Do I Get Ex’s 401(k) because I Was Named the Beneficiary?

Whether an ex who was named the beneficiary on their former spouse’s 401(k) will inherit may depend on the couple’s divorce agreement.

This type of question emphasizes how critical it is to update estate planning documents and beneficiary designations after a divorce.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Do I have a right to my ex-husband’s 401(k) plan?” says that this question also illustrates the importance of having a well-drafted and thorough divorce settlement agreement, one that details the rights and obligations of each spouse after divorce.

A comprehensive divorce agreement and timely modifications to wills and account beneficiary designations can eliminate any issues concerning the rights of a former spouse about the other’s retirement assets.

Some states revoke, by operation of law, a payable on death (POD) beneficiary designation of an ex-spouse. However, such a statute would only be controlling, if there’s no governing instrument addressing the asset in question.

If there’s a governing instrument, like a marital settlement agreement and/or a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), the terms of that governing instrument will be controlling.

A divorce decree or settlement agreement should specify the rights of each spouse to any retirement assets held by the other. If the decree or settlement agreement provides for one spouse’s interest in the other’s retirement asset, the death of the other spouse shouldn’t, by itself, extinguish that interest.

If the retirement asset is a 401(k), a QDRO would likely have been required post-divorce to secure the interest of the receiving former spouse. After this is prepared and filed with the court, the QDRO would be forwarded to the plan administrator of the retirement account for implementation and distribution to the former spouse.

However, if there’s no divorce decree, agreement or QDRO confirming the interest of a former spouse in the other’s retirement asset, the former spouse would likely not be successful trying to claim a portion of that asset—despite the fact that he or she is the named beneficiary. That’s because there’d be no governing instrument vesting him or her with the right to receive all or a portion of the asset.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 13, 2021) “Do I have a right to my ex-husband’s 401(k) plan?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Probate Attorney, Beneficiary Designations, 401(k), Divorce, Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)

Does a TOD Supersede a Trust?

Many people incorporate a TOD, or “Transfer on Death” into their financial plan, thinking it will be easier for their loved ones than creating a trust. The article “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?” from Kiplinger explains how it really works.

The TOD account allows the account owner to name a beneficiary on an account who receives funds when the account owner dies. The TOD is often used for stocks, brokerage accounts, bonds and other non-retirement accounts. A POD, or “Payable on Death,” account is usually used for bank assets—cash.

The chief goal of a TOD or POD is to avoid probate. The beneficiaries receive assets directly, bypassing probate, keeping the assets out of the estate and transferring them faster than through probate. The beneficiary contacts the financial institution with an original death certificate and proof of identity.  The assets are then distributed to the beneficiary. Banks and financial institutions can be a bit exacting about determining identity, but most people have the needed documents.

There are pitfalls. For one thing, the executor of the estate may be empowered by law to seek contributions from POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay for the expenses of administering an estate, estate and final income taxes and any debts or liabilities of the estate. If the beneficiaries do not contribute voluntarily, the executor (or estate administrator) may file a lawsuit against them, holding them personally responsible, to get their contributions.

If the beneficiary has already spent the money, or they are involved in a lawsuit or divorce, turning over the TOD/POD assets may get complicated. Other personal assets may be attached to make up for a shortfall.

If the beneficiary is receiving means-tested government benefits, as in the case of an individual with special needs, the TOD/POD assets may put their eligibility for those benefits at risk.

These and other complications make using a POD/TOD arrangement riskier than expected.

A trust provides a great deal more protection for the person creating the trust (grantor) and their beneficiaries. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, trustees will be in place to manage assets for the grantor’s benefit. With a TOD/POD, a Power of Attorney would be needed to allow the other person to control of the assets. The same banks reluctant to hand over a POD/TOD are even more strict about Powers of Attorney, even denying POAs, if they feel the forms are out-of-date or don’t have the state’s required language.

Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney allows you to plan for yourself and your beneficiaries. You can plan for incapacity and plan for the assets in your trust to be used as you wish. If you want your adult children to receive a certain amount of money at certain ages or stages of their lives, a trust can be created to do so. You can also leave money for multiple generations, protecting it from probate and taxes, while building a legacy.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?”

Suggested Key Terms: TOD, Transfer on Death, Revocable Trusts, Payable on Death, POD, Incapacitated, Trustee, Grantor, Means-Tested Government Benefits, Assets, Beneficiary, Estate Planning Attorney, Probate, Final Tax Return, Creditors, Executor, Estate Administrator

How Much Is the Required Minimum Distribution from Retirement Accounts?

