Make Sure Your Beneficiary Designations Match Your Estate Plan

Many types of property and investments pass outside of probate and allow you to designate who will receive them after your death. It is important that these designations are kept up to date and are consistent with the rest of your estate plan.

When you open up an investment account or retirement plan or buy life insurance, the company encourages you to name beneficiaries who will inherit the property on your death. The choice you made at the time may not have taken your estate plan into consideration. To review your beneficiaries, get a copy of all of your beneficiary designation forms. Check to make sure that your beneficiaries are consistent with the rest of your estate plan or, if they are different, that the difference is intentional. If you made these designations online, print a copy of the page so that you also have a paper record. Once you have collected all of these forms, put them in a folder with your other estate-planning documents so that you and your heirs can quickly and easily find them in the future.

In determining how to make your beneficiary designations, the following are the considerations for each type of account:

  • Bank and investment accounts. If you have a revocable trust as part of your estate plan, you can make the trust the owner of all of your bank and investment accounts. This way you avoid the need to name anyone as beneficiary and you still avoid probate. Then, all of the protections provided in the trust–for instance, that children do not receive their inheritance until a certain age or provisions for who receives the funds if a beneficiary predeceases you–will apply to the accounts. If you’re not using a revocable trust, simply name those who will receive your estate under the terms of your will. Or you have the option to name no one. If you do not designate a beneficiary, the account will pass according to the terms of your will and, while you won’t avoid probate, you’ll make sure that the people you want will receive the assets, that your personal representative will be in charge, and that any changes you make in the future–such as disinheriting your wayward nephew– will apply to the accounts.
  • Life insurance. Unlike bank and investment accounts, the ownership of many life insurance policies–especially those that come as an employment benefit–cannot be transferred to your revocable trust. And there is really no benefit to doing so in any case (although there might be some tax and long-term care planning reasons to transfer property to irrevocable trusts). Instead, the beneficiary designation is the most important decision. If you have a revocable trust, you may name it as the beneficiary for the reasons mentioned above. Or you can name particular individuals. The beneficiary designation form will permit you to name alternates in the event that the first person or people you name predecease you.
  • Retirement plans. First, don’t transfer your retirement plans to your revocable trust. The only way to do so is to liquidate the plan first, which would be a taxable event. Second, don’t name your revocable trust as a beneficiary of your retirement funds without consulting your lawyer. In most instances, if your spouse is not the beneficiary, the retirement plan will have to be liquidated and the taxes paid within 10 years of your death. On the other hand, if you have a relatively small amount of funds in retirement accounts, this might not be a big problem. It is much more important with retirement plans than with life insurance or other investments that you designate a beneficiary, because there are different rules for different beneficiaries. If your spouse inherits your IRA, your spouse can treat the IRA as his or her own. Your spouse can either put the IRA in his or her name or roll it over into a new IRA. The rules for a child or grandchild (or other non-spouse) who inherits an IRA are somewhat different than those for a spouse. The beneficiary must withdraw all of the assets in the inherited account within 10 years. There are no required distributions during those 10 years, but it must all be distributed by the 10th year.

To make sure that your beneficiary designations align with your estate plan and are as beneficial to your intended heirs as possible, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

May Someone With Dementia Sign a Will?

Millions of people are affected by dementia, and unfortunately many of them do not have all their estate planning affairs in order before the symptoms start. If you or a loved one has dementia, it may not be too late to sign a will or other documents, but certain criteria must be met to ensure that the signer is mentally competent.

In order for a will to be valid, the person signing must have “testamentary capacity,” which means he or she must understand the implications of what is being signed. Simply because you have a form of mental illness or disease does not mean that you automatically lack the required mental capacity. As long as you have periods of lucidity, you may still be competent to sign a will.

Generally, you are considered mentally competent to sign a will if the following criteria are met:

  • You understand the nature and extent of your property, which means you know what you own and how much of it.
  • You remember and understand who your relatives and descendants are and are able to articulate who should inherit your property.
  • You understand what a will is and how it disposes of property.
  • You understand how all these things relate to each other and come together to form a plan.

Family members may contest the will if they are unhappy with the distributions and believe you lacked mental capacity to sign it. If a will is found to be invalid, a prior will may be reinstated or the estate may pass through the state’s intestacy laws (as if no will existed). To prevent a will contest, your attorney should help make it as clear as possible that the person signing the will is competent. The attorney may have a series of questions to ask you to assess your competency. In addition, the attorney can have the will signing video recorded or arrange for witnesses to speak to your competency.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

 

When Buying a Medigap Policy, It Really Pays to Shop Around

Medigap policies that supplement Medicare’s basic coverage can cost vastly different amounts, depending on the company selling the policy, according to a new study. The findings highlight the importance of shopping around before purchasing a policy.

