Do TOD Accounts Mean I Don’t Need an Estate Plan?

Many people incorporate a TOD, or “Transfer on Death” into their financial plan, thinking it will be easier for their loved ones because it will avoid probate.  They often do this at the suggestion of bankers or financial professionals, and they believe it avoids the need for having a trust or even a will.  However, the article “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?” from Kiplinger explains how it really works.

The TOD account allows the account owner to name a beneficiary on an account who receives funds when the account owner dies. The TOD is often used for stocks, brokerage accounts, bonds and other non-retirement accounts, and is akin to having a beneficiary named on the account.  It’s worth pointing out that I’m using TOD as a general term here, the specific term might be different for different types of assets.  For example, a POD, or “Payable on Death,” account is usually used for bank assets—cash.  You can find more information about pitfalls of beneficiary designations here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/common-mistakes-made-on-beneficiary-designations/ 

The chief goal of a TOD or POD is to avoid probate. The beneficiaries receive assets directly, bypassing probate, keeping the assets out of the estate and transferring them faster than through probate. The beneficiary contacts the financial institution with an original death certificate and proof of identity.  The assets are then distributed to the beneficiary. Banks and financial institutions can be a bit exacting about determining identity, but most people have the needed documents.

There are pitfalls. For one thing, the executor of the estate may be empowered by law to seek contributions from POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay for the expenses of administering an estate, estate and final income taxes and any debts or liabilities of the estate. If the beneficiaries do not contribute voluntarily, the executor (or estate administrator) may file a lawsuit against them, holding them personally responsible, to get their contributions.

If the beneficiary has already spent the money, or they are involved in a lawsuit or divorce, turning over the TOD/POD assets may get complicated. Other personal assets may be attached to make up for a shortfall.

Very frequently, naming a TOD/POD beneficiary in an estate that otherwise expects to go through probate (i.e. a will-based estate plan) leads to having non-liquid assets such as a house which cost money to administer, and no money with which to do so.

If the beneficiary is receiving means-tested government benefits, as in the case of an individual with special needs, the TOD/POD assets may put their eligibility for those benefits at risk.  This is a very, very common problem when a loved one has a disability.

Very simply too, beneficiaries under TOD/POD accounts can predecease an owner with no meaningful way to handle contingencies.  If that happens, the asset will be subject to probate which will negate their advantage, and may not go to the proper beneficiaries.  Utilizing trusts can solve that problem.

These and other complications make using a POD/TOD arrangement riskier than expected.

A trust provides more benefit to the trustor (creator of the trust) and in fact can work in conjunction with TODs as part of a complete, integrated plan.  Trusts address control of assets upon incapacity because trustees will be in place to manage assets for the trustor’s benefit. With a TOD/POD, a Power of Attorney would be needed to allow the other person to control of the assets. The same banks reluctant to hand over a POD/TOD are even more strict about Powers of Attorney, even denying POAs, if they feel the forms are out-of-date or don’t have the state’s required language.  People often don’t think of trusts as part of incapacity planning, but this is often a benefit to a trust-based plan.

Similarly, trusts (whether an asset named the trust as beneficiary of a TOD/POD or if it owns the assets themselves) can address contingencies.  So, if a beneficiary has a disability, potential divorce, creditors, predeceases the owner, or virtually any other reason for them not to directly receive money, the trust can provide for what happens under all of those contingencies.

Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney allows you to plan for yourself and your beneficiaries, and if you chose to avoid probate, to do so in a way that will work for all of your assets and to avoid problems created by solely using TOD/POD accounts.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?”

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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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Do I have to Pay the Estate’s Debt?

People often have debts when they pass away such as credit cards and medical bills, but family shouldn’t pay those debts themselves outside of the estate.

When a family is grieving after the death of a loved one, the last thing any of them wants to deal with is unpaid debts and debt collectors.  But, sooner or later creditors must be dealt with, and one of the first questions clients ask is whether they have to pay the estate’s debt.

nj.com’s recent article asks “Is mom liable for my dead father’s credit card debt?” The answer: generally, any unpaid debts are paid from the deceased person’s estate, which means from the estate’s assets only.  In fact, fair collection laws require debt collectors to let you know that you aren’t responsible for that debt.

In many states, family members, including the surviving spouse, typically aren’t required to pay the debts from their own assets, unless they co-signed on the account or loan.  In other words, if they would have been liable for the debt themselves, they are still responsible.  If the debt belongs to the decedent, such as a creditor card they used, then only the estate is responsible to pay the debt.  There are a few potential exceptions, such as the IRS collecting estate income from anyone who benefits from the estate, but not many.

All the stuff that a person owns at the time of death, including everything from money in the bank to their possessions to debts they owe, is called an estate. When the deceased person has debt, the executor of the estate will go through the probate process.  There is a lot more to this process, see here for a fuller description.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/probate-dissolving-the-mystery/

During the probate process, all the deceased’s debts are paid off from the estate’s assets. Some assets—like retirement accounts, IRAs and life insurance proceeds—may pass outside of probate and aren’t included in the probate process. As a result, these assets may not be available to pay creditors. Other estate assets can be sold to pay off outstanding debts.

Now, this portion is very state specific sometimes with very specific requirements, so you should do it at the advice of an attorney.  A relative or the estate executor will typically notify any creditors, like credit card companies, when that person passes away. The creditor will then contact the executor about any balances due. Note: the creditor can’t add any additional fees, while the estate is being settled.  At this point, assuming there is enough money, the executor will pay the estate’s debt from estate assets.

If there’s not enough money in the estate to pay the estate’s debts, then the executor has a very important task.  Every state has an order of priority to satisfy debts such as administrative debts (attorney’s fees, accountant’s fees, court costs), priority debts and then general creditors.  Different states also have different rules about whether you have to satisfy one creditor to the exclusion of the other.  The executor, with the assistance of an attorney, should pay the estate’s debt according to that order of priority.  The executor and the heirs aren’t responsible for these debts and shouldn’t pay them. Unlike some debts, like a mortgage or a car loan, most debts aren’t secured. Therefore, the credit card company may need to write off that debt as a loss.  As an aside, there might be an opportunity to settle or negotiate debts on this basis, though there are tax implications to the estate for writing off the debt.

If your loved one passes away with debt, don’t pay it.  Talk with an attorney about opening an estate for that deceased loved one and discuss how or whether to pay the estate’s debts.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 15, 2020) “Is mom liable for my dead father’s credit card debt?”

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