The IRS has updated the formulas for Required Minimum Distributions, or RMDs, the amounts required to be taken annually from 401(k)s, 403(b)s, or traditional Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) in 2022. According to a recent article from AARP titled “How an IRS Rule Update Impacts Required Minimum Distributions,” the new RMDs will be smaller now than in previous years. RMDs have always been a complicated topic, and now they might just be a little more so.

Getting the calculations right has always been a bit of a muddle. For one thing, in 2020 RMDs were suspended entirely. Before the pandemic, the 2019 SECURE Act changed the age when you had to take withdrawals from 70½ to 72. This was except for people who were already taking RMDs in 2019. Are you confused?

Now, if your 72nd birthday occurred before July 1, 2021, you need to take an RMD before December 31. However, if your 72nd birthday takes place in the second half of 2021, you have until April 1, 2022 to take your first withdrawal—only you’ll need to use the 2021 tables from the IRS to calculate it.

A reminder: Roth IRAs do not require any RMDs, but 401(k) Roths do.

Starting in 2022, many people will be able to take about six or seven percent less in their RMD under the life expectancy tables from the IRS. A 75-year-old single woman with an IRA worth $100,000 at the end of 2021 will need to withdraw at least $4,065 in 2022, about $300 less than under prior guidelines.

However, you need to consider whether or not taking less from your IRA or 401(k) or 403(b) is a good idea in the long run. If you need to take more to live on, then you need to withdraw what you need, regardless of the IRS rules. There’s no penalty for taking more, except the taxes you’ll pay.

If you retire before age 70, before any RMDs are required, you might want to withdraw more from your tax-deferred retirement accounts in order to delay taking Social Security benefits. The longer you delay taking Social Security benefits, the larger your monthly payment will be. This is a good move for many Americans, especially those who are counting on Social Security for income in their 80s and 90s.

There isn’t a single person in America (well, maybe there is one) who isn’t frustrated by having to pay taxes on earned income required to be withdrawn from retirement accounts. However, there are ways to blunt the impact of income taxes on IRAs. Those who are older than 70½ can donate to registered 501(c)(3) charities, by making a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD), which is counted toward any RMD as the amount of the donation is exempted from income taxes. However, this only works if you take the standard deduction and don’t itemize charitable gifts.

Unless the rules change, converting tax-deferred IRA money into a Roth IRA is a strategy to shift not whether you pay taxes, but when. Converting traditional IRA assets during a low-income year—or a portion of traditional IRA assets—allows the money in the Roth account to continue to grow tax free and no taxes are due on any withdrawals. Unless the laws change—again.

Reference: AARP (Dec. 8, 2021) “How an IRS Rule Update Impacts Required Minimum Distributions”

Suggested Key Terms: Retirement Accounts, Required Minimum Distributions, RMD, IRS, IRA, Roth, Converting, Tax-Deferred, Tax-Free, Qualified Charitable Distribution, QCD, 2019 SECURE Act, Pandemic, 403(b)

How Do You Split an Estate in a Blended Family?

Estate planning attorneys know just how often blended families with the best of intentions find themselves embroiled in disputes, when the couple fails to address what will happen after the first spouse dies. According to the article “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues” from The News-Enterprise, this is more likely to occur when spouses marry after their separate children are already adults, don’t live in the parent’s home and have their own lives and families.

In this case, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse, rather than the child’s parent. There may be love and respect. However, it’s a different relationship from long-term blended families where the stepparent was actively engaged with all of the children’s upbringing and parents consider all of the children as their own.

For the long-term blended family, the planning must be intentional. However, there may be less concern about the surviving spouse changing beneficiaries and depriving the other spouse’s children of their inheritance. The estate planning attorney must still address this as a possibility.

When relationships between spouses and stepchildren are not as close, or are rocky, estate planning must proceed as if the relationship between stepparents and stepsiblings will evaporate on the death of the natural parent. If one spouse’s intention is to leave all of their wealth to the surviving spouse, the plan must anticipate trouble, even litigation.

In some families, there is no intent to deprive anyone of an inheritance. However, failing to plan appropriately—having a will, setting up trusts, etc.—is not done and the estate plan disinherits children.

It’s important for the will, trusts and any other estate planning documents to define the term “children” and in some cases, use the specific names of the children. This is especially important when there are other family members with the same or similar names.

As long as the parents are well and healthy, estate plans can be amended. If one of the parents becomes incapacitated, changes cannot be legally made to their wills. If one spouse dies and the survivor remarries and names a new spouse as their beneficiary, it’s possible for all of the children to lose their inheritances.

Most people don’t intend to disinherit their own children or their stepchildren. However, this occurs often when the spouses neglect to revise their estate plan when they marry again, or if there is no estate plan at all. An estate planning attorney has seen many different versions of this and can create a plan to achieve your wishes and protect your children.

