Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

What Is a Holistic Estate Plan?

Estate planning is more than a tax strategy. It’s about creating a legacy and protecting your family for the short and long term, explains the article Create A Holistic Estate Plan Now For Bigger Payoffs In The Future” from Forbes. The process begins with as much disclosure as possible. That means talking with your estate planning attorney about the challenges your family faces, as well as the assets to be left for loved ones.

One change to the tax code can disrupt decades of careful planning and leave people scrambling to protect loved ones. Market tumult can require assets to be sold to meet cash flow needs. Charitable contributions may also need to be reviewed and possibly changed, if the family’s asset level changes.

There are three aspects to consider when creating an estate plan: a lifetime spending strategy, a charitable legacy and bequests. All of these are impacted by taxes and need to be reviewed as a whole.

Lifetime spending strategy. These questions are centered on your goals and plans. Where do you want to live during retirement and how do you wish to live, travel and entertain? Will you stay in place and focus on charitable organizations, or travel throughout the year? It’s good to set a budget and stress-test it to see what different outcomes may arise.

A family that owns businesses or large real estate holdings may benefit from strategies, like family limited partnerships. A sale of the business to an outsider or a family member could create many different options, and all should be considered.

Charitable gift planning. Estate planning offers a way to clarify charitable giving goals and create a road map for how gifting can be transformed into a legacy. A well-planned charitable gift strategy can also minimize estate taxes and maximize the future of the gift, for both the family and the charities you favor.

A Charitable Remainder Trust is used to provide an income stream during your lifetime and reach gifting goals at the same time. One way to accomplish this is to transfer an asset, like highly appreciated stocks or bonds, into an irrevocable trust, thereby removing the asset from your taxable estate. The trustee may then sell the asset at market value and reinvest, creating a lifelong income stream for you or a beneficiary.

Leaving assets, not estate tax bills, for heirs. Families who own multiple properties in their own names or in a single LLC can lead to a lot of administrative headaches when the owners die. One simple fix is to place each property into a separate LLC, which increases the availability of strategic tax savings.

Another way to minimize estate taxes is through the use of life insurance. This is a strategy to do while you are still relatively healthy, as it becomes increasing difficult to obtain once you turn 60 or 70.

All of these strategies take knowledge and time to set up, so creating an estate plan and working through the many different strategies is best done with an experienced estate planning attorney and before any trigger events occur.

Reference: Forbes (April 6, 2021) Create A Holistic Estate Plan Now For Bigger Payoffs In The Future”

Do I Need to Pay Taxes on Life Insurance Proceeds?

Life insurance is designed to pay out a death benefit to your beneficiaries, if you die while the policy is in effect, usually in a lump sum. Fox 6’s recent article entitled “Is life insurance taxable?” explains that when large amounts of money change hands, taxes are usually a given. However, that’s not the case with most life insurance.

There are some special situations that may involve taxes, like inheriting a large estate or electing to receive policy benefits in installments. However, there are strategies you can leverage to avoid paying taxes on life insurance.

Beneficiaries don’t usually have to pay taxes on money received from a life insurance policy because the IRS doesn’t consider life insurance proceeds as taxable income. If you have an accelerated death benefit rider and need to access your own policy’s proceeds due to a terminal illness, that also won’t be taxed.

While you most likely won’t have to worry about taxes on a life insurance payout, there a couple of exceptions:

  • If all the policyholder’s assets meet the IRS’ federal estate tax threshold ($11.7 million in 2021), the policy’s proceeds could be taxable
  • If you elect to get the policy benefits in incremental installments instead of a one-time life insurance payout, you’ll have to pay taxes on any interest that accrues
  • If a person takes out a life insurance policy on someone other than himself – or herself, then policy’s benefits are considered a gift, and any monetary gifts above $15,000 are taxable; and
  • If the policyholder dies with an outstanding cash value loan, the policy’s death benefit could be used to settle it. Any amount the policyholder borrows beyond what they’ve paid into the policy is taxable.

These situations usually concern beneficiaries, but there are a few situations that could leave the policyholder responsible for taxes. In addition to taking out a policy loan, when you sell or surrender your policy and the cash value exceeds the amount you’ve contributed through premiums, the excess is taxable.

There are strategies for getting around this situation:

  • To avoid taxes, you can work with your life insurance company to legally transfer the policy to a new owner, such as the beneficiary so the policy’s proceeds aren’t included in the estate. However, this will place the responsibility for making premium payments and the ability to change the policy in the new owner’s hands.
  • An irrevocable life insurance trust or ILIT irreversibly transfers ownership of the policy to the trust, removing it from the taxable estate.
  • Installment payouts accrue interest and may be taxed, but a lump sum payment isn’t.

