As mitigation measures related to COVID-19 ease, it will be interesting to see which practices and regulatory changes taken in response to the pandemic remain in place long-term. One of them might be relief from a sometimes-inconvenient requirement related to the administration of 401(k) plans.
A virtual solution
In IRS Notice 2021-40, the IRS recently announced a 12-month extension of its temporary relief from the requirement that certain signatures be witnessed “in the physical presence” of a 401(k) plan representative or notary public.
The original relief, which appeared in IRS Notice 2020-42, was provided primarily to facilitate plan loans and distributions under the CARES Act. However, the relief could be used during 2020 for any signature that, under regulations, had to be witnessed in the physical presence of a plan representative or notary public. This included required spousal consents. The relief was subsequently extended through June 30, 2021, under IRS Notice 2021-03.
Under the notices, signatures witnessed remotely by a plan representative satisfy the physical presence requirement if the electronic system uses live audio-video technology and meets four requirements established under the original relief:
- Live presentation of a photo ID,
- Direct interaction,
- Same-day transmission, and
- Return with the representative’s acknowledgment.
Signatures witnessed by a notary public satisfy the physical presence requirement if the electronic system for remote notarization uses live audio-video technology and is consistent with state-law requirements for a notary public.
As mentioned, IRS Notice 2021-40 further extends the relief — subject to the same conditions — through June 30, 2022. The notice also requests comments regarding whether permanent modifications should be made to the physical presence requirement. Comments are specifically requested regarding:
- The costs and other effects of the physical presence requirement and its temporary waiver,
- Whether the relief has resulted in fraud, coercion or other abuses,
- How the witnessing requirements are expected to be fulfilled as the pandemic abates,
- What procedural safeguards should be instituted if the physical presence requirement is permanently modified, and
- Whether permanent relief should use different procedures for witnessing by plan representatives or notary publics.
Comments should be submitted by September 30, 2021.
Going forward, the need for a signature may often relate to spousal consents. If your business recently established a 401(k), the plan may be designed to limit or even eliminate the need for spousal consents.
However, plans that offer annuity forms of distribution are still subject to the spousal consent rules. And other 401(k) plans must require spousal consent if a married participant wants to name a nonspouse as primary beneficiary. Feel free to contact our firm for more information on the latest IRS guidance addressing employee benefits.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
One advantage of inheriting an IRA from your spouse is that you’re entitled to transfer the funds to a spousal rollover IRA. The rollover IRA is treated as your own IRA for tax purposes, which means you need not begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) until you reach age 72. This differs from an IRA inherited from someone other than a spouse, when the entire IRA balance must be withdrawn within 10 years of the original owner’s death. (Note that different rules apply to IRAs inherited before January 1, 2020.)
But what happens if your spouse mistakenly named a trust as beneficiary of his or her IRA, or failed to name a beneficiary at all?
Correcting the mistake
According to IRS guidance, there may be strategies you can use to ensure that you receive the benefits of a spousal rollover. Typically, this guidance comes in the form of private letter rulings (PLRs), which cannot be cited as precedent but indicate how the IRS is likely to rule in similar cases.
In one example, as described in a 2019 PLR, a deceased person named a trust as beneficiary of his IRA and failed to name a contingent beneficiary. The trustee executed a qualified disclaimer of the trust’s interest in the IRA, as did the deceased’s son and two grandchildren. The IRS ruled that the deceased’s wife was entitled to complete a spousal rollover.
Other rulings have permitted similar strategies when deceased individuals have failed to designate a beneficiary, causing an IRA or qualified retirement plan account to be included in their estates.
Consulting a professional
Be aware that PLRs depend on the specific facts presented in each case, so consult with us before taking any action. However, these rulings indicate that, when loved ones make beneficiary designation mistakes, there may be strategies you can use to correct them.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
The executor’s role is critical to the administration of your estate and the achievement of your estate planning objectives. So your first instinct may be to name a trusted family member as executor. But that might not be the best choice.
Duties of an executor
Your executor will have a variety of important duties, including:
- Arranging for probate of your will (if necessary) and obtaining court approval to administer your estate,
- Taking inventory of — and collecting, recovering or maintaining — your assets, including life insurance proceeds and retirement plan benefits,
- Obtaining valuations of your assets if necessary,
- Preparing a schedule of assets and liabilities,
- Arranging for the safekeeping of personal property,
- Contacting your beneficiaries to advise them of their entitlements under your will,
- Paying any debts incurred by you or your estate and handling creditors’ claims,
- Defending your will in the event of litigation,
- Filing tax returns on behalf of your estate, and
- Distributing your assets among your beneficiaries according to the terms of your will.