When you first become eligible for Medicare, you may purchase a Medigap policy from a private insurer to supplement Medicare’s coverage and plug some or virtually all of Medicare’s coverage gaps. You can currently choose one of eight Medigap plans that are identified by letters A, B, D, G, K, L, M, and N (If you were eligible for Medicare before January 1, 2020, but not enrolled, you may also be able to purchase Plans C and F, but those plans  are no longer available to people who are newly eligible for Medicare). Each plan package offers a different menu of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them.

While federal law requires that insurers must offer the same benefits for each lettered plan–each plan G offered by one insurer must cover the same benefits as plan G offered by another insurer–insurers set their own prices for each plan. This means that the price of each plan varies considerably depending on the insurance company.

The American Association for Medicare Supplement Insurance compared costs of plans in the top 10 metro areas and found huge cost differences. Using the most popular plan–Plan G–for comparison, the association found that in Dallas the lowest price for a 65-year-old woman to purchase a plan was $99 a month while the highest price was $381 a month. This is a yearly difference of more than $3,000 for the exact same plan.

The association also found that no one company consistently offered the lowest or highest price. In their study, investigators discovered that 13 different companies had either the lowest or highest price. This means you can’t rely on just one company to always have the better price.

When looking for a Medigap policy, make sure to get quotes from several insurance companies. In addition, if you are going through a broker, check with two or more brokers because one broker might not represent every insurer. It can be hard work to shop around, but the price savings can be worth it.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Transferring Assets to Qualify for Medicaid

Transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid can make you ineligible for benefits for a period of time. Before making any transfers, you need to be aware of the consequences.

Congress has established a period of ineligibility for Medicaid for those who transfer assets. The so-called “look-back” period for all transfers is 60 months, which means state Medicaid officials look at transfers made within the 60 months prior to the Medicaid application.

While the look-back period determines what transfers will be penalized, the length of the penalty depends on the amount transferred. The penalty period is determined by dividing the amount transferred by the average monthly cost of nursing home care in the state. For instance, if the nursing home resident transferred $100,000 in a state where the average monthly cost of care was $5,000, the penalty period would be 20 months ($100,000/$5,000 = 20). The 20-month period will not begin until (1) the transferor has moved to a nursing home, (2) he has spent down to the asset limit for Medicaid eligibility, (3) has applied for Medicaid coverage, and (4) has been approved for coverage but for the transfer. Therefore, if an individual transfers $100,000 on April 1, 2017, moves to a nursing home on April 1, 2018 and spends down to Medicaid eligibility on April 1, 2019, that is when the 20-month penalty period will begin, and it will not end until December 1, 2020.

Transfers should be made carefully, with an understanding of all the consequences. People who make transfers must be careful not to apply for Medicaid before the five-year look-back period elapses without first consulting with an elder law attorney. This is because the penalty could ultimately extend even longer than five years, depending on the size of the transfer.

Be very, very careful before making transfers. Any transfer strategy must take into account the nursing home resident’s income and all of his or her expenses, including the cost of the nursing home. Bear in mind that if you give money to your children, it belongs to them and you should not rely on them to hold the money for your benefit. However well-intentioned they may be, your children could lose the funds due to bankruptcy, divorce, or lawsuit. Any of these occurrences would jeopardize the savings you spent a lifetime accumulating. Do not give away your savings unless you are ready for these risks.

In addition, be aware that the fact that your children are holding your funds in their names could jeopardize your grandchildren’s eligibility for financial aid in college. Transfers can also have bad tax consequences for your children. This is especially true of assets that have appreciated in value, such as real estate and stocks. If you give these to your children, they will not get the tax advantages they would get if they were to receive them through your estate. The result is that when they sell the property they will have to pay a much higher tax on capital gains than they would have if they had inherited it.

As a rule, never transfer assets for Medicaid planning unless you keep enough funds in your name to (1) pay for any care needs you may have during the resulting period of ineligibility for Medicaid and (2) feel comfortable and have sufficient resources to maintain your present lifestyle.

Remember: You do not have to save your estate for your children. The bumper sticker that reads “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” is a perfectly appropriate approach to estate and Medicaid planning.

Even though a nursing home resident may receive Medicaid while owning a home, if the resident is married he or she should transfer the home to the community spouse (assuming the nursing home resident is both willing and competent). This gives the community spouse control over the asset and allows the spouse to sell it after the nursing home spouse becomes eligible for Medicaid. In addition, the community spouse should change his or her will to bypass the nursing home spouse. Otherwise, at the community spouse’s death, the home and other assets of the community spouse will go to the nursing home spouse and have to be spent down.

