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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How Does a Special Needs Trust Work?

Special Needs Trusts hold assets for an individual using government benefits to provide for them without losing the benefits.

Clients uses trusts for a lot of reasons, including probate avoidance, creditor protection, privacy and smooth and efficient estate administration.   Some trusts, such as Special Needs Trusts (aka Supplemental Needs Trusts) are used specifically to maintain government benefits for the beneficiary while still providing for their needs.  Not using the right type of trust can lead to financial devastation explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

The purpose of a Special Needs Trust is to help people because they have a disability and are or may be supported by government benefits.  Most of these benefits are means-tested, meaning, a beneficiary’s eligibility is dependent upon their income, assets or potentially both.  The rules regarding the benefits are very strict. An inheritance may disqualify a person with a disability from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

However, clients may still want to provide for that loved one, and the Special Needs Trust is the way to do it.  The value of assets placed in a Special Needs Trust does not count against the benefits.  However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds on a discretionary basis.  Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge should be ready to work with competent advisors who are familiar with the government programs and benefits and who can advise the trustee of the consequences of disbursements.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy.  What’s more, children who try to provide for their parents often don’t consider that their parents may require governmental assistance at the end of their lives such as long term Medicaid.  Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to an individual with disabilities, and in fact, good planning suggests including contingent Special Needs Trusts in your estate planning documents.  After all, a loved one might not have a disability when you create your estate plan, but they might by the time they receive from your estate plan.

An experienced elder law or estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family and can advise you how to include such planning in your estate documents.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

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Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing for an estate planning meeting involves considering who you want to benefit, what you own and who is in charge of the processes.

Long ago when I first started doing Kevin’s Korners on Facebook and YouTube, I asked viewers for ideas on topics.  I expected to hear suggestions on how to administer estates, what is probate or complicated tax questions.  Instead, the first response, which was repeated by others, was what is the first step in making an estate plan.  What is the process to begin.  To put it another way, what to consider when preparing for an estate planning meeting.

So, for this blog I wanted to cover some topics and thoughts on preparing for the first meeting with an estate planning attorney.  Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.  So with that, here are some issues to consider when preparing for an estate planning meeting.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should get you started in the right direction.  You can see here for the Kevin’s Korner video as well.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2M_-tBoSiU 

Minor Children Need Guardians. In most states, families with minor children need to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. You do not want your family, or a Court, to guess what your wishes are in this regard.

Agents, Trustees, and Executors (Fiduciaries). A key component of an estate plan is who is in charge of the process, who executes your wishes or speaks for you if you can’t.  These roles, generally called your fiduciaries, are different depending on what task they need to accomplish and which legal document gives them that authority. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.  You also always want to consider back-ups should your first choices not be available.

Living Will and Medical Decision-Making. If you are unable to communicate your own medical wishes, an agent can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Significant Property. Any items of significant property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be considered specifically. This is helpful to avoid  squabbles over sentimental pieces of property, large or small.  Valuable or important property such as the home or business should be considered specifically to avoid delay, costs or other hazards that might affect their value or operation.

Beneficiaries.  This is probably the most obvious issue, but you should consider who will receive your property and in what manner.  For example, you might consider whether to leave your property outright to a beneficiary or put it in a trust to obtain various benefits.  You should consider if you want to take care of as much of your estate plan now as possible to make it easier for your loved ones later.  This is the decision of whether to utilize a will or a trust.  See here for a helpful guide.   https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/  You also should be familiar with the titling of your assets (your name, your and your kids’ names and so on) as well as which assets have beneficiary designations (life insurance and retirement funds are common examples) so that the assets coordinate with your plan.

You should also consider if there are any particular issues with your beneficiaries to be addressed.  For example, minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases- but that is hardly a prudent age to leave someone a windfall.  You can consider the use of a trust to delay the receipt of the property to a more reasonable age.  Similarly, you might want to create asset protection or divorce protection for your beneficiaries and can utilize trusts to help you accomplish that goal.  If you have a loved one with disabilities, you should consider what their needs are and are likely to be in the future.  What kind of resources do they need if you aren’t able to provide for them and where do they get that support.   As a final thought, if you are charitably minded, your estate plan is a great way to make charitable gifts and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Once you’ve considered the above in preparing for an estate planning meeting, you’ll have an idea of what your estate planning goals are.  That way, your meeting with a competent estate planning attorney will focus on how to accomplish those goals and you can discuss which documents are necessary to do so.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

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