Avoid these four estate planning deadly sins

four estate planning deadly sins

According to literature, the “seven deadly sins” are lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy, and pride. Although individuals may be guilty of these from time to time, other types of “sins” can be fatal to an estate plan if you’re not careful. Here are four transgressions to avoid.

Sin #1: You don’t update beneficiary forms.

Of course, your will spells out who gets what, where, when, and how. But a will is often superseded by other documents like beneficiary forms for retirement plans, bank accounts, annuities, and life insurance policies. Therefore, like your will, you must also keep these forms up to date.

For example, despite your intentions, retirement plan assets could go to a sibling — or even an ex-spouse — instead of your children or grandchildren if you haven’t updated your retirement plan beneficiary form in a long time. Review beneficiary forms for relevant accounts periodically and make the necessary adjustments.

Sin #2: You don’t properly fund trusts.

Frequently, an estate plan will include one or more trusts, including a revocable living trust. The main benefit of a living trust is that assets don’t have to be probated and exposed to public inspection. It’s generally recommended that such a trust be used only as a complement to a will, not as a replacement.

However, the trust must be funded with assets, meaning that legal ownership of the assets must be transferred to the trust. For example, if real estate is being transferred, the deed must be changed to reflect this. If you’re transferring securities or bank accounts, you should follow the directions provided by the financial institutions. Otherwise, the assets may have to go through probate.

Sin #3: You don’t properly title assets.

Both inside and outside of trusts, the manner in which you own assets can make a big difference. For instance, if you own property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the assets will go directly to the other named person, such as your spouse, on your death.

Not only is titling assets critical, but you should also review these designations periodically, just as you should your beneficiary designations. In particular, major changes in your personal circumstances or the prevailing laws could dictate a change in the ownership method.

Sin #4: You don’t coordinate different plan aspects.

Typically, there are a number of moving parts to an estate plan, including a will, a power of attorney, trusts, retirement plan accounts, and life insurance policies. Don’t look at each one in a vacuum. Even though they have different objectives, consider them to be components that should be coordinated within the overall plan.

For instance, arrange to take distributions from investments — including securities, qualified retirement plans, and traditional and Roth IRAs — in a way that preserves more wealth. Also, naming a revocable living trust as a retirement plan beneficiary could accelerate tax liability.

Work with us to make sure your estate plan continues to meet your objectives.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Maximize your 401(k) plan to save for retirement

Maximize your 401(k) plan to save for retirement

Contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan can help you reduce taxes and save for retirement. If your employer offers a 401(k) or Roth 401(k) plan, contributing to it is a smart way to build a substantial sum of money.

If you’re not already contributing the maximum allowed, consider increasing your contribution rate. Because of tax-deferred compounding (tax-free in the case of Roth accounts), boosting contributions can have a major impact on the size of your nest egg at retirement.

With a 401(k), an employee makes an election to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by an employer on his or her behalf to the plan. The contribution limit for 2020 is $19,500. Employees age 50 or older by year-end are also permitted to make additional “catch-up” contributions of $6,500, for a total limit of $26,000 in 2020.

The IRS recently announced that the 401(k) contribution limits for 2021 will remain the same as for 2020.

If you contribute to a traditional 401(k)

A traditional 401(k) offers many benefits, including:

  • Contributions are pretax, reducing your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which can also help you reduce or avoid exposure to the 3.8 percent net investment income tax.
  • Plan assets can grow tax-deferred — meaning you pay no income tax until you take distributions.
  • Your employer may match some or all of your contributions pretax.

If you already have a 401(k) plan, take a look at your contributions. Try to increase your contribution rate to get as close to the $19,500 limit (with an extra $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older) as you can afford. Keep in mind that your paycheck will be reduced by less than the dollar amount of the contribution, because the contributions are pretax — so, income tax isn’t withheld.

If you contribute to a Roth 401(k)

Employers may also include a Roth option in their 401(k) plans. If your employer offers this, you can designate some or all of your contributions as Roth contributions. While such contributions don’t reduce your current MAGI, qualified distributions will be tax-free.

Roth 401(k) contributions may be especially beneficial for higher-income earners, because they don’t have the option to contribute to a Roth IRA. Your ability to make a Roth IRA contribution for 2021 will be reduced if your adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2021 exceeds:

  • $198,000 (up from $196,000 for 2020) for married joint-filing couples, or
  • $125,000 (up from $124,000 for 2020) for single taxpayers.

Your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA in 2021 will be eliminated entirely if you’re a married joint filer and your 2021 AGI equals or exceeds $208,000 (up from $206,000 for 2020). The 2021 cutoff for single filers is $140,000 or more (up from $139,000 for 2020).

Contact us if you have questions about how much to contribute or the best mix between traditional and Roth 401(k) contributions. We can discuss the tax and retirement-saving strategies in your situation.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Divorcing couples should understand these 4 tax issues

divorce planning

When a couple is going through a divorce, taxes are probably not foremost in their minds. But without proper planning and advice, some people find divorce to be an even more taxing experience. Several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are four issues to understand if you’re in the midst of a divorce.

