Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Have You Considered Estate Planning for Fido?

In Montana, a pet is “any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of its owner.” In Kansas, the statutes define an “animal” as “any live dog, cat, rabbit, rodent, nonhuman primate, bird or other warm blooded vertebrate or any fish, snake, or other cold-blooded vertebrate.”

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning For Pets” explains that a pet is tangible personal property—just like guns, cars, or jewelry. When a pet owner passes away, pets pass to beneficiaries by provisions in an owner’s will, by directives in an owner’s trust document, or by a priority list of heirs contained in the state probate laws, if an owner does not have a will or a trust.

Pet owners should select a willing care giver and make a care plan for their pet that will lower the pet’s stress in the first days after you are gone. Writing down your wishes can help your heirs avoid potential problems, if there is a need to cover expenses for food, medical requirements and transportation of the pet to the beneficiary.

For example, in Montana, an honorary trust for pets is valid for only 21 years, no matter if a pet owner writes a longer term in the trust document. As a result, the trust terminates the earlier of 21 years or when the pet dies. Unless indicated in the trust document, the trustee may not use any portion of the principal or income from the trust for any other use than for the pet’s care.

Pet owners have options, when funding a pet trust. Funds could come from a payable on death (POD) designation on financial accounts to the pet trust. Another option is a transfer on death (TOD) registration with the pet trust as beneficiary for stocks, bonds, mutual funds and annuities. The pet owner could also direct the trustee in the pet trust document to sell assets, like a vehicle, house, or  boat, and place those funds in the trust for the care of the pet.

Life insurance is perhaps another option for funding for a pet’s care. States typically do not consider a pet to be a “person,” so Puffball cannot be a beneficiary of a life insurance policy. A pet owner can fund a living or testamentary pet trust, by naming the trustee of the trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. As an alternative, a pet owner may have a certain percentage of an existing policy payable to the pet trust.

Pet owners should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best way of naming the trustee of a pet trust as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 14, 2021) “Estate Planning For Pets”

Tackling Estate Plan Quarter by Quarter

Most of us know that a tax bill is typically due on April 15, and we know that our paychecks will include deductions for taxes, Social Security, and IRA or 401(k) contributions. If we are self-employed or retired, we make quarterly estimated tax payments. We plan throughout the year to be better prepared when April 15 comes around. The preparation takes place routinely over time, and the same can be done for estate planning and updating, says a recent article “Make quarterly payments to estate plan” from Victoria Advocate. It’s simple and sensible.

If we can make our plans today to make our eventual passing easier for loved ones and friends, why not divide and conquer, in a quarterly manner? Consider these quarterly “payments” to your estate plan and your family:

First Quarter: Review current estate plans with your estate planning attorney. Don’t have an estate plan? Get started. An estate plan includes a Will, Durable Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney, Directive to Physicians document and any trusts you might need.

The Will, aka Last Will and Testament, is the only one of these documents to be used post-mortem. The will is used to designate an executor to carry out your wishes and designate a person or persons to serve as legal guardians for minor children.

Second Quarter: Let your family know your wishes. Open communication with family members is a gift, so they are not left guessing during critical times. Finding the right words is not always easy, so try writing out your thoughts as you prepare your estate plan. Document your wishes for burial arrangements, information they’ll need for a death certificate or obituary. Do you want to donate your organs, or will your pet need special care? Where are your important papers located? Once you’ve had all the necessary documents created and have thought through these wishes and written a memo about them, let your future executor know what your wishes are, and where they can find the information that they’ll need.

Third Quarter: Do some easy but important estate planning tasks. Review the beneficiaries listed on your accounts. Assets and accounts that pass through beneficiary designations are not controlled by the will, so this is extremely important if it’s been more than a few years since you last reviewed these documents. Your IRA, SEP, 401(k), life insurance and any accounts titled Transfer or Payable on Death probably have beneficiaries listed.

Fourth Quarter: Does your estate plan include a legacy to future generations or charities? Speak with your estate planning attorney about how to pass your estate to children or grandchildren. If you have a unique goal, trusts can be as individual as you are.

As systematically as you pay taxes and bills, work through your estate plan so that you are prepared for the two things we know will occur, regardless of how we feel about them—taxes and death.

Reference: Victoria Advocate (May 8, 2021) “Make quarterly payments to estate plan”

How Do I File Taxes on a CARES 401(k) Withdrawal?

