Estate Planning for Couples with Big Age Differences

Seniors who are married to younger spouses have a special situation for estate planning, a situation that’s become more common, according to Barron’s recent article “Couples with Big Age Gaps Require Special Attention.”

This kind of family requires planning for the older spouse’s retirement needs and healthcare costs, while determining how much of the older spouse’s wealth should go to the children from any previous marriages while balancing the needs of a future child with a younger spouse. Beneficiaries for all financial accounts, last wills and all estate documents need to be updated to include the new spouse and child. The same goes for medical directives and power of attorney forms.

Social Security and retirement account considerations differ as well. The younger spouse may begin receiving their own Social Security at age 62, or a portion of the older spouse’s Social Security, whichever is greater. If the older spouse can wait to file for Social Security benefits at age 70, the younger spouse will receive more spousal benefits than if the older spouse claims earlier. Social Security pays the survivor’s benefit, typically based upon the older spouse’s earnings.

Pension plans need to be reviewed for a younger spouse. If the pension plan allows a survivor benefit, the surviving spouse will receive benefits in the future. IRAs have different beneficiary distribution rules for couples with significant age differences. Instead of relying on the standard Uniform Lifetime Tables, the IRS lets individuals use the Joint Life and Last Survivor Expectancy Table, if the sole beneficiary is a spouse who is more than ten years younger. This allows for smaller than normally Required Minimum Distributions from the IRA, allowing the account a longer lifetime.

Families that include children with special needs also benefit from trusts, as assets in the trust are not included in eligibility for government benefits. Many families with such family members are advised to use an ABLE Savings Account, which lets the assets grow tax free, also without impacting benefit eligibility. There are limits on the accounts, so funds exceeding the ABLE account limits may be added to special needs trusts, or SNTs.

A trustee, who may be a family member or a professional, uses the SNT assets to pay for the care of the individual with special needs after the donor parents have passed. The child is able to maintain their eligibility.

For same sex couples, revocable or irrevocable trusts may be used, if the couple is not married. Nontraditional families of any kind with children require individual estate plans to protect them,  which usually involves trusts.

Trusts are also useful when there are children from different marriages. They can protect the children from the first marriage and subsequent marriages. A wisely constructed estate plan can do more than prevent legal battles among children—they can preserve family harmony in the non-traditional family after parents have passed. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference: Barron’s (July 27, 2021) “Couples with Big Age Gaps Require Special Attention”

 

What Does the Executor Do?

The executor of an estate is the person who manages all the decedent’s financial affairs. If the person wants to have more than one person manage their affairs, like naming two children instead of one, then the term “co-executors” is used, as explained in a recent article “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?” from Forbes

The most important characteristic that the executor should have, is integrity and good judgment. They are legally required to act in the estate’s best interest, which is called acting as a fiduciary. This is important, especially if an heir serves as an executor. They also need to be wise enough to know when they need help from a skilled professional like an experienced estate planning attorney.

The executor follows the directions that are included in the person’s will, including distributing assets to beneficiaries. They also manage the many tasks associated with wrapping up the decedent’s life, including paying creditors, issuing notices of death, filing tax returns and overseeing the sale of homes and automobiles.

In some states, the executor is called a “personal representative.” The word “executrix” is an old, out-of-date term used when a woman serves as the executor, not commonly used today.

When a proper estate plan is in place, the executor of the estate is named in the decedent’s last will and testament. In cases where the decedent (sometimes referred to as the testator) did not have a will, or the will has been deemed invalid, the probate court judge names someone to serve as executor. This is not always someone who the executor would have named, but when there is no will, the court makes this decision.

If you have been named the executor of an estate and don’t wish to serve, you may decline. If the decedent anticipated that and named an alternative or contingent executor, then the secondary person will serve, or the probate court judge will name someone to serve in this role. The judge can also override the decedent’s choice of an executor, if the person they named has a criminal history, is not of legal age, has a mental disability or a substance abuse problem. The court is not allowed to change the executor simply because the heirs don’t want a person to serve.

The executor has a long list of tasks to accomplish, from obtaining death certificates and securing the home to filing the will with the probate court in the decedent’s county of residence and petitioning the court for probate. Many executors bring in an estate attorney to assist with the legal portion of administering the estate, as an estate and trusts attorney will be familiar with the processes and the deadlines.

