Monthly Archives: August 2011

An Inside Look at Retirement and Long-Term Care

What can we expect from our retirement years? We have financial advisors to help us look ahead and plan, but sometimes financial advisors can only take us so far; how does retirement look to someone who has been there?

The author of this article in Reuters writes that she learned quite a bit about retirement from her 91 year old mother, the first lesson being that “Retirement spending is a roller coaster, not a flat line.” According to the article the author’s mother chose to spend a lot of money on golf, travel and fun in the first few years of her retirement, but was later happy to settle down into a calmer, less expensive lifestyle later on. Her expenses didn’t go up again until near the end of her life when “her health deteriorated and she ended up spending thousands of dollars every month to cover her care.”

Preparing for long-term care can be essential to having a pleasant and affordable retirement; whether this means finding the right long-term care insurance or setting money aside in another vehicle and earmarking it for long-term care needs. “In the last year of my mother’s life, we were spending almost $7,000 a month of her money so that she could live in a nice place and get good care. If she had annuitized too much of her money or was living simply on pension checks, she wouldn’t have had the cash to do that. On the other hand, if she had a good long-term care policy, that might have helped.”

The last thing the author mentions in her article is that “The right paperwork really is helpful.” Having an updated will or trust, power of attorney, and healthcare directive or living will may not make it any less painful for you or your loved ones if you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it can make it easier for the people who care about you to spend quality time with you rather than with lawyers or accountants. The author’s mother had all her paperwork in order, which “made it very easy for me to manage her care and pay her bills when I had to. It was emotionally difficult to watch my mother give up her health and her spirit and her life, but I didn’t have to waste any of my time and worry on those bureaucratic details.”

Should Beneficiaries Also Serve as Executor or Trustee?

When someone creates a will or a trust of course they want to choose a dependable and trustworthy person as executor or trustee. For most people this means someone close to them—a family member or friend, or often the most responsible of their adult children. However, this often means that the person they’ve chosen as executor or trustee is also a beneficiary. The question that occurs is this: Is it a conflict of interest to be both executor/trustee and beneficiary?

As executor or trustee a person has a legal duty to manage the property in the decedent’s estate for the benefit of the trust or estate beneficiaries. This means that while the executor/trustee should be compassionate, he or she must act in an equal and unemotional manner toward ALL the beneficiaries.

A beneficiary, on the other hand, is often by definition emotional. Even those beneficiaries who are not concerned with the monetary aspect of their inheritance (and let’s be honest, many heirs are more concerned with the dollar amount than they might let on) will likely be emotionally invested in the heirlooms of the estate. Many family feuds are sparked when siblings can’t agree on who gets the family silver or great grandma’s engagement ring. And the potential for conflict only increases when real estate is involved.

If you are creating your will or trust, the best way to avoid this conflict is to be as specific as possible in your instructions to your executor and beneficiaries. Spelling out in no uncertain terms who gets the family silver will decrease the chances that the executor will be tempted to take advantage of his or her position. You may also want to consider naming a disinterested party as a trust advisor or co-executor to provide checks and balances throughout the administration process.

If you are a beneficiary who is also serving as executor/trustee there are a few things you can do to ensure you keep your executor and beneficiary roles separate:

* You may want to consider contacting a probate or estate planning attorney to mediate or oversee the process.

* Rely on random but fair methods (such as flipping a coin, drawing straws, or organizing a round robin) to distribute unassigned personal property with emotional value.

* Be sure to involve an impartial appraiser if real property is involved.

* If all else fails, an executor or trustee is always permitted to step down and hand the role over to a qualified and disinterested party.

Are You Hurting Your Own Chances At Retirement?

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, many Baby Boomers are no longer worried about when they will be able to retire, but if they will be able to retire at all. In many cases the reason for this worry stems not so much from any kind of selfish inability to save, but from a tendency to be too generous.

In addition to a growing trend (hinted at in the WSJ article above) of Baby Boomers tapping their own retirement funds to help pay for the care of their elderly parents, this article in USA Today warns of the all-too-common danger of Boomers shorting their own retirements to pay for their children’s college educations.

“People are willing to go to extreme measures because they value a college education so highly… Among parents who are planning for their children’s college, 24% say that they tap their retirement accounts. And that doesn’t reflect people who reduce or halt retirement contributions [to make tuition payments.]”