A final note: be realistic about what may occur when you pass. While your spouse may fully intend to maintain relationships with your children, lives and relationships change. With an intentional estate plan, parents can take comfort in knowing their property will be passed to the next generation—or two—as they wish.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Dec. 7, 2021) “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues”

Suggested Key Terms: Blended Families, Inheritance, Beneficiaries, Surviving Spouse, Incapacitated, Litigation, Estate Planning Attorney, Stepchildren, Stepparents, Disinherit, Trusts

Why Naming Beneficiaries Is Important to Your Estate Plan

For the loved ones of people who neglect to update the beneficiaries on their estate plan and assets with the option of naming beneficiaries, the cost in time, money and emotional stress is quite high, says the recent article “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries” from The Chattanoogan.

The biggest mistake is failing to name a beneficiary on all of your accounts, including retirement, investment and bank accounts as well as insurance policies. What happens if you fail to name a beneficiary? Assets in the accounts and proceeds from life insurance policies will automatically become part of your estate.

Any planning you’ve done with your estate planning attorney to avoid probate will be undercut by having all of these assets go through probate. Beneficiaries may not see their inheritance for months, versus receiving access to the assets much sooner. It’s even worse for retirement accounts like IRAs. Any ability your heir might have had to withdraw assets over time will be lost.

Next is forgetting to name a contingency beneficiary. Most people name their spouse, an adult child, or a sibling as their primary beneficiary. However, if the primary beneficiary should predecease you and there is no contingency beneficiary, it is as if you didn’t have a beneficiary at all.

Having a contingency beneficiary has another benefit: the primary beneficiary has the option to execute a qualified disclaimer, so some assets may be passed along to the next-in-line heir. Let’s say your spouse doesn’t need the money or doesn’t want to take it because of tax implications. Someone else in the family can more easily receive the assets.

Naming beneficiaries without taking care to use their proper legal name or identify the person with specificity has led to more surprises than you can imagine. If there are three generations of Geoffrey Paddingtons in the family and the only name on the document is Geoffrey Paddington, who will receive the inheritance? Use the person’s full name, their relationship to you (“child,” “cousin,” etc.) and if the document requires a Social Security number for identification, use it.

When was the last time you reviewed beneficiary documents? The only time many people look at these documents is when they open the account, start a new job, or buy an insurance policy. Every few years, around the same time you review your estate plan, you should gather all of your financial and insurance documents and make sure the same people named two decades ago are still the ones you want to receive your assets on death.

Finally, talk with loved ones about your legacy and your wishes. Let them know that an estate plan exists and you’ve given time and thought to what you want to happen when you die. There’s no need to give exact amounts. However, a bird’s eye view of your plan will help establish expectations.

If naming beneficiaries is challenging because of a complex situation, your estate planning attorney will be able to help as a sounding board or with estate planning strategies to accomplish your goals.

Reference: The Chattanoogan (Dec. 6, 2021) “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries”

Suggested Key Terms: Beneficiaries, Estate Planning Attorney, Probate, Retirement Accounts, Life Insurance Policies, Investments, Legacy, Contingency, Spouse, Qualified Disclaimer

What is the Difference between a Trust and a Will?

Trusts and wills are two different ways to distribute and control your assets after your death. They have some key differences. Family trusts and wills are both worthwhile estate planning tools that can make sure your assets are protected and will pass to heirs the way you intended, says MSN’s recent article entitled “Family Trusts vs. Wills: What Are the Differences Between These Estate-Planning Options?”

This article tells you what you need to know about the differences between family trusts and wills to help you avoid estate planning mistakes.

Remember that without a will, the state probate laws will determine what happens to your assets. It may or may not be what you want. In contrast, a will lets you state to whom you want to distribute your assets.

Note that a trust permits the grantor (the person making the trust) to do what he or she wants with the assets. A trust also avoids probate.

A family trust is a wise choice for those who want to provide for the management of their assets if they become incapacitated, people interested in keeping information about their assets and who inherits those assets private and those who have a significant number of assets or a large estate. Here are some other situations in which a family trust would be appropriate to use:

Everyone should have a will. It’s a way to leave bequests, nominate guardians for a minor child and an executor.

If you have a family trust, you still need a will. There may be some assets not owned by the trust, such as vehicles and other personal property. There may also be payments due you at your death. Those assets must go through probate, if not arranged to avoid probate.

Once that process is complete, the assets are distributed to the family trust and are governed by its provisions. This is what is known as a “pour-over will” because the assets “pour over” to the family trust.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the estate planning options available for you and your situation.

