Will

How to Use Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations

A will is a very important part of your estate plan, but it’s not the only tool in your estate planning toolbox, explains the article “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations” from The Street. Because the will goes through probate, wills control assets that are in your name only, and if you don’t have a will, the laws of your state will determine who receives your assets. Beneficiary Designations

As an alternative to a will and probate, some people name their children as beneficiaries for assets. Sometimes this can work, but it’s not always the best solution.

Here’s an example. A family includes two spouses and three children. They own a house, a bank account, IRAs and life insurance policies. The spouses have individual wills, leaving everything to each other and equally to their children upon both of their deaths.

The wills also state that, if a child predeceases them, that child’s share goes to the child’s children. This is known as “per stirpes,” and means that the child’s share of the parent’s estate is passed to the next generation. The spouses also list each other as joint owners and beneficiaries and then their children as contingent beneficiaries on all of their financial accounts. Then the husband dies.

His will does not come into play, because his wife was listed on everything as a joint owner, so all of the assets pass to her. Then the wife dies. The will won’t come into play here either, since all of her living children were named as beneficiaries. If the wife had signed a quit claim deed, giving the children ownership of the family home, before she died, the will and probate are bypassed altogether.

However, it’s never so simple. What if the adult daughter was on the bank account and she is sued? The assets are now vulnerable to the party suing her. If she files for bankruptcy, the assets could be attached by the bankruptcy court. If she gets divorced, they are marital assets and could be taken by her spouse.

This arrangement becomes more complicated when people attempt workarounds, like putting the good son who isn’t yet married and takes excellent care of his finances as the sole beneficiary. If the parents die and the son is the only beneficiary, there’s no law that says he has to share his inheritance with his siblings. This scenario is likely to lead to litigation and lasting family discord.

If you need another situation to convince you of the perils of alternatives to using a will, try remarriage.

If the wife dies and the husband remarries, he may want to leave his assets to his new wife. However, then when she dies, he wants his estate to go to his children. What if he dies and she decides she doesn’t want to name his children as beneficiaries on the accounts that she now owns? She is well within her legal rights to put her own children on the accounts, and when she dies, the husband’s children will get nothing.

People with the best intentions often create terrible financial and legal situations for loved ones that could easily be avoided, by simply working with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan and making sure beneficiary designations have not been overlooked.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 30, 2020) “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations”

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC. Zappos CEO

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to pass away, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, state statutes determine who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will be appointed as the guardian to raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home if necessary. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan should also include a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to pass away.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”

Prince’s Estate Hits the IRS with a Million Dollar Lawsuit

Filing probate documents was just the beginning of process that still hasn’t ended the bad news from the Prince estate. He did not have a spouse or children, but Prince had half-brothers and half-sisters, says a recent article from Forbes titled “Prince’s Estate Sues IRS Over Claimed $135 Million Tax Value.” There were a number of claims against the estate, and claims by the estate as well, including a wrongful death action that was eventually dismissed. Prince Sues IRS

However, just like anyone else who dies without a will, probate takes a long time and is expensive. Things also get complicated quickly, especially with an estate of this size.

One of Prince’s half-sisters, Tyka Nelson, sold a portion of her share of the estate to Primary Wave, a music publisher. So did another sibling. And then the tax troubles began. Cash poor or not, estates must pay a federal estate tax of 40%. A federal estate tax return needs to be filed, and while audits are rare, almost every estate of this magnitude is audited by the IRS. The estate reported a taxable value of $82 million, but the IRS isn’t satisfied.

Estate tax fights with the IRS can go on for a long time. Michael Jackson’s estate battle with the IRS is still going on—and he died in 2009.

Papers filed by Prince’s estate in the U.S. Tax Court show that the estate reported a taxable value of $82 million, but the IRS claims that the value is really $163 million and wants an additional $38.7 million. In every case, Prince’s estate has obtained appraisals to support its reported values, but the IRS has its own appraisers who disagree.

