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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Effect of Adding Someone to Your Bank Account

Clients constantly, often at the suggestion of their bank, add someone to their bank accounts.  This could be an elderly parent adding a child so they can write checks for them, or perhaps adding the names of beneficiaries so they own the account at death or can use that money to help someone else.  Regardless of the reason, it is critical to understand that adding another person to your bank account provides both of you with complete access to the account and has a big impact on your estate plan, as well as other issues such as taxes or Medicaid.  It is critical to understand these implications and the different ways you can do this, explains the article “What are my rights when someone adds me to a bank account?” from Lehigh Valley Live.

A joint account is a bank or investment account shared by two individuals, although more than two people may be on an account. They have equal access to funds, as well as equal responsibilities for any fees or expenses associated with the account. If there are transactions, depending upon the rules of the institution, all owners may be required to sign documents. The key is how the account is titled. That’s the controlling factor in determining how the assets in the account are divided, if one of the owners dies. There are several different types of joint ownership.

One is “Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship,” or JTWROS. If one of the account owners should die, the assets in the account go directly to the surviving account holder. These assets do not go through probate.  Often people assume this is what they have on their bank accounts, but in most cases this is not the default setting.

Then there’s “Tenants in Common,” or TIC. With TIC, each individual account owner has the right to designate a beneficiary for their portion of the assets upon their death. The assets might not be split 50/50. How the account is titled lets the account owners divide ownership however they want.  This is important because in an estate situation, the decedent owns 50% of the account.  So, if client leaves a Will giving everything to their neighbor, instead of their spouse

Another one: “Joint Tenants by the Entirety.” This describes a married couple who own real estate or a financial account as a legal entity with equal ownership. Neither person may transfer their half of the property during their lifetime or through a will or a trust. When one spouse dies, the entire account goes to the surviving spouse and it transfers without passing through probate.  As an aside, this isn’t applicable in all states.  From my knowledge, it exists in Pennsylvania, but not Texas or New York.

I should note as well that Texas includes the ability to add a check signer to bank accounts.  In theory this means a person, such as an adult child, who is given express authority to sign checks on your behalf.  For what it’s worth, clients frequently believe what they are doing is adding a name to an account “just to write checks.”  However, I have found that banks always create one of the joint account options listed above.  Simply put, it is easier and cleaner for them, and so that’s how they do it.

Power of Attorney or POA is a completely different thing. A POA is a legal document giving a person the authority to act on behalf of another person for a specific transaction or general legal and financial matters. Just as there are numerous types of joint ownership, there are numerous types of POA.

A general POA gives a person the power to act on behalf of the principal for all legal, property and financial matters, as long as the principal’s mental capacity is sound. The Durable POA gives authority to a person to act on behalf of the principal, even after the principal becomes mentally incapacitated. Special or limited power of attorney gives authority to act only for specific matters or transactions. A Springing Durable POA provides authority to act only under certain events or levels of incapacitation, which is defined in detail in the document.

You can be both a joint owner of an account and a power of attorney. These are two different ways to help a parent with financial and legal activities. An estate planning attorney can help create the POA that best fits the situation.

Reference: Lehigh Valley Live (June 10, 2021) “What are my rights when someone adds me to a bank account?”

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Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing for an estate planning meeting involves considering who you want to benefit, what you own and who is in charge of the processes.

Long ago when I first started doing Kevin’s Korners on Facebook and YouTube, I asked viewers for ideas on topics.  I expected to hear suggestions on how to administer estates, what is probate or complicated tax questions.  Instead, the first response, which was repeated by others, was what is the first step in making an estate plan.  What is the process to begin.  To put it another way, what to consider when preparing for an estate planning meeting.

So, for this blog I wanted to cover some topics and thoughts on preparing for the first meeting with an estate planning attorney.  Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.  So with that, here are some issues to consider when preparing for an estate planning meeting.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should get you started in the right direction.  You can see here for the Kevin’s Korner video as well.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2M_-tBoSiU 

Minor Children Need Guardians. In most states, families with minor children need to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. You do not want your family, or a Court, to guess what your wishes are in this regard.

Agents, Trustees, and Executors (Fiduciaries). A key component of an estate plan is who is in charge of the process, who executes your wishes or speaks for you if you can’t.  These roles, generally called your fiduciaries, are different depending on what task they need to accomplish and which legal document gives them that authority. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.  You also always want to consider back-ups should your first choices not be available.

Living Will and Medical Decision-Making. If you are unable to communicate your own medical wishes, an agent can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Significant Property. Any items of significant property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be considered specifically. This is helpful to avoid  squabbles over sentimental pieces of property, large or small.  Valuable or important property such as the home or business should be considered specifically to avoid delay, costs or other hazards that might affect their value or operation.

Beneficiaries.  This is probably the most obvious issue, but you should consider who will receive your property and in what manner.  For example, you might consider whether to leave your property outright to a beneficiary or put it in a trust to obtain various benefits.  You should consider if you want to take care of as much of your estate plan now as possible to make it easier for your loved ones later.  This is the decision of whether to utilize a will or a trust.  See here for a helpful guide.   https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/  You also should be familiar with the titling of your assets (your name, your and your kids’ names and so on) as well as which assets have beneficiary designations (life insurance and retirement funds are common examples) so that the assets coordinate with your plan.

You should also consider if there are any particular issues with your beneficiaries to be addressed.  For example, minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases- but that is hardly a prudent age to leave someone a windfall.  You can consider the use of a trust to delay the receipt of the property to a more reasonable age.  Similarly, you might want to create asset protection or divorce protection for your beneficiaries and can utilize trusts to help you accomplish that goal.  If you have a loved one with disabilities, you should consider what their needs are and are likely to be in the future.  What kind of resources do they need if you aren’t able to provide for them and where do they get that support.   As a final thought, if you are charitably minded, your estate plan is a great way to make charitable gifts and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Once you’ve considered the above in preparing for an estate planning meeting, you’ll have an idea of what your estate planning goals are.  That way, your meeting with a competent estate planning attorney will focus on how to accomplish those goals and you can discuss which documents are necessary to do so.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

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