Articles Posted in Financial Planning

It is not everyday that important retirement and estate planning issues make their way into popular entertainment drama. One of the few exceptions was the movie “The Descendants” a few years ago which garnered widespread acclaim–and some Oscar awards–in a tale focused on a man who unexpectedly comes into control of vast land holdings in trust following his wife’s surprising death. The main character, played by George Clooney, is forced to grapple with a range of issue while dealing with feuding in-laws and uncertainty about his wife’s wishes.

One of the other exceptions is the massively-popular British drama Downton Abbey. The BBC program has been running for several seasons, with the most recent batch of episodes just finishing to high rating here in the United States. The story is set over the course of several years in the first part of the 20th Century, including the first World War and the decade or so afterward.

Much of the drama revolves around one family living off “old wealth” and the challenges presented in maintaining a large estate and transitioning for its transfer to another generation. Recently, a Wall Street Journal article offered an interesting take on some estate planning lessons that viewers can glean from the ups and downs depicted in the show surrounding the inheritance drama.

Advisor One shared a useful story this week that touches on an item commonly forgotten in wealth transfers, including those using trusts or other legal tools. It is critical to remember how insurance coverage might be affected by the transfer. That way, changes can be made immediately to guarantee that coverage is in good standing at all times. Sadly, as you might expect, this error is often only uncovered after some catastrophic accident, when insurance coverage is needed. The last thing anyone wants is that “oops” moment, when it is discovered that the coverage does not exist because of the previous transfer via trust or other tool (like an LLC).

The Basic Problem

Insurance policies are written to provide coverage to an owner or titleholder. This is the case for virtually all types of coverage, from home, automobile, and boats to collectibles. Problems arise, however, when a transfer is made and the insurance policy is not updated to reflect the change. For example, if a home is transferred into a trust, it is important to confirm that the proper changes are made so that the homeowners policy covers the new arrangement.

There are no shortage of articles discussing the need to get serious about planning for your retirement. Money is seemingly always tight, and taking a significant portion of assets and putting it away for another day is rarely an easy step. That is particularly true for middle class families who generally have much more pressure to ensure that income is sufficient to meet monthly bills. Of course, regardless of the difficulty, retirement planning is essentially for all of us–health and happiness in one’s golden years depend on it.

A recent New York Times article provides some helpful analysis of the “stages” that many go through in putting off retirement planning before eventually buckling down and getting it done. The author argues that the well-known five stages of grief are perfectly adept at describing the stages of long-term financial planning as well. Those five include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

At first, many deny that the task is all that important. The article suggests, for example, that the amount of money needed to be saved is usually far higher than most suspect–so much so that many simply deny that the saving requirements are accurate. When that figure is shown accurate, many get angry about the difficulty of planning for retirement. With so many daily financial pressures it sometimes seems unfair that planning for one’s retirement is such a burden.

The Daily Jeffersonian published a story recently on the bizarre details of a case involving a lottery winner’s apparent murder and the subsequent estate battle. Like the plot of a Hollywood crime drama, the tale includes a mysterious death, a series of hidden family feuds, and considerable money on the line. While quite dramatic, it is a vivid example of the difference that common sense estate planning can make in the aftermath of a death.

Money & Murder

The case centers of the estate of Urooj Khan who immigrated from India in 1989 and established several successful businesses. In 2010 he hit a jackpot and won a state lottery; his actual take-home from the winnings were about $425,000. According to reports, he planned on using the windfall to pay off his mortgage, expand his business, and donate a sizeable sum to a local children’s hospital.

Like the monster from a horror movie that will not stay still no matter what is thrown at it, there are already suggestions that the apparent “final” decisions related to the estate tax may not actually be all that final.

As we previously explained, as part of the fiscal cliff compromise bill certain estate tax issues were seemingly made permanent. The exemption level was kept at $5.12 million and indexed to inflation. The top rate was set at 40%. Both of these figures were less intrusive than that original proposals from the White House and far less severe than those mandated by the fiscal cliff itself. Many observers were happy with the outcome, no matter what their personal preferences, for the fact that it at least offered some stability. Having an uncertain tax rate is never a welcome prospect when planning for the future.

Also, as pointed out in a recent article discussed the estate tax components of the bill, the tax will continue to be “portable.” This means that one spouse may use their deceased spouse’s “unused” portion of the exemption level. This is a very helpful tool which allows more assets to pass tax-free without the need for more complex estate planning techniques.

Timing is of critical importance with estate planning matters. Obviously, a plan must be in place early enough to be of use before one falls ill or suffers from mental issues. For example, creating a will or trust may be impossible after one suffers a stroke or succumbs to serious effects of Alzheimers. This is why we continue to encourage residents to make plans early and consistently update them.

