Using a Roth IRA as an Estate Planning Tool

A Roth IRA does not have to be used as just a retirement plan; it can also be a way to transfer assets tax-free to the next generation.

Unlike a traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed, which means that the distributions are tax-free. Also, unlike a traditional IRA, you are also not required to take any distributions on a Roth IRA, regardless of your age. If you don’t need the money for retirement, you can leave all of it in the IRA to grow tax-free and eventually pass on to your heirs.

If your spouse is the beneficiary on your Roth IRA, your spouse can become the owner of the account. Your spouse can either put the IRA in his or her name or roll it over into a new IRA, and the IRS will treat the IRA as if your spouse had always owned it. Just like you, your spouse does not need to take any distributions from the IRA if they are not needed.

The rules for a child or grandchild (or other non-spouse) who inherits an IRA are different than those for a spouse. They must withdraw all of the assets in the inherited account within 10 years. There are no required distributions during those 10 years, but it must all be distributed by the 10th year.

Certain non-spouse beneficiaries are treated like spouses, which means they can treat the IRA as their own:

  • Disabled or chronically ill individuals
  • Individuals who are not more than 10 years younger than the account owner
  • Minor children. Once the child reaches the age of majority, he or she has 10 years to withdraw the money from the account.

The benefit of a Roth IRA for your heirs is that the assets will be distributed tax-free. As long as you opened and began making contributions to the Roth IRA more than five years before you died, the distributions will not be taxed when the beneficiary takes distributions.

Another consideration is that money you leave your heirs in a Roth IRA does not go through the probate process. This can make it easier for your beneficiaries to access the funds quickly. But make sure that you name a beneficiary on your account. If no beneficiary is named, the account will go to your estate and will then have to go through probate. Also, be sure to regularly check that your beneficiary designations are up to date.

Leaving your heirs a tax-free Roth IRA may not always be the best plan. In figuring out the best type of IRA to leave to your beneficiaries, you need to consider whether your beneficiary’s tax rate will be higher or lower than your tax rate when you fund the IRA. In general, if your beneficiary’s tax rate is higher than your tax rate, then you should leave your beneficiary a Roth IRA. Because the funds in a Roth IRA are taxed before they are put into the IRA, it makes sense to fund it when your tax rate is lower. On the other hand, if your beneficiary’s tax rate is lower than your tax rate, a traditional IRA might make more sense. That way, you won’t pay the taxes at your higher rate; instead, your beneficiary will pay at their lower tax rate.

To determine if a Roth IRA should be a part of your estate plan, consult with your attorney.

Can My Family Inherit My Season Tickets?

Sports fans with season tickets may want their families to enjoy the tickets after they are gone, but passing on these tickets may not be simple.

Getting season tickets to your favorite sport is not always an easy task. Season tickets for some teams can cost a lot of money and require time on a waitlist. It makes sense that you may want family or friends to be able to take advantage of tickets that are still usable after you pass away. However, most teams place limits on how you can transfer the tickets both before and after death.

A season ticket is a contract between the purchaser and the team, so the team can put any restrictions it wishes in the contract. This includes setting limits on when and how the tickets can be transferred to someone else. Teams may explicitly state that the tickets cannot be transferred by will or trust, allow transfers only to a spouse or close family members, or require that ticket holders follow certain procedures in order to transfer the tickets.

For example, some teams have a form that you will need to fill out, designating a beneficiary to inherit your tickets. Other teams state that only a spouse can use a deceased fan’s season tickets. Still others allow transfers only to a parent, spouse, child, or sibling. If there is no surviving family member who can take over the tickets, the tickets go back to the team.

Note that some teams require fans to purchase a seat license before buying season tickets. This means the fan pays a large fee to buy a license for particular seats and then has the right to buy season tickets for those seats. A seat license, unlike season tickets, is transferable via a will or trust.

If you own season tickets, be sure to include them in your estate planning. Your attorney can determine the best way to transfer the tickets.

Why Small Business Owners Need an Estate Plan

Running a small business can keep you busy, but it should not keep you from creating an estate plan. Not having a plan in place can cause problems for your business and your family after you are gone.

While an estate plan is important for everyone, it is especially important for small business owners. Planning allows you to dictate what will happen with your business after you die or are no longer able to manage it. It can help you avoid excess taxes and debts and facilitate your business’s continued success.

