Estate Planning

Avoid the Pitfalls of Beneficiary Designations

It may seem simple to leave your property to your heirs. You make a will or a trust, you do a transfer-on-death deed for your real estate, you put your kids on your bank account, you designate beneficiaries for your life insurance and retirement accounts, and you’re done.

If only things were that simple. The result you wanted can be seriously foiled, if all the above elements are not carefully coordinated.

After you consider the following, we hope you’ll agree that it’s best to consult a qualified attorney. That’s the person you need to help you construct an estate plan that will do what you want it to do.

A pitfall: Conflict between deeds and wills or trusts

If your will or trust conflicts with a deed for real property, the law will resolve the conflict for you by following the deed, not the will or trust. This can produce unintended results.

Suppose Mary wanted to divide her property equally between her two children, John and Jane. She recorded a beneficiary deed for John so he could inherit the house. She wrote a will leaving money to her daughter Jane that was roughly the same value as the house.

Subsequently, however, Mary forgot about John’s deed. She made another will that split everything equally between John and Jane.

On Mary’s death, John ended up getting significantly more than Jane. The portion of the second will including the house would be invalidated because the earlier deed would supplant the will. So John got the house through the deed, plus half the money through the will. Jane got half the money only. That was not what Mary intended and the unfairness damaged John’s and Jane’s relationship.

A similar pitfall: Conflict between beneficiary designations and wills or trusts

Financial accounts can transfer automatically to people of your choice, avoiding probate, if you designate beneficiaries by means of “transfer on death” (TOD) through your broker. But you must not depend on your will to change TOD designations. The beneficiary designations establish a contract between the holder of the account and you. When you pass, the holder is legally obligated to transfer your account to the beneficiaries you designate, regardless of what your will says. The designations, like deeds, supplant wills.

So if you have named your spouse as a beneficiary of, say, a retirement account, and then you get divorced and forget to change the beneficiary designation, your ex-spouse – and neither your new spouse nor your children nor anybody else – will receive the account proceeds when you die, regardless what your will says.

Underage beneficiaries and guardianship proceedings

Suppose your financial advisor calls to alert you that you have not designated beneficiaries on your accounts and that if you don’t do so, your estate will have to go through probate when you pass. By making TOD designations, your beneficiary would simply present a death certificate and the assets would transfer to him or her without the need to go to court. That sounds good. So you follow your advisor’s suggestion and designate your beneficiaries.

In the meantime, your lawyer drafts a good will for you. This will, as good wills should, contain a subtrust providing for underage beneficiaries. Your lawyer, echoing your financial advisor, explains that the subtrust is intended to avoid the necessity of court proceedings.

Your efforts to avoid court will be defeated, however, if you choose an underage beneficiary to receive your financial account through TOD. Guardianship proceedings would still be necessary to administer the money until the beneficiary came of age.

It would have been better to route the gift to the underage beneficiary through a will or trust and not through TOD designation. If wills or trusts are properly drafted, they contain provisions to administer the underage beneficiary’s inheritance privately and thereby avoid the court guardianship proceedings.

Another pitfall: Disabled beneficiaries and government benefits

The pitfall here is similar to the one above. If your beneficiary is disabled and gets a TOD (or any other kind of) inheritance, the inherited money could jeopardize the beneficiary’s entitlement to government benefits. Most benefits programs are “means-tested.” To be eligible, recipients must own practically nothing. If your beneficiary were suddenly to inherit, he or she would lose benefits and end up having to pay for care until the inheritance was spent. That could involve a lot of money!

Rather, like for underage beneficiaries, the disabled beneficiary’s inheritance should be routed through a will or “supplemental needs trust” (SNT) that imposes restrictions on spending. With those restrictions in place, the benefits would keep coming, and the inheritance assets could be used to pay for “extras” that benefits don’t cover. These extras might include payment of real estate taxes, upkeep of a residence, or vacations, or a flat-screen television. The inherited money would be managed by a trusted person and the disabled beneficiary would still continue to receive the crucially important benefits.

Bank accounts and disabled or underage beneficiaries

The pitfall is the same as above. If you have designated underage or disabled beneficiaries by making your accounts “payable on death” (POD), court proceedings will be necessary in the case of the underage beneficiary, or the inheritance could jeopardize or eliminate the disabled beneficiary’s government benefits.

“Spendthrift” beneficiaries

The problem is likewise similar here. If your beneficiary has a gambling habit or drug addiction, or if he or she needs bankruptcy protection from creditors, and if he or she inherits without trust protections, the inheritance could be lost to the beneficiary’s detriment.

Joint tenancy of real property

It may be tempting to avoid probate by putting real estate in your beneficiaries’ names as joint tenants. But if multiple people own real estate jointly, all must agree on what is to be done with the land and all should contribute equally to property maintenance expenses. This can create disputes. A better solution might be to subject the property to probate, to dispose of it in orderly court proceedings.

