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Using Life Insurance as Part of Your Estate Plan

Life insurance can play a few key roles in an estate plan, depending on your age and situation in life.

There are two main types of life insurance: term and permanent. Term life insurance is the simplest: You buy a policy for a set number of years and you have coverage with a death benefit if you die during that period. Permanent life insurance policies provide coverage for life (or for as long as you pay premiums). In addition to paying a death benefit, the policy builds a cash value, which can be used as collateral for a loan or withdrawn from the account. “Whole life,” “universal life,” “variable life” and “variable universal life” are different types of permanent insurance.

When children are young, life insurance can provide funds to a surviving spouse and children to help make up for lost income and pay for schooling. Typically, a term life insurance policy will work well for this purpose.

Once you retire, you may no longer need life insurance. If your spouse or other dependents won’t lose any income when you die, life insurance may not be necessary and your premiums may be better spent on other things. However, more and more people are carrying debt into retirement. In this case, a life insurance policy can be used to pay off that debt once you die. This may allow your heirs to keep a house that might otherwise have to be sold to pay off the debt. Life insurance can also be used to pay off an outstanding mortgage.

It may better to have a permanent life policy in retirement because the cash value can be used to provide income to the retirees or to pay long-term care costs. There are also hybrid long-term care insurance and life insurance products that can be used for this purpose.

Because life insurance passes outside of probate, it can also provide heirs needed funds more quickly than assets passing through probate. Life insurance can be used to pay for funerals and other final expenses. While most families do not have to pay federal estate tax, life insurance can be used to pay state estate taxes.

To make sure you use life insurance effectively as part of your estate plan, you should consult with your attorney.

How to Create an Estate Plan That Includes Your Pet

Pets are members of the family, so it is important to consider how to provide for them in your estate plan just as you would the human family members.

While we may think of pets as part of our family, the law considers them to be property. This means that you cannot leave anything in your will directly to a pet. The following are some steps to take to make sure your pet is protected:

  • Caretaker. Pick one or two people who can act as your pet’s caretaker should anything happen to you. Make sure they are willing and able to assume the responsibility. Write out care instructions for them and let them know how to access your house. If you don’t have anyone who can take care of the pet, there are organizations that will perform this service, although they vary in quality, so be sure to check out the organizations before choosing one.
  • Animal card. You should keep a card in your wallet that identifies your pet and gives information on how to contact the designated caretakers. You can also affix a sign to your home’s door or window that, in case of an emergency, announces that you have a pet.
  • Power of attorney. Your power of attorney document can include language authorizing your agent to care for the pet, to spend your money to provide pet care, or to place your pet with a caregiver.
  • Will. You can use your will to leave a pet to a caretaker along with money to care for the animal. Be aware, however, that the caretaker does not have a legal obligation to use the money on the pet. Once the caretaker has possession of the pet, he or she does not have to keep the pet or care for it in any particular manner. As long as you trust the person you are leaving the pet with, this shouldn’t be a problem.
  • Trust. The most secure way to provide for a pet is to set up a pet trust, in which you name a trustee to ensure the pet is cared for. The trustee is obligated to make payments on a regular basis to your pet’s caregiver and pays for your pet’s needs as they come up. The trust should include the names of the trustee and caretaker, detailed care instructions, and the amount of money necessary to care for the pet.

To discuss a plan for your pet, contact your attorney.

Five Reasons to Have a Will

Your will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. It also appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. However, the will covers only probate property. (Probate is the court process by which a deceased person’s property is passed to his or her heirs and people named in the will.) Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly-owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate

Why should you have a will? Here are some reasons:

  1. With a will you can direct where and to whom your estate (what you own) will go after your death. If you died intestate (without a will), your estate would be distributed according to your state’s law. Such distribution may or may not accord with your wishes. Many people try to avoid probate and the need for a will by holding all of their property jointly with their children. This can work, but often people spend unnecessary effort trying to make sure all the joint accounts remain equally distributed among their children. These efforts can be defeated by a long-term illness of the parent or the death of a child. A will can be a much simpler means of carrying out one’s wishes about how assets should be distributed.
  2. Wills make the administration of your estate run smoothly. Often the probate process can be completed more quickly and at less expense to your estate if there is a will. With a clear expression of your wishes, there are unlikely to be any costly, time-consuming disputes over who gets what.
  3. Your will is the only way to choose the person to administer your estate and distribute it according to your instructions. This person is called your “executor” (or “executrix” if you appoint a woman) or “personal representative,” depending on your state’s statute. If you do not have a will naming him or her, the court will make the choice for you. Usually the court appoints the first person to ask for the post, whoever that may be.
  4. For larger estates, a well-planned will can help reduce estate taxes.
  5. A will allows you to appoint who will take your place as guardian of your minor children should both you and their other parent both pass away.