Even if Prince had a will, there still could have been problems. Heath Ledger had a will, but it was five years old when he died and there was no provision made for his daughter. James Gandolfini had a will, but his estate gave the IRS $30 million of his $70 million. These stories make estate planning attorneys cringe. Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, and James Gandolfini’s estates all ended up with wills in probate, which is public, expensive, time-consuming and unnecessary. A will does have to go through the court process, but the use of a revocable trust could have disposed of their assets outside of probate. A simple pour-over will would have given everything to the revocable trust, simply, and privately in terms of the ultimate inheritance disposition.

Estate planning attorneys advise clients to update wills and trusts every time there is a birth, marriage, divorce, etc. It is good advice for both celebrities and regular people.

You can give an unlimited amount to your spouse during life or on death. Prince’s estate may face a 40% estate tax, but if he had been married and left his estate to his spouse, there would not have been any federal estate tax until the death of the spouse.

A lesson for the rest of us: have an estate plan, including a will and make sure that it includes tax planning.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 7, 2020) “Prince’s Estate Sues IRS Over Claimed $135 Million Tax Value”

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”

What Does an Executor Do?

Being asked to serve as the executor of a loved one’s estate is flattering, but it is also a big responsibility and a lot of work. So, what does an executor do? As the executor, you are responsible for taking care of all of the financial and legal matters of the estate, explains the article “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate” from Review Times. The job will require a lot of time and, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the family situation, could be challenging.

What does an executor do
The job of being an executor has many aspects.

Some of the tasks include:

  • Filing court papers to start the probate process to determine whether the will is valid.
  • Making a complete inventory of everything in the estate.
  • Obtaining an estate tax ID number, opening an estate bank account and using the estate funds to pay bills, including funeral costs and medical bills.
  • If the estate includes a home, maintaining the home and paying the mortgage, taxes, etc.
  • Terminating credit cards, notifying banks and government agencies—including Social Security—and the post office.
  • Preparing and filing income tax returns for the last year of the person’s life, unless they filed them already, and for the estate.
  • Distributing assets, as directed by the will.

Your first task is to locate the will and any important documents and financial information. You will need the will, deeds, titles, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.

If the estate is complicated, you will want to work with an estate planning attorney, who can guide you through the process. The estate pays for the attorney, and you work closely with them. Every state has its own laws and timetables for the executor’s responsibilities, which the attorney will be familiar with.

If possible, find out if there are any family conflicts, before the loved one passes. If there are potential problems, it may be better for the loved one to tell who will be inheriting what before they die. If there is no plan for asset distribution, the person who is asking you to be the executor needs to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible and have a plan created, with all of the documents necessary for your state.

The executor is entitled to be paid a fee, which is paid by the estate. In most states, that fee is set at a percentage of the estate’s value, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. If you are both an executor and a beneficiary, you may want to forgo the fee, because fees are taxable, but in most states, inheritances are not.

Reference: Review Times (Sep. 6, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Protecting your estate from unintended heirs is an important consideration in any estate plan.  Disinheriting a child as an heir could happen for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”  

protect your estate from unintended heirs
Protecting your estate from unintended heirs is an important consideration when putting together an estate plan.

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best way to do this is through the use of a trust. By leaving money to a child in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a period of years. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such as after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

What Happens when Mom Refuses to Create an Estate Plan?

This is a tough scenario. It happens more often than you’d think. Someone owns a home, investment accounts and an inheritance, but doesn’t want to have an estate plan. They know they need to do something, but keep putting it off—until they die, and the family is left with an expensive and stressful mess. A recent article titled “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late” from Kiplinger, explains how to help make things right.

Most people put off seeing an estate planning attorney, because they are afraid of death. They may also be overwhelmed by the thought of how much work is involved. They are also worried about what it all might cost. owever, if there is no estate plan, the costs will be far higher for the family.

How do you get the person to understand that they need to move forward?

Talk with the financial professionals the person already uses and trusts, like a CPA or financial advisor. Ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney they think would be a good fit with the person who doesn’t have an estate plan. It may be easier to hear this message from a CPA, than from an adult child.

