Social Security Scams Keep Going

It seems like scammers have become more aggressive and a frightening tone has gotten more than one otherwise sensible person embroiled in them. Crooks are calling and telling people that their Social Security numbers have been suspended, and that they need the number and the person’s bank account information to issue a refund, says KKTV’s report “Social Security officials hope to combat scam.”

In addition to the aggressive angry voice, is the fact that the caller ID has been “spoofed” or made to appear that the person is actually calling from the Social Security Administration or another government agency.

Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, advises people to be very cautious and not to provide anyone with information like their Social Security number or bank account information to unknown people, either on the phone or over the Internet.

The SSA has launched a public service campaign warning about these calls, in the hope that consumers will realize that the SSA never makes threatening phone calls and never asks for gift cards in payment. The campaign is being run in conjunction with the Office of the Inspector General.

The scamming calls are nationwide. The message is clear: if you get this kind of a phone call, hang up.

While the SSA does occasionally call people, it’s usually someone who is working with the agency on an on-going matter, so that the call and the agent making the call is not a stranger.

Berryhill advises people that if they are contacted by someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration or the Office of the Inspector General, they should get the person’s name, their phone number and then hang up. If the same person calls again, hang up. It is more than likely to be a thief.

Contact the local Social Security office and find out if a call has been made to you. Never provide a caller with your Social Security number.

Some of the crooks are able to get information about people, including part of their Social Security numbers, and they call stating that they are asking only to verify the entire Social Security number. Again, if someone from Social Security was really calling, they would have that information and would not need it to be verified.

Reference: KKTV (March 22, 2019) “Social Security officials hope to combat scam”

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How Do I Cash in My Life Insurance Policy?

There are some drawbacks to using life insurance to meet immediate cash needs, especially if you’re compromising your long-term goals or your family’s financial future. Investopedia’s recent article “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy” says that if other options are not available, life insurance—especially cash-value life insurance—can be a source of needed income.

Cash-value life insurance, like whole life and universal life, builds reserves through excess premiums plus earnings. These deposits are held in a cash-accumulation account within the policy. You can access cash accumulations within the policy through withdrawals, policy loans, or partial or full surrender of the policy. Another alternative is selling your policy for cash, known as a life settlement. Note that although cash from the policy might be useful during stressful financial times, you could face unwanted consequences, depending on the method you use to access the funds.

You can usually withdraw limited cash from a life insurance policy, based on the type of policy you own and the insurance company. The big advantage is that the withdrawals aren’t taxable up to your policy basis, as long as your policy isn’t classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC). However, these can have unexpected or unrealized consequences. Withdrawals that decrease your cash value, could cause a reduction in your death benefits. This is a potential source of funds you or your family might need for income replacement, business purposes or wealth preservation. Cash-value withdrawals also aren’t always tax-free. If you take a withdrawal during the first 15 years of the policy, and the withdrawal causes a reduction in the policy’s death benefit, some or all of the withdrawn cash could be subject to tax. Withdrawals are treated as taxable, to the extent that they exceed your basis in the policy.

Withdrawals that reduce your cash surrender value could mean higher premiums to maintain the same death benefit, or the policy could lapse.

If your policy is determined to be an MEC, withdrawals are taxed, according to the rules applicable to annuities–cash disbursements are considered to be made from interest first and are subject to income tax and possibly a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you’re under age 59½ at the time of the withdrawal. Policy loans are treated as distributions, so the amount of the loan up to the earnings in the policy will be taxable and could also be subject to the pre-59½ early-withdrawal penalty.

Surrendering the policy can provide the cash you need, but you’re relinquishing the right to the death-benefit protection. You can sell your life insurance policy to a life settlement company in exchange for cash. The new owner will keep the policy in force (by paying the premiums) and get a return on the investment, by receiving the death benefit when you die.