Before sitting down to start the estate planning process, you should think about your goals for the business. What do you want to have happen if you die or become incapacitated? Should the business continue with current partners or be sold to new owners? Should your family take over? Should the business be shut down? Consider your family dynamics when thinking about these questions. Once you have come up with your goals, you can create a plan to meet them.

The basic building blocks of any estate plan include a will, power of attorney, and medical directives. The will allows you to direct who will receive your property at your death while the power of attorney and medical directives dictate who can act in your place for financial and health care purposes.

Following are some additional things a small business owner should consider as part of an estate plan:

  • Tax Planning. If your business is not a separate entity, you may want to consider ways to minimize estate taxes. The current estate tax exemption ($12.06 million in 2022) is so high that most estates do not pay any estate tax. However, a small business could put an estate over the limit. Also, the fact that the estate tax exemption is set to be cut in half in 2026 and that states have their own estate taxes means that tax planning is important. You may want to put your business assets into a trust or a separate business entity like a limited liability company to lower your estate tax burden.
  • Trust. A trust can be useful not only to reduce estate taxes, but also to ensure the continued running of your business if you die or become incapacitated. Because a trust passes outside of probate, the assets in the trust can be transferred immediately to the person you want to run the business without waiting for the whole estate to go through probate. In addition, if you become incapacitated, the trustee can continue to run your business without court involvement.
  • Buy-Sell Agreement. If you own your business with others, a buy-sell agreement can be very useful. Buy-sell agreements are used if one of the owners dies, leaves the company, or becomes incapacitated. It specifies who can buy an owner’s share of the business, under what conditions, and for what price.
  • Life Insurance. When you own a business, life insurance takes on new importance. A life insurance policy can ensure that your family continues to receive an income in the event of your death. It can also provide funds to keep the business running and be used to fund a buy-sell agreement.

Your estate planning attorney can help you come up with a plan to meet the needs of your business.

Estate Planning for a Single Person

If you are single, you may not think you need to plan your estate, but single people are in as much need of a plan as anyone else. Estate planning not only involves determining where your assets will go when you die — it also helps you plan for what will happen should you become incapacitated, perhaps as the result of a stroke, dementia, or injury. If you don’t make a plan, you will have no say in what happens to you or your assets.

Without a properly executed will in place when you die, your estate will be distributed according to state law. If you are single, most states provide that your estate will go to your children, parents, or other living relatives. If you have absolutely no living relatives, then your estate will go to the state. This may not be what you want to have happen to your assets. You may have charities, close friends, or particular relatives that you want to provide for after your death.

If you become incapacitated without any planning, a court will have to determine who will have the authority to handle your finances and make health care decisions for you. The court may not choose the person you would have chosen. In addition, going to court to set up a guardianship is time-consuming and expensive. With proper planning, you can execute a power of attorney and a health care proxy, which gives the people you choose the authority to act on your behalf, as well as an advance directive giving instructions on what type of care you would like. The power of attorney can also dictate exactly what powers the individual has.

Single individuals who are divorced need to make especially certain that the beneficiary designations on their IRAs, life insurance policies, and relevant bank accounts are up to date. If you don’t, your ex-spouse could get the funds. And for single people of means, opportunities to avoid state or federal estate taxes can be more limited than for married couples, although advance planning can close the gap.

In short, proper planning is a good idea for everyone. Contact your attorney to help you create an estate plan.

What Is a Fiduciary and What Are Its Obligations?

When you need someone else to care for money or property on your behalf, that person (or organization) is called a fiduciary.  A fiduciary is a person or entity entrusted with the power to act for someone else, and this power comes with the legal obligation to act for the benefit of that other person.

Many types of positions involve being a fiduciary, including that of broker, trustee, agent under a power of attorney, guardian, executor and representative payee. An individual becomes a fiduciary by entering into an agreement to do so or by being appointed by a court or by a legal document.

Being a fiduciary calls for the highest standard of care under the law. For example, a trustee must pay even more attention to the trust investments and disbursements than for his or her own accounts. No matter what their role is or how they are appointed, all fiduciaries owe four special duties to the people for whom they are managing money or resources. A fiduciary’s duties are:

  • to act only in the interest of the person they are helping;
  • to manage that person’s money or property carefully;
  • to keep that person’s money and property separate from their own; and
  • to keep good records and report them as required. Any agent appointed by a court or government agency, for example, must report regularly to that court or agency.

