How Do I Get My Mom’s Affairs in Order?

What can you do to make sure your mother’s financial affairs are in proper order?

The Monterey Herald’s recent article, “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of,” says to first make sure that she has her basic estate planning documents in place. She should have a will and an Advance Health Care Directive. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure these documents fully reflect your mother’s desires. An Advance Health Care Directive lets her name a person to make health care decisions on her behalf, if she becomes incapacitated. This decision-making authority is called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, and the person receiving the authority is known as the agent.

Based on the way in which the form is written, the agent can have broad authority, including the ability to consent to or refuse medical treatment, surgical procedures and artificial nutrition or hydration. The form also allows a person to leave instructions for health care, such as whether or not to be resuscitated, have life prolonged artificially, or to receive treatment to alleviate pain, even if it hastens death. To limit these instructions in any specific way, talk to an attorney.

Another option is to create a living trust, if the value of her estate is significant. In some states, estates worth more than a certain amount are subject to probate—a costly, lengthy and public process. Smaller value estates usually can avoid probate. When calculating the value of an estate, you can exclude several types of assets, including joint tenancy property, property that passes outright to a surviving spouse, assets that pass outside of probate to named beneficiaries (such as pensions, IRAs, and life insurance), multiple party accounts or pay on death (POD) accounts and assets owned in trust, including a revocable trust.  You should also conduct a full inventory of your parent’s accounts, including where they’re held and how they’re titled. Update the named beneficiaries on IRAs, retirement plans and life insurance policies.

Some adult children will have their parent name them as a joint owner on their checking account. This allows you greater flexibility to settle outstanding obligations, when she passes away. Remember that a financial power of attorney won’t work here, because it will lapse upon your mother’s death. However, note that any asset held by joint owners are subject to the creditors of each joint owner. Do not add your daughter as a joint owner, if she has marital, financial, or legal problems!

You also shouldn’t put your name as a joint owner of a brokerage account—especially one with low-cost basis investments. One of the benefits of transferring wealth, is the step-up in cost basis assets receive at time of death. Being named as the joint owner of an account will give you control over the assets in the account—but you won’t get the step up in basis, when your mother passes.

Reference: Monterey Herald (March 20, 2019) “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Advance Health Care Directive, Capacity, Revocable Living Trust, Asset Protection, Probate Court, Inheritance, Power of Attorney, IRA, 401(k), Pension, Joint Tenancy, TOD (Transfer on Death), POD (Payable on Death), Life Insurance, Beneficiary Designations, Step-up Basis

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Must I File Taxes When My Dad Dies?

Generally, when someone passes away, the final individual federal and state tax return must be prepared and filed in the same way as when they were alive, says nj.com, in the recent article, “What tax returns need to be filed after someone dies?”

All of the income starting at the beginning of the year up to the individual’s date of death, must be reported on the tax return. All of the tax deductions and tax credits that the person was entitled to may be claimed. This final return is typically filed by the surviving spouse or by the executor of the individual’s estate.

The final return can be either electronically filed or filed on paper. The tax preparer should also be sure to write “deceased” after the taxpayer’s name and include the date of death, so that the IRS knows that this will be the last individual return filed.

However, at the death of a taxpayer, a new taxpaying entity—the taxpayer’s estate—is automatically created to make certain that no taxable income escapes review by the IRS. Income that’s earned during the tax year, up to the date of the person’s death, is reported on the final individual tax return, and any earnings after that date are taxable to the decedent’s estate. Earned income of the estate is any income for which the decedent was entitled to during the year that occurred after the date of death. This could include any dividends or interest from stock or bond investments held in the decedent’s name that was collected between the date of death and the end of the calendar year.

In addition, beneficiaries of assets paid directly to them outside of probate, like IRAs already in distribution mode or life insurance policies, may be subject to what is called “income in respect of a decedent,” or IRD. Two things must apply for this to occur: (i) the asset earns interest before the balance is transferred or paid to the beneficiaries; and (ii) the interest isn’t reported on the deceased taxpayer’s final tax return. If both of these occur, then beneficiaries are responsible for reporting IRD on their own tax returns.

The deceased father’s estate may then also need to file returns, so talk to an estate planning attorney to be certain that everything is correct.

Reference: nj.com (March 21, 2018) “What tax returns need to be filed after someone dies?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Income in Respect of a Decedent, IRD, Executor, Probate Court, Tax Planning, Probate Attorney, Estate Tax

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Don’t Wait to Purchase This Type of Insurance

Insurance is a tool that is necessary to protect yourself and your loved ones. Long-term care insurance and life insurance are often offered by employers as part of your benefits package. However, as discussed in the article “What Is Critical Illness Insurance” from the balance, this additional insurance could make a big difference in your family’s financial well-being. Before making any decisions, it’s important to understand the role of critical insurance.