To qualify for a life settlement, the insured must be at least 65 years old, have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years or less, and usually have a policy death benefit of at least $100,000. However, the taxation of life settlements is complicated. The gain in excess of your basis in the policy is taxed to you as ordinary income. In addition to the tax liability, life settlements usually include up to a 30% in commissions and fees, which reduces the net amount you receive.

If you are interested in learning more about tax planning or how your life insurance policy can affect your estate plan, speak with your local estate planning or elder law attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (January 9, 2019) “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy”

How to Be Smart about an Inheritance

While there’s no one way that is right for everyone, there are some basic considerations about receiving a large inheritance that apply to almost anyone. According to the article “What should you do with an inheritance?” from The Rogersville Review, the size of the inheritance could make it possible for you to move up your retirement date. Just be mindful that it is very easy to spend large amounts of money very quickly, especially if this is a new experience.

Here are some ways to consider using an inheritance:

Get rid of your debt load. Car loans, credit cards and most school loans are at higher rates than you can get from any investments. Therefore, it makes sense to use at least some of your inheritance to get rid of this expensive debt. Some people believe that it’s best to not have a mortgage, since now there are limits to deductions. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, since you’ll have less flexibility if you need cash.

Contribute more to retirement accounts. If the inheritance gives you a little breathing room in your regular budget, it’s a good idea to increase your contributions to an employer-sponsored 401(k) or another plan, as well as to your personal IRA. Remember that this money grows tax-free and it is possible you’ll need it.

Start college funding. If your financial plan includes helping children or even grandchildren attend college, you could use an inheritance to open a 529 account. This gives you tax benefits and considerable flexibility in distributing the money. Every state has a 529 account program and it’s easy to open an account.

Create or reinforce an emergency fund. A recent survey found that most Americans don’t have emergency funds. Therefore, a bill for more than $400 would be difficult for them to pay. Use your inheritance to create an emergency fund, which should have six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses. Put the money into a liquid, low-risk account, so that you can access it easily if necessary. This way you don’t tap into long-term funds.

Review your estate plan. Anytime you have a large life event, like the death of a parent or an inheritance, it’s time to review your estate plan. Depending upon the size of the estate, there may be some tax liabilities you’ll need to deal with. You may also want to set some of the assets aside in trust for children or grandchildren. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with experienced counsel on the use of the inheritance for you and future generations.

Reference: The Rogersville Review (March 21, 2019) “What should you do with an inheritance?”

Will Helps Avoid Problems and Expenses for Family

Having a will and an estate plan makes passing along assets much easier for the family. Having necessary documents like a power of attorney and a health care power of attorney lets the family make decisions for a loved one, who has become incapacitated. These are estate planning basics, as reported by WKBN 27 in the article “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”

Think of the will as a way to speak for yourself, when you have passed away. It’s the instructions for what you want to happen to your property, when you die. If there’s a will, the executor is responsible for carrying out your requests. With no will, a court will have to make these decisions.

Many people believe that if they don’t have a will, their spouse will simply inherit everything, automatically. This is not true. There are some states where the surviving spouse receives 50% of a decedent’s assets and the children receive the rest. However, the children could be offspring from outside the marriage. Not having a will, makes your estate and your family vulnerable to unexpected claims.

A will must contain certain elements, which are determined by your state’s laws and must be signed in the presence of two witnesses. Without the correct formalities, the will could be deemed invalid.

Lawyers recommend that everyone have a will and an estate plan, regardless of the size of your estate.

Young parents, in particular, need to have a will, so they can name a person to be guardian of their child or children, if they should both die.

Details matter. In some states, if you make a list and neglect to name specifically who gets what, using the term “children” instead of someone’s name, your stepchildren may not be included. State laws vary, so a local estate planning attorney is your best resource.

You should also be sure to talk with your spouse and your children about what your intentions are, before putting your wishes in writing. You may not feel totally comfortable having the discussion. However, if your intention is to preserve the family, especially if it is a blended family, then everyone should have a chance to learn what to expect.

Wills do become binding, but they are not a one-time event. Just as your life changes, your estate plan and your will should change.

Don’t neglect to update your beneficiary designations. Those are the people you named to receive retirement accounts, bank accounts or other assets that can be transferred by beneficiary designations. The instructions in your will do not control the beneficiary designation. This is a big mistake that many people make. If your will says your current spouse should receive the balance of your IRA when you die but your IRA lists your first wife, your ex will receive everything.

Here are the four estate planning documents needed:

  • A will;
  • A living will, if you need to be placed on life support and decisions need to be made;
  • A healthcare power of attorney, if you cannot speak for yourself, when it comes to medical decisions;
  • A durable power of attorney to make financial decisions, if you are incapacitated.

A local estate planning attorney can help you create all of these documents and will also help you clarify your wishes. If you have an estate plan but have not reviewed it in years, you’ll want to do that soon. Laws and lives change, and you may need to make some changes.

Reference: WKBN 27 (March 14, 2019) “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”

Estate Taxes, Death and a Other Certainties

As the old saying goes, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Many people don’t have the faintest idea of just how extensive those taxes can be, says Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “Death and taxes—and taxes and taxes.” For all the headlines and noise about federal estate taxes, those are the last ones most of us have to think about.

The federal estate tax is a non-event, unless you belong to the upper one percent of wealthy Americans. The federal tax is paid, based on the value of the assets owned by the decedent at the time of death. It also includes any assets that are controlled by the decedent at the time of death. The first $11.4 million is now excluded from any taxes due for an individual, and $22.8 million for a couple.

Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, this exemption was roughly $5 million, so many more people had to pay it. The levels are expected to go back to the pre-2018 amount at the end of 2025, unless the law changes before that time.

This is an important point to remember: the tax laws change, and anytime tax laws change, your estate plan should be reviewed to ensure that it is still going to work the way you intend.

In some states, like Pennsylvania, there are still inheritance taxes. Only six states have inheritance taxes, and only 12 states still have an estate tax. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s inheritance and estate taxes are and can help you plan, so that your family is not overly burdened when it comes time to pay these taxes.

Inheritance taxes are generally based on the value of the assets owned or controlled by the decedent. It is independent of the obligation to file an income tax return for the estate.

The decedent’s representative, usually the executor, is responsible for filling all state, local and federal income tax returns for the portion of the year, in which the decedent was still living.

When a person passes and their last will and testament is admitted to probate, the executor receives an employer identification number (EIN) from the IRS. If the decedent died owning a trust, the trustee must obtain an EIN. Once the EIN is obtained, the IRS sends a letter notifying you of the due date for the income tax return for the estate or the trust. These are known as “fiduciary income tax returns.” They must be filed every year for the year that the estate or trust exists.

Note that the tax returns involve federal capital gains tax and how assets purchased before death will be treated for tax purposes, when they are sold after death. Usually these are real estate and investments. There are a LOT of taxes to consider, each has a unique due date and there may be ways to pay some taxes that will have an impact on other taxes, depending upon the situation.

The key, and an estate planning attorney can help with this, is to create a plan that takes all the taxes into consideration and plans out a strategy to minimize taxes, ensure that everything is paid on time, and prepare for the taxes to be paid.

Ideally, all this planning takes place before someone dies, as part of their estate plan, so that their loved ones are not left figuring out all of the different tax liabilities and how to pay them.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 25, 2019) “Death and taxes—and taxes and taxes”

How Do I Make the Right Estate Planning Moves When I Divorce?

The Journal Enterprise explains in its recent article, “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced,” that the following tips will help you get your plans in order, so your final wishes will be carried out later.

Medical Power of Attorney. This is also called a healthcare proxy. This person is named to make decisions on your medical care, if you’re ill or injured and can’t state your medical care decisions. Unless you make the change, your ex-spouse will have this right.

Financial Power of Attorney. Like a healthcare proxy, this is someone you select to take charge, if you become incapacitated. This person has authority over your financial decisions, and it means they have the authority to pay your bills, access your bank and investment accounts, collect and cash your paychecks and make financial decisions for you. You want to be certain that your assets are protected, and your financial obligations are met, while you’re unable to act on your own behalf. Most people name a spouse, but if you get divorced and don’t switch this designation, your spouse will still be your financial power of attorney and will retain access to your finances.

