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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How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

Special needs trusts (SNT) are critical tools for protecting a beneficiary with disabilities’ benefits while providing for their needs.

Special needs trusts (or supplemental needs trusts) have been used for many years. However, there are two factors that are changing and clients need to be aware of them, says the article “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed” from The Wall Street Journal. For one thing, many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are leading much longer lives because of medical advances. As a result, they are often outliving their  primary caregivers. This makes planning for the long term more critical, and the use of special needs trusts more critical.

Second, there have been significant changes in tax laws, specifically laws concerning inherited retirement accounts.

Special needs planning has never been easy because of the many unknowns. How much care will be needed? How much will it cost? How long will the person with disabilities need them? Tax rules are complex and coordinating special needs planning with estate planning can be a challenge. A 2018 study from the University of Illinois found that less than 50% of parents of children with disabilities had planned for their children’s future. Parents who had not done any planning told researchers they were just overwhelmed.

Here are some of the basics:

A special needs trust, or SNT, is created to protect the assets of a person with a disability, including mental or physical conditions. The trust may be used to pay for various goods and services, including medical equipment, education, home furnishings, etc.

A trustee is appointed to manage all and any spending. The beneficiary has no control over assets inside the trust. The assets are not owned by the beneficiary, so the beneficiary should continue to be eligible for government programs that limit assets, including Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid.

There are different types of Special Needs Trusts: pooled, first party and third party. They are not simple entities to create, so it’s important to work with an experienced estate elder law attorney who is familiar with these trusts.

To fund the trust after parents have passed, they could name the Special Needs Trust as the beneficiary of their IRA, so withdrawals from the account would be paid to the trust to benefit their child. There will be required minimum distributions (RMDs), because the IRA would become an Inherited IRA and the trust would need to take distributions.

The SECURE Act from 2019 ended the ability to stretch out RMDs for inherited traditional IRAs from lifetime to ten years. However, the SECURE Act created exceptions: individuals who are disabled or chronically ill are still permitted to take distributions over their lifetimes. This has to be done correctly, or it won’t work. However, done correctly, it could provide income over the special needs individual’s lifetime.

The strategy assumes that the SNT beneficiary is disabled or chronically ill, according to the terms of the tax code. The terms are defined very strictly and may not be the same as the requirements for SSI or Medicaid.

The traditional IRA may or may not be the best way to fund an SNT. It may create larger distributions than are permitted by the SNT or create large tax bills. Roth IRAs or life insurance may be the better options.

The goal is to exchange assets, like traditional IRAs, for more tax-efficient assets to reach post-death planning solutions for the special needs individual, long after their parents and caregivers have passed.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2021) “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed”

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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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