You know you need to do some estate planning to properly protect yourself, your assets, and your loved ones. But is your plan complete, or did you leave a few key assets out of those documents by mistake?
Most people are unaware that retirement accounts are an important estate plan component. Fewer still understand the unique planning considerations you need to make with them. Most will and trust planning focuses on physical property, like your home, and liquid assets, such as investment accounts.
You probably named beneficiaries for your retirement accounts when you opened them. But do you know how they may impact your overall estate planning objectives? Has anything changed in your life since then that would affect their status as your beneficiary? What about the manner in which they receive these assets?
Retirement plans can make up a large portion of one’s estate. Due to the specific tax rules governing these assets at death, you must plan carefully to ensure these funds are integrated properly into your estate distribution plans and tax savings strategies.
Let’s start with some basic planning steps.
Keep Your Beneficiaries Up to Date
You do need to designate beneficiaries on retirement accounts. Otherwise, beneficiary designation may default to your estate, which is often one of the worst possible outcomes from a tax and planning perspective. Don’t skip this step – just make it a part of the overall estate planning process.
If your estate is named a beneficiary, then your heirs must wait until the probate process is completed before they can access your retirement accounts. That can be a painful process, not only from a time standpoint, but also due to the expenses and potentially adverse tax consequences. It is usually better to name an individual or a trust as your beneficiary. At a minimum, you’ll want to name a primary beneficiary and possibly contingent beneficiaries as well. Contingent beneficiaries are usually named in case your primary beneficiary also passes away when or before you do.
Some states require you to name your spouse as the beneficiary of your 401(k) account unless they give their explicit permission to name another individual (like a child or other relative) instead. Make sure you consider any rules you need to follow for naming beneficiaries to retirement accounts, and also consider who you name as a part of your larger estate planning strategy. Revisit your beneficiary designations after major life changes like marriage, divorce, or the birth or adoption of a child.
Or, Name a Trust as Your Beneficiary
Another option is to include a trust in your estate planning, rather than distributing retirement accounts directly to specific individuals. This can give you more control over the distribution of your retirement funds, while protecting your heirs from additional paperwork, taxes, and other hassles.
Trusts can also protect your heirs from themselves. If you know you want to leave some of your assets in retirement accounts to a relative with poor money management skills, you can use a trust to set up regular distributions from those accounts.
Regular trust distributions prevent a beneficiary from accessing their inheritance all at once. It may prevent them from making rash decisions with their newfound wealth. Trusts also work well if your beneficiaries include minor children, and you want to prevent them from accessing the full amount of the money until they become legal adults.
Don’t Forget About Distribution Rules
Your retirement plans come with rules around when you must start taking distributions from them. These are required minimum distributions (RMDs.) For accounts like 401(k)s you need to start taking RMDs at age 70 and ½. But if you pass away and leave retirement plans and accounts to your heirs, these rules apply to them instead – and they can be quite complex. Although a spousal beneficiary can simply roll over your retirement funds income tax-free into their retirement plan and make their own retirement plan distribution choices, other beneficiaries are not so lucky.
Understanding how the tax treatment and distribution options vary depending on who is receiving your retirement assets is a critical component in the overall estate planning process. Your beneficiaries may qualify for the Stretch IRA provision, allowing them to withdraw their inherited retirement plan assets over their life expectancy. Or they may be required to withdraw the entire balance within 5 years of your passing. Knowing which case applies can make a substantial difference in how much of your hard-earned retirement assets goes to Uncle Sam versus your intended beneficiaries.
Create a Smart Tax Strategy Around Your Retirement Accounts
The biggest concern you need to address around retirement accounts in your estate plan? Taxes. Retirement accounts are some of the most heavily-taxed assets you can pass on after your death. You should look at both your financial plan and your estate plan together. Determine how to withdraw from these accounts while you’re alive, and how to minimize tax consequences after you’re gone.
To do this, you need to work with both your financial advisor and your estate planning attorney. Your advisor should be able to recommend a withdrawal strategy to create a retirement income that is coordinated to with your social security claiming options, is based on your lifestyle objectives, your overall retirement income sources, and your tax status. Your advisor and attorney can cooperate to ensure your retirement assets are distributed in a tax-efficient manner that aligns with your wishes.