Typically, family members lack the skills and time to handle all of these tasks on their own. They’re entitled, of course, to hire accountants, attorneys, financial planners and other advisors — at the estate’s expense — for assistance. But even with professional help, serving as executor is a big job that requires a substantial time commitment during an already stressful period. Plus, if your executor is also a beneficiary of your will, other beneficiaries may view that as a conflict of interest.
So, what are your options? One is to name a trusted advisor, such as an accountant or lawyer, as executor. Another is to appoint an advisor and a family member as co-executors. The advisor would handle most of the executor’s day-to-day responsibilities, while your family member would oversee the process and ensure that the advisor acts in your family’s best interests. (However, be aware that naming co-executors may result in delays and other issues.)
If you still haven’t decided who you should appoint at your estate’s executor, discuss the issues with us. We’d be pleased to help you make the right decision based on your circumstances.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
There are two trust types that don’t require one or more human beneficiaries: charitable trusts and noncharitable purpose (NCP) trusts. A charitable trust is the more common of the two, but an NCP trust could also be a formidable tool to help achieve your estate planning goals.
Defining an NCP trust
Historically, trusts were required to have human beneficiaries. Why? Because, for a trust to be valid, there must be someone to enforce it. Charitable trusts were the exception: The attorney general of the relevant jurisdiction was authorized to enforce the trust in the public interest.
Over the years, however, many U.S. states and a number of foreign jurisdictions have enacted legislation (including provisions of the Uniform Probate Code and the Uniform Trust Code) that authorizes NCP trusts.
These trusts may be used to achieve a variety of purposes, such as caring for a pet or other animal (including its offspring); maintaining a gravesite; providing for future graveside religious ceremonies (often referred to as “honorary” trusts); maintaining art collections, antiques, automobiles, jewelry or other personal property; and funding or otherwise sustaining a family business.
A trust may be an NCP trust even if the grantor’s children or other heirs will ultimately receive trust property as “remaindermen.” Suppose, for example, that you create an NCP trust to maintain and exhibit your art collection. After a specified time period — let’s say 20 years — the trust terminates and the collection is distributed to your children. The fact that your children will receive the art once the trust has fulfilled its purpose doesn’t change its character as an NCP trust. Nor does it render the trust valid or enforceable absent an applicable NCP trust statute.
To be valid, an NCP trust must meet certain requirements. Most important, it must 1) have a purpose that’s certain, reasonable and attainable, 2) not violate public policy, and 3) be capable of enforcement. Typically, an NCP trust is enforced by a designated “enforcer” — someone whose job it is to ensure that the trust’s purpose is fulfilled and who has the authority to bring a court action — and/or a “trust protector,” who’s empowered to modify the trust when its purpose has been achieved or is no longer relevant.
Choosing the right jurisdiction
The permitted uses of NCP trusts, as well as their duration, vary significantly from state to state, as do the powers of a trust protector or enforcer. Some states, for example, allow only pet trusts, honorary trusts or both. Other states authorize NCP trusts for most purposes, so long as they don’t violate public policy. Most states limit an NCP trust’s duration to a term of 21 years, although some permit longer terms or even “dynasty” NCP trusts of unlimited duration. Contact us for additional information.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
You may have good intentions in keeping a trust a secret from its beneficiaries. Perhaps you have concerns that, if your children or other beneficiaries know about the trust, they might set aside educational or career pursuits. Be aware, however, that the law in many states forbids this practice by requiring a trust’s trustee to disclose a certain amount of information about the trust to the beneficiaries.
More states enforce the Uniform Trust Code
The Uniform Trust Code (UTC), which now 34 states (and the District of Columbia) have adopted, requires a trustee to provide trust details to any qualified beneficiary who makes a request. The UTC also requires the trustee to notify all qualified beneficiaries of their rights to information about the trust.
Qualified beneficiaries include primary beneficiaries, such as your children or others designated to receive distributions from the trust, as well as contingent beneficiaries, such as your grandchildren or others who would receive trust funds in the event a primary beneficiary’s interest terminates.
Consider a power of appointment
One way to avoid UTC disclosure requirements is by not naming your children as beneficiaries and, instead, granting your spouse or someone else a power of appointment over the trust. The power holder can direct trust funds to your children as needed, but because they’re not beneficiaries, the trustee isn’t required to inform them about the trust’s terms — or even its existence. The disadvantage of this approach is that the power holder is under no legal obligation to provide for your children.
Turn to us for help
Before taking action, it’s important to check the law in your state. Some states allow you to waive the trustee’s duty to disclose, while others allow you to name a third party to receive disclosures and look out for beneficiaries’ interests. In states where disclosure is unavoidable, you may want to explore alternative strategies. If you have questions regarding trusts in your estate plan, please contact us.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused some people to contemplate their own mortality or that of a family member. For those whose life expectancies are short — because of COVID-19 or for other reasons — estate planning can be difficult. But while money matters may be the last thing you want to think about when time is limited, a little planning can offer you and your family financial peace of mind.