Filling out a worksheet will help you make decisions about what to put in your will. Bring it and any additional notes to your lawyer and he or she will be able to efficiently prepare a will that meets your needs and desires.

Husbands Usually Don’t Consider Their Wives’ Future When Deciding When to Take Social Security Benefits

The amount of Social Security benefits a surviving spouse receives depends, in part, on when their deceased spouse began claiming benefits. However, husbands usually don’t take survivor’s benefits into account when claiming benefits, according to a recent study, meaning that many widows will needlessly experience a significant drop in income.

Because women typically live longer than men and men are often the higher earners, most married women will be widowed and will have their income drop below what they need to maintain their accustomed standard of living. Spouses of a worker who has died are entitled to the worker’s full retirement benefits once they reach their full retirement age. If the worker delayed retirement, the survivor’s benefit will be higher. Husbands have the option of increasing their surviving spouse’s income by delaying Social Security benefits, but according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, most husbands do not take their wives’ future needs into consideration.

The study looked at whether greater awareness of Social Security Survivor’s benefits would affect claiming decisions. The study found that husbands tend to take more immediate concerns into consideration, such as their health and whether they have another pension, rather than their wives’ Survivor’s Benefits. Giving the husbands information about how they could improve their wives’ financial well-being by claiming benefits later did not change their claiming decisions.

The study concludes that in order to protect widows, the government should consider providing Survivor’s Benefits in a way that doesn’t tie the surviving spouse’s benefits to the decision of when to claim benefits. As things stands now, however, if you are the higher earner and are nearing retirement, you may want to take into account how your decision on when to claim benefits will affect your spouse if he or she survives you.

To come up with a plan that will best protect you and your spouse, contact your attorney.

How to Fix a Required Minimum Distribution Mistake

The rules around required minimum distributions from retirement accounts are confusing, and it’s easy to slip up. Fortunately, if you do make a mistake, there are steps you can take to fix the error and possibly avoid a stiff penalty.

If you have a tax-deferred retirement plan such as a traditional IRA or 401(k), you are required to begin taking distributions once you reach a certain age, with the withdrawn money taxed at your then-current tax rate. If you were age 70 1/2 before the end of 2019, you had to begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) in April of the year after you turned 70. But if you were not yet 70 1/2 by the end of 2019, you can wait to take RMDs until age 72. If you miss a withdrawal or take less than you were required to, you must pay a 50 percent excise tax on the amount that should have been distributed but was not.

It can be easy to miss a distribution or not withdraw the correct amount. If you make a mistake, the first step is to quickly correct the mistake and take the correct distribution. If you missed more than one distribution – either from multiple years or because you withdrew from several different accounts in the same year — it is better to take each distribution separately and for exactly the amount of the shortfall.

The next step is to file IRS form 5329. If you have more than one missed distribution, you can include them on one form as long as they all occurred in the same year. If you missed distributions in multiple years, you need to file a separate form for each year. And married couples who both miss a distribution need to each file their own forms. The form can be tricky, so follow the instructions closely to make sure you correctly fill it out.

In addition to completing form 5329, you should submit a letter, explaining why you missed the distribution and informing the IRS that you have now made the correct distributions. There is no clear definition of what the IRS will consider a reasonable explanation for missing a distribution. If the IRS does not waive the penalty, it will send you a notice.

For more detailed information on how to correct an RMD mistake, click here.

When Buying a Medigap Policy, It Really Pays to Shop Around

Medigap policies that supplement Medicare’s basic coverage can cost vastly different amounts, depending on the company selling the policy, according to a new study. The findings highlight the importance of shopping around before purchasing a policy.

When you first become eligible for Medicare, you may purchase a Medigap policy from a private insurer to supplement Medicare’s coverage and plug some or virtually all of Medicare’s coverage gaps. You can currently choose one of eight Medigap plans that are identified by letters A, B, D, G, K, L, M, and N (If you were eligible for Medicare before January 1, 2020, but not enrolled, you may also be able to purchase Plans C and F, but those plans  are no longer available to people who are newly eligible for Medicare). Each plan package offers a different menu of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them.

While federal law requires that insurers must offer the same benefits for each lettered plan–each plan G offered by one insurer must cover the same benefits as plan G offered by another insurer–insurers set their own prices for each plan. This means that the price of each plan varies considerably depending on the insurance company.

The American Association for Medicare Supplement Insurance compared costs of plans in the top 10 metro areas and found huge cost differences. Using the most popular plan–Plan G–for comparison, the association found that in Dallas the lowest price for a 65-year-old woman to purchase a plan was $99 a month while the highest price was $381 a month. This is a yearly difference of more than $3,000 for the exact same plan.