One thing that both of these articles agree on is that when it comes to saving money, Boomers need to put their own needs first. While the immediate financial needs of an elderly parent or college-bound child may feel more pressing, it’s a very bad idea to short your own retirement account (and your future) to cover their costs. If you have an elderly parent in need, before you dip into your own savings contact a good elder law attorney who can help you review your (and your parent’s) options, and help navigate the VA Benefits or Medicaid system if applicable.

As far as college tuition goes, by neglecting your own retirement to pay for your children’s college education you may simply be perpetuating a dangerous cycle, putting your children in the position of having to pay for your expenses when your savings runs out in the future. Financial advisors, college admissions counselors, and the school’s financial services center may be able to help you explore your options for paying for tuition.

Some Tax Saving Strategies from the Wall Street Journal

Income, estate, and other federal tax levies have commonly been a bone of contention between those with different political ideologies; but the current conflict has reached unusual heights, with various million- and billionaires publicly expressing their views (pro or against) about current tax laws. Of course, million- or billionaires aren’t the only ones with strong opinions about taxes.

If you feel that you pay too much in taxes, Brett Arends of the Wall Street Journal has some tips to help you save on taxes in the future. Much of his article is tongue-in-cheek, but the suggestions are valuable ones. Of special interest to our firm and our clients are four of the tips nestled in the middle of the article:

Give to your family. “Until the end of 2012 you can give $5 million, tax-free… In addition you can give $13,000 a year to each recipient — each child or grandchild — and a spouse can do the same. So a married couple with, say, three children and eight grandchildren can give another $286,000 a year, on top of that one-off $10 million. Over ten or twenty years that really adds up.”

Put your grandkids—and great grandkids—through college. “Money paid directly to schools or colleges escapes estate taxes.” Furthermore, if you contribute to a 529 educational savings account that money can be tucked away—and eventually used by the student for whom it is intended—tax free (so long as it is used for educational purposes.)

Buy life insurance. Proceeds from a life insurance policy can go to your beneficiaries tax-free upon your death, although you may have to make some arrangements ahead of time. The article states that “Typically you put the policy in an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust… The premiums that you pay annually are gifts to the beneficiaries… And when you die, the proceeds of the policy go to the trust, for the beneficiaries, free of estate tax.”

Talk to an estate planner. “There are other moves that can cut your estate tax, too. A Qualified Personal Residence Trust can slash the estate taxes on a residence. A Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, or GRAT, can slash them on an investment portfolio. So, too, can setting up a Family Limited Partnership. Financial planners say this is a great time to put investments — like stock — into a GRAT.”

If you have questions about these tax-saving strategies, or other strategies that can help you preserve your estate for your heirs, please contact our office. We can help you determine what your best options are to help protect your assets—and your family—in the years to come.

Don’t Let Tax Laws Limit Your Generosity

The past two years have been tough on the average American family. The economy has been floundering and the unemployment rate has been hovering around 9-10% since 2009, not to mention the roller coaster ride we’ve all been through with the stock market. But through it all some families and individuals have fared better than others—and many of these lucky ones are eager to extend a helping hand to their family and friends… if only the tax laws would let them.

A recent article in Forbes, entitled 6 Ways to Give Family and Friends Financial Aid, explains that “the tax law regulates your [financial] generosity… This kind of assistance is considered a lifetime gift unless it’s for someone whom you are legally obligated to support, such as a child.” This is important because “lifetime gifts” over a specific amount (currently $5 million per person) are subject to taxation.

“Gifts of cash or other assets can count against your $5 million exclusion from gift or estate tax. If you exceed that limit, you could wind up owing gift tax of up to 35%. Even if you don’t, your lifetime gifts would reduce how much you can pass tax-free through your estate plan.”

But if you are willing to work within the system there are ways to give financial assistance to friends and family without having to pay gift tax. Here are a few strategies suggested in the Forbes article:

1. Don’t give more than $13,000 (or $26,000 if you are giving as a married couple) per person per year. $13,000 is the current annual gift exclusion amount, and giving more than this can count against the $5 million lifetime exclusion.

2. Pay medical, dental, or tuition expenses directly to the provider. “Without using your annual exclusion or dipping into the lifetime limit, you can pay for tuition, dental and medical expenses of anyone you want. Note that you must make the payments directly to the providers of those services.”

3. Contribute to 529 educational savings plans. While contributing to a 529 savings plan does still count as a financial gift, once in the account the money can grow and be withdrawn tax-free, “provided it is used to pay for college, a graduate, vocational or another accredited school, or for related expenses.”

These are only a few of the suggestions offered in the article, and a consultation with your attorney or financial planner could reveal even more options available to you should you wish to offer aid to friends or family without coming up against the lifetime gift or estate tax. Please contact our office for more information.