Permitted transfers

While most transfers are penalized with a period of Medicaid ineligibility of up to five years, certain transfers are exempt from this penalty. Even after entering a nursing home, you may transfer any asset to the following individuals without having to wait out a period of Medicaid ineligibility:

  • Your spouse (but this may not help you become eligible since the same limit on both spouse’s assets will apply)
  • A trust for the sole benefit of your child who is blind or permanently disabled.
  • Into trust for the sole benefit of anyone under age 65 and permanently disabled.

In addition, you may transfer your home to the following individuals (as well as to those listed above):

  • A child who is under age 21
  • A child who is blind or disabled (the house does not have to be in a trust)
  • A sibling who has lived in the home during the year preceding the applicant’s institutionalization and who already holds an equity interest in the home
  • A “caretaker child,” who is defined as a child of the applicant who lived in the house for at least two years prior to the applicant’s institutionalization and who during that period provided care that allowed the applicant to avoid a nursing home stay.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Introducing: QuickPlan for Expedited Estate Planning

QuickPlan is here.

We are offering expedited estate planning services for a limited number of clients each month. Our QuickPlan service will move you through the estate planning process quickly so you can remove “will” or “trust” from your to-do list.

This service is primarily intended for health care providers, first responders (police/fire) and others workers who are facing challenges due to COVID-19 but realize the importance of having a plan in place right now.

We remain committed to providing comprehensive estate planning services, such as wills, trusts, powers of attorney and other critical estate planning vehicles. We are meeting with our clients by phone, video conference and, when critical, in person. We continue to take all necessary precautions to safeguard the health of our clients and our team. See our COVID-19 information page here.

Call us today at 401.272.6300 so we can design your plan.  

Partners Selected for RI Monthly Excellence in Law

Our partners, Kristen Moonan and Amy Stratton, are honored to be recognized by Rhode Island Monthly’s Excellence in the Law listing for the second year in a row! They were each noted for excellence in the category of “Wills, Trusts and Estates.”

Rhode Island’s top attorneys are chosen to receive the Rhode Island Monthly honor based upon attorney peer reviews, professional standing, feedback from related professionals, and other data collected by a third party survey and data company.

“We are thrilled to be included among the esteemed professionals honored by Rhode Island Monthly.”

How to Avoid Problems as a Trustee

Being a trustee is a big responsibility and if you don’t perform your duties properly, you could be personally liable. That’s why it’s important to hire the right people to guide you in this important role.

A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” If you have been appointed the trustee of a trust, this is a strong vote of confidence in your judgment.

A trustee’s duties include locating and protecting trust assets, investing assets prudently, distributing assets to beneficiaries, keeping track of income and expenditures, and filing taxes. As a trustee, you have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries of the trust, meaning that you have an obligation to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries at all times. It also means you will be held to a higher standard than if you were just dealing with your own finances.

A trustee is usually entitled to hire an attorney (and other professionals like an accountant) to assist in trust administration. The attorney’s fees will be paid from the trust funds. While hiring an attorney will cost money, not having an attorney at all could cost a trustee much more if errors are made.

A trust can be administered without court involvement, but that doesn’t mean that the administration is simple. There are many areas where problems can arise — for example, if assets aren’t invested properly, taxes are late, or if proper records aren’t kept. If something goes wrong during the administration of the trust, the trustee can be removed and held personally liable for any costs incurred or losses suffered. Even if a spouse is the trustee, he or she should still consult with an attorney. Many couples have so-called “AB” trusts to take advantage of the maximum estate tax exemption; these trusts require special knowledge to determine whether the trusts are properly funded and the taxes filed.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

Prenuptial Agreements Can Be an Estate Planning Tool

As more and more people marry more than once, prenuptial agreements have become an important estate planning tool. Without a prenuptial agreement, your new spouse may be able to invalidate your existing estate plan. Such agreements are especially helpful if you have children from a previous marriage or important heirlooms that you want to keep on your side of the family.

A prenuptial agreement can be used in a second marriage when both parties have children. For example, suppose you get remarried and both you and your spouse have children from a prior marriage. You want your house to pass to your children, but without proper planning and an agreement in place, your spouse could inherit the house and then pass the house to her children when she dies.

It is important to make sure your prenuptial agreement is valid. Following are the major factors needed to ensure this:

  • In writing. To be valid, a prenuptial agreement must be in writing and signed by both spouses. A court will not enforce a verbal agreement.
  • No pressure. A prenuptial agreement will be invalid if one spouse is pressured into signing it by the other spouse.
  • Reading. Both spouses must read and understand the agreement. If a stack of papers is put in front of one spouse and he or she is asked to sign quickly without reading, the agreement can be invalidated. The spouse must be given time to read the document and consider it before signing it.
  • Truthful. Both spouses must fully disclose assets and liabilities. If either spouse lies or omits information about his or her finances, the agreement can be invalidated.
  • No invalid provisions. While the spouses can agree to most financial arrangements, a prenuptial agreement that modifies child support obligations is illegal. If an agreement contains an invalid provision, the court can either throw out the entire agreement or strike the invalid provision. Similarly, if the terms of the agreement are grossly unfair to one spouse, the agreement may be invalid.
  • Independent counsel. Some states require spouses to seek advice from separate attorneys before signing a prenuptial agreement. Regardless of whether it is required by state law, it is the best way to make sure each spouse’s interest is protected.

