What Documents Do I Need When Someone Dies?

This is not a short list, and frankly, it isn’t riveting reading. However, if you have had a family member pass away, this is the information you and your estate planning attorney need to help settle the decedent’s final affairs. An even smarter approach would be to gather these materials before someone dies, but that doesn’t always happen. This useful article from The Balance, “Important Papers to Locate After Someone Dies,” will help, regardless of your family’s situation.

Asset Information:

  • Account statements, including bank accounts, investments, and retirement accounts.
  • Life insurance policies. You may be required to show the original documents.
  • Beneficiary designations. This could include payable on death accounts and transfer on death accounts.
  • Real estate deeds
  • Titles for cars and boats
  • Stock and bond certificates–if held in certificate forms.

Business Documents:

  • Corporate, LLC or partnership documents
  • Account statements
  • Contracts
  • Business licenses
  • Income tax returns


  • Pre- or post-nuptial agreements and amendments, if any
  • Loans
  • Leases


  • Utilities, cell phone, credit card, storage unit bills
  • Property tax and mortgage bills
  • Lines of credit or any outstanding loans
  • Medical bills
  • Funeral bills

Estate Planning Documents:

  • Last will and testament, plus codicil(s), if any
  • Revocable living trust and amendment(s), if any
  • Legacy letter, if there is one

Tax Returns

  • Income tax returns – federal and state for the last three years
  • Gift tax returns -federal and state

Death Certificates

  • You’ll need to order several from the funeral home

In addition to these documents, locate the decedent’s Social Security card and Medicare or Medicaid information.

It is a lot of information to gather, especially during a time of grief. Some people find this process cathartic, as they work through years of documents. Others may require help from another family member or a professional from their estate planning attorney’s office.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 1, 2019) “Important Papers to Locate After Someone Dies”

Suggested Key Terms: Account Statements, Last Will and Testament, Trusts, Life Insurance Policies, Beneficiary Designations. Deeds, Assets, Partnership Documents, Business Licenses, Real Estate Titles, Income Tax Returns, Death Certificate, Tax Returns, Gift Tax Returns

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If Your Will Directs that Your Estate Be Divided Equally Between Children, and One of Them Dies Before You Do, How Will Your Assets be Divided After You Die?

The Carroll County Times recently published an article with this question: “Legal Matters: If predeceased by an heir in a valid will, what happens with that inheritance?” It notes that your will may direct the way in which the estate should be distributed, if one of the legatees dies before you. If not, you can modify your will to reflect how you want the estate divided, after the loss of your child.

As an example, the Maryland Estate and Trusts Code says “[u]nless a contrary intent is expressly indicated in the will, a legacy may not lapse or fail because of the death of a legatee after the execution of the will but prior to the death of the testator.”

This means your child’s estate will receive the share you designated in your will, if that child predeceases you. Whoever inherits the child’s estate, will receive what the deceased child is awarded in the will.

The law in Maryland says that the legatee (the deceased child) has to be specifically named in the will to get whatever share of your estate you directed. The law also points out that if you don’t want to leave part of your estate to the individuals who would inherit from your deceased son or daughter, you must specify how you want your estate divided, if one of your children dies before you.

It might be worth making that legal specification in your estate plan, if you and your daughter in-law have hated each other for 20 years, and you don’t want her to inherit the money or other assets that would have gone to your deceased son.

In early Maryland history, a legatee’s right to receive a share of the estate was not protected, if he died before the author of the will. If the will didn’t have instructions as to how the share should be distributed, if the legatee died before the author, then the share remained in the estate—the deceased legatee’s heirs received nothing.

The common law rule that effectively cut off the deceased legatee’s heirs was modified by an anti-lapse statute adopted in 1810. This transferred the deceased legatee’s share to the persons who shared in his estate according to her will, or, if she left no will, those who shared in her estate under law.

When a legatee doesn’t survive the author of the will by 30 days, state law typically treats this as if that legatee had predeceased the will’s author.

Reference: The Carroll County Times (December 21, 2018) “Legal Matters: If predeceased by an heir in a valid will, what happens with that inheritance?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Inheritance, Intestacy

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How Do I Handle an Inherited IRA?

With an inherited IRA, in many cases the parent is the original beneficiary and the children are the successor beneficiaries. Both the original owner and beneficiaries need to follow some strict rules.

nj.com’s recent article, “Inheriting an inherited IRA? Your payout choices will be limited,” explains that per IRS rules, if you die prior to withdrawing all the funds from an inherited IRA, then the beneficiaries are bound by the same Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) schedule that they’d chosen, when they inherited it.