Action steps to take
Here are some (but by no means all) of the steps you should take if you have a short life expectancy. These steps are also helpful if a loved one has been told that time is limited.
Gather documents. Review all estate planning documents, including your:
- Revocable or “living” trust,
- Other trusts,
- General power of attorney, and
- Advance medical directive, such as a “living will” or health care power of attorney.
Make sure these documents are up-to-date and continue to meet your estate planning objectives. Modify them as appropriate.
Take inventory. Catalog all your assets and liabilities, estimate their value, and determine how assets are titled to ensure that they’ll pass to their intended recipients. For example, do you own assets jointly with your ex-spouse? If so, title will pass to your ex-spouse on your death. There may be steps you can take to separate your interest in the property and dispose of it as you see fit.
If you have a safe deposit box, make sure someone is authorized to open it. If you have a personal safe, be sure that someone you trust knows its location and combination.
Review beneficiary designations. Take another look at beneficiary designations in your IRAs, pension plans, 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts, insurance policies, annuities, deferred compensation plans and other assets. Make sure a beneficiary is named and that the designation continues to meet your wishes. For example, a divorced individual may find that an ex-spouse is still named as beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
Review digital assets. Ensure that your family or representatives will have access to digital assets, such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, social media accounts, websites, domain names, and cloud-based documents. You can do this by creating a list of usernames and passwords or by making arrangements with the custodians of these assets to provide access to your authorized representatives.
Gaining peace of mind
Although facing your own mortality can be difficult, great peace of mind can come from ensuring that your estate plan fulfills your wishes and minimizes the tax burden on your family. Contact us with any questions regarding your estate plan.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
Payable-on-death (POD) accounts provide a quick, simple and inexpensive way to transfer assets outside of probate. They can be used for bank accounts, certificates of deposit or even brokerage accounts. Setting one up is as easy as providing the bank with a signed POD beneficiary designation form. When you die, your beneficiaries just need to present a certified copy of the death certificate and their identification to the bank, and the money or securities are theirs.
Beware of pitfalls
POD accounts can backfire if they’re not coordinated carefully with the rest of your estate plan. Too often, people designate an account as POD as an afterthought without considering whether it may conflict with their wills, trusts or other estate planning documents.
Suppose, for example, that Sam dies with a will that divides his property equally among his three children. He also has a $50,000 bank account that’s payable on death to his oldest child. If the other two children want to fight over it, the conflict between the will and POD designation must be resolved in court, which delays the distribution of Sam’s estate and can generate substantial attorneys’ fees.
Another potential problem with POD accounts is that if you use them for most of your assets, the assets left in your estate may be insufficient to pay debts, taxes or other expenses. Your executor would then have to initiate a proceeding to bring assets back into the estate.
POD best practices
Generally, POD accounts are best used to hold a modest amount of funds that are available immediately to your executor or other representative to pay funeral expenses or other pressing cash needs while your estate is being administered. Using these accounts for more substantial assets could lead to intrafamily disputes or costly litigation.
If you use POD accounts as part of your estate plan, be sure to review the rest of your plan carefully to avoid potential conflicts. Contact us with any questions.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
If you’re like many people, you’ve worked hard to accumulate a large nest egg in your traditional IRA (including a SEP-IRA). It’s even more critical to carefully plan for withdrawals from these retirement-savings vehicles.
Knowing the fine points of the IRA distribution rules can make a significant difference in how much you and your family will get to keep after taxes. Here are three IRA areas to understand:
- Taking early distributions. If you need to take money out of your traditional IRA
before age 59½, any distribution to you will be generally taxable (unless
nondeductible contributions were made, in which case part of each payout
will be tax-free). In addition, distributions before age 59½ may be
subject to a 10% penalty tax.
However, there are several ways that the penalty tax (but not the regular income tax) can be avoided. These exceptions include paying for unreimbursed medical expenses, paying for qualified educational expenses and buying a first home (up to $10,000).
- Naming your beneficiary (or beneficiaries). This decision affects the minimum amounts you must withdraw from the IRA when you reach age 70½; who will get what remains in the account at your death; and how that IRA balance can be paid out. What’s more, a periodic review of the individuals you’ve named as IRA beneficiaries is critical to assure that your overall estate planning objectives will be achieved. Review them when circumstances change in your personal life, finances and family.
- Taking required distributions. Once you reach age 70½, distributions from your traditional IRAs must begin. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t retired. If you don’t withdraw the minimum amount each year, you may have to pay a 50% penalty tax on what should have been taken — but wasn’t. In planning for required minimum distributions, your income needs must be weighed against the desirable goal of keeping the tax shelter of the IRA going for as long as possible for both yourself and your beneficiaries.
