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ESTATE PLANNING: AN INTRODUCTION

By definition, estate planning is a process designed to help you manage and preserve your assets while you are alive, and to conserve and control their distribution after your death according to your goals and objectives. But what estate planning means to you specifically depends on who you are. Your age, health, wealth, lifestyle, life stage, goals, and many other factors determine your particular estate planning needs. For example, you may have a small estate and may be concerned only that certain people receive particular things. A simple will is probably all you’ll need. Or, you may have a large estate, and minimizing any potential estate tax impact is your foremost goal. Here, you’ll need to use more sophisticated techniques in your estate plan, such as a trust.

To help you understand what estate planning means to you, the following sections address some estate planning needs that are common among some very broad groups of individuals. Think of these suggestions as simply a point in the right direction, and then seek professional advice to implement the right plan for you.

Over 18

Since incapacity can strike anyone at any time, all adults over 18 should consider having:

  • A durable power of attorney: This document lets you name someone to manage your property for you in case you become incapacitated and cannot do so.
  • An advanced medical directive: The three main types of advanced medical directives are (1) a living will, (2) a durable power of attorney for health care (also known as a health-care proxy), and (3) a Do Not Resuscitate order. Be aware that not all states allow each kind of medical directive, so make sure you execute one that will be effective for you.

Young and single

If you’re young and single, you may not need much estate planning. But if you have some material possessions, you should at least write a will. If you don’t, the wealth you leave behind if you die will likely go to your parents, and that might not be what you would want. A will lets you leave your possessions to anyone you choose (e.g., your significant other, siblings, other relatives, or favorite charity).

Unmarried couples

You’ve committed to a life partner but aren’t legally married. For you, a will is essential if you want your property to pass to your partner at your death. Without a will, state law directs that only your closest relatives will inherit your property, and your partner may get nothing. If you share certain property, such as a house or car, you may consider owning the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. That way, when one of you dies, the jointly held property will pass to the surviving partner automatically.

Married couples

For many years, married couples had to do careful estate planning, such as the creation of a credit shelter trust, in order to take advantage of their combined federal estate tax exclusions. A new law passed in 2010 allows the executor of a deceased spouse’s estate to transfer any unused estate tax exclusion amount to the surviving spouse without such planning. This provision is effective for estates of decedents dying after December 31, 2010.

You may be inclined to rely on these portability rules for estate tax avoidance, using outright bequests to your spouse instead of traditional trust planning. However, portability should not be relied upon solely for utilization of the first to die’s estate tax exemption, and a credit shelter trust created at the first spouse’s death may still be advantageous for several reasons:

  • Portability may be lost if the surviving spouse remarries and is later widowed again
  • The trust can protect any appreciation of assets from estate tax at the second spouse’s death
  • The trust can provide protection of assets from the reach of the surviving spouse’s creditors
  • Portability does not apply to the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, so the trust may be needed to fully leverage the GST exemptions of both spouses

Married couples where one spouse is not a U.S. citizen have special planning concerns. The marital deduction is not allowed if the recipient spouse is a non-citizen spouse (but a $148,000 annual exclusion, for 2016, is allowed). If certain requirements are met, however, a transfer to a qualified domestic trust (QDOT) will qualify for the marital deduction.

Married with children

If you’re married and have children, you and your spouse should each have your own will. For you, wills are vital because you can name a guardian for your minor children in case both of you die simultaneously. If you fail to name a guardian in your will, a court may appoint someone you might not have chosen. Furthermore, without a will, some states dictate that at your death some of your property goes to your children and not to your spouse. If minor children inherit directly, the surviving parent will need court permission to manage the money for them.

You may also want to consult an attorney about establishing a trust to manage your children’s assets in the event that both you and your spouse die at the same time.

You may also need life insurance. Your surviving spouse may not be able to support the family on his or her own and may need to replace your earnings to maintain the family.

Comfortable and looking forward to retirement

If you’re in your 30s, you’re probably feeling comfortable. You’ve accumulated some wealth and you’re thinking about retirement. Here’s where estate planning overlaps with retirement planning. It’s just as important to plan to care for yourself during your retirement as it is to plan to provide for your beneficiaries after your death. You should keep in mind that even though Social Security may be around when you retire those benefits alone may not provide enough income for your retirement years. Consider saving some of your accumulated wealth using other retirement and deferred vehicles, such as an individual retirement account (IRA).

Wealthy and worried

Depending on the size of your estate, you may need to be concerned about estate taxes.

For 2016, $5,450,000 is effectively exempt from the federal gift and estate tax. Estates over that amount may be subject to the tax at a top rate of 40 percent.

Similarly, there is another tax, called the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, which is imposed on transfers of wealth made to grandchildren (and lower generations). For 2016, the GST tax exemption is also $5,450,000, and the top tax rate is 40 percent.