Reference: MSN (Aug. 27, 2021) “Family Trusts vs. Wills: What Are the Differences Between These Estate-Planning Options?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Intestacy, Probate Court, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Executor, Personal Representative, Family Trust, Trustee, Probate Attorney, Pour-Over Will

Why Do Families Fail when Transferring Wealth?

A legacy plan is a vital part of the financial planning process, ensuring the assets you have spent your entire life accumulating will transfer to the people and organizations you want, and that family members are prepared to inherit and execute your wishes.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “4 Reasons Families Fail When Transferring Wealth” gives us four common errors that can cause individuals and families to veer off track.

Failure to create a plan. It’s hard for people to think about their own death. This can make us delay our estate planning. If you die before a comprehensive estate plan is in place, your goals and wishes can’t be carried out. You should establish a legacy plan as soon as possible. A legacy plan can evolve over time, but a plan should be grounded in what your or your family envisions today, but with the flexibility to be amended for changes in the future.

Poor communication and a lack of trust. Failing to communicate a plan early can create issues between generations, especially if it is different than adult children might expect or incorporates other people and organizations that come as a surprise to heirs. Bring adult children into the conversation to establish the communication early on. You can focus on the overall, high-level strategy. This includes reviewing timing, familial values and planning objectives. Open communication can mitigate negative feelings, such as distrust or confusion among family members, and make for a more successful transfer.

Poor preparation. The ability to get individual family members on board with defined roles can be difficult, but it can alleviate a lot of potential headaches and obstacles in the future.

Overlooked essentials. Consider hiring a team of specialists, such as a financial adviser, tax professional and estate planning attorney, who can work in together to ensure the plan will meet its intended objectives.

Whether creating a legacy plan today, or as part of the millions of households in the Great Wealth Transfer that will establish plans soon if they haven’t already, preparation and flexibility are uber important to wealth transfer success.

Create an accommodative plan early on, have open communication with your family and review philosophies and values to make certain that everyone’s on the same page. As a result, your loved ones will have the ability to understand, respect and meaningfully execute the legacy plan’s objectives.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 29, 2021) “4 Reasons Families Fail When Transferring Wealth”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Financial Planning

Do I Need a 529 Education Savings Plan?

Statecollege.com’s recent article entitled “Did You Know 529s Are Powerful Estate Planning Tools?” explains that specialized savings accounts, informally referred to as 529s, could be at the top of your list. These accounts have a number of advantages for beneficiaries. There are also benefits for the donors in the high maximum contribution limits and tax advantages.

Special tax rules governing these accounts let you decrease your taxable estate. That might minimize future federal gift and estate taxes. In 2021, the lifetime exclusion is now $11.7 million per person, so most of us don’t have to concern ourselves with our estates exceeding that limit. However, remember that the threshold will revert back to just over $5 million per person in 2026.

Under the rules that govern 529s, you can make a lump-sum contribution to a 529 plan up to five times the annual limit of $15,000. As a result, you can give $75,000 per recipient ($150,000 for married couples), provided you document your five-year gift on your federal gift tax return and don’t make any more gifts to the same recipient during that five-year period. You can, however, go ahead and give another lump sum after those five years are through. The $150,000 gift per beneficiary won’t have a gift tax, as long as you and your spouse follow the rules.

Many people think that gifting a big chunk of money in a 529 means they’ll irrevocably give up control of those assets. However, 529 plans let you have considerable control—especially if you title the account in your name. At any time, you can get your money back, but it will be part of your taxable estate again subject to your nominal federal tax rate. There’s also a 10% penalty on the earnings portion of the withdrawal, if you don’t use the money for your designated beneficiary’s qualified education expenses.

If your chosen beneficiary doesn’t need some or all of the money you’ve put in a 529, you can earmark the money for other types of education, like graduate school. You can also change the beneficiary to another member of the family as many times as you like. This is nice if your original beneficiary chooses not to go to college at all.

In addition, you can take the money and pay the taxes on any gains. Normally, you’d also expect to pay a penalty on the earnings but not for scholarships. The penalty is waived on amounts equal to the scholarship, provided they’re withdrawn the same year the scholarship is received, effectively turning your tax-free 529 into a tax-deferred investment. You can always use the money to pay for other qualified education expenses, like room and board, books and supplies.

Reference: statecollege.com (Aug. 29, 2021) “Did You Know 529s Are Powerful Estate Planning Tools?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Probate Attorney, Gift Tax, Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption, 529 Education Savings Plan

Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning is crucial to ensure that wealth accumulated over a lifetime is distributed according to your wishes and will take care of your family when you are no longer able to do so. Many well-intentioned people make common mistakes, which could be avoided with the guidance of an estate planning attorney, says the article “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes” from Physician’s Weekly.