The executor must notify the Social Security administration and Medicare, if the person was enrolled in either of these federal programs. The Department of Motor Vehicles, Veterans Affairs and insurance companies must also be notified. The executor is also responsible for filing the person’s final income tax returns and if necessary, filing the state and federal estate tax returns. This is just a partial listing of the many different tasks that must be accomplished. The estate planning attorney may have a checklist to help the executor on track.

Reference: Forbes (May 3, 2021) “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?”

 

What Should I Do when Spouse Dies?

Mourning the loss of a spouse can be one of the hardest experiences one can face. The emotional aspects of grief can also be difficult enough without having to concern yourself whether you’re financially unprepared.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse” says that when a spouse passes away, there can be many impacts to the financial picture. These can include changes in income, estate planning and dealing with IRA and insurance distributions. The first step, however, is understanding and quantifying the financial changes that may happen when your spouse dies.

Income Changes – Social Security. A drop in income is frequently an unforeseen reality for many surviving spouses, especially those who are on Social Security benefits. For retirees without dependents that have reached full retirement age, the surviving spouse will typically get the greater of their social security or their deceased spouse’s benefits – but not both. For example, let’s assume Dirk and Melinda are receiving $2,000 and $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, respectively. In the event Dirk dies, Melinda will no longer receive her benefit and will only receive Dirk’s $2,000 benefit. That is a 42% reduction in total social security income received.

Social Security benefits typically start at 62, but a widow’s benefit can be available at age 60 for the survivor or at 50 if the survivor is disabled within seven years of the spouse’s death. Moreover, unmarried children under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who passes away may also be eligible to get Social Security survivor benefits.

Income Changes – Pension Benefits. This is another type of income that may be decreased because of a spouse’s death. Those eligible to receive a pension often choose little or no survivorship benefits, which results in a sudden drop in income. Therefore, a single life annuity pension payment will end at the worker’s death leaving the survivor with no additional benefits. However, a 50% survivor option will pay 50% of the worker’s benefit to the surviving spouse at their death. A surviving spouse needs to understand what, if any pension benefits will continue and the financial effect of these changes.

Spousal IRA Benefits. Spouses must understand their options for inherited retirement accounts. A spousal beneficiary can roll the funds to their own IRA account, which lets the spousal beneficiary delay Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) until age 72. In this case, the spousal beneficiary’s life expectancy is used to calculate future RMDs. This may be appropriate for those over 59½, but spousal beneficiaries under that age that require retirement account distributions may subject themselves to early withdrawal penalties, including a tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty, even on inherited funds. Spouses younger than 59½ may consider rolling the account to a beneficial or inherited IRA for more flexibility. In this case, RMDs will be taken annually based upon the life expectancy of the beneficiary, with distributions avoiding the 10% penalty. Distributions greater than the RMD may also be taken, while still avoiding early withdrawal penalties. Inherited IRAs can be a great tool for spousal beneficiaries who need income now to help support their lifestyle but have not reached 59½.

Updating the Estate Plan of the Surviving Spouse. It is easy to forget to review your estate plan drafted before your spouse passed away. Check on this with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Updating Financial Planning Projections. You don’t want to make any major decisions after the loss of a loved one, you can still review the numbers. Create a new financial plan to help provide clarity.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 9, 2021) “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse”

 

When Does a Power of Attorney Fail to Do Its Job?

A power of attorney is an essential component of a comprehensive estate plan. However, there are at least two important situations when the power of attorney (POA) will not be recognized and followed.

The IRS and Social Security Administration don’t recognize traditional POAs, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “Two Times When Your Power Of Attorney Isn’t Going To Work.”

The IRS requires the use of its Form 2848, “Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative” before it will let anyone act on your behalf. This form is required when an agent, even a relative, tries to handle your tax matters, when you are not able to so.

One of the requirements of Form 2848 is that it requires you to state the tax matters and years for which the agent is authorized to act. Form 2848 also requires you to list the type of tax, the IRS form number and the year or periods involved. That is different from a traditional POA to handle financial matters, which frequently has a blanket statement allowing the agent to take a broad range of actions on your behalf in certain matters.

For a married couple that files joint tax returns, each spouse must also separately complete and sign a form. They cannot simply execute a joint form.

Technically, the IRS could accept other POAs, as indicated by the instructions to Form 2848. However, as you can see a POA must meet all the IRS’ requirements to be accepted.

The Social Security Administration is much the same. When you need someone to manage your Social Security benefits, you contact the Social Security Administration and make an advance designation of a representative payee.

