the money to pay taxes on your estate. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help you make a plan, so that your heirs will have the resources to pay these costs.

Should you keep your Roth IRA for an heir? Leaving a Roth IRA for an heir, could be a generous bequest. You may also want to encourage your heirs to start and fund Roth IRAs of their own, if they have earned income. Even small sums, over time, can grow to significant wealth.

Are you giving money to reputable charities? Make sure the organizations you are supporting, while you are alive or through your will, are using resources correctly. Good online sources include GuideStar.org or CharityNavigator.org.

Could you save more on taxes? Donating appreciated assets might help lower your taxes. Donating part or all your annual Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) can do the same, as long as you are over 70½ years old.

Does your family know what your wishes are? To avoid any turmoil when you pass, talk with family members about what you want to happen when you are gone. Make sure they know where your estate planning documents are and what you want in the way of end-of-life care. Having a conversation about your legacy and what your hopes and dreams are for family members, can be eye-opening for the younger members of the family and give you some deep satisfaction.

Reference: MarketWatch (Oct. 30, 2018) “Giving your money away when you die: 10 questions to ask”

Here’s Why You Need a Will

Many celebrities die without wills. This past year saw a host of celebrity estate snafus. It’s as if they were sending a message from beyond that they didn’t care about how much turmoil and family fights would take place over their money and assets. Some of these battles go on for decades. However, as reported in Press Republican’s article “The Law and You: Important to make a will,” even if you think you don’t have enough property to make it necessary to have a will, you’re wrong. It’s not just wealthy or famous people who need wills.

Do you really want other people making those decisions on your behalf? Would you want the laws of your state making these decisions? Your family will do better, if you have a will and an estate plan.

For example, in New York State, if you don’t have a will, your surviving spouse will receive the first $50,000 plus one half of remaining property. Your children, whether they are minors or adults, will get an equal share of the other half.

If you have a spouse but no children, your spouse will inherit everything. If you have children and no spouse, then the children get everything, divided equally.

If you have no spouse, no children and living parents, then your parents will inherit everything you own.

If your parents are not alive, your siblings will get it all.

Adopted children are treated by the courts the same as biological children, when there is no will. Stepchildren and foster children do not inherit, unless they are specifically named in the will.

If you have been in a long-term relationship with someone and never married, even if they qualify for health care benefits from your employer under the “domestic partner” provision, they are not considered a spouse when it comes to inheritance. At the same time, if you are not legally married and your partner dies, you have no legal right to inherit from your partner’s estate. No matter how long you have been together, how many children you have together, if you are not legally married, you have no inheritance rights.

Check your state’s laws for the rights of “common law marriages;” New York State does not recognize these as a legal union. In very limited cases, New York State has been known to recognize common law marriages from other states where they are legal, but that is the exception and not the rule. There are limits here as well: both parties will have to agree to be married, must represent to others that they are married and may not be married to anyone else.

If you want someone who is not your legal spouse to receive your assets, you need to meet with an estate planning attorney and have a will drawn up that meets the requirements of the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain how your state laws work and what provisions are and are not acceptable in your estate.

An estate planning attorney will also help you consider other issues. Do you want to leave anything to a charity that matters to you? Do you want anyone else besides your children to receive something after you pass? Is there anyone who needs a trust, because they are unable to manage their finances, or you are concerned about their marriage ending in divorce? Making these decisions in a properly prepared will, can protect your family and lessen the chances of your wishes being challenged.

Reference: Press Republican (Dec. 18, 2018) “The Law and You: Important to make a will”

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