How to Claim and Use Life Insurance

Many people have life insurance, and they have it for a multitude of reasons.  These include funeral costs, liquidity in an estate, help paying off taxes and so on.  Whatever your reason for having it, I wanted to talk about how to make a claim on it, and separately, what to do with it once you have.  You can see more at Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Is the Best Way for a Widow to Use Life Insurance Proceeds?”

When making a claim, you’ll need a couple of things.  First and foremost, perhaps blindly obvious, is that your beneficiaries need to know you have it.  If an insurance company becomes aware of a death they might reach out to named beneficiaries, but that is a big assumption.  So, your life insurance beneficiaries or whoever may claim the insurance needs to know it exists.

Holding that aside, the person entitled to the money will start by contacting the insurance company.  The company will send or direct that person on where to download a form to claim the insurance.  Beneficiaries typically need to provide proof of who they are, a death certificate for the insured (which in most places is issued within a few weeks of death) and other information about how to pay the insurance.  For example, some companies ask if you want to turn it into an investment fund at their financial institution, others arrange how to cut the check and so on.

It is worth noting that your executor or trustee won’t have the right to do this unless the estate or the trust is the beneficiary of the life insurance.  All told, the process typically takes something like 30 days.

Now, what to do with the insurance proceeds varies based upon the purpose and need of the life insurance.  I’m also going to assume for now that the insurance isn’t being paid to a trust which is designed to hold assets long term such as a descendant’s trusts.  That might have different concerns.

So, with that said, here are some ideas on how to use the life insurance.

Funeral Costs. Use life insurance money to cover these costs to decrease your financial strain.  Most funeral companies actually have you purchase a small insurance policy in order to prepay a funeral.

Ongoing Expenses. This is especially true when one spouse dies, but living expenses do not stop. Your income is frequently reduced. In fact, after the death of a spouse, household income generally declines by about 40% due to changes in Social Security benefits, spouse’s retirement income and earnings. The death benefit from a life insurance policy can help provide the funds you need to help cover your mortgage, car payment, utilities, food, clothing and health care premiums.

Debts. You are generally not personally responsible for paying off the debts of the decedent. However, when an estate does not have enough funds to pay all the debts, any gifts that were supposed to be paid out to beneficiaries will most likely be reduced. Note that you may be responsible for certain types of debt, such as debt that is jointly owned or a loan that you have co-signed. Talk to an experienced estate attorney to understand the laws of your state, so that you know where you stand concerning all debts.  By way of example, you have very few responsibilities to pay a decedent’s debts in Texas.

Taxes.  As a tie-in to debts, some people use life insurance to give an influx of liquidity to pay estate taxes.  This often helps when an estate is large due to real estate or businesses or other illiquid assets.  The IRS of course wants the tax paid in cash, so life insurance gives you the cash to do so without liquidating other assets.

Create an Emergency Fund. Life insurance can help build a liquid emergency fund, which should cover three to six months of expenses.

Supplement Your Retirement. When one spouse passes, the survivor becomes much more economically vulnerable. To retire, a person typically needs 80% of their preretirement income to live comfortably.  So, insurance provides and extra supplement to cover that need.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 17, 2021) “What Is the Best Way for a Widow to Use Life Insurance Proceeds?”

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Role of Insurance in Estate Planning

Insurance in estate planning addresses liquidity, tax concerns and is even a vehicle for affordable long term care coverage.

I often discuss life insurance when working with a client on their estate plan and the role of insurance in estate planning in general.  Some have term life insurance policies from when they are young, others whole life policies promoted to them as money available into late retirement, and even a few solely because of the tax benefits to life insurance.  It’s possible that life insurance may play a much bigger role in your estate planning than you might have thought, says a recent article in Kiplinger titled “Other Uses for Life Insurance You May Not Know About.”

If you own a life insurance policy, you’re in good company—just over 50% of Americans own a life insurance policy and more say they are interested in buying one. When the children have grown up and it feels like your retirement nest egg is big enough, you may feel like you don’t need the policy. However, don’t do anything fast—the policy may have far more utility than you think.

Tax benefits. The tax benefits of life insurance policies are even more valuable now than when you first made your purchase. Now that the SECURE Act has eliminated the Stretch IRA, most non-spouse beneficiaries must empty tax-deferred retirement accounts within ten years of the original owner’s death unless some other exception applies. Depending on how much is in the account and the beneficiary’s tax bracket, they could face an unexpected tax burden and quick demise to the benefits of the inherited account.

Life insurance proceeds are usually income tax free, making a life insurance policy an ideal way to transfer wealth to the next generation. For business owners, life insurance can be used to pay off business debt, fund a buy-sell agreement related to a business or an estate, or fund retirement plans.