Create a List of Things to Change After Your Divorce. A divorce can freeze some assets and accounts, which remains in effect until it’s finalized. Therefore, you won’t be able to change the beneficiary on life insurance policies, pensions and other types of accounts. Ask your estate planning attorney to find out exactly what accounts will be affected. Once you know which ones are frozen, you should make a list to ensure you won’t neglect to change them, when the divorce is finalized.

Modify Your Will. In some states, you may not be permitted to create a new will, but your attorney should still be able to help you make the necessary changes. You’ll want to review your heirs. If you do have minor children and you have sole custody, you may want to designate another person as their guardian. If you named your spouse as executor of your will, you may want to consider changing that.

Modify Your Trust. You may have a revocable living trust, in addition to a will. One of the advantages of a revocable trust is that it doesn’t go through probate, so your heirs get a bigger inheritance more quickly. If you have a revocable trust, talk to your attorney about changing it after your divorce.

If you don’t make these changes at the time of your divorce, your assets may not go to the right beneficiaries, or your ex-spouse may end up with rights you didn’t intend.

Reference: Journal Enterprise (March 20, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced”

Wills v. Trusts: What’s Right for You?

It’s a good idea to take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan to take care of your estate — no matter if it’s a condo apartment and a housecat or a big house and lots of money in the bank — just in case something unexpected occurs tomorrow. That’s the advice from AZ Big Media in the article “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts.”

Estate planning is the area of the law that focuses on the disposition of assets and expenses, when a person dies. The goal is to take care of the “business side” of life while you are living, so your family and loved ones don’t have to pick up the pieces after you are gone. It’s much more expensive, time-consuming and stressful for the survivors to do this after death, than it is if you plan in advance.

You have likely heard the words “trust” and “will” as part of estate planning. What are the differences between the two, and how do you know which one you need?

A will is the most commonly used legal document for leaving instructions about your property after you die. It is also used to name an executor — the person who will be in charge of your assets, their distribution, paying taxes and any estate expenses after you die. The will is very important, if you have minor children. This is how you will name guardians to raise your children, if something unexpected occurs to you and your partner, spouse or co-parent. The will is also the document you use to name the person who you would like to care for your pets, if you have any.

Burial instructions are not included in wills, since the will is not usually read for weeks or sometimes months after a person passes. It’s also not the right way to distribute funds that have been taken care of through the use of beneficiary designations or joint ownership on accounts or assets.

Another document used in estate planning is a trust. There are many different types of trusts, from revocable trusts, which you control as long as you are alive, and irrevocable trusts, which are controlled by trustees. There are too many to name in one article, but if there is something that needs to be accomplished in an estate plan, there’s a good chance there is a special trust designed to do it. An estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you need a trust, and what purpose it will serve.

Trusts can be used by anyone with assets or property.

A will can be a very simple document. It requires proper formats and formalities to ensure that it is valid. If you try to do this on your own, your heirs will be the ones to find out if you have done it properly.  If it is not done correctly, the court will deem it invalid and your estate will be “intestate,” that is, without a will.

Many people believe that they should put all their assets into a trust to avoid probate. In some cases, this may be useful. However, there are many states where probate is not an onerous process, and this is not the reason for setting up trusts.

A trust won’t eliminate taxes completely, nor will it eliminate the need for any estate administration. However, it may make passing certain assets to another person or another generation easier. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through this process.

Whether you use a will or a trust, or as is most common, a combination of the two, you need an estate plan that includes other documents, including power of attorney and health care power of attorney. These two particular documents are used while you are living, so that someone you name can make financial decisions (power of attorney) and medical health decisions (health care power of attorney) if you should become incapacitated, through illness or injury.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. Every person’s situation is a little different, and an estate planning attorney will create an estate plan that works for you and protects your family.