A person will typically choose either his own life expectancy or the life expectancy of the original plan participant, whichever’s longer. The successor beneficiaries must then keep withdrawing what’s left, according to that same schedule.

However, it’s different if you leave your own IRA to your children. In most circumstances, children who inherit an IRA would be able to withdraw the funds over their own life expectancies.

Note: this is the general rule. The IRA rules are quite complex, and there are many exceptions to the general rules. Ask the financial institution where the IRA is held, if they have any rules concerning their IRAs that may change the general rules.

With an inherited IRA, you need to take annual distributions no matter what age you are when you open the account. This doesn’t apply, if you’ve simply transferred another IRA to your own IRA.

Again, as a general rule, you must take distributions during your lifetime or within five years after the original account holder passed away.

If you inherit a Traditional IRA, you’ll pay taxes on any distributions you take. Rollover, SEP, and SIMPLE IRAs become Inherited Traditional IRAs. In contrast, with an Inherited Roth IRA, you don’t pay taxes on distributions.

To evaluate the potential effect an inheritance might have on your overall tax situations, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: nj.com (December 20, 2018) “Inheriting an inherited IRA? Your payout choices will be limited”

Suggested Key Terms: Inheritance, Planning, Financial Planning, Inherited IRA, Roth IRA, SEP, SIMPLE IRA, Required Minimum Distribution (RMD)

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How Do I Include Retirement Accounts in Estate Planning?

You probably made beneficiary designations for your retirement accounts, when you opened them. Remember: who you designated can affect your overall estate planning objectives. Because of this, when including your retirement assets in your estate, ask yourself if anything has changed in your life since then that would affect their status as your beneficiaries, as well as how they’d receive the retirement assets.

Investopedia’s recent article, “Include Your Retirement Accounts in Your Estate,” gives us some things to consider in the New Year.

Beneficiary Designations. Review your beneficiary designations after major life changes. If you fail to make these designations, the funds will most likely go into your estate—a horrible outcome from a tax and planning perspective. If your estate is named a beneficiary, your heirs must wait until probate is finished to access your retirement accounts. It is usually better to name an individual or a trust as your beneficiary.

Protecting Retirement Funds With a Trust. Another option is to include a trust in your estate planning, instead of giving your retirement funds directly to named individuals. This allows you more control over the distribution, while protecting your heirs from additional paperwork and taxes. Trust distributions keep a beneficiary from accessing and spending their inheritance all at once. It’s also a good idea if your beneficiaries include minor children who shouldn’t have direct access to the money until they are adults. Be sure to consult with an estate planning attorney, because there are tax and other complexities associated with designating a trust as beneficiary.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Your retirement plans have rules about when you are required to start taking distributions. For 401(k) accounts, you are required to start taking RMDs at age 70½. However, if you die and leave retirement plans and accounts to your heirs, these rules apply to them instead. A spousal beneficiary can roll over your retirement funds tax-free into their retirement plan and make their own distribution choices. However, other beneficiaries don’t have the same option. Tax treatment and distribution options vary, depending on who is receiving your retirement assets.

Tax Considerations. The biggest worry you need to address when designating retirement accounts as part of your estate plan, is how they’ll be taxed. Consider how to withdraw from these accounts while you’re alive and how to minimize tax consequences after you’ve passed.

Work with an estate planning attorney who has a strong understanding of retirement accounts and the tax and legal requirements of estate planning. That way you can be certain your retirement assets are distributed to the proper beneficiaries with the least tax liability.

Reference: Investopedia (August 27, 2018) “Include Your Retirement Accounts in Your Estate”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning, Trust, Required Minimum Distributions, Tax Planning, Financial Planning

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Using a Health Savings Account for Retirement Health Care Costs

If it’s done right, the older American worker has an opportunity to save additional money for health costs during retirement. That’s if they do it right, according to CNBC’s article Over 55? Maximize your savings in this tax-advantaged account.” Over 55? You can put away an additional $1,000.

Starting in 2019, people with self-only coverage in a high-deductible health insurance plan will be allowed to save up to $2,500 in a Health Savings Account (HSA). If you’ve got family coverage, you can save $7,000.

HSAs permit users to put away money that is pre-tax or tax deductible. The funds accumulate interest on a tax-free basis, and then the account owner can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses. Catch-up contributions for those 55 and older of $1,000, make this an even more attractive way to save for health care costs.

However, there are a few complications you’ll need to know about, if you are married and if you are getting close to being eligible for Medicare.

