Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Do Stepchildren Inherit?

When an individual passes away without a will, the state laws of intestacy instruct how the person’s probate estate will be distributed.

Only assets that would have passed through a person’s will are impacted by intestate succession laws. This typically includes only assets owned alone in his or her name.

For instance, in Nebraska, under intestate succession, who inherits depends on whether the deceased had living children, parents, or other close relatives, when he or she died.

In Nebraska, if the decedent was married and died without a will, what the decedent’s spouse will receive depends on whether the decedent had any living parents or descendants, such as children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. If the decedent did not, then his or her spouse inherits all of the intestate property.

Under New Jersey’s intestacy statute, when a decedent is survived by a spouse and children who are not children of the surviving spouse (stepchildren), the surviving spouse is entitled to the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000– plus one-half of the remainder of the intestate estate.

However, nj.com’s recent article entitled “Who gets this house after spouse dies with no will?” explains that the laws of intestacy don’t control the distribution of assets that were jointly owned with a right of survivorship (like a house) or that have a beneficiary designation (like life insurance).

If the house was jointly owned as husband and wife in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship, the surviving spouse solely owns the entire house by operation of law, upon the death of the first spouse. The stepchildren do not have any right to the proceeds of the sale of the house.

However, if the decedent spouse owned the house only in his or her own name or the house was titled by the spouses as “tenants in common,” then the laws of intestacy would apply.

Tenancy in common is an arrangement where two or more people have ownership interests in a property.

The big difference between joint tenants and tenants in common is that joint tenants have the right of survivorship (which gives them ownership of the property when one owner dies), tenants in common do not.

With a tenancy in common, the tenants can own different percentages of the property.

Tenants in common can also gift their share of the property to anyone upon their death.

Reference: nj.com (May 5, 2021) “Who gets this house after spouse dies with no will?”

Will Mediterranean Diet Stave Off Alzheimer’s?

Researchers at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn found the Mediterranean diet could protect the brain from disease triggers linked to Alzheimer’s, specifically protein deposits and the rapid loss of brain matter.

Barchester’s recent article entitled “Mediterranean diet could lower risk of dementia, study suggests” reports that Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting between 50 and 75% of people who are diagnosed with the condition.

Worldwide, approximately 50 million people have dementia. There are roughly 10 million new cases every year.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60–70% of cases.

Dementia is one of the primary causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide.

There are physical, psychological, social, and economic impacts on people with dementia, as well as on their careers, families and society at large.

The recent German study results were published in the journal Neurology. The research involved 512 subjects, with an average age of 70 years. The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the foods they regularly ate. Those who ate a considerable quantities of fish, vegetables and fruit, and only occasionally consumed foods considered less healthy, such as red meat–were given high scores on a scale used by the researchers.

Participants then underwent MRI brain scans and participated in tests examining cognitive functions, such as memory. The study also looked for levels of amyloid beta proteins and tau proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid. These are well-known signs of Alzheimer’s.

The results showed that those with the unhealthiest eating habits had more pathological levels of these biomarkers, when compared with those who regularly ate a Mediterranean diet.

In addition, individuals who regularly ate a significant quantities of fish, fruit and vegetables performed better in memory tests.

The lead author of the study, Tommaso Ballarini, expanding on the findings and explained: “There was also a significant positive correlation between a closer adherence to a Mediterranean-like diet and a higher volume of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is considered the control centre of memory. It shrinks early and severely in Alzheimer’s disease.”

The researchers are looking to re-examine the same study participants in four to five years, to have further insights into how nutrition can impact brain aging and health over time.

Reference: Barchester (May 10, 2021) “Mediterranean diet could lower risk of dementia, study suggests”

Link Possible between Diabetes, Dementia and Age

New research says those people who had type 2 diabetes for more than 10 years had more than twice the risk for developing dementia, as compared with those who were diabetes-free at age 70, according to Archana Singh-Manoux, PhD, of the Université de Paris in France.

MedPage Today’s recent article entitled “Diabetes, Dementia, and Age: What’s the Link?” reports that at age 70, every additional five years younger that a person was diagnosed with diabetes was linked to a 24% increased risk of incident dementia, even after adjustment for sociodemographic, health-related and clinical factors including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, body mass index and use of antidepressant or cardiovascular medications, among others.

This is equal to a dementia rate of 8.9 per 1,000 person-years among patients age 70 without diabetes versus a rate of 10 to 18.3 for those with diabetes, depending on age at onset:

  • Diabetes onset 5 years earlier: 10.0 per 1,000 person-years
  • Diabetes onset 6-10 years earlier: 13.0 per 1,000 person-years
  • Diabetes onset 10+ years earlier: 18.3 per 1,000 person-years

The strongest connection with incident dementia appeared to be younger age at onset of type 2 diabetes. Patients at age 55 who were diagnosed with diabetes within the past five years saw a twofold increased risk for incident dementia; those age 60 who were diagnosed with diabetes six to 10 years prior saw a similar twofold increased risk. However, late-onset diabetes wasn’t found to be tied to incident dementia. Prediabetes (fasting blood glucose of 110-125 mg/dL) also was not linked to risk of subsequent dementia. Singh-Manoux said this finding suggested that “a certain threshold of high glucose” might be needed to ultimately see hyperglycemia-induced brain injury.