Talk to an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney about life insurance and how it can fit into your estate planning strategy.

Reference: Fox 6 (April 14, 2021) “Is life insurance taxable?”

Should Young Families have an Estate Plan?

Young families are always on the go. New parents are busy with diapers, feeding schedules and trying to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s hard to think about the future when you’re so focused on the present. Even so, young parents should think about estate planning.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled, “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan,” explains that the word “estate” might sound upscale, but estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. Your estate is simply all the assets you have when you die. This includes bank accounts, 401(k) plan, a home and cars. An estate plan helps to make certain that your property goes to the right people, that your debts are paid and your family is cared for. Without an estate plan, your estate must go through probate, which is a potentially lengthy court process that settles the debts and distributes the assets of the decedent.

Estate planning is valuable for young families, even if they don’t have extensive assets. Consider these key estate planning actions that every parent needs to take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future has in store.

Purchase Life Insurance. Raising children is costly, and if a parent dies, life insurance provides funds to continue providing for surviving children. For most, term life insurance is a good move because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect until the children grow to adulthood and are no longer financially dependent.

Make a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents, the most important reason to make a will is to designate a guardian for your children. If you fail to do this, the courts will decide and may place your children with a relative with whom you have not spoken in years. However, if you name a guardian, you choose a person or couple you know has the same values and who will raise your kids as you would have.

Review Your Beneficiaries. You probably already have a 401(k) or IRA that makes you identify who will inherit it if you die. You’ll need to update these accounts, if you want your children to inherit these assets.

Consider a Trust. If you die before your children turn 18, your children can’t directly assume control of an inheritance, which can be an issue. The probate court could name an individual to manage the assets you leave to your child. However, if you want to specify 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, consider asking an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust. With a trust, you can name a designated person to manage money on behalf of your children and provide direction regarding how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children as they grow. Trusts aren’t just for the very well-to-do. Anyone may be able to benefit from a trust.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (April 13, 2021) “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan”

Should I Sell My Life Insurance Policy?

It is quite common to buy life insurance. It may have been to protect your family financially or as a vehicle to provide liquidity for estate taxes. As we grow older and laws change, it is critical to determine if your policy has outlived its intended purpose. The traditional strategy of “buy and hold” no longer applies to the ever-changing world. Today, it may be a good idea to consider selling your policy.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “What You Should Know Before Selling Your Old Life Insurance Policy” explains that a lesser-known alternative to abandoning or surrendering a policy is known as a life settlement. This gives the policy owners the chance to get a much bigger cash lump sum, than what is provided by the life insurance carrier’s cash surrender value.

Life settlements are not new. Third-party institutional buyers have now started to acquire ownership of policies, in exchange for paying the owner a lump sum of cash. As a consequence, the policy owner no longer needs to make future premium payments.

The policy buyer then owns the life insurance policy and takes on the responsibility of future premium payments. They also get the full death benefit payable from the life insurance carrier when the insured dies.

Research shows that, on average, the most successful life settlement deals are with policies where the insured is age 65 or older. Those who are younger than 65 usually require a health impairment to receive a life settlement offer.

Knowing what your life insurance policy is worth is important, and its value is based on two primary factors: (i) the future projected premiums of the policy; and (ii) the insured’s current health condition.

Many policy owners don’t have the required experience with technical life expectancies, actuarial tables and medical knowledge to properly evaluate their life settlement value policies. This knowledge gap makes for an imbalance, since inexperienced policy owners may try to negotiate against experienced and sophisticated policy buyers trying to acquire the policy at the lowest possible cost.

To address this imbalance, the policy owner should seek help from an experienced estate planning attorney to help them with the process to sell the policy for the highest possible price.

If you have an old life insurance policy that’s collecting dust, ask an experienced estate planning attorney to review the policy’s importance and purpose in your portfolio. This may be the right time to turn that unneeded life insurance policy into cash.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 26, 2021) “What You Should Know Before Selling Your Old Life Insurance Policy”

debts after death

What Debts Must Be Paid after I Die?

When you pass away, your assets become your estate, and the process of dividing up debt after your death is part of probate. Creditors only have a certain amount of time to make a claim against the estate (usually three months to nine months).