Keeping one HSA, if you’re married and in a high-deductible health plan works, until one of the spouses celebrates a 55th birthday. If the spouse under 55 years has the HSA account, but the older spouse is eligible for the catch-up contribution, the spouse who is over 55 should open their HSA and put away the additional $1,000. There are no joint HSAs, so only the older spouse can make that contribution.

If both spouses are 55, the only way each can make a $1,000 contribution, is if they have separate HSAs. If both spouses have family coverage, they can split the total plan contribution of $7,000 between the two accounts. However, those $1,000 catch up contributions still have to go into the account of the spouse permitted to make that contribution.

Once you or your spouse turns 65 and you enroll in Medicare, you are no longer permitted to make contributions. You can use the funds for qualified medical expenses, but no more contributions.

Let’s say you celebrated your 65th birthday in July and enrolled in Medicare. You were in a plan with self-only coverage. In that case, you are only permitted to make contributions until June—one month before you enrolled in Medicare. The most you are permitted to contribute to your HSA account for that year would be $2,250.

Contribute too much, and you’ll need to get the money out of there. Your deadline to do so is April 15.

One last detail: you are permitted a one-time-only rollover from your IRA to your HSA. There’s a limit, of course: $3,500 if you have self-only coverage or $7,000 if you have a family plan—and the $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’re over 55. It’s a smart move, taking taxable money and making it nontaxable, as long as it’s used for qualified medical expenses.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 24, 2018) Over 55? Maximize your savings in this tax-advantaged account”

Suggested Key Terms: Health Savings Accounts, HSA, Qualified Medical Expenses, Retirement, Health Care Costs, Rollover, IRA, Family Plan, Self-Only

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Don’t Neglect Planning for Long-Term Care

If you don’t have a plan for long-term care, welcome to the club. However, you may not want to be a member of this club, if and when you need long-term care. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that people age 65 and older have a very good chance—70%—of needing long-term care. Despite this, most people are not putting plans in place, according to an article from Westfair Online titled Keybank poll reveals clients aren’t planning for long term care.”

This is true for people with assets exceeding $1 million and for people with more modest assets. In a study by Keybank, fewer than a quarter of high net-worth clients had plans in place for long-term care. This poses real financial risks, to the individuals and their families.

Consider the costs of long-term health care. One study from Genworth Financial reports that in 2017, the national median cost of a home health aide was roughly $49,000 a year, assisted living facilities could cost $45,000 (that’s not including medical services), and a private room in a nursing home came close to $100,000 annually. Costs vary by region, so if you live in an expensive area, those costs could easily go much higher.

Why don’t people plan ahead for long-term care? Perhaps they think they will never become ill, which is not the case. They may think their health insurance will cover all the cost, which is rarely the case.  They may believe that Medicare will cover everything, which is also not true.

Everyone’s hope is that they are able to be at home during a long illness, or during their last illness. However, that’s often not a choice we get. This is a topic that families should discuss well in advance of any illness. Talking with family about potential end-of-life care and decisions is important for setting expectations, delegating responsibilities and avoiding unpleasant surprises.

The other part of a long-term care discussion with family members needs to be about estate plans and decisions about the disposition of assets. Everyone should have a will, and all information including deeds, trusts, bank and investment accounts and digital assets should be discussed with the family. You’ll also need a power of attorney and health care proxy to carry out your wishes. An experienced estate planning attorney can help create an estate plan and facilitate discussions with family members.

Long-term planning is an on-going event. Life changes, and so should your long-term care plan, as well as your estate plan. You should also keep communications open with your family. They will appreciate your looking out for them before and after any illness.

Reference: Westfair Online (Sep. 7, 2018) Keybank poll reveals clients aren’t planning for long term care

Suggested Key Terms: Long-Term Care, End-of-Life, Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, Estate Plan

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How Con Artists Get Your Personal Data

The phone rings and an emotional person on the other end tells you that your grandson went out of the country with friends and got into trouble. The stranger says your grandson had a car accident and needs emergency surgery, but his health insurance will not pay because he is not in the United States. After the person sprinkles in a few more details, like where your grandson goes to college and the name and breed of your dog, you think the person must actually know your grandson.

You wire $15,000 to the number the caller gave you, so your grandson can have the life-saving surgery. Soon afterward, an uncomfortable feeling kicks in, and then you call your child, the parent of your grandchild. Your grandson is at college, not out of the country with friends, and he is in perfect health. You have been scammed out of $15,000. The scheme worked because the fraudsters had information about you and your family. To help you avoid becoming a victim, here is how con artists get your personal data.