Several bills were passed by Congress to ease financial challenges for Americans during the pandemic. One of the provisions of the CARES Act was to allow workers to withdraw up to $100,000 from their company sponsored 401(k) plan or IRA account in 2020. This is a big departure from the usual rules, says an article from U.S. News & World Report titled “How to Avoid Taxes on Your CARES Act Retirement Withdrawal.”

Normally, a withdrawal from either of these accounts would incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty, but the CARES Act waives the penalty for 2020. However, income tax still needs to be paid on the withdrawal. There are a few options for delaying or minimizing the resulting tax bill.

Here are three key rules you need to know:

  • The penalties on early withdrawals were waived, but not the taxes.
  • The taxes may be paid out over a period of three years.
  • If the taxes are paid and then the taxpayer is able to put the funds back into the account, they can file an amended tax return.

It’s wise to take advantage of that three-year repayment window. If you can put the money back within that three-year time period, you might be able to avoid paying taxes on it altogether. If you are in a cash crunch, you can take the full amount of time and repay the money next year, or the year after.

For instance, if you took out $30,000, you could repay $10,000 a year for 2020, 2021, and 2022. You could also repay all $30,000 by year three. Any repayment schedule can be used, as long as all of the taxes have been paid or all of the money is returned to your retirement account by the end of the third year period.

If you pay taxes on the withdrawal and return the money to your account later, there is also the option to file an amended tax return, as long as you put the money back into the same account by 2022. The best option, if you can manage it, is to put the money back into your retirement account as soon as possible, so your retirement savings has more time to grow. Eliminating the tax bill and re-building retirement savings is the best of all possible options, if your situation permits it.

If you lost your job or had a steep income reduction, it may be best to take the tax hit in the year that your income tax levels are lower. Let’s say your annual salary is $60,000, but you were furloughed in March and didn’t receive any salary for the rest of the year. It’s likely that you are in a lower income tax bracket. If you took $15,000 from your 401(k), you might need to pay a 12% tax rate, instead of the 22% you might owe in a higher income year.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 23, 2021) “How to Avoid Taxes on Your CARES Act Retirement Withdrawal”

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”

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”

taxes during retirement

Do I Have to Pay Taxes during Retirement?

Paying taxes when you aren’t working but are instead receiving income from a lifetime of working and Social Security is a harsh reality of retirement for many people. Figuring out how much of your income will be consumed by taxes is a tricky task, according to the article “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement” from Next Avenue. Ignore it, and your finances will suffer.

Most households will pay about six percent of their retirement income in federal income tax, but that number varies greatly, depending upon the size of their retirement income. The lowest income groups may pay next to nothing, but as income rises, so do the taxes. Married couples with an average combined Social Security benefit of about $33,000, 401(k)/IRA balances of $180,790, and personal financial wealth of $87,000 could find themselves paying 10.5% to 20.9%.

Income taxes and health costs are most people’s biggest expenses in retirement. Income taxes are due on pensions and withdrawals from tax-deferred accounts, including traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and similar retirement accounts. The same goes for tax-deferred annuities. Required minimum distributions must be taken starting at age 72.

Roth IRA and 401(k) distributions are tax free, since taxes are paid when the funds go into the accounts, not when they are withdrawn.

If you have investments in addition to your tax-deferred funds, like stocks or bond funds, you also pay taxes on the dividends and interest paid to you. If you sell them, you’ll likely need to pay any capital gains taxes.

Learning that a portion of your Social Security benefits are subject to federal income tax is a shocker to many retirees, but about 40% of recipients do pay taxes on their benefits. The higher your income, the more taxes you’ll need to pay.

There may also be state taxes on your Social Security benefits, depending on where you live.

However, here’s the biggest shocker–if you work part time, you may forfeit benefits, temporarily, if you claim before your Full Retirement Age, while you are working. Claiming before FRA means that your benefits are subject to earnings limits—the most you can make from work before triggering a benefit reduction.

Social Security withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 earned above the annual earnings limitation cap. If you reach your FRA after 2020, that’s $18,240. If you reach your FRA in 2020, the annual exemption amount is $48,600.

Pension, investment income and any government benefits, like unemployment compensation, don’t count towards earned income.

Benefits that are withheld will be returned to you once you hit FRA when Social Security bumps up your monthly benefit to make up for the withholding, but this takes place over time.

Reference: Next Avenue (Sep. 17, 2020) “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement”

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?