Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

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”

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”

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”

 

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?

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