Though a prenuptial agreement is an agreement that is signed before marriage, sometimes similar agreements can be made after the wedding (called a post-nuptial agreement). To find out if a pre- or post-nuptial agreement is right for you, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Pandemic Relief: Retirement Account Owners Do Not Have to Take Required Distributions in 2020

Retirement account owners, many of whose retirement balances have been pummeled by a stock market drop due to the coronavirus pandemic, do not have to take mandatory withdrawals this year.

Federal law requires individuals who were age 70 1/2 before the end of 2019 to begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from their retirement plan in April of the year after they turned 70. (Note that those who were younger than 70 ½ at the end of 2019 can wait until they turn 72 to take RMDs) The amount of the distribution is based on the value of the account at the end of the previous year, but the funds you withdraw are treated as taxable income in the year you take the distribution.

The coronavirus pandemic caused the stock market to tumble, depleting many retirement accounts. RMDs for this year would be based on the value of the account at the end of 2019, when the account likely had more money in it because the stock market was at a high point. Although the market has rallied somewhat, it still isn’t back to where it was at the end of 2019.

Recognizing this, the coronavirus relief bill known as the CARES Act waives the requirement that individuals take RMDs from their non-Roth IRAs and 401(k)s in 2020. This includes any 2019 distributions that would otherwise have to be taken in 2020.  Waiving RMDs will allow retirees to retain more of their savings. The waiver applies to individuals taking RMDs from their own retirement accounts as well as people who have inherited retirement accounts.

Generally, it is considered a good idea to not take a withdrawal if you do not need to because leaving the money in the account allows it to continue growing tax-deferred. Taking a withdrawal can also increase your 2020 tax burden. However, there are circumstances where it may make financial sense to take an RMD, for example if you need the money to live on. In addition, if you know you are going to be in a much lower tax bracket in 2020, but expect your tax bracket to increase next year, it might make sense to withdraw the money now so you can pay taxes on the withdrawal at a lower rate.

If you already took an RMD, you may have the option to return it to the account it came from or another retirement account. Usually RMDs cannot be rolled over into another account, but because the CARES Act waived RMDs, they are considered voluntary distributions. This means they can be redeposited or rolled over into a new retirement account (including a Roth account) as long as you do it within 60 days. The IRS has provided guidance, waiving the 60-day rule if you took an RMD between February 1 and May 15 as long as you roll over the RMD by July 15, 2020. This type of rollover can only occur once per year, so if you rolled over a distribution within the previous 365 days, you cannot do it again.

For questions and answers about the RMD waiver, click here and here. To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Seniors Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic Have More Time to Apply for Medicare or Change Plans

The closure of Social Security offices has caused problems and worries for recently unemployed seniors who need to apply for Medicare after losing their employer coverage. In response, the federal government has announced that seniors affected by the crisis have additional time to enroll in Medicare or change plans.

With millions of people out of work and losing their employer health insurance due to the coronavirus pandemic, the need for Medicare coverage is critical. While it is possible for some seniors to apply for Medicare online, others need to provide more information, including individuals who did not sign up for Medicare Part B initially because they had health insurance through an employer. Seniors who are applying for Medicare Part B after losing their job need to provide proof of their employer policy along with their Medicare application to ensure they aren’t subject to substantial penalties. With Social Security offices closed, Medicare applicants may have difficulty figuring out how to submit the necessary information or getting answers to their questions about their application.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced changes to Medicare enrollment periods to help seniors affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Those who missed their opportunity to enroll in Medicare will have additional time to apply. CMS is providing “equitable relief” to seniors who:

  • were in their Initial Enrollment Period (IEP), General Enrollment Period (GEP), or Special Enrollment Period (SEP) between March 17, 2020, and June 17, 2020; and
  • did not submit an enrollment request to the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Seniors have until June 17, 2020, to submit an application. Applications can be submitted via fax to 1-833-914-2016 or mailed to the local SSA field office. Although SSA offices are closed for in-person service, offices are still processing applications received by mail. For the SSA’s Social Security Office Locator, go here: https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp.

For questions and answers on how to submit a Medicare application and what information is needed, click here.

In addition, CMS has announced an SEP for people to make changes to their Medicare Advantage and prescription drug plans if they missed the open enrollment period or a special enrollment period due to the coronavirus pandemic. The SEP is available until July 13, 2020.

For more information from CMS, click here.  Or, to learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.