Estate Planning Blog Articles

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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”

 

Does Living Trust Help with Probate and Inheritance Taxes?

A living trust is a trust that’s created during a person’s lifetime, explains nj.com’s recent article entitled “Will a living trust help with probate and inheritance taxes?”

For example, New Jersey’s Uniform Trust Code governs the creation and validity of trusts. A real benefit of a trust is that its assets aren’t subject to the probate process. However, the New Jersey probate process is simple, so most people in the Garden State don’t have a need for a living trust.

In Kansas, a living trust can be created if the “settlor” or creator of the trust:

  • Resides in Kansas
  • The trustee lives or works in Kansas; or
  • The trust property is located in the state.

Under Florida law, a revocable living trust is governed by Florida Statute § 736.0402. To create a valid revocable trust in Florida, these elements are required:

  • The settlor must have capacity to create the trust
  • The settlor must indicate an intent to create a trust
  • The trust must have a definite beneficiary
  • The trustee must have duties to perform; and
  • The same person can’t be the sole trustee and sole beneficiary.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney and he or she will tell you that no matter where you’re residing, the element that most estate planning attorneys concentrate on is the first—the capacity to create the trust. In most states, the capacity to create a revocable trust is the same capacity required to create a last will and testament.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the mental capacity required to make a will in your state. Some state laws say that it’s a significantly lower threshold than the legal standards for other capacity requirements, like making a contract.

However, if a person lacks capacity when making a will, then the validity of the will can be questioned. The person contesting the will has the burden to prove that the testator’s mental capacity impacted the creation of the will.

Note that the assets in a trust may be subject to income tax and may be includable in the grantor’s estate for purposes of determining whether estate or inheritance taxes are owed. State laws differ on this. There are many different types of living trusts that have different tax consequences, so you should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to see if a living trust is right for your specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 11, 2021) “Will a living trust help with probate and inheritance taxes?”

Underlying Conditions Most Dangerous for COVID-19?

AARP’s recent article “Three Most Dangerous Underlying Conditions for COVID-19” reports that it is well-established that risk increases with age. The CDC lists nearly two dozen health conditions that could put you at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of COVID-19. AARP did some research with doctors, who said three conditions worried them the most: diabetes, high blood pressure/underlying heart disease and obesity.

This corresponds with the results of one of the largest studies so far on COVID-19 mortality, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in December 2020. It looked at data from nearly 67,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients and found that these health conditions are associated with a higher risk of death:

  • Obesity,
  • Diabetes (with complications such as organ damage), and
  • High blood pressure (with complications, such as heart damage or kidney disease).

Each is an inflammatory disease that is prevalent among American adults, and experts say they are closely linked.

Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes and high blood pressure, and diabetes can contribute to high blood pressure. Moreover, diabetes and high blood pressure both can trigger kidney disease and lung disease—two other conditions that make COVID-19 riskier, says the CDC.

Some of the other dangerous conditions mentioned by the physicians include dementia, chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Immunocompromised patients, those who smoke and those with organ transplants also are a concern.

Lets’ look at those three health conditions that are associated with a higher risk of death:

High-risk condition: Obesity. Obese people diagnosed with COVID-19 are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized and about 50% more apt to die compared to patients who are a healthy weight. If you test positive for the coronavirus, ask your doctor if you are a good candidate for monoclonal antibodies. It is a life-saving treatment that can reduce hospitalizations among high-risk patients by as much as 70%.

Obesity is frequently associated with other health problems, but doctors note how hard COVID-19 impacts even those obese patients who have no other underlying conditions.

Obesity can make it difficult for a person’s lungs to expand, impairing breathing and oxygenation. Obesity is also believed to increase your risk of blood clots.

High-risk condition: High blood pressure. Researchers reviewed 22 studies from eight countries in 2020 and found that high blood pressure was present in 42% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. That makes it the most prevalent health condition by a big margin. Even more surprising is the fact that those patients had twice the risk of death compared with patients without high blood pressure, said Vikramaditya Samala Venkata, M.D., one of the study’s authors and a hospital medicine physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H.

However, the Clinical Infectious Diseases study on COVID-19 mortality found that hypertension on its own raised the death rate only for those under age 40. For those age 40+, mortality risk increased only if their high blood pressure had caused a complication, such as heart damage or chronic kidney disease.