The association also found that no one company consistently offered the lowest or highest price. In their study, investigators discovered that 13 different companies had either the lowest or highest price. This means you can’t rely on just one company to always have the better price.

When looking for a Medigap policy, make sure to get quotes from several insurance companies. In addition, if you are going through a broker, check with two or more brokers because one broker might not represent every insurer. It can be hard work to shop around, but the price savings can be worth it.

Transferring Assets to Qualify for Medicaid

Transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid can make you ineligible for benefits for a period of time. Before making any transfers, you need to be aware of the consequences.

Congress has established a period of ineligibility for Medicaid for those who transfer assets. The so-called “look-back” period for all transfers is 60 months, which means state Medicaid officials look at transfers made within the 60 months prior to the Medicaid application.

While the look-back period determines what transfers will be penalized, the length of the penalty depends on the amount transferred. The penalty period is determined by dividing the amount transferred by the average monthly cost of nursing home care in the state. For instance, if the nursing home resident transferred $100,000 in a state where the average monthly cost of care was $5,000, the penalty period would be 20 months ($100,000/$5,000 = 20). The 20-month period will not begin until (1) the transferor has moved to a nursing home, (2) he has spent down to the asset limit for Medicaid eligibility, (3) has applied for Medicaid coverage, and (4) has been approved for coverage but for the transfer. Therefore, if an individual transfers $100,000 on April 1, 2017, moves to a nursing home on April 1, 2018 and spends down to Medicaid eligibility on April 1, 2019, that is when the 20-month penalty period will begin, and it will not end until December 1, 2020.

Transfers should be made carefully, with an understanding of all the consequences. People who make transfers must be careful not to apply for Medicaid before the five-year look-back period elapses without first consulting with an elder law attorney. This is because the penalty could ultimately extend even longer than five years, depending on the size of the transfer.

Be very, very careful before making transfers. Any transfer strategy must take into account the nursing home resident’s income and all of his or her expenses, including the cost of the nursing home. Bear in mind that if you give money to your children, it belongs to them and you should not rely on them to hold the money for your benefit. However well-intentioned they may be, your children could lose the funds due to bankruptcy, divorce, or lawsuit. Any of these occurrences would jeopardize the savings you spent a lifetime accumulating. Do not give away your savings unless you are ready for these risks.

In addition, be aware that the fact that your children are holding your funds in their names could jeopardize your grandchildren’s eligibility for financial aid in college. Transfers can also have bad tax consequences for your children. This is especially true of assets that have appreciated in value, such as real estate and stocks. If you give these to your children, they will not get the tax advantages they would get if they were to receive them through your estate. The result is that when they sell the property they will have to pay a much higher tax on capital gains than they would have if they had inherited it.

As a rule, never transfer assets for Medicaid planning unless you keep enough funds in your name to (1) pay for any care needs you may have during the resulting period of ineligibility for Medicaid and (2) feel comfortable and have sufficient resources to maintain your present lifestyle.

Remember: You do not have to save your estate for your children. The bumper sticker that reads “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” is a perfectly appropriate approach to estate and Medicaid planning.

Even though a nursing home resident may receive Medicaid while owning a home, if the resident is married he or she should transfer the home to the community spouse (assuming the nursing home resident is both willing and competent). This gives the community spouse control over the asset and allows the spouse to sell it after the nursing home spouse becomes eligible for Medicaid. In addition, the community spouse should change his or her will to bypass the nursing home spouse. Otherwise, at the community spouse’s death, the home and other assets of the community spouse will go to the nursing home spouse and have to be spent down.

Permitted transfers

While most transfers are penalized with a period of Medicaid ineligibility of up to five years, certain transfers are exempt from this penalty. Even after entering a nursing home, you may transfer any asset to the following individuals without having to wait out a period of Medicaid ineligibility:

  • Your spouse (but this may not help you become eligible since the same limit on both spouse’s assets will apply)
  • A trust for the sole benefit of your child who is blind or permanently disabled.
  • Into trust for the sole benefit of anyone under age 65 and permanently disabled.

In addition, you may transfer your home to the following individuals (as well as to those listed above):

  • A child who is under age 21
  • A child who is blind or disabled (the house does not have to be in a trust)
  • A sibling who has lived in the home during the year preceding the applicant’s institutionalization and who already holds an equity interest in the home
  • A “caretaker child,” who is defined as a child of the applicant who lived in the house for at least two years prior to the applicant’s institutionalization and who during that period provided care that allowed the applicant to avoid a nursing home stay.