However, cardiovascular comorbidities played into this link. Patients with diabetes who also had a stroke had a dramatically higher risk for dementia. Those with three heart conditions — stroke, coronary heart disease and heart failure – were at five times increased risk for subsequent dementia. Thus, these findings emphasize the importance of age at diabetes onset and cardiovascular comorbidities, when determining risk for dementia, the study authors said.

A few possible explanations could explain the connection between diabetes and dementia. “One hypothesis is that brain metabolic dysfunction is the primary driver of Alzheimer disease, highlighting the role of decreased transport of insulin through the blood-brain barrier, impairments in insulin signaling and consequently decreased cerebral glucose utilization,” they wrote. This idea was supported by findings from the 2019 SNIFF trial, which found some benefit with 40 IU of daily intranasal insulin for Alzheimer’s disease patients. The group also suggested that episodes of hypoglycemia, more often experienced by those with a longer diabetes duration, may increase the risk for dementia.

Reference: MedPage Today (April 27, 2021) “Diabetes, Dementia, and Age: What’s the Link?”

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?”

Are You Clueless about Social Security?

If you haven’t a clue about Social Security, it’s vital that you learn, so you can be ready to grow and maximize your benefits.

Lake Geneva Regional News’ recent article entitled “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It” provides several important things you should know:

Your benefits are determined by your top 35 years of earnings. The monthly benefit you get in retirement is based on your specific earnings during your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce. If you don’t work a full 35 years, you’ll have $0 factored into that equation for each year you’re missing an income. So, you can see how important it is to try to fill in those gaps. If you lost your job during the pandemic and are thinking about early retirement, check your earnings history before you do.

You’re only entitled to your full monthly benefit when you hit full retirement age. You can claim your monthly retirement benefit in full once you hit your full retirement age (FRA). However, many people don’t know what that age is. About a quarter (26%) of those aged 60 to 65 couldn’t correctly identify their FRA on the quiz. Your FRA is based on your year of birth.

You can claim Social Security as early as age 62 or wait until age 70 and grow your benefits in the process. However, you’ll need to know your FRA first.

You can collect Social Security, even if you never worked. If you are or were married to someone who’s entitled to Social Security, you may be eligible for spousal benefits that amount to 50% of what your current or ex-spouse collects.

MassMutual found that 30% of older Americans didn’t know that a person who’s divorced may be able to collect Social Security benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings history. Thus, it pays to read up on spousal benefits as retirement nears, even if you never held a job.

Being ill-informed about Social Security could make it more difficult to file at the right time and make the most of your Social Security income

Stay up to date on how Social Security benefits work, so you’re able to make wise choices for your retirement.

Reference: Lake Geneva Regional News (April 10, 2021) “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It”

When do Medicaid Recipients have to Cash Stimulus Checks before Government Collects?

Medicaid enrollees are generally allowed to have only a limited amount of assets, outside of their primary residence, car and other essentials.

For singles, it’s typically about $2,000. Those who exceed that threshold could be deemed ineligible for the health insurance program for low-income Americans.

CNN’s recent article entitled “Nursing home residents have a little more time to spend stimulus checks before losing Medicaid” notes that the $1,200 stimulus payments that many people received last spring didn’t count as income under Medicaid rules.

As a result, nursing home residents didn’t have to give the money over to the facilities where they live and could save it for their own use.

However, the funds are considered an asset after one year. That is a deadline that is rapidly drawing near for the first of the three relief payments Congress has authorized since the pandemic began.

Even so, another coronavirus provision that lawmakers approved last March prevents states from disenrolling residents from Medicaid during the public health emergency, which is currently set to end next month. However, it’s expected to be extended again.

This means that Medicaid recipients, including nursing home residents, don’t have to worry about spending the funds until the pandemic is over.

The same is true for the $600 checks many received from the December relief bill and the $1,400 payment that is being distributed from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery package, but the time on those funds started more recently.

Just the same, people shouldn’t wait until the last minute to spend their stimulus funds. They can buy things they need and can also give the money to family or friends or make a charitable contribution. They just need to prove that the gift isn’t part of a strategy to give away assets to qualify for Medicaid.

“People should just be conscious of Medicaid asset limits and deal with it without trying to wait until the last month of the public health emergency,” said Eric Carlson, a directing attorney with Justice in Aging, a non-profit legal advocacy group. “There’s no particular benefit to cutting it close.”

Reference: CNN (March 30, 2021) “Nursing home residents have a little more time to spend stimulus checks before losing Medicaid”

Does My Family have to Pay My Credit Cards when I Die?

Market Realist’s recent article entitled “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?” says that the short answer is that the deceased’s estate pays off any credit card debt they have left behind. Credit card debt and other debts can pass on to others in some cases, which is a big reason why estate planning is so important.