Keep more of your money
Prudently planning how to take money out of your traditional IRA can mean more money for you and your heirs. Keep in mind that Roth IRAs operate under a different set of rules than traditional IRAs. Contact us to review your traditional and Roth IRAs, and to analyze other aspects of your retirement planning.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
What if the unthinkable happens and your spouse dies unexpectedly? Would you be prepared to cope emotionally and financially? As the surviving spouse, you’ll face several tasks and challenges.
First steps first
By no means complete, the following are areas that will need to be addressed:
Death certificates. One of the first things to do is obtain death certificates, which you’ll need to provide for various dealings with financial institutions and others. While it may be difficult to estimate how many death certificates will ultimately be requested of you, you’ll probably want to start with at least a dozen.
Notifications. You must get the word out to other interested parties, including your spouse’s employer, if applicable; credit card companies; life insurance companies; retirement plan and IRA administrators; the state motor vehicle agency; the state office for inheritance tax, if applicable; and your attorney.
Social Security benefits. If your spouse was receiving benefits, consult with the Social Security Administration as to the benefits available to a surviving spouse. Frequently, modifications are required if the survivor was the lower-earning spouse. Even if your spouse wasn’t receiving benefits yet, you may be eligible for survivor benefits, depending on your age and other factors.
Insurance. Don’t assume that everything about your insurance will stay the same. Review your various policies to ensure that you’ll have the optimal coverage going forward. Make whatever beneficiary changes are required.
Retirement plans and IRAs. You may face important decisions regarding employer retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, as well as traditional and Roth IRAs. For example, if your spouse had a traditional IRA, you can complete a timely rollover to an IRA of your own without owing any tax. Conversely, you might opt for a lump-sum payout from a 401(k) or IRA should you need the funds.
Investments. Review the investments that were owned solely by your spouse, as well as those you owned jointly. When you have time, sit down with your financial advisor to chart out a path for the future, focusing on changes in personal objectives, time horizon and risk tolerance.
Estate tax filing. Although federal estate tax returns generally are required for only the wealthiest individuals, you may choose to file a return to establish the value of inherited assets. Generally, the return is due within nine months of the date of the death.
Finally, review your estate plan
Once you’re over the initial shock of the death, sit down with your attorney and review your estate plan. You’ll likely need to make several revisions in areas where you named your spouse as beneficiary. If you need help during this difficult time, please turn to us at 205-345-9898.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
An IRA is a popular vehicle to save for retirement, and it can also be a powerful estate planning tool. Some people designate a trust as beneficiary of their IRAs, but is that a good idea? The answer: possibly.
The benefit of an IRA is that your contributions can grow and compound on a tax-deferred basis for many years. The longer you leave the funds in the IRA, the greater the potential growth, because taxes aren’t taking a bite out of the account. If you don’t need to tap your IRA funds during your life — other than required minimum distributions (RMDs) — you can stretch out its benefits even longer by designating your spouse or child as beneficiary.
For traditional IRAs, you must begin taking annual RMDs by April 1 of the year following the year in which you reach age 70½ (your “required beginning date,” or RBD). The distribution amount is calculated by dividing your account balance by your remaining life expectancy.
If you name your spouse as beneficiary, he or she can transfer the funds to a spousal rollover IRA and delay distributions until his or her own RBD. If someone other than your spouse inherits your IRA, that person must take distributions even if he or she hasn’t reached age 70½ but can stretch them out over his or her own life expectancy.
If you designate multiple beneficiaries, distributions will be based on the oldest beneficiary’s — that is, the shortest — life expectancy.
One thing you shouldn’t do, unless you have a specific reason, is designate your estate as beneficiary or fail to name a beneficiary at all. Under those circumstances, the IRA must be distributed to your heirs within five years (if you die before your RBD) or over your remaining statistical life expectancy (if you die after your RBD).
Why use a trust?
One reason to name a trust as IRA beneficiary is to prevent a loved one from emptying the account too quickly and defeating your tax-deferral purposes. Another, if you have children from a previous marriage, is to ensure that they’ll benefit from an IRA you leave to your current spouse.
If you decide to use a trust, be sure it’s designed properly to meet the requirements of a “see-through” trust. Otherwise, distributions will be accelerated as if you’d failed to name a beneficiary. To qualify, the trust must be valid under state law, be irrevocable (or become irrevocable on your death) and name only identifiable individuals as beneficiaries.
In addition, the trustee must furnish the trust documentation to the IRA custodian by October 31 of the year following the year of death.
Under the right circumstances, naming a trust as IRA beneficiary can be a good strategy. However, contact us before taking action. We can help assess your circumstances and determine if this is the right move for you. Contact us at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA