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?”

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Common Wealth Transfer Mistakes

A legacy plan is a vital part of the financial planning process, ensuring the assets you have spent your entire life accumulating will transfer to the people and organizations you want, and that family members are prepared to inherit and execute your wishes.  However, four common errors can derail this wealth transfer, and send individuals, families, and their legacies, off track.  Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “4 Reasons Families Fail When Transferring Wealth” explains further.

Failure to create a plan. It’s hard for people to think about their own death and the process can be intimidating. This can make us delay our estate planning. If you don’t have the appropriate estate plan in place, your goals and wishes won’t be carried out. So, it is important to have a legacy plan in place to ensure proper wealth transfer. A legacy plan can evolve over time, but a plan should be grounded in what your or your family envisions today, but with the flexibility to be amended for changes in the future.  See this article for an idea of how wealth transfer works in an estate plan and how to get the process started.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-begin-the-estate-planning-process/

Poor communication and a lack of trust. Failing to communicate a plan early can create issues between generations, especially if it is different than adult children might expect or incorporates other people and organizations that come as a surprise to heirs. Bring adult children into the conversation to establish the communication early on. You can focus on the overall, high-level strategy. This includes reviewing timing, familial values and planning objectives. Open communication can mitigate negative feelings, such as distrust or confusion among family members, and make for a more successful transfer.

Poor preparation. The ability to get individual family members on board with defined roles can be difficult, but it can alleviate a lot of potential headaches and obstacles in the future.  This is critical for wealth transfer in roles such as executors, trustees and agents.

Overlooked essentials. Consider hiring a team of specialists, such as a financial adviser, tax professional and estate planning attorney, who can work in together to ensure the plan will meet its intended objectives and complete a wealth transfer in accordance with your wishes.

Whether creating a legacy plan today, or as part of the millions of households in the Great Wealth Transfer that will establish plans soon if they haven’t already, preparation and flexibility are essential elements to wealth transfer success.

Create a legacy plan that is right for you, have open communication with your family and review philosophies and values to make certain that everyone’s on the same page. As a result, your loved ones will have the ability to understand, respect and meaningfully execute the legacy plan’s objectives.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 29, 2021) “4 Reasons Families Fail When Transferring Wealth”

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Benefits of 529 Plans

529 Plans have benefits beyond tax-deferred earnings which make them attractive options for educational funding.

I’ve been discussing 529 plans, how they work and their benefits far more frequently with clients than I used to.  You might think that tax-deferred savings is the main benefit, along with tax-free withdrawals for qualifying higher education expenses in 529 plans. However, there are also state tax incentives, such as tax deductions, credits, grants, or exemption from financial aid consideration from in-state schools in certain states.  Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)” says there are many more advantages to the college savings programs than simple tax benefits.

1) Registered Apprenticeship Programs Qualify. You can make qualified withdrawals from a 529 plan for registered apprenticeship programs. These programs cover a wide range of areas with an average annual salary for those that complete their apprenticeship of $70,000.

2) International Schools Usually Qualify. More than 400 schools outside of the US are considered to be qualified higher education institutions. You can, therefore, make tax-free withdrawals from 529 plans for qualifying expenses at those colleges.

3) Gap Year and College Credit Classes for High School. Some gap year programs have partnered with higher education institutions to qualify for funding from 529 accounts. This includes some international and domestic gap year, outdoor education, study-abroad, wilderness survival, sustainable living trades and art programs. Primary school students over 14 can also use 529 plans for college credit classes, where available.

4) Get Your Money Back if Not Going to College. If your beneficiary meets certain criteria, it’s possible to avoid a 10% penalty and changing the plan from tax-free to tax-deferred. For this to happen, the beneficiary must:

  • Receive a tax-free scholarship or grant
  • Attend a US military academy
  • Die or become disabled; or
  • Get assistance through a qualifying employer-assisted college savings program.

Note that 529 plans are technically revocable. Therefore, you can rescind the gift and pull the assets back into the estate of the account owner. However, there are tax consequences, including tax on earnings plus a 10% penalty tax.

5) Private K–12 Tuition Is Qualified. 529 withdrawals can be used for up to $10,000 of tuition expenses at private K–12 schools. However, other expenses, such as computers, supplies, travel and other costs are not qualified.

6) Pay Off Your Student Loans. If you graduate with some money leftover in a 529 account, it can be used for up to $10,000 in certain student loan repayments.

7) Estate Planning. Contributions to a 529 plan are completed gifts to the beneficiary. These can be “superfunded” for up to $75,000 per beneficiary in a single year, effectively using five years’ worth of annual gift tax exemption up front. For retirees with significant RMDs (required minimum distributions) from qualified accounts, such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, the 529 plan offers high contribution limits across multiple beneficiaries, while retaining control of the assets during the lifetime of the account owner. Assets also pass by contract upon death, avoiding probate and estate tax.

7.5) Medicaid Benefit.  I’m going to cheat and add one more.  In Texas, transfers to 529 plans for CERTAIN beneficiaries are exempt as transactions for longterm Medicaid.  As with all Medicaid planning, you would want to do this at the advice of an attorney, but for situations where it fits, it is a very powerful spend down tool, especially where grandchildren are school age.

Reference: Forbes (July 15, 2021) “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)”

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