Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

It’s a bit of a strange thought, but occasionally there are reasons for people not to want their inheritance.  They may have expected the money to go to someone else and want to facilitate that, they may feel they have enough money and want it to pass to someone else, or perhaps they are concerned about taxes.  Whatever, the reason, no one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid for at least most tax purposes, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.  Basically, you can’t receive the assets, and then decide to give them back as though you didn’t want them in the first place.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. Instead, the property will go to whomever would have received had you predeceased the decedent.  That might be many individuals, so it is important to understand to whom the property will go if you disclaim.  It might be based upon the trust or will that named you originally, a beneficiary designation on a financial asset or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

Persons with disabilities who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.  Now, some states will consider a disclaimer a transfer for government benefits, meaning you may lose the benefits anyway.  So, the best solution is to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible how to handle such an inheritance.

A supplemental needs trusts may be a good solution so the beneficiary with a disability can receive the inheritance without loss of benefits.  You can see more on SNTs here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-special-needs-trusts-work/  

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.  So, if you want to consider a disclaimer, definitely speak to a qualified attorney who can assist you with the process.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

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Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

Clients often, sometimes at the suggestion of their bankers, add names onto accounts to make money accessible upon the incapacity or death of a parent.  This often leads them to assume they don’t need a Power of Attorney (POA), and they don’t realize that Powers of Attorney are designed to permit access to accounts upon incapacity of a parent. There are some pros and cons of doing this in either way, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.  This is usually what individuals are thinking of when they create these accounts.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.  As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.  You can see the following article for more on this point.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/effect-of-adding-someone-to-your-bank-account/

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account may pass to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

It also avoids the creation of a gift, which may have estate tax or Medicaid ramifications.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.  I worked closing on a case with the opposite scenario, a creditor a parent collected money that otherwise would have gone to the children.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

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