Do you have a will? Many families must endure the red tape and expenses of “intestate” probate because a parent never got around to having a will prepared. The process is relatively straightforward: identify an estate planning attorney and make an appointment. Once the will is completed, make sure several trusted people, likely family members, know where it is and can access it.

Are you properly insured? If the last time you looked at your life insurance coverage was more than ten years ago, it’s probably not kept pace with your life. Although every person’s situation is different, high- income earners, like physicians or other professionals, need to understand that life insurance “replaces” income. This means enough to pay for college, pay off a mortgage and provide for your surviving spouse and children’s lifestyles.

When was the last time you spoke with your estate planning attorney, CPA, or financial advisor? Tax laws are constantly changing, and if your estate plan is not keeping up with those changes, you may be missing out on planning opportunities. Your family also may end up with a big tax bill, if your estate plan hasn’t been revised in the last three or four years. Your team of professionals is only as good as you let them be, so stay in touch with them.

When was the last time you reviewed your estate plan with your attorney? If you thought an estate plan was a set-it-and-forget-it plan, think again. Tax laws aren’t the only thing that changes. If you’ve divorced and remarried, you definitely need a new estate plan—and possibly a post-nuptial agreement. Have your children grown up, married and perhaps had children of their own? Do you have a new and troublesome son-in-law and want to protect your daughter’s inheritance? All of the changes in your life need to be reflected in your estate plan.

Having “the talk” with your family. No one wants to think about their own mortality or their parent’s mortality. However, if you don’t discuss your estate plan and your wishes with your family, they will not know what you want to happen. It doesn’t need to be a summit meeting, but a series of conversations to allow your loved ones to become comfortable with the discussion and make it more likely your wishes will be fulfilled. This includes your estate plan and your wishes for burial or cremation and what kind of memorial service you want.

Reference: Physician’s Weekly (Oct. 8, 2021) “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Last Will and Testament, Probate, Life Insurance, Taxes, divorce, Post Nuptial Agreement, Inheritance, Mortality, Burial, Mortgage

How Does Medicaid Count Assets?

For seniors and their families, figuring out how Medicaid works usually happens when an emergency occurs, and things have to be done in a hurry. This is when expensive mistakes happen. Understanding how Medicaid counts assets, which determines eligibility, is better done in advance, says the article “It’s important to understand how Medicaid counts your resources” from The News-Enterprise.

Medicaid is available to people with limited income and assets and is used most commonly to pay for long-term care in nursing homes. This is different from Medicare, which pays for some rehabilitation services, but not for long-term care.

Eligibility is based on income and assets. If you are unable to pay for care in full, you will need to pay nearly all of your income towards care and only then will Medicaid cover the rest. Assets are counted to determine whether you have non-income sources to pay for care.

Married people are treated differently than individuals. A married couple’s assets are counted in total, regardless of whether the couple owns assets jointly or individually. The assets are then split, with each spouse considered to own half of the assets for counting purposes only. Married couples have some additional asset exemptions as well.

Not all resources are considered countable. Prepaid funeral expenses, a car used to transport the person in the care family and qualified retirement accounts may be exempt from Medicaid’s countable asset limits.

For married couples, their residence for a “Community Spouse”—the spouse still living at home, and a large sum of liquid assets, are also excluded. Many non-countable assets are very specific to the individual situation or current events. For example, stimulus checks were exempt assets, but only for a limited time.

Medicaid sets a “snapshot” date to determine asset balances because some assets change daily. For unmarried individuals, all asset protections and spend-downs must happen prior to submitting the application to Medicaid. A detailed explanation must be included, especially if any assets were transferred within five years of the application.

For married couples, a Resource Assessment Request should be submitted to Medicaid before any action is taken. This document details all resources Medicaid will count and specifies exactly how much of these resources must be “spent down” by the institutionalized spouse for eligibility.

In many cases, assets are preserved by turning the countable asset into a non-countable income stream to the spouse remaining at home.

Medicaid application is a complicated process and should be started as soon as it becomes clear that a person will need to enter a facility. Understanding options early in the process makes it more likely that property and assets can be preserved, especially for the spouse who remains at home.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Oct. 5, 2021) “It’s important to understand how Medicaid counts your resources”

Suggested Key Terms: Medicaid, Eligibility, Long Term Care, Five-Year Lookback, Countable Assets, Eligibility, Resource Assessment Request, Medicare, Community Spouse, Prepaid Funeral Expenses, Asset Exemption, Spend Downs