Remember, your fiduciary exists to protect you and your interests. If your fiduciary fails to perform any of those four duties or generally mismanages your money or affairs, you can take legal action. The fiduciary will probably be required to compensate you for any loss you suffered because of their mismanagement.

Be Careful Not to Name Minors as Your Beneficiaries

Most people want to pass their assets to their children or grandchildren, but naming a minor as a beneficiary can have unintended consequences. It is important to make a plan that doesn’t involve leaving assets directly to a minor.

There are two main problems with naming a minor as the beneficiary of your estate plan, life insurance policy, or retirement account. The first is that a large sum of money cannot be left directly to a minor. Instead, a court will likely have to appoint a conservator to hold and manage the money. The court proceedings will cost your estate, and the conservator may not be someone you want to oversee your children’s money. Depending on the state, the conservator may have to file annual accountings with the court, generating more costs and fees.

The other problem with naming a minor as a beneficiary is that the minor will be entitled to the funds from the conservator when he or she reaches age 18 or 21, depending on state law. There are no limitations on what the money can be used for, so while you may have wanted the money to go toward college or a down payment on a house, the child may have other ideas.

The way to get around these problems is to create a trust and name the minor as beneficiary of the trust. A trust ensures that the funds are protected by the trustee until a time when it makes sense to distribute them. Trusts are also flexible in terms of how they are drafted. The trust can state any number of specifics on who receives property and when, including allowing you to distribute the funds at a specific age or based on a specific event, such as graduating from college. You can also spread out distributions over time to children and grandchildren.

If you do create a trust, remember to name the trust as beneficiary of any life insurance or retirement plans. If you forget to take that step, the money will be distributed directly to the minor, negating the work of creating the trust.

To create a trust, consult with your attorney.

Saying Medicaid Estate Recovery Keeps Families in Poverty, Advocacy Groups Call for Abolishing It

To qualify for Medicaid coverage of long-term care, you must satisfy very complicated financial eligibility rules—rules that often can be traps for the unwary. One of the most significant traps is Medicaid’s right to recover its expenses from your estate after you die – a practice known as “estate recovery.”

Under current Medicaid law, states are required to attempt to recoup Medicaid spending for long-term care services. Since about the only asset you’re allowed to own and still get Medicaid coverage is your home, this right of estate recovery is the state’s claim against your home. In other words, if you own a home, Medicaid is really a loan. It will pay for your care, but your house will have to be sold when you die to repay the state for the services it provided.

Now, five elder advocacy groups are calling on Congress to eliminate Medicaid estate recovery after a congressional advisory commission concluded that the practice recoups only a tiny percentage of Medicaid spending while contributing to generational poverty and wealth inequity.

“The burden of estate claims falls disproportionately on economically oppressed families and communities of color, preventing families from building wealth through home ownership, which has been historically denied to communities of color through discriminatory public policy,” the five groups – Justice in Aging, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, the National Health Law Program, California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, and the Western Center on Law & Poverty – wrote in a jointly authored Issue Brief, Medicaid Estate Claims: Perpetuating Poverty & Inequality for a Minimal Return. “Congress should amend Federal law to eliminate Medicaid estate claims. Alternatively, the law should be amended so that states have the choice of whether to use Medicaid estate claims, as recommended in a recent report to Congress by the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC).”

In its March 2021 report to Congress, MACPAC recommended that Congress amend Medicaid law to make estate recovery optional for states, rather than required as it is now. The group, a non-partisan legislative branch agency that provides analysis and recommendations to Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the states, also recommends that HHS set minimum standards for hardship waivers under the Medicaid estate recovery program.  Currently, it’s up to the states to decide what qualifies as “hardship.”

Pointing out that estate recovery recoups only about 0.55 percent of total fee-for-service long-term care spending, MACPAC recommends that states not be allowed to pursue recovery against any asset that is “the sole income-producing asset of survivors,” homes of “modest value,” or any estate valued under a certain dollar figure.

In their Issue Brief, the five advocacy groups go a step further. Noting that “no other public benefit program requires that correctly paid benefits be recouped from deceased recipients’ family members,” they call for the elimination of estate recovery “so that low-income families are better able to retain wealth and pass it on to future generations. Or, at a minimum, federal law should be amended to make estate claims voluntary.”

The Issue Brief details how Medicaid estate recovery keeps families in poverty, exacerbates racial wealth gaps, and runs counter to efforts to create more affordable housing.