Critical illness insurance, which is also known as critical care insurance, is a type of insurance policy that pays insurance policyowners with a lump sum payment, after they are diagnosed with a specific type of illness that is listed on their insurance policy. This insurance may also be structured to make serial payments, based on the policyowner’s ongoing medical treatments or condition.

Some critical coverages are very limited and only cover a handful of illnesses, while others can provide coverage for as many as thirty different conditions.

Like any kind of insurance policy, it’s important to read the fine print. There will likely be conditions attached to getting a cash payout. Do the research before signing up.

Some critical illness policies cover the portion of the cost of any diagnostic or screening tests for a condition. If you have regular colonoscopies, for instance, and you own a cancer policy, it is possible that the unreimbursed portion of your procedure could be covered by the critical illness policy. A good policy could work for you during your entire healthy life, as well as during a critical illness.

Some of the critical illness policies provide an option to combine critical illnesses coverage with additional life insurance, accident or disability insurance. If you want to maximize coverage and avoid having to manage a few different insurance policies, this may work for you. Again, read the fine print. You don’t want to put all your insurance eggs in one basket, only to find that the conditions are counter-productive to your coverage goals.

Critical illness insurance usually comes with a list of illnesses that are included in the policy. Each one will have very specific criteria that will define whether you qualify for a benefit payment. There are cases where people may think they have coverage because of a diagnosis, only to learn that they have not met the specific criteria.

Deciding whether you need critical illness insurance, in addition to your employee benefits, is a personal decision. If you are paying several hundred dollars a month for many years and never become ill, then you may not consider the money well spent. However, if you receive a diagnosis of a critical illness and you receive a large payout, you’ll be glad to have the coverage.

Another option is to put the same amount of money into a health savings account. However, there’s no way to be sure that the account will grow enough to cover the expense of a major, life-changing illness.

Reference: the balance (March 11, 2019) “What Is Critical Illness Insurance”

Suggested Key Terms: Insurance, Long-Term Care, Life, Critical Illness, Health Savings Account, Diagnosis

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How to Be Smart about an Inheritance

While there’s no one way that is right for everyone, there are some basic considerations about receiving a large inheritance that apply to almost anyone. According to the article “What should you do with an inheritance?” from The Rogersville Review, the size of the inheritance could make it possible for you to move up your retirement date. Just be mindful that it is very easy to spend large amounts of money very quickly, especially if this is a new experience.

Here are some ways to consider using an inheritance:

Get rid of your debt load. Car loans, credit cards and most school loans are at higher rates than you can get from any investments. Therefore, it makes sense to use at least some of your inheritance to get rid of this expensive debt. Some people believe that it’s best to not have a mortgage, since now there are limits to deductions. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, since you’ll have less flexibility if you need cash.

Contribute more to retirement accounts. If the inheritance gives you a little breathing room in your regular budget, it’s a good idea to increase your contributions to an employer-sponsored 401(k) or another plan, as well as to your personal IRA. Remember that this money grows tax-free and it is possible you’ll need it.

Start college funding. If your financial plan includes helping children or even grandchildren attend college, you could use an inheritance to open a 529 account. This gives you tax benefits and considerable flexibility in distributing the money. Every state has a 529 account program and it’s easy to open an account.

Create or reinforce an emergency fund. A recent survey found that most Americans don’t have emergency funds. Therefore, a bill for more than $400 would be difficult for them to pay. Use your inheritance to create an emergency fund, which should have six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses. Put the money into a liquid, low-risk account, so that you can access it easily if necessary. This way you don’t tap into long-term funds.

Review your estate plan. Anytime you have a large life event, like the death of a parent or an inheritance, it’s time to review your estate plan. Depending upon the size of the estate, there may be some tax liabilities you’ll need to deal with. You may also want to set some of the assets aside in trust for children or grandchildren. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with experienced counsel on the use of the inheritance for you and future generations.

Reference: The Rogersville Review (March 21, 2019) “What should you do with an inheritance?”

Suggested Key Terms: Inheritance, Financial Goals, Debt, Credit Cards, Mortgage, Student Loan, Trusts, Estate Planning

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Wills v. Trusts: What’s Right for You?

It’s a good idea to take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan to take care of your estate — no matter if it’s a condo apartment and a housecat or a big house and lots of money in the bank — just in case something unexpected occurs tomorrow. That’s the advice from AZ Big Media in the article “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts.”