Executors of 2010 Estates Have Until Nov. 15 to Make Estate Tax Decisions

Everyone will remember the “wonderful boon” that was the 2010 estate tax repeal, which (in theory) allowed decedents to pass on their assets free of any estate taxes. However, the situation was complicated in December of 2010 when, as this article in Bloomberg puts it, “Congress extended the tax retroactively [giving] executors of estates of people who died that year a choice. They could decide to skip the estate tax or pay the tax with a $5 million per-person exemption and a 35 percent top rate, the same as in 2011.”

Executors have had almost a year to consider their options, but now it is just about time to make the decision, because “the Internal Revenue Service is giving executors of estates of people who died in 2010 until Nov. 15 to opt out of the estate tax.” According to the IRS the forms and instructions for 2010 estate tax returns will be made available early this fall.

But executors don’t have to wait until the forms are available to consider which tax option might be the most profitable one. Many financial planners and estate planning attorneys have already done their research, and they’ve found that opting not to pay estate taxes may end up costing you more in the long run. This article in Forbes explains: “Opting out of the estate tax regime means opting out of stepped-up basis (for income tax purposes)… and opting into the modified carryover basis rule… One of the main plusses about estate tax is that it is paired with a stepped-up income tax basis. You should not be paying both estate tax and income tax on the same assets.”

Of course, each estate will be different depending on a number of factors, including the size of the estate, the nature of the assets, the preferences of the beneficiaries, and any previous planning the decedent may have done. Executors should consider their options carefully, and consult with an experienced estate planning attorney before deciding whether opting out of the estate tax is really in their best interest.

Unusual Things Happen Every Day…

In a recent article in the Huffington Post financial columnist Don McNay tells the frustrating, sad, and “unusual” story of how the greater part of his mother’s and his sister’s estates ended up in the hands of people they would never have chosen to receive it… all because neither of them had a will or estate plan when they died.

When McNay’s mother died unexpectedly in April 2006 neither he nor his sister really worried about her lack of a will. After all, “her only asset was our childhood home, and my sister and I were her only children. We would split the ownership of the house equally.” McNay paid for the funeral, and “advanced the estate money to pay delinquent property taxes, some outstanding bills, and the mortgage on Mom’s house,” and he and his sister worked out an informal deal to even things up financially once the estate was settled and the house was mortgaged.

Tragically, his sister fell down some steps and died in October 2006, also without a will, and this is when the real trouble began. Although his sister had left her husband years before, they had never formally divorced; which meant that McNay’s sister’s share of their mother’s estate now belonged to her ex-husband, her adult son, and her minor daughter—and none of it would be used to reimburse McNay for what he had lent the estate.

McNay writes honestly and persuasively about his experience, and we recommend reading the entire article, but the long and short of it is this: After several rounds in court, after the involvement of several attorneys, and after being forced to sell the family home for less than what it was worth, “the person who got the most money from my mother’s estate was my former brother-in-law.”

Unfortunately, McNay’s story is all too common. Situations such as this one could be easily (and inexpensively) avoided simply by consulting an attorney and drawing up a simple will; and yet more than 60 percent of Americans don’t have wills. Whether it’s because they’re uncomfortable thinking about their own death, think they’re too young to worry about it, or simply feel they don’t have enough assets to worry about it, more than half of Americans today refuse to take the one simple step that can protect their families from heartache and expense.

We suspect that most people believe (erroneously) that this kind of thing just won’t happen to them. After all, as McNay writes in his article, “My family’s series of events was unusual,” but then again, “unusual things happen every day.”

New York Becomes 29th State to Pass Alert System for Vulnerable Adults Legislation

Last month saw some good news for seniors and their families in the state of New York. State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on his website that he “signed a law to create a statewide alert system for missing vulnerable adults, similar to the nationwide Amber Alert program, which will help authorities locate cognitively impaired persons who go missing.” By signing this law Governor Cuomo added New York to the growing list of states with similar programs in place to help find and protect seniors with Alzheimer’s who may wander away from their homes in confusion.

The first state-wide public notification system for vulnerable adults, sometimes called “Silver Alert” programs, was passed in Oklahoma in 2006. Since then 28 states have joined Oklahoma in passing Silver Alert legislation (or something similar) and five states have some kind of vulnerable adult alert legislation pending.