Joint bank accounts

The intent to avoid probate here is similar to a joint tenancy of land, but putting your bank account in your and your children’s names exposes the funds to risk that should be avoided. Once a person is named as a co-owner of a bank account, that person has immediate and unfettered access to the funds. The funds are thus exposed to misappropriation by the joint-tenant child, or they can go instead to the child’s creditors in bankruptcy, or to ex-spouses in divorce proceedings.

It would be better to create a power of attorney that allows a trusted agent access to bank-account funds for your benefit while you are alive. Then, for when you pass, you could name beneficiaries via a POD designation with the bank – but remember the warnings above regarding underage or disabled or spendthrift beneficiaries. Those beneficiaries’ access to funds should be protected by a trust.

A lot of moving parts

Each of the estate-planning strategies above could work well in and of themselves, but, taken together, may have an adverse impact. Crafting a plan that combines and coordinates the various strategies requires expertise and care. That care is worth taking, to safeguard the wealth you have built up over the years. Don’t risk a result you don’t want. Call on us to design a plan that harmonizes all the moving parts, so the gears will work together and you will leave the legacy you intended.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your personal situation, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Please contact our Reno office by calling us at (775) 853-5700.

Estate Planning

Reassessment of an Estate Plan Is Necessary Following the Death of a Spouse

The passing of a spouse is not only a very emotional challenge but can be financially difficult as well. It is common for one spouse to handle family tax and estate plans, and a widow(er) may be looking at a complex financial situation with more questions than answers. It is a mistake to think that a complete estate plan needs no further action after a spouse’s passing. Many times there are decisions to make and act on within a set timeframe. Prioritizing the review and reassessment of your finances and estate plan is a must.

Start by taking an inventory of your current bills; making a plan that covers those expenses for the next six to twelve months. If your spouse’s social security monthly benefit is higher than yours and your marriage was ten years or more, petition to receive the higher dollar amount. Put off making big decisions if at all possible during this time. Adapting to the loss of a loved one can cloud good decision-making, and allowing for time to analyze decisions may even find you developing new financial goals. However, identify and act on those decisions with deadlines, particularly the portability election on the decedent’s estate tax return and any probate timelines. Be particularly careful during tax time and work closely with your tax preparer to understand both your deceased spouse and your taxes. It is not uncommon for a widow to discover previously unknown accounts.

If you have a solid relationship with your family attorney and financial advisor, reach out to them for guidance. These professionals are well versed in the processes that accompany the loss of a spouse. If you are not familiar with these individuals, make appointments to meet with and review your current situation. Ask for strategy options and see how they fit into what may become your forward plans. Re-evaluate your investments and match needs to risk tolerance. Many widows are happy with a lesser return if stability is the offset. Be sure you are content with your investment philosophy before making significant changes, carefully weighing professional input.

Keep your formal estate plan updated. Laws change, and so has your situation. Ensure that all beneficiaries on IRAs, life insurance, and some investment accounts reflect your current wishes. If necessary, update your power of attorney for both financial and medical directives. When outright gifting to your children, remember it may create problems if there were to be a later divorce. An ex-spouse can lay claim to the gifted property, which you can lose in a lawsuit. Speak with your estate planning attorney as trusts are a beneficial entity to manage and protect property of significant value. Trusts are also worth considering to protect substantial assets that do not have a beneficiary designation to bypass probate and protect your heirs.

Take stock in your home, weighing your financial situation and your emotional connection to your home. Does it make sense to stay in your current residence? Is it financially possible to do so? Even if the home is mortgage-free, maintenance and upkeep of the home and property can become overwhelming and expensive. Alternatively, many widows prefer to remain in the home with longstanding memories of their spouse and children growing up in the environment. Even though it may make economic sense to move, the emotional ties to the property may be in the best interest of the widow to preserve.

census.gov

According to a Fidelity Investments survey, most Americans who find themselves widowed are female, and nearly seventy percent will retain a new financial advisor within the first year of the death of their spouse. Regardless of why this happens, it is clear that amending financial goals and revisiting the estate plan are likely to be the actions of a widow. Predictions are that women will inherit close to thirty trillion dollars of intergenerational wealth transfers over the next few decades. Becoming educated about family financial decisions for all widows(ers) is of the utmost importance, particularly for women who tend to outlive their husbands.

How a spouse passes, whether from a lengthy disease battle or taken quickly, matters not. The grief is still there. How long and deep the grief varies significantly among individuals. While it is essential to address time-sensitive decisions, it is best to make significant financial changes when a widow feels emotionally intense and clear-minded to avoid making regretful decisions. Professional guidance and advice are of the utmost importance to fully understand your situation and the decisions you need to make. While the process can be complex, even heartwrenching, it is of utmost importance to your future to handle what is before you competently. If you have questions or would like to discuss your personal situation, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Please contact our Reno office by calling us at (775) 853-5700.