How People Buy Your Personal Information Online Legally

Con artists do not have to go into the dark web to buy enough information about people to open up new accounts in their names or run a multitude of scams. With a quick Google search, you can find a dozen or more companies who will sell you files chock full of information about people. You do not have to prove that you have a legitimate reason to access the information.

For less than $50, you can get pages of data that can include things like:

  • Current and previous residential addresses;
  • Current and former employers;
  • Vehicle information;
  • Phone numbers;
  • The names of current and prior spouses;
  • Court records about divorces and criminal charges;
  • The names of relatives;
  • The names of other people living in the household;
  • Other details from public records; and
  • Social media accounts.

With an inexpensive monthly subscription, crooks can get reports on an unlimited number of people. For very little investment, a con artist can set up a full-time scamming business.

How the Con Works

Imagine that the scammer who conned the grandparent out of $15,000 bought a report from one of these websites. BeenVerified, Intelius, Pipl, and Truthfinder are but a few examples of “people search” websites. Armed with a people search report on the grandparent (the target), the fraudster can find out:

  • The target’s age – to estimate whether the target might have grandchildren;
  • The target’s address – to determine if the grandparent lives in an affluent neighborhood;
  • Whether the target rents or owns – a clue as to whether the person might have assets;
  • The target’s phone number – to call and run the “grandchild in an emergency” scam;
  • The relatives of the target – to concoct the details of the scam; and
  • The target’s social media accounts – to look at the grandparent’s Facebook and other accounts.

With all of this information, the scammer can scroll through the grandparent’s postings and find out additional details, like:

  • The name of a grandchild and where that person goes to college;
  • The name and type of pet the grandparent has; and
  • Any other personal details needed to pretend to know the grandchild.

At this point, the crook has all the information he needs to run the fraud and con the grandparent out of the $15,000.

What You Can Do

If you get a phone call about a friend or relative in crisis, call other people to verify your loved one’s whereabouts. Never send money or valuables to a stranger who calls you. Write down the contact information of the caller and details like the name of the hospital or police station, where your loved supposedly is in trouble.

Contact those places directly to see if your relative actually is there. However, do not send money to the caller. Ask your local law enforcement to assist you in helping your loved one.

You can opt out of the “people search” websites. You will have to contact them and ask them to remove your data from their website. There are many of these companies, and you will also have to follow up periodically, since sometimes they will reactivate your information after a few months.

This article is about the general law, and the regulations are different in every state. Talk with an elder law attorney about your state’s rules.


AARP. “Your Personal Data, Up for Grabs.” (accessed December 20, 2018) https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2015/personal-data-up-for-grabs.html

Suggested Key Terms: how con artists steal your personal information, how easy is it for people to find my personal information

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Here’s Why You Need an Estate Plan

It’s always the right time to do your estate planning, but it’s most critical when you have beneficiaries who are minors or with special needs, says the Capital Press in the recent article, “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning.”

While it’s likely that most adult children can work things out, even if it’s costly and time-consuming in probate, minor young children must have protections in place. Wills are frequently written, so the estate goes to the child when he reaches age 18. However, few teens can manage big property at that age. A trust can help, by directing that the property will be held for him by a trustee or executor until a set age, like 25 or 30.

Probate is the default process to administer an estate after someone’s death, when a will or other documents are presented in court and an executor is appointed to manage it. It also gives creditors a chance to present claims for money owed to them. Distribution of assets will occur only after all proper notices have been issued, and all outstanding bills have been paid.

Probate can be expensive. However, wise estate planning can help most families avoid this and ensure the transition of wealth and property in a smooth manner. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about establishing a trust. Farmers can name themselves as the beneficiaries during their lifetime, and instruct to whom it will pass after their death. A living trust can be amended or revoked at any time, if circumstances change.

The title of the farm is transferred to the trust with the farm’s former owner as trustee. With a trust, it makes it easier to avoid probate because nothing’s in his name, and the property can transition to the beneficiaries without having to go to court. Living trusts also help in the event of incapacity or a disease, like Alzheimer’s, to avoid conservatorship (guardianship of an adult who loses capacity). It can also help to decrease capital gains taxes, since the property transfers before their death.

If you have several children, but only two work with you on the farm, an attorney can help you with how to divide an estate that is land rich and cash poor.