Estate planning is the area of the law that focuses on the disposition of assets and expenses, when a person dies. The goal is to take care of the “business side” of life while you are living, so your family and loved ones don’t have to pick up the pieces after you are gone. It’s much more expensive, time-consuming and stressful for the survivors to do this after death, than it is if you plan in advance.

You have likely heard the words “trust” and “will” as part of estate planning. What are the differences between the two, and how do you know which one you need?

A will is the most commonly used legal document for leaving instructions about your property after you die. It is also used to name an executor — the person who will be in charge of your assets, their distribution, paying taxes and any estate expenses after you die. The will is very important, if you have minor children. This is how you will name guardians to raise your children, if something unexpected occurs to you and your partner, spouse or co-parent. The will is also the document you use to name the person who you would like to care for your pets, if you have any.

Burial instructions are not included in wills, since the will is not usually read for weeks or sometimes months after a person passes. It’s also not the right way to distribute funds that have been taken care of through the use of beneficiary designations or joint ownership on accounts or assets.

Another document used in estate planning is a trust. There are many different types of trusts, from revocable trusts, which you control as long as you are alive, and irrevocable trusts, which are controlled by trustees. There are too many to name in one article, but if there is something that needs to be accomplished in an estate plan, there’s a good chance there is a special trust designed to do it. An estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you need a trust, and what purpose it will serve.

Trusts can be used by anyone with assets or property.

A will can be a very simple document. It requires proper formats and formalities to ensure that it is valid. If you try to do this on your own, your heirs will be the ones to find out if you have done it properly.  If it is not done correctly, the court will deem it invalid and your estate will be “intestate,” that is, without a will.

Many people believe that they should put all their assets into a trust to avoid probate. In some cases, this may be useful. However, there are many states where probate is not an onerous process, and this is not the reason for setting up trusts.

A trust won’t eliminate taxes completely, nor will it eliminate the need for any estate administration. However, it may make passing certain assets to another person or another generation easier. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through this process.

Whether you use a will or a trust, or as is most common, a combination of the two, you need an estate plan that includes other documents, including power of attorney and health care power of attorney. These two particular documents are used while you are living, so that someone you name can make financial decisions (power of attorney) and medical health decisions (health care power of attorney) if you should become incapacitated, through illness or injury.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. Every person’s situation is a little different, and an estate planning attorney will create an estate plan that works for you and protects your family.

Reference: AZ Big Media (March 21, 2019) “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Plan, Will, Trusts, Power of Attorney, Health Care, Incapacitated, Executor

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What Taxes Do I Owe When I Inherit My Dad’s House?

After the last surviving parent passes away, the estate may sell his home. The proceeds are then divided up, pursuant to the directions set out in the will. If children are the heirs, they may split the funds among themselves. However, what are the tax consequences?

nj.com’s recent article asks: “I inherited my father’s home. Do I owe any kind of taxes?”

The article explains that the federal estate and gift tax exemption amount is now $11.4 million. In New Jersey, residents who die on or after January 1, 2018 are no longer subject to a New Jersey estate tax and children are exempt from the inheritance tax. There is also, however, the question of income taxation.

The proceeds from the sale of the house will be subject to income tax. However, it’s unlikely that a person would incur the tax, because income tax is paid on the difference between the sales price and the basis of the asset, minus costs of the sale.

“Basis” is generally defined as the purchase price, plus the cost of improvements.

Assets owned by a decedent receive a “step-up” or a “step-down” in basis to the value, as of the date of death.

This means that a sibling inheriting a parent’s home and then selling it, would only be taxed on the difference between the sales price and the value at the date of death, less selling costs, assuming the parent owned 100% of the home at the time of his death.

If this difference between date of death and sale values is substantial, the adult child would incur a tax, typically at capital gains rates. However, as a general rule, there’s little or no gain to tax.

Be sure to keep evidence of the date of death value of the parent’s home, in case there’s an income tax audit down the road.

Reference: nj.com (March 11, 2019) “I inherited my father’s home. Do I owe any kind of taxes?”

Suggested Key Terms: Tax Planning, Income Tax, Estate Tax, Gift Tax, Basis

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When Should I Claim Social Security?

It’s kind of hard to know exactly when you should file—even if you only consider age (which you shouldn’t). You can take your benefits as early as 62. However, the earlier you claim, the less you’ll get. You can delay until 70 and you’ll get 8% more for each year you wait past your full retirement age.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Social Security Timing Should Be Part of Larger Financial Plan,” notes that some people don’t have much choice and claim at 62, because they need the money. In addition, there’s the question of whether Social Security will be solvent, when it’s time for you to start collecting. There are also those who really don’t give it much thought. They’re tired of working and file before their full retirement age.