This lets you name one or more people to manage your Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration then is required to work with the named individual or individuals, in most cases.

A person who already is receiving Social Security benefits may name an advance designee at any time. A first-time claimer can also name the designee during the claiming process.

This designee can be changed at any time.

If you do not name any representatives, the Social Security Administration will designate a representative payee on your behalf, if it determines that you need help managing your money. Relatives or friends can apply to be representative payees, or the Social Security Administration can select someone. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 28, 2021) “Two Times When Your Power of Attorney Isn’t Going to Work”

 

What Is a Conservatorship?

A conservator is appointed by a judge. This person handles the estate of an incapacitated adult, as well as their finances, their basic affairs and everyday care. Administrative matters such as Medicare, insurance, pensions, and medical coverage are all also managed by the conservator. The conservator must keep meticulous records that are subject to review by the judge.

The Advocate’s recent article entitled “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?” explains that a conservatorship typically lasts as long as the individual lives. The conservator may change because of death, relocation, or an inability to manage the conservator duties and responsibilities. A judge also has the power to replace the conservator, if he or she is repeatedly making poor decisions or neglecting required responsibilities.

A conservator can be wise in some situations because it lets family members know that someone is making the decisions. It also provides clear legal authority to deal with third parties. There is also a process in which a judge will approve any major decisions. However, appointing a conservator can be expensive. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney must complete court paperwork and attend court hearings. A conservatorship can also be time-consuming due to the required ongoing paperwork.

A big question is when it is appropriate to seek conservatorship. If the individual has become mentally or physically incapable of making important decisions for himself or herself, then it would be smart to have a court-appointed guardian. Moreover, if the person does not already have legal documents in place, like a living will or power of attorney, then the conservatorship would benefit in covering decisions about personal and financial matters.

Even if the individual has a power of attorney for both health care and finances, he or she might need a conservator to make decisions about his or her personal life. This can include topics, such as living arrangements and who is allowed to visit. It is not always easy to determine if an individual can make decisions, but a judge understands that a conservator is viable for those with advanced Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Families that want to set up a conservatorship need to file formal legal papers and participate in a court hearing before a judge. Evidence of the physical and mental condition of the individual requiring conservatorship must be clearly presented. The person who is the subject of the conservatorship has the opportunity to contest it. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney who specializes in conservatorships about your specific situation.

Reference: The Advocate (Jan. 25, 2021) “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?”

 

The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome

There are two different types of advance directives and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people don’t even understand what these documents do which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It’s also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person won’t do this, you need to consider another person.  Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

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What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies?

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there isn’t always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Don’t procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it’s time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They’ll be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You’ll also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companies, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that weren’t filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

Do I Really Need a Health Care Proxy?

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Advance directives and living wills” explains that an Advance Directive has three parts:

  • A living will
  • Naming of your health care agent; and
  • Your directions for anatomical gifts.

The individual that you name as your Health Care Proxy will make decisions for your treatment and care, if you’re unable to do so. These decisions may extend to all medical issues and aren’t limited to end-stage, life determining decisions that are mentioned in your living will. This is a form of power of attorney that authorizes your agent to act in your behalf to address issues like these:

  1. Accessing your medical information
  2. Discussing your treatment options with your healthcare providers
  3. Getting second opinions on your diagnosis
  4. Selecting and authorizing various medical tests
  5. Your placement in a hospital or care facility
  6. Transferring your care to a new physician; and
  7. Communicating your wishes on life support in terminal or unconscious situations.

For end of life decisions, your health care proxy is bound by your written wishes as expressed in your living will. Life support can be terminated, only if you so authorize in writing. Your healthcare proxy can’t make that decision for you, because that is “personal” to you. You may select one or more persons to act as your proxy, although if two are selected, you should predefine what to do in the event of a conflict.

A best practice is to choose a person who’s younger than you who is geographically close, a person with time to assist you and with whom you’re willing to share in advance your wishes, likes and dislikes as to medical care. This person should be trusted to act and honor your wishes.

Because many decisions relate to your very personal concerns about religion, death and dying, these feelings should be shared with your health care proxy before any serious situation.

The Advance Directive is a very important document that pertains to your wishes, as they relate to medical care, end-of-life and death.

Parts I and II can discuss your wishes for care treatment, as well as your choice of a person to represent your wishes. These are two very important issues. Take the time to consider the advance written expression of your own wishes. Speak with  your estate planning attorney if you have any concerns.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Feb. 12, 2020) “Advance directives and living wills”

How Can I Fund A Special Needs Trust?