How to Avoid Problems as a Trustee

Being a trustee is a big responsibility and if you don’t perform your duties properly, you could be personally liable. That’s why it’s important to hire the right people to guide you in this important role.

A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” If you have been appointed the trustee of a trust, this is a strong vote of confidence in your judgment.

A trustee’s duties include locating and protecting trust assets, investing assets prudently, distributing assets to beneficiaries, keeping track of income and expenditures, and filing taxes. (For more information on a trustee’s duties, click here.) As a trustee, you have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries of the trust, meaning that you have an obligation to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries at all times. It also means you will be held to a higher standard than if you were just dealing with your own finances.

A trustee is usually entitled to hire an attorney (and other professionals like an accountant) to assist in trust administration. The attorney’s fees will be paid from the trust funds. While hiring an attorney will cost money, not having an attorney at all could cost a trustee much more if errors are made.

A trust can be administered without court involvement, but that doesn’t mean that the administration is simple. There are many areas where problems can arise — for example, if assets aren’t invested properly, taxes are late, or if proper records aren’t kept. If something goes wrong during the administration of the trust, the trustee can be removed and held personally liable for any costs incurred or losses suffered. Even if a spouse is the trustee, he or she should still consult with an attorney. Many couples have so-called “AB” trusts to take advantage of the maximum estate tax exemption; these trusts require special knowledge to determine whether the trusts are properly funded and the taxes filed.

Prenuptial Agreements Can Be an Estate Planning Tool

As more and more people marry more than once, prenuptial agreements have become an important estate planning tool. Without a prenuptial agreement, your new spouse may be able to invalidate your existing estate plan. Such agreements are especially helpful if you have children from a previous marriage or important heirlooms that you want to keep on your side of the family.

A prenuptial agreement can be used in a second marriage when both parties have children. For example, suppose you get remarried and both you and your spouse have children from a prior marriage. You want your house to pass to your children, but without proper planning and an agreement in place, your spouse could inherit the house and then pass the house to her children when she dies.

It is important to make sure your prenuptial agreement is valid. Following are the major factors needed to ensure this:

  • In writing. To be valid, a prenuptial agreement must be in writing and signed by both spouses. A court will not enforce a verbal agreement.
  • No pressure. A prenuptial agreement will be invalid if one spouse is pressured into signing it by the other spouse.
  • Reading. Both spouses must read and understand the agreement. If a stack of papers is put in front of one spouse and he or she is asked to sign quickly without reading, the agreement can be invalidated. The spouse must be given time to read the document and consider it before signing it.
  • Truthful. Both spouses must fully disclose assets and liabilities. If either spouse lies or omits information about his or her finances, the agreement can be invalidated.
  • No invalid provisions. While the spouses can agree to most financial arrangements, a prenuptial agreement that modifies child support obligations is illegal. If an agreement contains an invalid provision, the court can either throw out the entire agreement or strike the invalid provision. Similarly, if the terms of the agreement are grossly unfair to one spouse, the agreement may be invalid.
  • Independent counsel. Some states require spouses to seek advice from separate attorneys before signing a prenuptial agreement. Regardless of whether it is required by state law, it is the best way to make sure each spouse’s interest is protected.

Though a prenuptial agreement is an agreement that is signed before marriage, sometimes similar agreements can be made after the wedding (called a post-nuptial agreement). To find out if a pre- or post-nuptial agreement is right for you, contact your attorney.

A Letter of Instruction Can Spare Your Heirs Great Stress

While it is important to have an updated estate plan, there is a lot of information that your heirs should know that doesn’t necessarily fit into a will, trust or other components of an estate plan. The solution is a letter of instruction, which can provide your heirs with guidance if you die or become incapacitated.

A letter of instruction is a legally non-binding document that gives your heirs information crucial to helping them tie up your affairs. Without such a letter, it can be easy for heirs to miss important items or become overwhelmed trying to sort through all the documents you left behind. The following are some items that can be included in a letter:

  • A list of people to contact when you die and a list of beneficiaries of your estate plan
  • The location of important documents, such as your will, insurance policies, financial statements, deeds, and birth certificate
  • A list of assets, such as bank accounts, investment accounts, insurance policies, real estate holdings, and military benefits
  • Passwords and PIN numbers for online accounts
  • The location of any safe deposit boxes
  • A list of contact information for lawyers, financial planners, brokers, tax preparers, and insurance agents
  • A list of credit card accounts and other debts
  • A list of organizations that you belong to that should be notified in the event of your death (for example, professional organizations or boards)
  • Instructions for a funeral or memorial service
  • Instructions for distribution of sentimental personal items
  • A personal message to family members

Once the letter is written, be sure to store it in an easily accessible place and to tell your family about it. You should check it once a year to make sure it stays up-to-date.

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