Experts think that the coronavirus damages the cells that line blood vessels, causing clots and making it more difficult for them to carry oxygen. Therefore, it is important to keep your blood pressure under control. Studies show that patients with unregulated high blood pressure are at greater risk from COVID-19 compared with patients who take medication to control it.

High-risk condition: Diabetes. Research of the medical records of 61 million people in England published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology found that the risk of dying from COVID-19 was almost three times higher for people with Type 1 diabetes and almost twice as high for people with Type 2 diabetes, compared with those with neither. High blood sugar weakens the immune systems, which makes it harder for the body to fight off infections. Diabetes puts you at risk for both cardiovascular complications and infectious complications. Both of those are common with COVID.

So, watch your blood sugar levels because patients with well-controlled diabetes have a COVID-19 death rate of about 1%, according to a study published in Cell Metabolism. What about those with poorly controlled disease? Their rate is closer to 11%.

Reference: AARP (Feb. 3, 2021) “Three Most Dangerous Underlying Conditions for COVID-19”

Should I Worry about Medicaid Estate Recovery?

What is It? The Medicaid Estate Recovery Program (MERP) may be used to recoup costs paid toward long-term care. It’s designed to help make the program affordable for the government, but it can financially affect the beneficiaries of Medicaid recipients.

AOL’s article entitled “What Is Medicaid Estate Recovery?” explains that’s where Medicaid can help fill the void. Medicaid can assist with paying the costs of long-term care for aging seniors. It can be used when someone doesn’t have long-term care insurance coverage, or they don’t have the assets to pay for long-term care out of pocket. It can also be used to pay for nursing home care, if you’ve taken steps to protect assets using a trust or other estate planning tools.

However, the benefits you (or an aging parent) receive from Medicaid are not necessarily free. The Medicaid Recovery Program lets Medicaid recoup or get back the money spent on behalf of an aging senior to cover long-term care costs. Federal law requires states to attempt to seek reimbursement from a Medicaid beneficiary’s estate when they die.

How It Works. The Medicaid Estate Recovery Program lets Medicaid seek recompense for a variety of costs, including:

  • Nursing home-related expenses or other long-term care facility stays
  • Home- and community-based services
  • Medical services from a hospital (when the recipient is a long-term care patient); and
  • Prescription drug services for long-term care recipients.

If you (or an aging parent) die after receiving long-term care or other benefits through Medicaid, the recovery program allows Medicaid to pursue any eligible assets held by your estate. Exactly what that includes depends on your state, but generally any assets that would be subject to the probate process after you pass away are fair game.

That may include bank accounts you own, your home or other real estate and vehicles or other real property. Each state makes its own rules. Medicaid can’t take someone’s home or assets before they pass away, but it’s possible for a lien to be placed upon the property.

What Medicaid Estate Recovery Means for Heirs. The biggest thing about the Medicaid estate recovery for heirs of Medicaid recipients is that they might inherit a reduced estate. Medicaid estate recovery rules also exclude you personally from paying for your parents’ long-term care costs. However, filial responsibility laws don’t. It is rare, but the laws of some states let healthcare providers sue the children of long-term care recipients to recover nursing care costs.

How to Avoid Medicaid Estate Recovery. Strategic planning with the help of an elder law attorney can help you or your family avoid financial impacts from Medicaid estate recovery. You should think about buying long-term care insurance for yourself. A long-term care insurance policy can pay for the costs of nursing home care, so you can avoid the need for Medicaid altogether.

Another way to avoid Medicaid estate recovery is to remove assets from the probate process. For example, married couples can do this by making certain that assets are jointly owned with right of survivorship or using assets to purchase an annuity to transfer benefits to the surviving spouse when the other spouse passes away. You should know which assets are and are not subject to probate in your state and whether your state allows for an expanded definition of recoverable assets for Medicaid. Speak with an experienced elder law lawyer for assistance.

Medicaid estate recovery may not be something you have to concern yourself with, if your aging parents leave little or no assets in their estate. However, you should still be aware of it, if you expect to inherit assets from your parents when they die.

Reference: AOL (Feb. 5, 2021) “What Is Medicaid Estate Recovery?”