Most people like to think there’s some magical calculation that will give them their exact “break-even point,” so they don’t claim too soon or wait too late. You can find this by using calculators provided at www.ssa.gov/planners/calculators/ and www.aarp.org/tools/.

There are several factors that can greatly impact what you, as an individual, actually receive. Consider these points to help you make a smarter decision about when to file:

Health and family history. If you’re unhealthy or have a family history of some illness, you may want to retire and take your benefits as early as possible. However, if you’re healthy and/or most of your family members have had a long life, you may want to delay filing and get the maximum benefit to see you through, what could be a decades-long retirement.

Spouse. If you’re married, one of your primary concerns is what will happen to your spouse, if you die first. When one spouse dies, the lower of the two Social Security payments is eliminated. If you have a pension, based on which survivorship option you choose at retirement, he or she also could lose that income. Therefore, it’s critical to maximize the higher earner’s benefit when possible, especially if Social Security will be a major part of that income. If the higher earner in the family is one with a poor family history of longevity, you should plan early, if delaying is not an option and you have to claim a smaller benefit.

Taxes. The IRS measures your “provisional income” to determine whether you must pay taxes on your benefits. It’s calculated by adding your adjusted gross income, any tax-free interest you received and half of your Social Security benefits. If the sum is more than the designated threshold ($25,000 and up annually for singles, and $32,000 and up for those married filing jointly), based on your filing status, your Social Security benefits could be taxed up to 50% to 85%. If you’re receiving Social Security and withdrawing from your IRA at the same time, you may pay more in taxes. You might want to wait to claim and withdraw from your tax-deferred accounts at a lower rate.

Other assets. Before you decide to delay claiming to save on taxes or to get a higher Social Security payment in the future, be certain you have enough income to cover your current expenses without drawing too much from your retirement savings. You’ll want to leave some money there to keep growing, in case you need it later in retirement.

Your legacy. If leaving behind something for your children is a priority, you could use your Social Security income for that purpose. You could claim your benefits (which they can’t inherit) and leave more in your IRA (which they can). Or, if you are wealthy and don’t need Social Security to support your lifestyle, you could might claim your Social Security benefits and use that money to purchase life insurance.

Remember that your Social Security filing decision should not be made in a vacuum, but should be an important part of an overall financial plan.

Take your time, think it through and get some help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 15, 2019) “Social Security Timing Should Be Part of Larger Financial Plan”

Suggested Key Terms: Financial Planning, Retirement Planning, Social Security, Elder Care, Life Insurance

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What is a Life Estate?

The question of a life estate may arise, when adult children are discussing the possibility of moving a parent into an assisted-living facility and selling the family home.

The Spokesman-Review’s recent article asks: “Does a life estate have cash value?”

The article explains that a life estate is a form of co-ownership. A person’s interest in property is limited to his life, with the property passing to other recipients at his death. The person who holds the life estate is called a life tenant, and those who receive the property at the death of the life tenant are called remaindermen.

The life tenant and the remaindermen both have real interests in the property, but unlike other partnerships or other forms of co-ownership, the life tenant and remaindermen don’t have rights in the property at the same time. Only the life tenant has a current right to possession. The remaindermen’s interest doesn’t become activated, until the death of the life tenant.

A life estate is an actual form of ownership, rather than a right to use. The life tenant—in many cases the parent—“owns” the house until her death. The parent will need to pay the taxes and keep the property in reasonable condition. The life tenant could sell the property, but the buyer would only have rights until she dies. There would be few people who would ever buy the property. No lender would loan mom money against the property because their interest would go away when the life tenant died.

But there is a value to a life estate, and upon sale, the life tenant must be compensated for the sale of their interest. Life estates are valued using the age of the life tenant and the present fair market value of the property.

Although life estates typically end when the life tenant (or another specified person) dies, some specify conditions that can trigger termination. These would cause the life estate to be terminated, even though the life tenant is still alive and well. For example, a life estate may terminate, if the life tenant leaves the home for more than six months. The actual life estate document details any conditional limits that define when the life estate terminates.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a life estate makes sense for your situation, or if there are alternative strategies that would be better suited.

Reference: The Spokesman-Review (March 17, 2019) “Does a life estate have cash value?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Life Estate, Life Tenant, Remaindermen, Inheritance

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What Happens to Social Security when Your Spouse Dies?

Mary is right to be concerned. She is worried about what will happen with their Social Security checks, who she needs to notify at their bank, how to obtain death certificates and how complicated it will be for her to obtain widow’s benefits. Many answers are provided in the article “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies” from Tuscon.com.