Time also factors into matters after a death. Many beneficiaries may face hardship if they are forced to wait months (or even years) to have an estate settled. One of the key benefits of an inheritance plan is to minimize the risk of a long delay between the actual passing on of assets, often focused on avoiding probate and preventing feuding.

Celebrity Example

Virtually everyone agrees that it is important to invest for retirement, take care of inheritance details, prepare for long-term care, and otherwise plan for the future. But there is a big difference between understanding the value of these tasks and actually taking the time to do it. Considering the financial and political stresses that come with caring for an aging population, figuring out how to motivate community members to do what is necessary to plan for the future is drawing more and more attention.

One new tactic stems from unique psychological research on financial motivation. In previous studies out of Stanford, experts found that one way to spur real action on long-term planning was getting individuals to visualize their future, elderly selves. Interestingly the researchers found the most benefit not when people just imagined themselves in old age but actually saw digitally enhanced images of themselves when they were older. The surprise of seeing their own face in old age was a real spur to stop putting off the necessary planning.

The lead researcher in the Stanford experiment summarized that, “People who see an age-progressed rendering of themselves are more likely to allocate resources to the future.”

You cannot turn on the TV, flip open a newspaper, or pull up a news website this month without seeing the words “fiscal cliff.” As many are aware, this refers to sweeping, mandatory federal tax and budgetary changes that are set to take effect January 1st unless the Congress and White House pass legislation with an alternative plan. Essentially the “cliff” is about $7 trillion worth of tax increases combined with significant spending cuts across the board–including everything from Medicare and Medicaid to the military.

What is interesting about the cliff is that virtually no one on either side of the aisle actually wants it to take effect. Instead, it was only put into place as a compromise over a previous debt ceiling legislative fight. The idea was that that the cliff would be so abhorant to both sides that its impending appearance would force a compromise. However, as the end of the year gets closer, more and more observers are worrying that even with the serious consequences of the cliff, no compromise is in sight.

Currently, the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders (most notably, the Republican House leaders) are trying to reach agreement on an alterantive to prevent the mandataory changes. As part of that effort, President Obama recently released his “first offer.” As summarized in a recent article, the offer is far from what the Republican leaders have proposed, so it is unlikely that it will be taken seriously. Essentially, it calls for around $1.6 trillion in tax increases over a ten year period–mostly related to expiration of the so-called “Bush tax cuts.” In addition, it calls for modest stimulus spending. The proposal would also permanently eliminate Congressional control over the debt ceiling level (which caused the current crisis to begin with).

Medical and technological breakthroughs in recent decades have impacted virtually every facet of life–estate planning is no exception. For example, many rules in the field hinge on definitions of legal heirs. In the past, it was pretty clear who those heirs were, typically biological or legally adopted children. When an indiviual dies intestate (without a will), then each state has specific default rules regarding what to do with the individual’s assets. Often the biological or legally adopted children receive part or all of those assets.

But it doesn’t end with inheritance rules. Many state and federal programs also use these definitions to make decisions about who qualifies for certain benefits. This includes the federal Social Security program. In many cases, when a parent dies, a family eligible for Social Security assistance for the minor children that remain following their parent’s passing. In the past there as little confusion over when a child did or did not qualify for those survivor benefits.

No longer. As recent of improvements in medical research have changed reproductive technology, the line between when a child is considered an heir and when they are not is blurred. That is perhaps best evidenced by a new case that is slated to go before one state court.

Concerns are rising among many in the financial and estate planning fields as the year winds down without any more clarity on the future of the estate tax. A recent post from Advisor One, for example, explained that the shrinking 2012 calendar means that there are less than three months until the “ticking estate tax time bomb” explodes.

Here’s the reality: without Congressional action, on January 1, 2013 the current $5.13 million exemption level will drop to $1 million and the current 35% top tax rate will increase to 55%. In other words, many more families will face an inheritance tax and the bite will be much stronger than in the past. While it may seem like any time is a good time for estate planning (that is true), it is undeniable that taking proactive steps in the next few months to plan for possible estate tax changes may prove incredibly beneficial down the road.

As the Advisor One post explains, that need to plan is critical because changes are undoubtedly coming no matter who wins the elections next month. Each Presidential candidate has very different ideas about the estate tax. On top of that, of course, a President cannot make changes to these laws on their own. The final partisan make-up of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate will play into any ultimate resolution. In addition, it is not just exemption levels and tax rates that are at issue. Different policymakers also have different ideas about what assets are or are not included in the “gross estate” which determines the amount to be taxed. For example, the President has suggested that he supports including certain assets held in grantor trusts in the estates.

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