Reference: Capital Press (December 20, 2018) “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Capacity, Guardianship, Conservatorship, Capital Gains Tax, Trustee, Revocable Living Trust, Asset Protection, Probate Court, Inheritance, Power of Attorney

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Make Your Retirement Dreams Come True

Moving from general concepts to specific retirement activities you think you’ll want to do during retirement, can help you do a better job of saving and planning, advises U.S. News & World Report in the article “Will You be Able to Afford the Lifestyle of Your Dreams in Retirement?” Increased longevity has made retirement a time to begin anew. This requires a different mindset. Regardless of your retirement dreams, you’ll need more funding for a longer retirement.

Here are some pointers to help get retirement savings on track:

What do you want to do? Vague goals like travel may not motivate your savings. However, if you’ve identified the cost of living in Paris for six months, you’ve got a real concrete goal to work toward. That provides more motivation and helps avoid impulse spending. Get specific: write down what you want to do and start researching what it will cost.

Do a test drive first. If your spouse wants to live in an RV full time, that’s great as long as you do. However, don’t sell the house before testing it out. Try renting an RV and living in it for at least a month. The same is true for living in a house in the woods. Sounds great—but if you’re a city dweller, how will you feel after a few months of living in an isolated spot?

Think about how long you want to work. Many people today work into their late 60s and early 70s. If they have a desk job, and they have reached a certain level of success, there may not need to be a cut-off date for retirement. What about taking more time off for vacations or working part time? Recent studies have shown that working even a few more years, can have a major impact on the quality of your full retirement.

Do the math. Once you have some concrete plans in place, run the numbers. Consider how you might make the money you have last longer. Look at housing prices, if downsizing to a less expensive area is on your list. If you plan on travelling, do you have to stay in five-star hotels, or could you be content with Road Scholar, formerly known as Elderhostels?

Remember to include health care costs. You’ll need to include the cost of medical expenses, including Medicare premiums, deductibles, copays and coinsurance, among other costs. This is especially true, if one or both spouses have any chronic conditions.

Now, what’s your savings plan? Once you have all this information, you’ll be able to determine how much you need to save, each year and each month. When you combine all your retirement income sources, do you have enough to sustain your retirement dreams? Or do you need to adjust your savings?

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 19, 2018) “Will You be Able to Afford the Lifestyle of Your Dreams in Retirement?”

Suggested Key Terms: Retirement, Savings, Travel, Health Care, Income

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Get Estate Planning Details Done in 2019

Are you ready to resolve some of the things in 2019 that you really, really, did plan on doing in 2018? This article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “As a new year closes in, resolve to get those pesky estate details resolved,” offers to act as a reminder—or a kick in the pants—to get you to take care of these frequently overlooked estate planning details.

Health Care Plans. If you’ve got health care issues or a chronic condition, get your advance directive for health care done. The name of the document varies by state, but whether you call it a living will or an advance directive, work with your estate planning attorney to create a document that conveys your wishes, if and when you are not able to communicate them. That means your end of life wishes, so if you end up in the hospital’s intensive care unit your family or health care providers aren’t making decisions based on what they think you might have wanted, but what you have actually declared that you want.

Power of Attorney for Financial Affairs. You’re not giving up any power or control over your finances in having this created. Instead, you are preparing to allow someone to act on your behalf for financial matters, if for some reason you are unable to. Let’s say you become injured in an accident and are in the hospital for an extended period of time. How will your bills be paid? Who will pay the mortgage?

For both of these documents, talk with the people you want to name first, and make sure you are both clear on their responsibilities. Have at least two backups, just in case.

A will and if appropriate, trusts. If you don’t have a will or a trust, why not? Without a will, the state’s laws determine who will receive your assets. Your family may not like the decisions, but it will be too late. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to get your will and other documents properly prepared.

Check how your assets are titled. Are they in your name only, jointly titled, etc.? If you have trusts, have you retitled your assets to conform to the trusts? If you have beneficiaries on certain accounts, like life insurance policies and 401(k)s, when was the last time you reviewed your beneficiaries? Don’t be like the doctor who did everything but check beneficiaries. His ex-wife was very happy to receive a large 401(k) account, and there was no recourse for his second wife of 30 years.

Make a list so assets can be located. To finalize these details, you’ll need a list of assets, account numbers and what financial institution holds them. The information will need to be gathered and then organized in a way so key people in your life—your spouse, children, etc.—can find them. Some people put them on a spreadsheet in their home computer, but if your executor does not have a password, they won’t be able to access them. If they are in a safe deposit box that only has your name, they won’t be accessible.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Dec. 24, 2018) “As a new year closes in, resolve to get those pesky estate details resolved”

Suggested Key Terms: Power of Attorney, Estate Planning, Advance Directive, Living Will, Health Care, Assets, Titling, Trusts

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