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How Do I Include Retirement Accounts in Estate Planning?

You probably made beneficiary designations for your retirement accounts, when you opened them. Remember: who you designated can affect your overall estate planning objectives. Because of this, when including your retirement assets in your estate, ask yourself if anything has changed in your life since then that would affect their status as your beneficiaries, as well as how they’d receive the retirement assets.

Investopedia’s recent article, “Include Your Retirement Accounts in Your Estate,” gives us some things to consider in the New Year.

Beneficiary Designations. Review your beneficiary designations after major life changes. If you fail to make these designations, the funds will most likely go into your estate—a horrible outcome from a tax and planning perspective. If your estate is named a beneficiary, your heirs must wait until probate is finished to access your retirement accounts. It is usually better to name an individual or a trust as your beneficiary.

Protecting Retirement Funds With a Trust. Another option is to include a trust in your estate planning, instead of giving your retirement funds directly to named individuals. This allows you more control over the distribution, while protecting your heirs from additional paperwork and taxes. Trust distributions keep a beneficiary from accessing and spending their inheritance all at once. It’s also a good idea if your beneficiaries include minor children who shouldn’t have direct access to the money until they are adults. Be sure to consult with an estate planning attorney, because there are tax and other complexities associated with designating a trust as beneficiary.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Your retirement plans have rules about when you are required to start taking distributions. For 401(k) accounts, you are required to start taking RMDs at age 70½. However, if you die and leave retirement plans and accounts to your heirs, these rules apply to them instead. A spousal beneficiary can roll over your retirement funds tax-free into their retirement plan and make their own distribution choices. However, other beneficiaries don’t have the same option. Tax treatment and distribution options vary, depending on who is receiving your retirement assets.

Tax Considerations. The biggest worry you need to address when designating retirement accounts as part of your estate plan, is how they’ll be taxed. Consider how to withdraw from these accounts while you’re alive and how to minimize tax consequences after you’ve passed.

Work with an estate planning attorney who has a strong understanding of retirement accounts and the tax and legal requirements of estate planning. That way you can be certain your retirement assets are distributed to the proper beneficiaries with the least tax liability.

Reference: Investopedia (August 27, 2018) “Include Your Retirement Accounts in Your Estate”

Get These Three Estate Planning Documents In 2019

These may not be the first things you are thinking about as we launch into a brand-new year, but the idea is not to wait until you’re not thinking clearly or when it’s too late and you don’t have what you need to protect yourself, your family and your property. The details, from the Fox Business news article, “3 financial documents everyone needs,” are straightforward. Put this on your to-do list today.

A Will. The essential function of a will is to ensure that your wishes are carried out, when you are no longer alive. It’s not just for rich people. Everyone should have a will. It can include everything from your financial assets to life insurance, family heirlooms, artwork and any real estate property.

A will can also be used to protect your business, provide for charities and ensure lifelong care for your pets.

If you have children, a will is especially important. Your will is used to name a guardian for your minor children. Otherwise, the state will decide who should rear your children.

Your will is also used to name your executor. That is the person who has the legal responsibility for making sure your financial obligations are honored. Without an executor, the state will appoint a person to handle those tasks.

An Advanced Medical Directive. What would happen if you became ill or injured and could not make medical decisions for yourself? An advanced medical directive and health care proxy are the documents you need to assign the people you want to make decisions on your behalf. The advanced medical directive, also called a living will, explains your wishes for care. The healthcare proxy appoints a person to make healthcare decisions for you. As long as you have legal capacity, these documents aren’t used, but once they are needed, you and your family will be glad they are in place.

A Durable Power of Attorney. This document is used to name someone who will make financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. Be careful to name a person you trust implicitly to make good decisions on your behalf. That may be a family member, an adult child or an attorney.

Once you’ve had these documents prepared as part of your estate plan, you’re not done. These documents need to be reviewed and updated every now and then. Life changes, laws change and what was a great tax strategy at one point may not be effective, if there’s a change to the law. Your estate planning attorney will help create and update your estate plan.

Reference: Fox Business (Dec. 19, 2018) “3 financial documents everyone needs”

Who Will Cover My Debt When I Die?

Did you know that we’re dying in this country with an average of $62,000 in debt? What happens to that debt?

Fox Business recently published an article that asks “What Happens to Your Debt When You Die?” As the article explains, the answer depends on a few different factors, including the type of debt, whether there was a cosigner and the value of the deceased person’s estate. Let’s look at some possible outcomes:

In many cases, any debt you owe during your lifetime will have to be paid by your estate when you pass away. Creditors can make claims against your estate during the probate process. If you died with a will and named an executor, he or she will usually use the assets you left behind to pay off your debt. If you don’t have enough assets, creditors are typically without recourse, if you had unsecured debt without a cosigner. However, if you had a secured loan, like a mortgage or a car loan, the debt would need to be paid for your family to keep the asset. For instance, if you leave your home to your family, they’d have to pay your mortgage to keep the house.

Creditor claims take precedence over your instructions as to what happens to your assets. If you stated in your will that your bank account is to pass to your children, but you owed money to a creditor, the money in the bank would first be used to pay the creditor, before your children could inherit.

If your estate doesn’t have enough assets to satisfy your debts, creditors may seek the payment from any cosigners on the loans. Cosigners share legal responsibility for debt and will be held 100% responsible for paying the remaining balance.

One potential exception to this general rule, is for certain types of student loans. For example, a Parent PLUS loan can be dischargeable due to a student’s death, and some private student loans offer a death discharge. However, it is rare. If the primary borrower on student loan debt dies, the surviving cosigner should read the loan terms to determine if he’ll still be held responsible for paying it. Federal student loan debt is typically forgiven, when the borrower dies.

Creditors can also attempt to collect from co-borrowers, if you had a joint account. Therefore, if you and your spouse had a mortgage together or shared a credit card, your spouse would be expected to continue paying the bills after your death.

However, if there’s no cosigner and not enough assets in the estate to pay the bills, creditors will charge off the debt because there’s no way to collect. Beware that creditors may attempt to guilt family members into paying after their deceased loved one’s death. However, generally there’s no requirement that you pay debt that belonged to a loved one. An exception is in states with community property laws that require spouses to pay off debt belonging to a deceased spouse using community property.

If your loved one has already passed away and you’re worried about what will happen to their debts, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Fox Business (December 27, 2018) “What Happens to Your Debt When You Die?”