First, what happens to the Social Security monthly benefits? Social Security benefits are always one month behind. The check you receive in March, for example, is the benefit payment for February.

Second, Social Security benefits are not prorated. If you took benefits at age 66, and then turned 66 on September 28, you would get a check for the whole month of September, even though you were only 66 for three days of the month.

If your spouse dies on January 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that January Social Security check, even though he or she was alive for 28 days of the month.

Therefore, when a spouse dies, the monies for that month might have to be returned. The computer-matching systems linking the government agencies and banks may make this unnecessary, if the benefits are not issued. Or, if the benefits were issued, the Treasury Department may simply interrupt the payment and return it to the government, before it reaches a bank account.

There may be a twist, depending upon the date of the decedent’s passing. Let’s say that Henry dies on April 3. Because he lived throughout the entire month of March, that means the benefits for March are due, and that is paid in April. Once again, it depends upon the date and it is likely that even if the check is not issued or sent back, it will eventually be reissued. More on that later.

Obtaining death certificates is usually handled by the funeral director, or the city, county or state bureaus of vital statistics. You will need more than one original death certificate for use with banks, investments, etc. The Social Security office may or may not need one, as they may receive proof of death from other sources, including the funeral home.

A claim for widow’s or widower’s benefits must be made in person. You can call the Social Security Administrator’s 800 number or contact your local Social Security office to make an appointment. What you need to do, will depend upon the kind of benefits you had received before your spouse died.

If you had only received a spousal benefit as a non-working spouse and you are over full retirement age, then you receive whatever your spouse was receiving at the time of his or her death. If you were getting your own retirement benefits, then you have to file for widow’s benefits. It’s not too complicated, but you’ll need a copy of your marriage certificate.

Widow’s benefits will begin effective on the month of your spouse’s death. If your spouse dies on June 28, then you will be due widow’s benefits for the entire month of June, even if you were only a widow for three days of the month. Following the example above, where the proceeds of a check were withdrawn, those proceeds will be sent to your account. Finally, no matter what type of claim you file, you will also receive a one-time $255 death benefit.

Reference: Tuscon.com (March 13, 2019) “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies”

Suggested Key Terms: Social Security, Benefits, Widow, Widower, Full Retirement Age, Death Certificate

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Should Pets Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

Most of us don’t have the luxury (or the need) to leave our pets $12 million, but to make sure that our pets are cared for, having a legally enforceable trust for a pet, which is allowed in New York State, can provide peace of mind. That is part of the answer to the question posed by the Times Herald-Record in the article “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

A will is a document used in a court proceeding called probate, if you die with assets that are only in your name. When the will goes through probate, it becomes a public document. A trust, on the other hand, is a document that does not become part of the public record, unless it was created under a will. Some people use trusts for their beloved pets, to pay for their care and maintain their lifestyle. Some pets lead fancier lives than others!

Most people leave the care of pets in the hands of friends or relatives and hope for the best. Visit any animal shelter and you’ll see the animals whose owners could not take care of them, or whose friends or family members intended to take care of them, but for whatever reasons, could not care for them. Putting a pet trust into your estate plan, is a better way to care for pets, if you outlive them.

The pet trust has several steps, and an estate planning attorney will be able to set it up for you. First, you need to appoint a trustee of the trust funds. This person is in charge of the financial aspect of the trust, from paying vet bills, making sure pet health insurance premiums are paid, to providing money for the caretaker to buy supplies. It’s a good idea to have a secondary trustee, just in case.

Next, you name a caretaker of the pet. This person can be the same as the trustee, although it may be better to name a different person, to create some checks and balances on the funds. You can, if you like, give the trustee the right to appoint a caregiver or a back-up caregiver. Make sure you discuss all of these details with the trustee and the caregiver and their back-ups to be sure that everyone understands their roles, and all are willing to take on these responsibilities. Some pets can live a long time, and you want to have everyone understand what they are undertaking.

Third, you’ll need to designate the amount of money to be held in trust for the pets for medical care, daily living costs and support until the pet dies. Don’t forget to include the cost of burial or cremation.

Finally, name the persons or organizations you wish to receive any remaining funds.

An informal letter of instruction to both the trustee and the caregiver would be very helpful. Provide details on the pet’s personality, quirky behavior, preferences for food, treats, play and any information that will help all the parties get along well. You should also provide information on your pet’s vet, any registration numbers for microchips, medical and dental records, medications, etc.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (March 9, 2019) “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

Suggested Key Terms: Pet Trusts, Estate Plan, Inheritance

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