How to Make Changes to Your Will

As life circumstances change (births, marriages, divorces, and deaths), it may become necessary to make changes to your will.  If an estate plan is not kept up-to-date, it can become useless. The best way to make changes is either through a codicil — an amendment to the will — or by creating a new will.

While it may be tempting to just take out a pen and make changes by hand, this is not recommended. Changes will not be effective unless you use the same formalities as you did when drafting the will. And depending on state law, changes made by hand on the will may void the will altogether. If you sign your name to handwritten changes and have the changes witnessed, it is possible a court will find that the changes are valid, but there is no guarantee and there are likely to be delays with the court while your final wishes are sorted out.

If you have small changes to make to your will (e.g., changing your executor or updating a name that has changed), a codicil may be appropriate. The benefit of a codicil is that it is usually cheaper than redoing the entire will. The same rules for wills apply to codicils, which means the codicil should be dated, signed, and witnessed. Always keep a codicil with the will so your personal representative can find it easily.

If you have significant changes to make to your will (e.g., adding a spouse or removing a beneficiary) or have more than one change, it is generally better to update your will rather than write one or more codicils. The updated will should include a date and a clear statement that all other previous wills and codicils are revoked.

Before you make any changes to your will, you should consult with your attorney.

 

You Can Stretch the Gift Tax Limit by Paying for Education or Health Care

If you want to make a gift to family members but have exceeded the annual gifting limit, there is another way. Payments for a family member’s education or health care expenses are exempt from the gift tax.

The annual gift tax exclusion for 2020 and 2021 is $15,000. This means that any person who gave away $15,000 or less to any one individual does not have to report the gift or gifts to the IRS. Any person who gave away more than $15,000 to any one person (other than their spouse) is technically required to file a Form 709, the gift tax return.

One way for a gift to be exempted from reporting requirements, no matter the gift’s size, is to pay for someone else’s medical care or educational tuition. A payment to a school must be made directly to the school (schools include not just colleges but nursery schools, private grade schools, or private high schools). The payment must be for tuition only–it cannot cover room and board or books. Pre-payments can often be made as soon as the person is admitted to the school. However, if you contribute to someone else’s 529 college savings plan, you are subject to the $15,000 gift exclusion rule. A special regulation in the tax code enables a donor to use up five years’ worth of exclusions and gift $75,000 (in 2021) to a 529 at one time.

With regard to medical expenses, the payment must be made directly to the health care provider or to a company that provides medical insurance. You can pay for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease. In some circumstances, you may also be able to pay for transportation or lodging for the person seeking medical care. If the person is reimbursed by medical insurance for the care, the payment is not exempt from the annual gifting limit.

To find out the best way to provide for your loved ones without paying gift taxes, talk to your attorney.

 

The Durable Power of Attorney: Your Most Important Estate Planning Document

For most people, the durable power of attorney is the most important estate planning instrument available — even more useful than a will. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of you – the “principal” — for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated.

In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes time, costs money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that she could implement immediately under a simple durable power of attorney.

A power of attorney may be limited or general. A limited power of attorney may give someone the right to sign a deed to property on a day when you are out of town. Or it may allow someone to sign checks for you. A general power is comprehensive and gives your attorney-in-fact all the powers and rights that you have yourself.

A power of attorney may also be either current or “springing.” Most powers of attorney take effect immediately upon their execution, even if the understanding is that they will not be used until and unless the grantor becomes incapacitated. However, the document can also be written so that it does not become effective until such incapacity occurs. In such cases, it is very important that the standard for determining incapacity and triggering the power of attorney be clearly laid out in the document itself.

However, attorneys report that their clients are experiencing increasing difficulty in getting banks or other financial institutions to recognize the authority of an agent under a durable power of attorney. A certain amount of caution on the part of financial institutions is understandable: When someone steps forward claiming to represent the account holder, the financial institution wants to verify that the attorney-in-fact indeed has the authority to act for the principal. Still, some institutions go overboard, for example requiring that the attorney-in-fact indemnify them against any loss. Many banks or other financial institutions have their own standard power of attorney forms. To avoid problems, you may want to execute such forms offered by the institutions with which you have accounts. In addition, many attorneys counsel their clients to create living trusts in part to avoid this sort of problem with powers of attorney.

While you should seriously consider executing a durable power of attorney, if you do not have someone you trust to appoint it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may execute a limited durable power of attorney simply nominating the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian. Most states require the court to respect your nomination “except for good cause or disqualification.”