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Debt After Death: What You Should Know” explains that beyond those basics, here are some situations where debts are forgiven after death, and some others where they still are required to be paid in some fashion:

  1. The beneficiaries’ money is partially protected if properly named. If you designated a beneficiary on an account — such as your life insurance policy and 401(k) — unsecured creditors typically can’t collect any money from those sources of funds. However, if beneficiaries weren’t determined before death, the funds would then go to the estate, which creditors tap.
  2. Credit card debt depends on what you signed. Most of the time, credit card debt doesn’t disappear when you die. The deceased’s estate will typically pay the credit card debt from the estate’s assets. Children won’t inherit the credit card debt, unless they’re a joint holder on the account. Likewise, a surviving spouse is responsible for their deceased spouse’s debt, if he or she is a joint borrower. Moreover, if you live in a community property state, you could be responsible for the credit card debt of a deceased spouse. This is not to be confused with being an authorized user on a credit card, which has different rules. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, if a creditor asks you to pay off a credit card. Don’t just assume you’re liable, just because someone says you are.
  3. Federal student loan forgiveness. This applies both to federal loans taken out by parents on behalf of their children and loans taken out by the students themselves. If the borrower dies, federal student loans are forgiven. If the student passes away, the loan is discharged. However, for private student loans, there’s no law requiring lenders to cancel a loan, so ask the loan servicer.
  4. Passing a mortgage to heirs. If you leave a mortgage behind for your children, under federal law, lenders must let family members assume a mortgage when they inherit residential property. This law prevents heirs from having to qualify for the mortgage. The heirs aren’t required to keep the mortgage, so they can refinance or pay off the debt entirely. For married couples who are joint borrowers on a mortgage, the surviving spouse can take over the loan, refinance, or pay it off.
  5. Marriage issues. If your spouse passes, you’re legally required to pay any joint tax owed to the state and federal government. In community property states, the surviving spouse must pay off any debt your partner acquired while you were married. However, in other states, you may only be responsible for a select amount of debt, like medical bills.

You may want to purchase more life insurance to pay for your debts at death or pay off the debts while you’re alive.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 2, 2020) “Debt After Death: What You Should Know”

estate plan audit

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

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

life insurance

Should I Cash in My Life Insurance Policy?

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy” explains that there are some drawbacks to using life insurance to meet your immediate cash needs—one of which is potentially compromising your long-term goals or your family’s financial future. However, if other options aren’t available, life insurance—especially cash-value life insurance—can be a good source of needed income.

Cash-value life insurance, like whole life and universal life, builds reserves in its excess premiums plus earnings. The deposits are held in a cash-accumulation account within the policy. These cash-value life insurance policies offer the chance to access cash savings within the policy through withdrawals, policy loans, or partial or full surrender of the policy. Another option is to sell your policy for cash, which is called a life settlement.

While cash from the policy might be useful during stressful financial times, you could face unwanted consequences, depending on the way you use to access the funds. You can generally withdraw limited amounts of cash from a life insurance policy. The amount you can take differs, based on the type of policy you have and the carrier. The big advantage of cash-value withdrawals is they’re not taxable up to your policy basis, provided your policy isn’t classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC). That’s a term given to a life insurance policy, where the funding exceeds federal tax law limits.

You should also note that cash-value withdrawals can have some unexpected or unrealized consequences. For one, the withdrawals that decrease your cash value could reduce your death benefit, which is a potential source of funds you or your family might need for income replacement, business purposes, or wealth preservation.

Cash-value withdrawals aren’t always tax-free, like when you take a withdrawal during the first 15 years of the policy, and the withdrawal causes a reduction in the policy’s death benefit. If so, some or all of the withdrawn cash could be subject to taxation. The withdrawals that reduce your cash surrender value could also make your premiums go up to maintain the same death benefit. Otherwise, your policy could lapse.

If your policy has been classified as a modified endowment contract, the withdrawals generally are taxed pursuant to the rules applicable to annuities. The cash disbursements are considered to be made from interest first and are subject to income tax and possibly a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you’re under the age of age 59½, when you take out the funds.

Most cash-value policies let you borrow money from the issuer, using your cash-accumulation account as collateral. The amount you can borrow depends on the value of the policy’s cash-accumulation account and the contract’s terms. The borrowed amounts from non- modified endowment contract policies are not taxable, and you don’t have to make payments on the loan, even though the outstanding loan balance might be accruing interest. However, loan balances typically decrease your policy’s death benefit. Therefore, your beneficiaries might receive less than you intended. An unpaid loan accruing interest also reduces your cash value. This can cause the policy to lapse, if insufficient premiums are paid to maintain the death benefit. If the loan is still outstanding when the policy lapses or if you later surrender the insurance, the borrowed amount becomes taxable to the extent the cash value (without reduction for the outstanding loan balance) exceeds your basis in the contract.