When sitting down to plan a special needs trust, one of the most urgent questions is, “When it comes to funding the trust, what are my options?” TapInto’s recent article entitled “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”  explains how to fund a special needs trust.

There are four main ways to build up a third-party special needs trust. One way is to contribute personal assets, which in many cases come from immediate or extended family members. Another possible way to fund a special needs trust, is with permanent life insurance. In addition, the proceeds from a settlement or lawsuit can also make up the foundation of the trust assets. Finally, an inheritance can provide the financial bulwark to start and fund the special needs trust.

Families choosing the personal asset route may put a few thousand dollars of cash or other assets into the trust to start, with the intention that the initial investment will be augmented by later contributions from grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. Those subsequent contributions can be willed to the trust or the trust may be named as a beneficiary of a retirement or investment account. It is vital that families use the services of an elder law or special trusts lawyer. Special needs trusts are very complicated, and if set up incorrectly, it can mean the loss of government program benefits.

If a special needs trust is started with life insurance, the trustor will name the trust as the beneficiary of the policy. When the trustor passes away, the policy’s death benefit is left, tax free, to the trust. When a lump-sum settlement or inheritance is invested within the trust, this can allow for the possibility of growth and compounding. With a worthy trustee in place, there is less chance of mismanagement, and the money may come out of the trust to support the beneficiary in a wise manner that doesn’t risk threatening government benefits.

In addition, a special needs trust can be funded with tangible, non-cash assets, such as real estate, securities, art or antiques. These assets (and others like them) can be left to the trustee of the special needs trust through a revocable living trust or will. Note that the objective of the trust is to provide the trust beneficiary with non-disqualifying cash and assets owned by the trust. As a result, these tangible assets will have to be sold or liquidated to meet that goal.

As mentioned above, you need to take care in the creation and administration of a special needs trust, which will entail the use of an experienced attorney who practices in this area and a trustee well-versed in the rules and regulations governing public assistance. Consequently, the resulting trust will be a product of close collaboration.

Reference: TapInto (February 2, 2020) “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”

 

Planning Retirement with a Cognitive Decline

The Director of Volunteer Programs at the Alzheimer’s Association, Stephanie Rohlfs-Young, explains that families shouldn’t let a diagnosis disrupt proper financial, estate and retirement planning. She recommends several proactive and tactical steps that individuals and families can undertake to address issues related to cognitive decline.

Barron’s recent article entitled “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here Are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances” provides some tips on navigating the financial aspects of cognitive decline. Let’s look at some of them:

Inventory. For budgeting and estate planning purposes, families should conduct a thorough inventory of the individual’s property and debts to create a list of those who have access to each account. Ask about and include online checking, savings, credit-card and investment accounts. These can be neglected, if they aren’t in paper form. Try to work with the individual in cognitive decline to ascertain this information, when they can still be helpful. You don’t want to lose all those assets. This task can be challenging, when children aren’t aware of their parents’ financial dealings. This can include savings, insurance, retirement benefits, government assistance, veterans’ benefits and more. Families should also pick a lead person to be in charge of financial or legal matters.

Calculating future costs. A diagnosis of this nature is the time to figure out and plan for care costs that may include adult day care, in-home care and full-time medical care. These can costs vary widely, and many times families underestimate the amount they’ll spend on care. Families often fail to factor in out-of-pocket expenses that can add up, like prescriptions not covered by insurance. When budgeting, families should see what insurance may be available and if they might add or amend coverage.

Leverage the skills of an elder-law attorney. Partner with an experienced elder law attorney to help get the family’s financial and legal affairs together. Issues can include the titling of assets, trusts, powers of attorney, advance health care directive and more. For some, there’s also Medicaid planning.

Automate finances. Families should devise a plan for routine financial tasks, like bill paying. These are things that will eventually become too difficult for the loved one experiencing cognitive decline. Consider signing up for online banking. That way, an adult child can have easy access to monitor the parent’s account. Monthly bills, including insurance premiums, can be set up for automatic payment to help minimize the possibility of errors.

Organize your important documents. It’s critical after a diagnosis of cognitive decline to name a health-care representative to allow healthcare decisions to be made by someone of the person’s choosing. You should also have a general durable power of attorney for finances in place. This allows the appointed agent to make financial and legal decisions in the individuals’ stead.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 11, 2020) “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here Are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances.”