Estate Planning

Understanding the Differences Between Wills and Trusts

Wills and trusts have specific and quite different benefits for estate planning purposes. Each state has specific laws and regulations governing these legal documents. You can have both a will and a trust; however, the information in each should compliment the other. As a standalone, it is not accurate to say one is better than the other. The better choice for you, or a blend of both documents, depends on your assets and life circumstances. Begin by assessing your situation, goals, and needs, and understanding what wills and trusts do to guide your decision making. Then, along with an attorney, you will be able to identify the solution that best suits and protects your family.

At its most basic level, a will allows you to appoint an executor for your estate, name guardians for your children and pets, designate where your assets go, and specify final wishes and arrangements. A will is only enacted upon your death. It has some limitations regarding the distribution of assets, and wills are also subject to a probate process (which occurs in court and is overseen by a judge) and, as such, are part of public records.

Types of Wills for Your Estate Plan

The last will and testament designates a person’s final wishes about bank accounts, real estate, personal property, and who should inherit these items. A personal will outlines how to distribute possessions, whether to another person, a group, or donate them to charity. It also deems responsibility to others for custody of dependents and management of accounts and other interests. Accounts can include digital assets with a tangible or monetary value associated with it, such as funds in a PayPal account.

A pour-over will ensures an individual’s remaining assets will automatically transfer to a previously established trust upon their death. This type of will always accompanies a trust.

A living will or advance directive specifies the type of medical care that an individual prefers if they cannot communicate their wishes.

A joint will and mutual will is meant for a married couple to ensure that their property is disposed of in an identical manner. A mirror will is two separate but identical wills, which may or may not also be mutual wills.

A holographic or handwritten will is valid in about half of the states and must meet the specific state’s requirements. Authentication of this will type for acceptance to the probate process also varies by state. There is always the possibility that a court will not accept a holographic will. Even if you have limited assets, your best strategy is to have your will professionally documented by an attorney. A video of your final wishes does not create a valid will.

Trusts are somewhat more complicated than wills, and the many different trust types can greatly benefit your estate and beneficiaries. Generally, a trust provides for the distribution and management of your assets during your lifetime and after death. Trusts can apply to any asset you hold inside the trust and offer more control over when and how your assets are distributed. There are many different trust forms and types, far more than wills.

However, the creation of a trust is only the beginning of the process. You must fund your trust by legally transferring assets into it, making the trust the owner of those assets. This process makes creating a trust a bit more complicated to set up; however, a trust is often enacted to minimize or completely avoid probate, thus keeping personal records private. Avoiding probate is a huge advantage for some people and often justifies the additional complex legal work of setting up a trust. There are nearly as many types of trusts as issues to address in your estate planning, and each offers different protections. However, trusts generally fall into three basic categories.

Basic Trust Types For an Estate Plan

A revocable living trust is, by far, the most commonly implemented trust type. The person who creates and funds the trust is known as the grantor and will typically act as the directing trustee during their lifetime. The grantor may undo the trust, change its terms, and move property and assets in and out of the trust’s ownership as they deem desirable. Revocable living trusts are designed to switch to an irrevocable trust upon the death of the grantor.

An irrevocable living trust is legally binding on its date of designation and allows very few provisions for change. The trust grantor funds the irrevocable living trust with property and assets, and the trust property is then under the care and control of the individual the grantor names as trustee. The grantor cannot change their mind and “undo” the trust. There are unique tax implications and other benefits to an irrevocable trust, including protecting a person’s home and savings from the high costs of long term care. These benefits can make relinquishing control worthwhile.

A testamentary trust is a provision within a will, appointing a trustee to manage the deceased’s assets. This trust is often used when the beneficiaries are minor children or someone who is receiving public benefits. This trust type is also used to reduce estate tax liabilities and ensure professional asset management. A testamentary trust is not a living trust. It only exists upon the death of the testator (the writer of the will). The executor of the deceased’s estate would follow the terms of the trust (called administering the trust) as part of the probate process.

Things to put into a trust include but are not limited to:
·      Stocks, bonds, mutual funds
·      Money market accounts
·      Brokerage accounts
·      Patents, copyrights, and royalty contracts
·      House and other real estate
·      Business interests and notes payable to you
·      Jewelry and precious metals
·      Works of art or other valuable collections
Assets that are not affected by trusts include but are not limited to:
·      Life insurance proceeds
·      Payable on death bank accounts
·      Retirement accounts
·      Jointly owned assets
·      Real estate subject to transfer-on-death deed

The many benefits that proper estate planning with wills and trusts can provide to your family are worth some thoughtful contemplation, legal counsel, and properly drafted documents.  We would be happy to meet with you and discuss which options are best for your particular situation. Please contact our Reno office by calling us at (775) 853-5700 to learn more about your estate planning options.