Policy loans from a policy that’s seen as a MEC are treated as distributions. As a result, the amount of the loan up to the earnings in the policy will be taxable and could also be subject to the pre-59½ early-withdrawal penalty. Note that withdrawing money or borrowing money from your policy can reduce your policy’s death benefit. Surrendering the policy also means that you’re giving up the right to the death benefit altogether.

When you surrender or cancel your policy, you can use the cash any way you want. However, if you surrender the policy during the early years of ownership, there will probably be surrender fees that will drop the cash value. The gain on the surrendered policy is also taxed. If you have an outstanding loan balance against the policy, additional taxes could be incurred.

Look at other options before using your life insurance policy for cash, like borrowing against your 401(k) plan or taking out a home equity loan. Each has its drawbacks, but based on your current financial circumstances, some choices are better than others.

As the policy owner, if you sell your life insurance policy to an individual or a life settlement company in exchange for cash, the new owner will keep the policy in force (and pay the premiums). They’ll also get a return on the investment, by receiving the death benefit when you die. The big advantage to a life settlement is that you may receive more for the policy than by cashing it in (surrendering the policy). While life settlements can be a valuable source of liquidity, remember these issues:

  • You relinquish control of the death benefit
  • The new policy owner(s) has access to your past medical records and usually the right to request updates on your health; and
  • The life settlement industry is very marginally regulated, so it’s hard to determine your policy’s value, which makes it tough to know if you’re getting a fair price for your policy.

Up to 30% of your proceeds may also go to commissions and fees, which reduces the net amount you receive.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 11, 2019) “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy”

financial windfall

How to Be Smart about a Financial Windfall

Few would complain about a financial windfall, but many people report feeling feelings of anxiety, guilt and stress about what to do with new-found wealth, and even more importantly, how to not blow it. Making a plan, says the article “Handling a financial windfall” from MSN Money.com, is the best way to start.

Treat yourself. Finding a balance between being cautious about the money and enjoying it is not easy, especially if you’ve never handled large sums of money before. One way to do this, is to set aside a certain percentage of the money for fun. Depending on your situation, that might be 5% or less.

What is the tax liability? Some windfalls come with taxes, and some don’t. Life insurance proceeds are not taxable, but an inherited IRA is. Gambling winnings are definitely taxable, as is income realized from the sale of a home or stocks. If you don’t know what the taxes on your windfall will be, find out before you spend anything.

Time for a team approach. If you don’t already have an estate planning attorney, a CPA or financial advisor, now is the time. Ask well-off friends, whose business acumen you respect, who they recommend. Speak with these professionals to learn about what they do, and don’t be shy about asking what they charge for their services.

Create financial and life goals. You may have choices now that you’ve never had. Knowing what matters to you, can help determine how you use the money. It’s very personal. Some of your choices:

  • Buying or upgrading a home
  • Investing in financial markets
  • Buying life insurance
  • Creating an emergency fund
  • Paying for education
  • Saving for retirement
  • Paying off credit card debt

These are just a few—the choices are limitless. Think about this from a long and short-term perspective. What matters today—buying a luxury car, for example—may become an expensive loss in ten years.

This is also the time to have an estate plan created, or if you have an estate plan, this is the time to update your plan. A big change in your financial situation may require changes to protect your assets, which can be done through your estate plan.

Enjoy the windfall but also be smart about protecting it.

Reference: MSN.Money.com (July 31, 2020) “Handling a financial windfall”

 

covid death without a will

What If Grandma Didn’t Have a Will and Died from COVID-19?

The latest report shows about 1.87 million reported cases and at least 108,000 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to data released by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Here’s a question that is being asked a lot these days: What happens if someone dies “intestate,” or without having established a will or estate plans?

If you die without a will in California and many other states, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” statutes.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “My loved one died without a will – now what?” explains that there are laws in each state that will dictate what happens, if you die without a will.

In Pennsylvania, the laws list the order of who receives upon your death, if you die without a will: your spouse, your children, and then your parents (if still alive), your siblings, and then on down the line to cousins, aunts and uncles, and the like. Typically, first on every state’s list is the spouse and the children.

You may also have some valuable assets that will not pass via your will and aren’t affected by your state’s intestate succession laws. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Any property that you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • Your life insurance proceeds
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • A payable-on-death bank account
  • Your vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration; or
  • Property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship.

These types of assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

It’s quite unusual for the government to claim a deceased person’s estate. While it might be allowed in some states, it’s considered a last resort. Typically, we all have some relatives.

If you have a loved one who has died without a will, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your next steps.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (June 1, 2020) “My loved one died without a will – now what?