What If You Don’t have a Will?

Studies suggest that a majority of adults do not have an estate plan of any kind, even a will.  The issue of what happens when a person doesn’t have a will comes up frequently in our practice.  The answer to the question, which is what I’ll discuss here, provide lots of reasons to have one.  You can see a recent article entitled “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a bit more background, although state processes vary.

First, a will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate.” When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws.  Intestacy sets who your beneficiaries will be since you haven’t chosen them, and generally are next of kin (with some wrinkles). If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

Intestacy rules vary greatly from state to state, especially in a community property state like Texas.  In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A very common exception, which many people don’t know and are surprised to learn, is that if you have children from outside of the current marriage, not everything goes to that spouse.  I frequently encounter families who assume spouse gets everything, regardless of family makeup, and this often leads to conflicts with family.

While practicing in Pennsylvania I actually had a situation in which one spouse died young without children and with living parents.  Not everything goes to the spouse in that situation, but instead, partially to spouse and the rest would have been divided between the surviving spouse and parents.  The surviving spouse was not pleased to learn that.

This may also lead to a difficult result for the beneficiary.  If they have disabilities and are using government benefits, receiving the inheritance may cause them to lose those benefits, which may be critical for that person’s care.  Wills and other estate planning documents can prevent that outcome.

If you don’t have a will, at least in Texas, it may be necessary to have a proceeding to determine who the heirs even are.  This is called an heirship proceeding and can be quite expensive as the court appoints another attorney (who you pay) to look for unknown heirs.  This whole process also adds time and uncertainty to a process which is already difficult due to the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, a will designates a person to handle the estate, often called an executor, and typically names successors should the first named person be unable or unwilling to serve.  In the absence of these directions, the heirs will have to figure it out among themselves, hopefully amicably and without litigation.

Many states also have limited proceedings that may or may not be helpful when a person doesn’t have a will.  For example, Texas has affidavits of heirship which can address retitling of land interests, such as the residence.  However, that won’t help for bank accounts.  Pennsylvania actually has a rule permitting small bank accounts to be distributed to next of kin after the funeral is paid.  That too may help, unless the account is $10,000 and is useless for land.  Many states have small estate proceedings that can work, but in practice are often cumbersome.

A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”  See this article for further ideas:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-are-the-duties-of-an-executor/  

If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Medical Powers of Attorney and other documents appropriate for your state, you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

Continue ReadingWhat If You Don’t have a Will?

Stretch IRA Alternatives under the SECURE Act

The SECURE Act reduces the amount of retirement assets left to most beneficiaries. Here are 3 stretch IRA alternatives to consider for your loved ones.

The majority of many people’s wealth is in their IRAs or retirement plans that are saved from a lifetime of work. Their goal is to leave their retirement plans to their children, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “Three Replacements for Stretch IRAs.” The ability to distribute IRA wealth over years, and even decades, was eliminated with the passage of the SECURE Act.  This accelerates taxation and ultimately reduces wealth passed to beneficiaries.  As a result, clients are seeking stretch IRA alternatives.

Now, this blog won’t address all of the details of the SECURE Act, it is instead going to focus on what I’m calling stretch IRA alternatives as a way to pass more wealth to your beneficiaries under the new rules.  Mary Galligan from our office did an excellent webinar on the SECURE act itself as well as an overview which you can find here https://www.galliganmanning.com/-the-secure-act-/  You can also review my past blogs on the topic here https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-the-secure-act-impacts-your-estate-plan/.

That said, keep in mind that existing beneficiaries of stretch IRAs will not be affected by the change in the law. But for retirement plan holders who die January 1, 2020, most retirement plan beneficiaries, —with a few exceptions, including spousal beneficiaries for example—will have to take their withdrawals within a ten year period of time instead of over their life expectancy.

The estate planning legal and financial community is currently scrutinizing the law and looking for strategies will protect these large accounts from taxes. Here are three estate planning approaches that are emerging as front runners as stretch IRA alternatives.

Roth conversions. Traditional IRA owners who wished to leave their retirement assets to children may be passing on big tax burdens now that the stretch is gone, especially if beneficiaries themselves are high earners. An alternative is to convert regular IRAs to Roth IRAs and take the tax hit at the time of the conversion.

There is no guarantee that the Roth IRA will never be taxed, but tax rates right now are relatively low. If tax rates go up, it might make converting the Roth IRAs too expensive.

Life insurance. This is being widely touted as the answer to the loss of the stretch, but like all other methods, it needs to be viewed as part of the entire estate plan. Using distributions from an IRA to pay for a life insurance policy is not a new strategy.  It also assumes the retirement plan holder is insurable, which might not be true given their health and age.  Life insurance also works well with all variety of beneficiaries, including trusts for your loved ones.

Charitable Remainder Trusts (CRT). The IRA could be used to fund a charitable remainder trust.  A Charitable Remainder Trust allows the benefactor to establish an income stream for heirs with part of the IRA assets, with the remainder going to a named charity. The trust can grow assets tax free. There are two different ways to do this: a charitable remainder annuity trust, which distributes a fixed annual annuity and does not allow continued contributions, or a charitable remainder unitrust, which distributes a fixed percentage of the initial assets and does allow continued contributions.  This also also a potentially much longer stream of income to beneficiaries compared to a 10 year payout.

If you plan to leave retirement assets to your loved ones and want to maximize their legacy, please contact of office to schedule an appointment and discuss with your financial advisor about what options may work best in your unique situation.

Reference: Think Advisor (Jan. 24, 2020) “Three Replacements for Stretch IRAs”

Continue ReadingStretch IRA Alternatives under the SECURE Act