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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Protect Assets from Medicaid Recovery

Medicaid is a government program used by Americans to pay long-term care, typically for nursing homes or in-home care.   What some people don’t realize is that Medicaid seeks reimbursement for money spent on someone’s behalf after they pass away.  The Medicaid Estate Recovery Program (MERP) is used to recoup costs paid toward long term care, so that the program can be more affordable for the government, says the article “What is Medicaid Estate Recovery?” from kake.com. Beneficiaries of Medicaid recipients are often surprised to learn that this impacts them directly, and are even more surprised that you can protect assets from Medicaid recovery with some planning.

Medicare was created to help pay for healthcare costs of Americans once they reach age 65. It covers many different aspects of healthcare expenses, but not costs for long-term or nursing home care. That is the role of Medicaid.

Medicaid helps pay the costs of long-term care for aging seniors. It is used when a person has not purchased long-term health care insurance or does not have enough money to pay for long-term care out of their own funds.  Medicaid is sometimes used by individuals who have taken steps to protect their assets in advance by using trusts or other estate planning tools.  See here for more detail.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/can-i-afford-in-home-elderly-care/

The Medicaid Estate Recovery program allows Medicaid to be reimbursed for costs that include the costs of staying in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, home and community-based services, medical services received through a hospital when the person is a long-term care patient and prescription drug services for long-term care recipients.

When the recipient passes away, Medicaid is allowed to pursue assets from the estate. In fact, Federal law requires the states to have such a program.  Now, this is critical to recognize, but the scope of Medicaid varies widely between what state provided the benefits.  For the most part it means any assets that would be subject to the probate process after the recipient passes. That may include bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, or other real property.  Texas Medicaid recovery is happily limited to the estate.  So, there are many options to protect assets from Medicaid recovery in Texas.

In some states, recovery may be made from assets that are not subject to probate: jointly owned bank accounts between spouses, payable on death bank accounts, real estate owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship, living trusts and any assets a Medicaid recipient has an interest in.

An estate planning attorney will know what assets Medicaid can use for recovery and how to protect the family from being financially devastated.

While it is true that Medicaid can’t take your home or assets before the recipient passes, it is legal for Medicaid to have a claim to assets before the beneficiaries, similar to the way other creditors of a decedent must be satisfied before beneficiaries receive property.  Let’s say your mother needs to move into a nursing home. If she dies, you’ll have to satisfy Medicaid’s claim before you can take possession or will pay the claim as part of a sale.

Strategic planning can be done in advance by the individual who may need Medicaid in the future. One way to do this is to purchase long-term care insurance, which is the strategy of personal responsibility. Another is removing assets from the probate process. Married couples can make that sure all assets are owned jointly with right of survivorship, or to purchase an annuity that transfers to the surviving spouse, when the other spouse passes away.

In most cases we can advance clients on how to change the the titling of their accounts to protect assets from Medicaid recovery before the person passes away.  We may also be able to create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust, which may remove assets from being counted for eligibility.

As a final point, clients often encounter the medicaid claim in the estate, which is the first time an attorney is involved in the process.  Now, you may not have the same options to protect assets from Medicaid recovery because you’ll have lost prospective planning, but their are exceptions to recovery and ways to defend against the claim.  They are all very time sensitive however, so you should reach out to an attorney immediately upon encountering them.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to learn how to prepare for yourself or your parent’s future needs. The earlier the planning begins, the better chances of successfully protecting the family.

Reference: kake.com (Feb. 6, 2021) “What is Medicaid Estate Recovery?”

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How Does a Charitable Trust Work?

Charitably-inclined clients often utilize charitable trusts as they give to charities while providing income and estate tax benefits.

A charitable trust can provide an alternative to meeting your wishes for charities and your loved ones, while serving to minimize tax liabilities. Attorneys often utilize them for charitably-inclined clients to reduce estate tax or capital gains tax on assets directed to the the charitable trust. There are pros and cons to consider, according to a recent article titled “Here’s how to create a charitable trust as part of an estate plan” from CNBC. Many families are considering their tax planning for the next few years, aware that the individual income tax rates may go up in the near future, as well as anticipating a drop in the estate tax exclusion amount.  Although the values will be changing, you can see this article for a decent overview of the estate tax itself.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-exactly-is-the-estate-tax/

Creating a charitable trust may work to achieve wishes for charities, as well as loved ones.

Speaking very generally, a charitable trust is a set of assets held in a trust to benefit a charity, or possibly a charitable foundation created by the donor, for a period of time.  The time could be very short term for income tax benefits, or much longer term for estate tax benefits. The assets are then managed by the charity for a specific period of time, with some or all of the interest the assets produce benefitting the charity.When the period of time ends, the assets, now called the remainder, can go to heirs or even kept by the charity (although they are usually returned to heirs).

A charitable trust allows you to give generously to an organization that has meaning to you, while providing a generous tax break for you and your heirs. However, to achieve this, the charitable trust must be irrevocable, so you can’t change your mind once it’s set in place.

Charitable trusts provide a way to ensure current or future distributions to you or to your loved ones, depending on your unique circumstances and goals.

The two main types are Charitable Remainder Trusts and Charitable Lead Trusts. Your estate planning attorney will determine which one, if any, is appropriate for you and your family.

A Charitable Remainder Trust, or CRT, provides an income stream either to you or to individuals you select for a set period of time, which is typically your lifetime, your spouse’s lifetime, or the lifetimes of your beneficiaries.  The remaining assets are ultimately distributed to one or more charities.

By contrast, the Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) pays income to one or more charities for a set term, and the remaining assets pass to individuals, such as heirs.

For CRTs and CLTs, the annual distribution during the initial term can happen in two ways; a Unitrust (CRUT or CLUT) or an Annuity Trust (CRAT or CLAT).

In a Unitrust, the income distribution for the coming year is calculated at the end of each calendar year and it changes, as the value of the trust increases or decreases.

In an Annuity Trust, the distribution is a fixed annual distribution determined as a percentage of the initial funding value and does not change in future years.

Interest rates are a key element in determining whether to use a CLT or a CRT. Right now, with interest rates at historically low levels, a CRT yields minimal income.  The key benefits to a CRT include income tax deductions, avoidance of capital gains taxation, annual income and a wish to support nonprofit organizations.

Your estate planning attorney can work with you to determine whether a charitable trust  will serve your charitable strategy and achieves your goals of supporting the charity and building your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 22, 2020) “Here’s how to create a charitable trust as part of an estate plan”

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