Even more, life insurance is often a very good tool to pay estate taxes.  This is true for two reasons.  First, the tax has to be paid in dollars, so an infusion of cash from a life insurance policy provides funds to pay it without selling off other assets such as real estate or business interests.  Second, life insurance is an easy asset to include an irrevocable trust.  It would be held outside of your estate (thus doesn’t make your estate tax bill go up) and for most insurance you don’t need immediate access to it.  See here for more information:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-irrevocable-life-insurance-trust-why-should-you-have-one/

What about funding Long Term Care? Most Americans do not have long-term care insurance, which is potentially the most dangerous threat to their or their spouse’s retirement. The median annual cost for an assisted living facility is $51,600, and the median cost of a private room in a nursing home is more than $100,000. Long-term care insurance is not inexpensive, but long-term care is definitely expensive. Traditional LTC care insurance is not popular because of its cost, but long-term care is more costly. Some insurance companies offer life insurance with long-term care benefits. They can still provide a death benefit if the owner passes without having needed long-term care, but if the owner needs LTC, a certain amount of money or time in care is allotted.

Financial needs change over time, but the need to protect yourself and your loved ones as you age does not change. Speak with an estate planning attorney about the role of insurance in estate planning for you.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 21, 2021) “Other Uses for Life Insurance You May Not Know About”

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Common Mistakes when Making Beneficiary Designations

Beneficiary designation mistakes prevent assets such as retirement and life insurance accounts from going to the right beneficiaries.

No matter what kind of estate plan you use, your plan can be undone by some common mistakes when making beneficiary designations.  Modern banking and worker economics also means that a lot of your financial value, usually in retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s for example, are governed by beneficiary designations.  That means one mistake affects a huge portion of your financial worth.   Many events make it necessary to review beneficiary designations, as the author in the article “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make” from Kiplinger points out.

Now, there is no definitive guide on how to handle beneficiary designations.  The best solution is to review them with your estate planning attorney to ensure the designations fit your estate plan.  However, this article will cover some common mistakes that can undo even the best of estate plans.  You may also want to review some common estate planning mistakes as they somewhat overlap.  See here for more info:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-estate-planning-mistakes-do-people-make/ 

Life Changes.  Any time you experience a life change, including happy events, like marriage, birth or adoption, or unhappy events such as the death or disability of a loved one, you need to review your beneficiary designations.  If there are new people in your life you would like to leave a bequest to, like grandchildren or a charitable organization you want to support as part of your legacy, your beneficiary designations will need to reflect those as well.  A very common and likely very obvious mistake is to not review and update your beneficiary designations after one of those events.

For people who are married, their spouse is usually the primary beneficiary, but do you have a contingent? Beneficiary designations typically have multiple tiers.  The first person to receive is the primary beneficiary.  For married couples, this is typically the other spouse.  However, many clients forget to include contingent beneficiaries to receive if the primary is deceased.  Children are often contingent beneficiaries who receive the proceeds upon death if the primary beneficiary dies before or at the same time that you do.  But, a lack of a beneficiary is a big problem and many companies direct to the proceeds to your estate, which I’m guessing isn’t what you wanted.

It is also wise to notify any insurance company or retirement fund custodian about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you have properly named contingent beneficiaries, or even better, just update the beneficiary designation to remove the deceased beneficiary’s name.

Not understanding the financial institution’s terms.  Clients often ask what will happen if a named beneficiary of their retirement account dies.  Who does it go to next?  I always have the same answer, what do the account policies say?  For example, let’s say you’re married and have three adult children. The first beneficiary is your spouse, and your three children are contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say Sam has three children, Dolores has no children and James has two children, for a total of five grandchildren.

If both your spouse and James die before you do, all of the proceeds would pass to who?   It could be your two surviving children, and James’ two children would effectively be disinherited. That might not be what you would want. It is also possible that the assets go to the children of the predeceased child.

The difference between these are the difference of what are typically termed per stirpes and per capita.   Some companies allow you to indicate your preference, but not always.   So, you’ll need to speak with the company to better understand how their designations are ruled.

Not incorporating into your estate plan.  Finally, and I made this point briefly in the introduction, you want to coordinate your beneficiary designations and your estate plan.  For example, many clients utilize trusts for their beneficiaries to provide them creditor and divorce protection.  If your life insurance policy goes directly to your child, that money will not receive the creditor and divorce protection the trust affords.  So, arranging the beneficiary designations so that the insurance proceeds will go to that trust protects that money as well.

These are some common mistakes in making beneficiary designations.  Your estate planning attorney will help review all of your assets and means of distribution, so your wishes for your family are clear and effective.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 23, 2021) “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make”

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