When a person dies, their assets are frozen until his or her will is verified, their debts are settled and their beneficiaries are identified in the probate process.

Then, the state will order that the deceased’s remaining assets (such as leftover cash and property with cash value) be used to pay off the credit card debt. However, retirement accounts, eligible brokerage accounts, and life insurance payouts are usually protected from this debt reconciliation. Once the debts are settled, the beneficiaries get their inheritance.

The debts are paid off until they’re all settled, or until the estate runs out of money. Unsecured debts, like credit cards, are usually paid off after secured debts, administrative fees and attorney fees.

There are some circumstances in which another person is legally obligated to pay the deceased’s debt.

Typically, no one is legally required to pay off a deceased individual’s debts, but there are some exceptions:

  • Co-signers must pay loans
  • Joint account holders must pay the debt on credit card accounts
  • Spouses have to pay particular types of debt in some states; and
  • Executors of an estate must pay outstanding bills out of property jointly owned by the surviving and deceased spouses in some states.

In addition, surviving spouses may be required to use community property to pay their deceased spouse’s debt in certain states.

The community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska would also be included in this list, if a special agreement is in place.

If there was no joint account, co-signer, or other exception, only the estate of the deceased person owes the debt.

Reference: Market Realist (Feb. 11, 2021) “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?”

What are Most Costly Mistakes with Social Security?

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “5 Social Security Oversights That Could Cost You Thousands” says that these five Social Security mistakes could cost you thousands in your retirement.

  1. Claiming Social Security early while you’re still working. You can claim your Social Security retirement benefit as young as age 62, but your benefits will be permanently reduced when compared with the amount you would receive if you waited until your full retirement age. Social Security will also penalize you for continuing to work while collecting benefits, if you are younger than your full retirement age.
  2. Failing to claim Social Security by your 70th birthday. Once you hit age 62, your benefit increases the longer you wait to claim, until you reach 70. You don’t have to claim your benefit by your 70th birthday, but there is no more benefit for waiting at that point.
  3. Delaying past your full retirement age to claim Social Security spousal benefits. If you’re claiming Social Security benefits based on your own income record, it’s smart to wait past your full retirement age to start taking benefits. However, if you’re claiming based on your spouse’s benefits, there’s no benefit to delay beyond your full retirement age to claim. As a result, married couples of similar ages who have vastly different earned incomes have a dilemma: for you to claim spousal benefits, your spouse also has to have begun claiming benefits based on his or her own earnings record. This combination makes it less worthwhile for the primary breadwinner spouse to wait to collect benefits, if the spouse is expecting to take spousal benefits.
  4. Taxes on Social Security benefits are not adjusted for inflation. Originally, Social Security benefits weren’t taxed. However, in 1984, the government started taxing Social Security benefits once a person’s combined income reached $25,000. Even now, the income level where Social Security starts to get taxed is still at $25,000. Because there is no adjustment for inflation, this makes more of people’s Social Security income taxable. This easily costs even moderate-income retirees thousands of dollars of spendable income over the course of their retirements.
  5. “Tax free” income counts toward making Social Security taxable. Even traditionally tax-free sources of income, like the interest from in-state municipal bonds, is included in the calculations to see how much of your Social Security will be considered taxable. Therefore, seniors who own tax free municipal bonds as part of their retirement portfolio may be surprised to find that those bonds are what’s causing their Social Security to be taxed. Seniors who find themselves in that situation may want to reevaluate their choice to be invested in those tax-free municipal bonds.

Despite how simple Social Security may appear, these five situations show how mistakes can cost thousands of dollars.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 14, 2021) “5 Social Security Oversights That Could Cost You Thousands”

Does Blackjack Keep My Brain Sharp?

People who regularly play non-digital games, like card or board games, have been found to do better on memory and thinking tests in their 70s than those who don’t.

That’s according to a recent study from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

The Money Talk News article from April 2020 entitled “This Pastime Can Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age” reports that there’s even better news: Those who suddenly increased game playing during their 70s also were more likely to maintain certain cognitive skills.

So, break out Monopoly or get some people together to play bridge or blackjack!

For the long-term study, which was published in The Journals of Gerontology, psychologists tested more than 1,000 people born in 1936 beginning at age 70 in skills such as memory, problem-solving, thinking speed and general thinking ability.

Researchers repeated the tests every three years, until the study participants were 79. At two ages — 70 and 76 — the participants also reported how frequently they played non-digital games, such as bingo, cards, chess or crosswords.

Those who played more games later in life saw less decline in thinking skills from age 70 to 79.

This protective effect was especially evident in memory function and thinking speed.

The researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland noted that their findings were just the latest in a collection of evidence that supports a connection between engaging in activities throughout life and better thinking ability in old age.

In a university announcement about the study, co-author Ian Deary says:

“It would be good to find out if some of these games are more potent than others. We also point out that several other things are related to better cognitive aging, such as being physically fit and not smoking.”

So, chess anyone?

Reference: Money Talk News (April 23, 2020) “This Pastime Can Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age”