Issue 1: Alimony or support payments.

For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)

Issue 2: Child support.

No matter when a divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).

Issue 3: Your residence.

Generally, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect the exclusion for the spouse who moves out.

If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.

Issue 4: Pension benefits.

A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO, the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.

More to consider

These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. If you own a business, you may have to pay your spouse a share. There are also estate planning considerations. Contact us to help you work through the financial issues involved in divorce.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Put pen to paper: How a letter of instruction can benefit family harmony

letter of instruction

You may view your will as the centerpiece of your estate plan. But other documents can complement it. For example, if you haven’t already done so, consider writing a letter of instruction.

Elements of the letter

A letter of instruction is an informal document providing your loved ones with vital information about personal and financial matters to be addressed after your death. Bear in mind that the letter, unlike a valid will, isn’t legally binding. But its informal nature allows you to easily revise it whenever you see fit.

What should be included in the letter? It will vary, depending on your personal circumstances, but here are some common elements:

Documents and financial assets.

Start by stating the location of your will. Then list the location of other important documents, such as powers of attorney, trusts, living wills, and health care directives. Also, provide information on birth certificates, Social Security benefits, marriage licenses, and, if any, divorce documents.

Next, create an inventory of all your assets, their location, account numbers and relevant contact information. This may include, but isn’t necessarily limited to, items such as bank accounts; investment accounts; retirement plans and IRAs; health insurance plans; business insurance; life and disability income insurance; and records of Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

And don’t forget about liabilities as well. Provide information on mortgages, debts, and other obligations your family should be aware of.

Funeral and burial arrangements.

A letter of instruction typically includes details regarding your funeral and burial arrangements. If you prefer to be cremated rather than buried, make that clear. In addition, details can include whom you’d like to preside over the service, the setting, and even music selections.

List the people you want to be notified when you pass away and include their contact information. Finally, write down your wishes for specific charities where loved ones and others can make donations in your memory.

Digital information.

As many of your accounts likely have been transitioned to digital formats, including bank accounts, securities, and retirement plans, it’s important that you recognize this change in your letter of instruction or update a previously written letter.

Personal items.

It’s not unusual for family members to quarrel over personal effects that you don’t specifically designate in your will. Your letter can spell out who will receive items that may have little or no monetary value, but plenty of sentimental value.

Final thoughts

A letter of instruction can offer peace of mind to your family members during a time of emotional turmoil. It can be difficult to think about writing such a letter — no one likes to contemplate his or her own death. But once you get started, you may find that most of the letter “writes itself.”

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Avoid “bad blood” among family members: Protect your will from legal challenges

Protect your will from legal challenges

You’ve probably seen it in the movies or on TV: A close-knit family gathers to find out what’s contained in the will of a wealthy patriarch or matriarch. When the terms are revealed, a niece, for example, benefits at the expense her uncle, causing a ruckus. This “bad blood” continues to boil between estranged family members, who won’t even speak to one another.

Unfortunately, a comparable scenario can play out in real life if you don’t make proper provisions. With some planning, you can avoid family disputes or at least minimize the chances of your will being contested by your loved ones.

Start at the beginning

Before you (and your spouse, if married) set the table for your will, which is the centerpiece of any comprehensive estate plan, discuss estate matters with close family members who’ll likely be affected. This may include children, siblings, adult grandchildren and possibly others. Present an outline regarding the disposition of your assets and other important aspects.

This doesn’t mean you should be specific about everything in the will, but it’s a good idea to provide a basic overview of your estate. Consider the input of other family members; don’t just pay lip service to their feedback. In fact, they may raise issues that you hadn’t taken into account.

This meeting — which may require several sessions — may head off potential problems and better prepare your heirs. It certainly avoids the kind of “shockers” often depicted on screen.

Means of protection

Although there are no absolute guarantees, consider the following methods for bulletproofing your will from a legal challenge:

Draft a no-contest clause.

Also called an “in terrorem clause,” this language provides that, if any person in your will challenges it, he or she is excluded from your estate. It’s often used to thwart contests to a will.

This puts the onus squarely on the beneficiary. If he or she asserts that the estate isn’t divided equitably, the beneficiary risks receiving nothing. Be aware that, in some states, this clause may not be enforceable or may be subject to certain exceptions.

Choose witnesses wisely.

You may want to use witnesses who know you well, such as close friends or business associates. They can convincingly state that you were of sound mind when you made out the will. You also may want to choose witnesses who are in good health, preferably younger than you and easily traceable.

Obtain a physician’s note.

A note from a physician about your health status is recommended. For instance, it can state that you have the requisite mental capacity to make estate planning decisions and thus will be useful in avoiding legal challenges.

Last but not least

After your will is drafted, don’t make the mistake of putting it in a safe where you may forget about it. Review it periodically with your attorney. By fine-tuning the will, you improve the likelihood that it’ll deter a legal challenge and, if necessary, prevail in court. Contact us with any questions regarding your will.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.