Work with that professional to promote the person, usually an older family member, to get comfortable with the idea to talk about their wishes and values with the estate planning attorney. Offer to attend the meeting, or to facilitate the video conference, to make the person feel more comfortable.

An experienced estate planning attorney will have worked with reluctant people before. They’ll know how to put the older person at ease and explore their concerns. When the conversation is pleasant and productive, the person may understand that the process will not be as challenging and that there will be a lot of help along the way.

If there is no trusted team of professionals, then offer to be a part of any conversations with the estate planning attorney to make the introductory discussion easier. Share your own experience in estate planning, and tread lightly.

Trying to force a person to engage in estate planning with a heavy hand, almost always ends up in a stubborn refusal. A gentle approach will always be more successful. Explain how part of the estate plan includes planning for medical decisions while the person is living and is not just about distributing their assets. You should be firm, consistent and kind.

Explaining what their family members will need to go through if there is no will, may or may not have an impact. Some people don’t care, and may simply shrug and say, “It’ll be their problem, not mine.” Consider what or who matters to the person. What if they could leave assets for a favorite grandchild to go to college? That might be more motivating.

One other thing to consider: if the person has an estate plan and it is out of date, that may be just as bad as not having an estate plan at all, especially when the person has been divorced and remarried. Just as many people refuse to have an estate plan, many people fail to update important documents, when they remarry. More than a few spouses come to estate planning attorney’s offices, when a loved one’s life insurance policy is going to their prior spouse. It’s too late to make any changes. A health care directive could also name a former brother-in-law to make important medical decisions. During a time of great duress, it is a bad time to learn that the formerly close in-law, who is now a sworn enemy, is the only one who can speak with doctors. Don’t procrastinate, if any of these issues are present.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 11, 2020) “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late”

What Is a ‘Survivorship’ Period?

A survivorship clause in a will or a trust says that beneficiaries can inherit, only if they live a certain number of days after the person who made the will or trust dies. The goal is to avoid situations where assets pass under your beneficiary’s estate plan, and not yours, if they outlive you only by a short period of time. While these situations are rare, they do occur, according to the article “How Survivorship Periods Work” from kake.com.

Many wills and trusts contain a survivorship period. Most estates won’t rise to the level of today’s very high federal estate tax exemption ($11.58 million for an individual), so a long survivorship period is not necessary. However, if the surviving spouse must wait too long to receive property under the will—six months or more—it might harm their eligibility for the marital deduction, even if they are made in a qualifying trust or an outright gift.

Even if a will does not contain a survivorship clause, many states require one. Some states require at least a five-day or 120-hour survivorship period. That law might apply to beneficiaries who inherit property under a will, trust or, if there is no will, under state law. This usually does not apply to those who are beneficiaries of an insurance policy, a POD bank account (Payable on Death), or a surviving co-owner of property held in joint tenancy. To learn what states have a set of laws, known as the Uniform Probate Code or the revised version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, speak with a local estate planning lawyer.

Survivorship requirements are put into place in case of simultaneous or close to simultaneous deaths of the estate owners and the estate beneficiaries. This is to avoid having the distribution of assets from an estate owner’s estate distributed according to the beneficiary’s estate plan, and not the estate owner’s plan.

For an example, let’s say Jeff dies and leaves his estate to his sister Judy. Jeff has named his favorite charity as an alternative beneficiary. Jeff’s assets would normally go to his sister Judy. They would only go to his favorite charity, if Judy were not alive at the time of his death. However, if Jeff dies and then Judy dies 14 days later, Jeff’s assets could go to Judy’s beneficiaries under the terms of her will. The charity, Jeff’s intended beneficiary, would receive nothing.

The family would also have the burden of dealing with not one but two probate proceedings at the same time.

However, if a 30-day survivorship clause was in place, the assets would pass to his favorite charity, as originally intended. Jeff’s estate plan would be carried out, according to his wishes.

These are the types of details that make estate planning succeed as the estate owner wishes. Having a complete and secure—and properly prepared—estate plan in place is worth the effort.

Reference: kake.com (March 31, 2020) “How Survivorship Periods Work”

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?”

Scroll to Top