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?”

Continue ReadingHow to Claim and Use Life Insurance

Five IRA Rollover Mistakes to Avoid

Making a mistake when rolling your 401(k) to an IRA could result in unexpected taxes and possible penalties.
Making a mistake when rolling your 401(k) to an IRA could result in unexpected taxes and possible penalties.

Recent changes in the job market have led to an increase in IRA rollovers, but at the same time, people are making more mistakes when transferring their employer related retirement accounts to an IRA, reports The Wall Street Journal in a recent article, “The Biggest Mistake People Make With IRA Rollovers.” These IRA rollover mistakes may result in additional taxes and penalties.

Done properly, rolling funds from a 401(k) to a traditional IRA offers you more flexibility and control. A company retirement plan may limit you to a half-dozen or so investment choices; but, depending on the IRA custodian, the IRA owner may choose investment options ranging from stocks and bonds to mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, certificates of deposits or annuities.

However, if you are considering rolling over an employer related retirement plan to an IRA, make sure to avoid these common IRA rollover mistakes:

Mistake #1:  Taking a lump-sum distribution of the 401(k) funds instead of moving the funds directly to an IRA custodian. The clock starts ticking when you do what’s called an “indirect rollover.” Miss the 60-day deadline and the amount is considered a distribution, included as gross income and taxable. If you’re younger than 59½, you might also get hit with a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

There is an exception: if you are an employee with highly appreciated stock of the company that you are leaving in your 401(k), it’s considered a “Net Unrealized Appreciation,” or NUA. In this case, you may take the lump-sum distribution and pay taxes at the ordinary income-tax rate, but only on the cost basis, or the adjusted original value, of the stock. The difference between the cost basis and the current market value is the NUA, and you can defer the tax on the difference until you sell the stock.

Mistake #2:  Not realizing when you do an indirect rollover, your workplace plan administrator will usually withhold 20% of your account and send it to the IRS as pre-payment of federal income tax on the distribution. This will happen even if your plan is to immediately transfer the money into an IRA. If too much tax was withheld, you’ll get a refund from the IRS.

Mistake #3:  Rolling over funds from a 401(k) to an IRA before taking a Required Minimum Distribution or RMD. If you’re required to take an RMD for the year that you are receiving the distribution (age 72 and over), neglecting this will result in an excess contribution, which could be subject to a 6% penalty.

Mistake #4:   Rolling funds from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA and neglecting to pay taxes immediately. If you move money from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, it’s a conversion and taxes are due when you make the transfer. However, if you have some after-tax dollars left in the 401(k), you can make a tax-free distribution of those funds to a Roth IRA.

Mistake #5:  Not knowing the limits when moving funds from one IRA to another, if you do a 60-day rollover. The general rule is this: you are allowed to do only one distribution from an IRA to another IRA within a 12-month period. Make more than one distribution and it’s considered taxable income. Tack on a 10% penalty, if you’re under 59½.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 1, 2021) “The Biggest Mistake People Make With IRA Rollovers”

Continue ReadingFive IRA Rollover Mistakes to Avoid