Whether your estate will be subject to state death taxes depends on the size of your estate and the tax laws in effect in the state in which you are domiciled.

Elderly or ill

If you’re elderly or ill, you’ll want to write a will or update your existing one, consider a revocable living trust, and make sure you have a durable power of attorney and a health-care directive. Talk with your family about your wishes, and make sure they have copies of your important papers or know where to locate them.

Some further information that should be considered:

Can I convert all or part of my term life insurance to permanent life insurance?

Question:

Can I convert all or part of my term life insurance to permanent life insurance?

Answer:

Yes, as long as you’ve purchased a convertible term life insurance policy. Keep in mind that convertible term life insurance usually has a conversion deadline, which is the date by which you must convert. And when you do convert your policy, you can expect your premiums to increase as you’ll have permanent and not term insurance. The new premiums will be based on your age; this may be either your current age or the age at the time you took out the policy (an original date conversion). If you convert to your original age, you’ll have to pay all back premiums and interest when you convert. The good news is that you won’t have to prove your insurability (e.g., through medical exams) at the time of conversion.

I smoke cigars occasionally, but not cigarettes. Will I pay smokers’ rates for life insurance?

Question:

I smoke cigars occasionally, but not cigarettes. Will I be charged smokers’ rates for life insurance?

Answer:

When determining life insurance rates, insurance companies focus on risk. Because smokers face an increased risk of death, insurance companies usually require them to pay more for life insurance coverage. But should someone who smokes a cigar once a week, for instance, pay the same rates as someone who smokes two packs of cigarettes per day? You’ll find that different insurance companies answer that question differently.

Some life insurance companies treat all smokers (cigar and cigarette aficionados) alike. Others place cigar smokers in a class of their own. Since life insurance rates can vary significantly among insurance companies, cigar smokers should do some research before buying coverage to identify those companies that treat cigar smokers more favorably. You can surf the Internet or ask your insurance agent for assistance. And remember, your insurance company may even lower your rates if you quit smoking for at least a year.

I own a business. Are there any creative ways I can use life insurance in my business?

Question:

I own a business. Are there any creative ways I can use life insurance in my business?

Answer:

You can use life insurance in several ways to help your business.

You might consider purchasing a key-person life insurance policy that covers the loss of services when a key employee or partner dies. The benefits can be used to cover any lost profit and the cost of replacing the employee or partner. The insurance is owned by your business, which also receives the benefits.

Another way to insure against the death of a business partner is through a buy-sell agreement. For example, three partners in a business each own the same amount of stock. One partner, Mr. Clark, dies, and his stock goes to his wife through his will. If the business had written a buy-sell agreement and funded it with life insurance, the surviving partners would have received a life insurance benefit when Mr. Clark died. The partners and Mrs. Clark could then have exchanged the life insurance benefit for the company stock.

Split-dollar life insurance is another benefit you can offer your employees while investing in your company. Here, the business purchases a life insurance contract on the life of an employee and shares the cost. If the employee dies, your business receives an amount equal to the premiums paid, and the employee’s beneficiary receives the remaining death benefit. If the policy is surrendered for any other reason, your business receives the cash value.

Deferred compensation that supplements a retirement plan is another option you might consider. Your company would buy a life insurance policy on the life of a key employee. The business is the owner and beneficiary. If the employee dies, the business receives the death benefit tax free. From the benefit proceeds, your business pays an annual sum to the employee’s survivors for a specified period.

Providing group life insurance as an employee benefit can also help your business by attracting and retaining employees. Group insurance is less expensive to purchase than individual insurance. Also, no medical exam may be required, depending on the size of your company. Here, the premiums are tax deductible to your business, and the benefits are paid directly to your employee’s beneficiary.

Do I need life insurance if I’m single?

Question:

Do I need life insurance if I’m single?

Answer:

Single people with no children often don’t need life insurance because no one is relying on their income. But there are some reasons why you might need life insurance if you’re single.

If you died, who would pay for your funeral? Even a simple ceremony could be costly. If you don’t have life insurance, someone else (e.g., your relatives) may have to foot these bills. Even if you have only a small policy, the death benefits could be used to cover these expenses.

Do you have debts in excess of your assets, or do you owe money together with someone else? Perhaps you’re a joint debtor with your sister on her mortgage. If you died, she’d be responsible for the entire debt. Would she be able to make the monthly payments on her own? A life insurance policy naming her as your beneficiary could give her enough funds to cover your share of the mortgage, or perhaps to pay off the entire debt.

Finally, is it possible that your health will deteriorate? Maybe you have a family history of cancer or heart disease. If that’s the case, you might have trouble buying life insurance later when you’re older, especially if your health has begun to decline. Even if you’re single now, you may be wise to buy life insurance now before it gets too expensive.