Update Your Estate Plan to Protect Spouse and Children

Without an updated estate plan, a surviving spouse is left with a world of trouble, as described in the article “Protect Your Spouse and Children by Updating Your Estate Plan” from The National Law Review.

The documents that need to be updated beginning with the will. In one example, a will from a prior marriage left all of a person’s assets to their prior spouse and siblings. Under New York and New Jersey state law, gifts to prior spouses are automatically revoked by law. What does that mean? All assets pass to the alternate beneficiary, who is named in the first will. For this particular spouse, that means that all the deceased spouse’s assets went to the siblings and not the new spouse.

In New Jersey and New York, spouses can elect against a will to claim a share of the deceased spouse’s assets, but this only applies to a third of their assets. That’s far short of what a spouse usually wants for their surviving spouse and children.

The only thing worse than an out-of-date will is no will at all. In another case, a spouse died without having a will. The law in New Jersey provides that in this situation, most assets will go to the surviving spouse, but almost a quarter will go to the deceased’s parents, if they are still living. If there are children from a prior marriage, then a little more than half of the estate will go to the surviving spouse.

The other bad part of having an out-of-date will almost always means that beneficiaries have not been updated. Here’s where things can get even worse.

Assets that have designated beneficiaries do not pass through probate and go directly to the beneficiaries. How bad this can be, depends upon what assets are owned with a designated beneficiary, and how long ago the beneficiaries were named. In some states, prior spouses are removed as beneficiaries by the operation of law, but that is not always the case. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain your state’s laws.

Here’s one more case where a failure to update estate plans caused real hardship for a family. A niece, and not the new spouse, was named as the beneficiary of the deceased’s IRA, which was a large asset. Several hundred thousand dollars went to the niece, instead of going to the man’s new wife and child. He simply never updated his beneficiary designation.

While 401(k)s are always left to the spouse under ERISA, unless spousal consent is given for another beneficiary to receive the 401(k), IRAs are given to whoever is named as a beneficiary. The same goes for life insurance policies, investment accounts, bank accounts and any asset with a named beneficiary.

Speak with your estate planning attorney now to be sure that your current will still reflects your estate planning goals. If you have remarried, welcomed a new child to the family, or had any other major life events, your estate plan needs to be updated. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Reference: The National Law Review (March 16, 2020) “Protect Your Spouse and Children by Updating Your Estate Plan”

Financial Infidelity that Appears after One Spouse Dies

When one member of a couple handles all the finances and dies, the surviving spouse is often left with a serious problem. Locating investment accounts, passwords to online accounts and other important information becomes an overwhelming problem, according to the article “Why smart people don’t recognize financial infidelity” from The Mercury. It’s a relatively new term, but not a new problem.

Take the case of a recently widowed or divorced person who has met a new person who appears to be the new love of their lives. The person is kind to them, supportive, and well, perfect. It’s hard to believe that such a seemingly wonderful person could have a dark side. However, whenever a new friend, hobby, or investment idea starts having a major impact on the person’s financial life or if they have simply been careless with their financial affairs, the impact can become catastrophic.

People who are not confident in their ability to manage money or investments often hand off that responsibility willingly to their partner. If in a prior life, your spouse managed all of the household money and you did not learn how to handle the tasks that are required to run a home or manage an investment portfolio (or work with advisors), you might be a little too willing to pass that job on to a new partner.  You may fall into the traditional role of one person being responsible for the outside bills and investments and the other handling all of the household tasks.

Financial infidelity also includes things like having accounts that are not known to the other spouse or taking out credit cards without the other person’s knowledge. The same goes for one spouse suddenly putting a lifetime of savings into a single investment, or someone who knows little about markets spending a great deal of time day trading with the family’s savings. Gambling or excessive spending can also be financial infidelity.

What can you do? Here are a few tips.

Don’t give up control of finances. It’s not uncommon for people to combine finances when they are first married. However, if you are heading into a second marriage, you may want to keep your money separate at first. Not paying attention to what’s going on with your money at any stage of life can lead to problems.

Educate yourself about money. If one of you is better at money management, that’s fine—but the one who is not needs to get up to speed. There are classes in personal finance at the local high school or college, so cost should not be an issue.

Speak up. If one person is made to feel like they can’t talk with their partner about money, there’s a problem. There may be accusations of trust—but trust is not granted automatically. Trust is built between a couple through experience. Financial transparency between partners is a sign of respect.

Read and understand documents before you sign anything. If you have questions, don’t sign anything until you have a full understanding. You should not be pressured into making decisions or commitments until you are completely comfortable with all of the information. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, don’t sign.

Part of your protection from financial infidelity is an estate plan. Speak with an estate planning attorney about creating a plan to protect your assets after you pass and while you are living. An estate plan needs to include a will, powers of attorney, power of attorney for healthcare and may include trusts, living wills, and other documents, depending upon your situation.

Reference: The Mercury (Jan. 29, 2020) “Why smart people don’t recognize financial infidelity”

 

Preparing for the Inevitable: The Loss of a Spouse

Becoming a widow at a relatively young age, puts many people in a tough financial position, says the article “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse” from Next Avenue. At this point in their lives, they are too young to draw Social Security benefits. There is no best time, but this is a hard time to lose the prime breadwinner in the household.

Women are more likely than men to lose a spouse, and they are typically left in a worse financial position than if their spouse dies before they are old enough to take retirement benefits.

One of the best ways to plan for this event, is for both spouses to have life insurance. This can replace income, and term life insurance, if purchased early in life, can be relatively affordable. The earlier a policy is purchased, the better. This can become a safety net to pay bills and maintain a lifestyle.

Another key component for surviving early widowhood, is being sure that both members of the couple understand the couple’s finances, including how household bills are paid. Usually what happens is that one person takes over the finances, and the other is left hoping that things are being done properly. That also includes knowing the accounts, the log in and password information and what bills need to be paid at what dates.

Having that conversation with a spouse is not easy, but necessary. There are costs that you may not be aware of, without a thorough knowledge of how the household works. For instance, if the husband has done all of the repairs around the house, maintaining the yard and taking care of the cars, those tasks still need to be done. Either the widow will become proficient or will have to pay others.

Couples should work with an estate planning attorney and a financial advisor, as well as an accountant, to be sure that they are prepared for the unexpected. What survivor’s benefits might the surviving spouse be eligible to receive? If there are children at home age 16 or under, there may be Social Security benefits available for the child’s support.

Discuss what debt, if any, either spouse has taken on without the other’s knowledge. Any outstanding medical bills should also be discussed. The last thing a loved one should have to cope with when a spouse passes, is a tangle of debt. However, this often happens.

If the spouse was a veteran, the surviving spouse might be eligible for benefits from the Veterans Administration. Find out what information will be needed to apply for benefits.

Talk with your estate planning attorney to make sure that all proper documents have been prepared. This includes a last will and testament, power of attorney, health care proxy and any trusts.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 18, 2019) “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse”

Your Spouse Just Died … Now What?

There are several steps to take while both spouses are alive and well, to help reduce the chance of the surviving spouse finding themselves in a “financial deadlock” situation, or worse. The preparations require the non-financially dominant partner to be involved as much as possible, says Barron’s in the article “How to Avoid Financial Deadlock—or Worse—After One Spouse Dies”

Step one is to prepare the financial equivalent of a “go-bag,” like the ones people are supposed to have when they must leave their home in a crisis. That means a list of all financial contacts, advisors, estate planning attorney, accountants, insurance professionals and copies of all beneficiary designations. There should also be a list or a spreadsheet of all the couple’s assets and liabilities, including digital assets and passwords to these accounts. The spouse should also note the location of financial records, including insurance policies, wills, trusts and any other critical legal documents.

Each partner must have access to checking and cash independently of the other, and the spouses need to review together how assets and accounts are titled.

It is especially important for both spouses to be on the deed to their home so that the surviving spouse can easily prove that they are the sole owner of the home after the spouse dies. Otherwise, they may not be able to communicate with the mortgage company. If a surviving spouse must go to court and file probate in order to deal with the home it can become costly and more stressful.

It’s not emotionally easy to go through all this information but it is critical for the surviving spouse’s financial security.

Any information that will be needed by the surviving spouse should be documented in a way that is easily accessible and understandable for the spouse. Even if someone is very organized and has a well-developed description of their assets and estate plan it may not be as easily understood for someone whose mind works differently. This is especially true if the couple has had years where the non-financial spouse was not involved with the family’s assets and is suddenly digesting a lot of new information.

It is wise for the non-financial spouse to meet with key advisors and take on some of the tasks like bill paying, reviewing insurance policies and reconciling accounts well before either spouse experiences any kind of cognitive decline. Ideally, the financially dominant partner takes the time to train the other spouse and then lets them take the lead, until they are both comfortable managing all the details.

Each spouse needs to understand how the death of the other will impact the household income. If one spouse has a pension without survivor benefits and that spouse is the first to die, the surviving spouse may find themselves struggling to replace that income. They also need to consider daily aspects of their lives, like if one spouse is highly dependent upon the other for caregiving.

Spouses are advised not to make any big financial or life decisions within a year or so of a spouse’s death. The surviving spouse is often not in a good emotional state to make smart decisions and this is the time that they are most at risk for senior financial abuse.

Both spouses should sit down with their estate planning attorney and discuss what will happen when they are widowed. It is a difficult topic but planning ahead will make the transition less traumatic from a financial and legal perspective.

Reference: Barron’s (Sep. 15, 2019) “How to Avoid Financial Deadlock—or Worse—After One Spouse Dies”

 

Why Wills Need to be Updated

Lives change and laws change. People come and go in our lives, through birth, death, marriage and divorce. Change is a constant factor in everyone’s lives. If your estate plan doesn’t keep up to date, says Next Avenue in the article “8 Reasons You May Need to Update Your Will,” you could create real problems for those you love. Here are eight reasons why people need to review their wills to ensure that your estate plan reflects your current life.

Moving to a new home. If you’ve moved to a new state since the last time your will was written, your will needs a review. Remember, wills are administered under the laws of the state where you live so the new state’s laws apply. An out-of-state will could present issues. If the number of witnesses required to make a will valid in your old state of residence was one but the new state requires two witnesses your will could be deemed invalid.

Selling one home and buying another. If your will does not reflect your current address, it’s going to be very difficult for your executor to properly transfer ownership or manage the sale of the house. Most wills incorporate specific language about homes that includes the address.

You’ve done a good job of downsizing. Kudos to you for cleaning out and getting rid of unwanted items. If you no longer own things that are itemized in a will, they’ll be skipped over. However, do you want to give heirs something else? Without specific instructions, they won’t know who gets what.

Did you already give away possessions? Avoid family conflicts by being clear about who gets what. If you already gave your oldest daughter an antique dining room set but your will says it goes to the youngest son, things could become awkward. Similarly, if you gave one child something with a higher market or sentimental value than what you gave to another, it could create tension in the family. Updating your will is an opportunity to adjust these gifts.

Charity relationships change. The same organization that mattered greatly to you ten years ago may not have as much meaning—or may have changed its focus. Update your will to reflect the charitable contributions that matter to you now.

Finances change. If a will spells out exact amounts and the money is gone, or if your accounts have increased, those numbers may no longer be accurate or reflect your wishes. The dollar amounts may create a challenge for your executor. What if you designated a gift of stock to someone that wasn’t worth much at the time, but is worth a small fortune now? Amending a will can ensure that your gifts are of the value that you want them to be.

One child is now your primary caregiver. If one child has dedicated the last five years to taking care of you, you may want to update the document to show your gratitude and compensate them for lost earnings or expenses. If you do, explain your reasons for this kind of change to other children, so that there’s no misunderstanding when the will is read.

A beneficiary has passed away. If you are a surviving spouse, that alone may not be reason to update your will, if—and this is a big if—your will included alternate recipients as a plan for this situation. If there were no alternate recipients, then you will need to revise your will after the death of a spouse. If you listed leaving items to a beneficiary who has died, instructions on how to distribute these items or assets to someone else can be done with an amended will.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review your will and your estate plan with you to determine what items need to be updated. Your documents may need only a tune-up, and not a complete overhaul, but it is advisable to review estate plans every three or four years.

Reference: Next Avenue (August 22, 2019) “8 Reasons You May Need to Update Your Will”

 

What’s Long Term Care About?

Many people are scared about the prospect of needing help in a long-term care setting and they are right to be worried. For many people, a spouse or adult children will become the go-to caregivers but not everyone will have that option, says Market Watch’s article “This is how much long-term care could cost you and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

If that’s not worrisome enough, here are facts to consider:

  • More than a third of people will spend some time in a nursing home, where the median annual cost of a private room is well over $100,000, says Genworth’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey. Don’t expect those numbers to go down.
  • Four of ten people will opt for paid care at home and the median annual cost of a home health aide is more than $50,000.
  • Half of people over 65 will eventually need some kind of long-term care costs and about 15% of those will incur more than $250,000 in costs according to a joint study conducted by Vanguard Research and Mercer Health and Benefits.

Medicare and even private health insurance don’t cover what are considered “custodial” expenses. That’s going to quickly wipe out the median retirement savings of most people: $126,000. With savings completely exhausted, people will find themselves qualifying for Medicaid, a government health program for the indigent that pays for about half of all nursing home and custodial care. You need to speak with an experienced elder law attorney regarding nursing home costs and state health care.

Those who live alone have a chronic condition or are in poor health have a greater chance of needing long-term care. Women in particular are at risk as they tend to outlive their husbands and may not have anyone available to provide them with unpaid care. If a husband’s illness wipes out the couple’s savings, the surviving spouse is at risk of spending their last years living on nothing but a Social Security benefit.

The best hedge against long-term care costs is to purchase a long-term care insurance policy, if you are eligible to purchase one. Wait too long and you may not be able. One woman persuaded her parents to purchase a long-term insurance policy when her father was 68 and her mother was 54. Five years into the policy, her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The policy covered almost the entire cost of his 24-hour care in the final months of his life. Her mother lived to 94, so the investment in the policy was well worth it.

Everyone approaching retirement needs a plan for long-term care costs. That may be purchasing long-term care insurance or purchasing a hybrid life insurance product with long-term care benefits.

Reference: Market Watch (July 19, 2019) “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

 

What is Portability and How Does It Impact Estate Planning?

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the word “estate” in planning doesn’t have anything to do with the size of your home. It simply refers to a person’s assets: their home, bank accounts, a second home, investment accounts, cars, etc.

The federal estate tax, says The Times Herald in the article “Federal estate tax and portability considerations,” impacts very few people today, as a person would have to have assets that total more than $11.4 million (or $22.8 for a couple) before they have to worry about the federal estate tax.

Individuals and couples with significant assets are advised to have an estate plan created by an estate planning attorney with experience working with people with large assets There are numerous tools used to minimize the federal tax liability.

However, when one spouse dies, it is generally recommended that the surviving spouse file a Federal Estate Tax return for reasons of portability. That is because when the first spouse dies, they use a portion of the Federal Estate Tax exemption, but there’s usually a portion available for the surviving spouse.

If IRS Form 706 is filed in a timely manner, the surviving spouse can “port over” or protect the remaining amount of Federal Estate Tax exemption that the deceased spouse has not used. This return needs to be filed within nine months of the date of death, although the surviving spouse can obtain an extension.

No tax will be owed, since the return is filed merely for reporting purposes. The assets in the entire estate must be reported, including everything the person owned. That may be cash, securities, real estate, insurance, trusts, annuities, business interests, and other assets. It should be noted that this will likely include probate as well as non-probate property. Appraisals and significant documentation are not usually required on a return just for portability purposes.

Why does a return need to be filed to claim the unused exemption, if no taxes are going to be paid? For one thing, the law may change and if the Federal Estate Tax exemption amount is reduced in the future, the surviving spouse will have protected their additional exemption amounts for his or her heirs. If the surviving spouse remarries and acquires significant assets, they will need proof of their exemption. The surviving spouse might own land or other property that increases dramatically in value. Or, the surviving spouse may inherit a large amount of assets.

Completing an IRS Form 706 for portability is not a complex task, but it should be done in conjunction with settling the estate, which should be done with the help of an estate planning attorney to be sure any tax issues are dealt with properly. In addition, when one spouse has passed, it is time for the surviving spouse to review their estate plan to make any necessary changes.

Reference: The Times Herald (July 7, 2019) “Federal estate tax and portability considerations”

 

Estate Planning with Loved Survivors In Mind

There is a strong need for clarity regarding the rules about what happens when a spouse from a second marriage, who is not an owner of the home, wants to remain in the home after the death of the owner. A kind-hearted practice is to allow the surviving spouse to remain in the home and enjoy the memories the couple shared, says The Union in the article “Estate planning from the heart.”

Giving the surviving spouse the ability to remain in the home, honors the relationship of the spouse with the decedent. It is an act of kindness. However, it does need to be made legally enforceable, in case there are any challenges. Several considerations need to be evaluated in the estate plan:

Can the surviving spouse manage the cost of the home? This may include a monthly mortgage payment, property taxes, homeowner’s dues, insurance, yard upkeep, interior and exterior maintenance and any repairs that are needed to keep the home working.

Another concern is whether the surviving spouse will continue to be able to maintain the home in the immediate and distant future.

The surviving spouse’s health, including physical and mental abilities, needs to be considered. Will the survivor be able to manage if dementia strikes, or if they are afflicted by a serious illness and left in poor health? All of these challenges need to be considered, when drafting language regarding the rights of a person to remain in the decedent’s home. For instance, if a person is not mentally competent to live on their own, health problems or the declining condition of the property may arise.

A standard of care needs to be made regarding home maintenance and update. It may get very specific, including details like pet care and clean-up, internal cleanliness, the presence of roommates or boarders and an annual or semi-annual inspection to be sure that the home remains in good condition.

The most common problem for a surviving spouse is the financial ability to remain in the home and pay the bills. One solution may be to permit the survivor to stay in the house for two years, creating a trust that can support the cost of maintaining the home during the hardest period of mourning. This gives the surviving spouse time to recover and adjust to the loss.

If the surviving spouse does not have the mental capacity to remain in the house, the choices are difficult. Ideally, both spouses are involved in planning for this possibility, long before the owner of the property dies. There is nothing pleasant or easy about this. However, it must be done. Ignoring it, makes a bad situation worse. Will the person need care, how will that care be paid for, etc.? Don’t leave it for the family to manage.

In the case of a second marriage, leaving the house to an individual who does not have the ability to manage it, creates a difficult situation, unless the decedent is able to leave enough assets in trust for the surviving spouse to maintain the home. There should be no assumption of the ability of the surviving spouse to care for the home, as an unexpected illness or accident could make a person who is healthy at the time of the signing of the agreement, change to one who needs a great deal of help.

The key to a surviving non-owner spouse is to address the “what-if’s” early on, in the context of the estate plan. A plan should be put in place, which may involve trusts or other estate planning tools, to allow the surviving spouse to remain in the home, if that is the couple’s wish, and a plan “A,” “B,” and “C” for the unexpected events that occur in the course of aging.

An estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that makes sense for the spouse, the surviving spouse and the heirs. A family meeting will be helpful to ensure that everyone involved knows what the plan is, so there are no misunderstandings, and all can act from a place of kindness.

Reference: The Union (April 7, 2019) “Estate planning from the heart”