According to Governor Cuomo’s announcement, New York’s new Amber Alert for Seniors program “provides for the rapid public dissemination of information regarding adults with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive impairments who go missing. Under the new law, the same Amber Alert mechanisms used to find missing children will be activated for missing vulnerable adults, including the printing and distribution of photographs and posters, a toll-free twenty-four hour hotline, a curriculum for training law enforcement personnel, and assistance for returning missing vulnerable adults who are located out of state.”

New York’s program—and the similar programs in all participating states—are a comfort to the families of seniors afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Too often we read news stories about seniors who have wandered away from their homes and are not found until it’s too late. If you worry that your elderly relative may be at risk for wandering, check the laws of your state to find out which programs are available to you and how to enroll (if necessary).

If your state does NOT have a program in place you may want to consider enrolling your elderly loved one in the MedicAlert® + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return® program. To learn more about this nation-wide emergency response service click here.

Don’t Inadvertently Disinherit Your Loved Ones—Review Your Estate Plan Regularly

All of our readers know just how important—how essential—a will is to protecting your family after you pass away. Leaving clear and tangible instructions can prevent family infighting as well as hurt or unsettled feelings; and leaving a legally airtight will can prevent wasted time and money in unnecessarily long probate proceedings. But for all of this, there are a few assets that your will may not be able to address.

This article in CNN Money describes three assets that could cause you to “unwittingly disinherit intended beneficiaries, including your children, from significant portions of your estate,” namely your 401(k) plan, your IRA account, and your life insurance.

You can name anybody you’d like as a beneficiary in your will, but when it comes to 401(k) plans it’s your spouse who is entitled to the money when you die. “If you want to leave a 401(k) to someone else, your spouse must first file a written statement waiving rights to it.” Even a prenuptial agreement won’t help if you want to keep your 401(k) assets out of the communal pot, you’ll have to convince your spouse to sign a waiver after you’ve tied the knot. “A person can’t give up spousal rights to inherit a 401(k) until actually married. ‘A prenup by itself is not a valid waiver according to the rules governing 401(k) plans.’”

Who will inherit your IRA or your life insurance is a little easier to control than who will inherit your 401(k). In the case of IRA or life insurance accounts the person named as the beneficiary on the account will always take precedence over a beneficiary named in your will. The most common inheritance issues we see with these accounts is when people forget to update their beneficiary forms after a significant life change such as a divorce or the birth of a child. In these cases it’s important to review and update your beneficiaries every 2-5 years to ensure there’s no confusion between your will and the designated beneficiary on the account.

Having a will is important, but a will is simply one piece of a whole plan—a plan that likely includes many pieces. Being aware of all the pieces of your estate plan, and keeping those pieces working together and in harmony, is essential to ensuring that your family and your legacy is protected. Our office can help.

The Estate Planning Post Every Woman Should Read

Although couples usually come into our office together to discuss their estate plans, quite often it’s the women who lead the discussion about planning for the guardianship of children, and the men who lead the discussion about financial planning.

Estate planning is a subject which has a significant impact on women—in fact, this article in Forbes suggests that estate planning may affect women even more than men because “Among Americans 65 and older, 42% of women, but just 14% of men are widowed. Women’s longer life expectancy, combined with their tendency to marry older mates and their lower lifetime earnings means they are far more likely to see their living standards compromised in retirement if proper estate planning isn’t done.”

How can women ensure that this doesn’t happen to them? The best answer is for women to be involved in the estate planning process—not just the issue of guardianship, but financial issues as well. Talk to your partner about what happens if (as is likely) your spouse passes away first leaving you a widow. Talk to your spouse and your family about how the remainder of your estate should be distributed upon your death. And don’t discuss the topic in vague terms, bring your estate planner or financial planner into the conversation and talk about cold, hard numbers.

Our firm understands that this is not the easiest conversation to begin. Talking about money in our culture has generally been considered a “dirty topic,” not to mention that nobody likes considering their own (or their spouse’s) mortality, but the consequences of avoiding the discussion can be disastrous.

If you’d like to start a conversation about estate planning with your family but aren’t quite sure how, the Forbes article mentioned above has quite a few excellent suggestions, including “start with current events or an anecdote about other people. Perhaps it’s a movie you saw, a book you read, a news report about someone your age who recently died or a sudden death in your community.” If you’re trying to bring up the subject with your parents as opposed to your spouse you may want to consider telling them “I just did my own estate plan. Don’t you think you should update yours?”

Alternatively, you may simply want to print out this blog post (or the Forbes article) bring it to your spouse/parent/children and read it together. Getting the conversation started is the hardest part, but it’s also the most important. If you can get the ball rolling, our firm can help with everything else.