Reference: AZ Big Media (March 21, 2019) “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts”

What Happens to Social Security when Your Spouse Dies?

Mary is right to be concerned. She is worried about what will happen with their Social Security checks, who she needs to notify at their bank, how to obtain death certificates and how complicated it will be for her to obtain widow’s benefits. Many answers are provided in the article “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies” from Tuscon.com.

First, what happens to the Social Security monthly benefits? Social Security benefits are always one month behind. The check you receive in March, for example, is the benefit payment for February.

Second, Social Security benefits are not prorated. If you took benefits at age 66, and then turned 66 on September 28, you would get a check for the whole month of September, even though you were only 66 for three days of the month.

If your spouse dies on January 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that January Social Security check, even though he or she was alive for 28 days of the month.

Therefore, when a spouse dies, the monies for that month might have to be returned. The computer-matching systems linking the government agencies and banks may make this unnecessary, if the benefits are not issued. Or, if the benefits were issued, the Treasury Department may simply interrupt the payment and return it to the government, before it reaches a bank account.

There may be a twist, depending upon the date of the decedent’s passing. Let’s say that Henry dies on April 3. Because he lived throughout the entire month of March, that means the benefits for March are due, and that is paid in April. Once again, it depends upon the date and it is likely that even if the check is not issued or sent back, it will eventually be reissued. More on that later.

Obtaining death certificates is usually handled by the funeral director, or the city, county or state bureaus of vital statistics. You will need more than one original death certificate for use with banks, investments, etc. The Social Security office may or may not need one, as they may receive proof of death from other sources, including the funeral home.

A claim for widow’s or widower’s benefits must be made in person. You can call the Social Security Administrator’s 800 number or contact your local Social Security office to make an appointment. What you need to do, will depend upon the kind of benefits you had received before your spouse died.

If you had only received a spousal benefit as a non-working spouse and you are over full retirement age, then you receive whatever your spouse was receiving at the time of his or her death. If you were getting your own retirement benefits, then you have to file for widow’s benefits. It’s not too complicated, but you’ll need a copy of your marriage certificate.

Widow’s benefits will begin effective on the month of your spouse’s death. If your spouse dies on June 28, then you will be due widow’s benefits for the entire month of June, even if you were only a widow for three days of the month. Following the example above, where the proceeds of a check were withdrawn, those proceeds will be sent to your account. Finally, no matter what type of claim you file, you will also receive a one-time $255 death benefit.

Reference: Tuscon.com (March 13, 2019) “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies”

More Reasons Why You Need a Will

It doesn’t take very long for any newly-minted attorneys in the trusts and estates practice area to see what happens when there is no will, says the Daily Memphian in a to-the-point article titled “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t).” The stress on families, unnecessary expenses and assets going to the wrong people, can easily be prevented with an estate plan and a will. However, in case you still aren’t convinced, here are the top five reasons:

You have a family. For those who are married with children, the laws of intestacy take over, if you don’t have a will. Assets are divided between the surviving spouse and the children in most states (check with a local estate planning attorney for your state’s laws). In theory, that sounds fine. But there are three situations where not having a will can make a mess of things:

  • Minors and developmentally delayed heirs. Minors and individuals with special needs may not legally contract or represent themselves in court. Therefore, they cannot agree to the disposition of assets. When a minor or individual with special needs inherits assets directly, the court must appoint a neutral person, often an attorney, to oversee that person’s best interests. It may also require the appointment of a guardian, so the court can monitor the use of the assets in the child’s best interest, until they are of age.
  • Bad relationships between surviving spouse and children. Under intestate law, the spouse inheriting reduces the amount the children inherit. If the spouse is a second wife, this can make a bad situation worse. A will can plan out the distribution of assets to care for the spouse and ensure that the children receive the assets, as determined by their parent.
  • Extramarital children. Children who are not born to legally wed parents have the right to inherit, regardless of whether their parents were married. What if an unknown offspring shows up and demands his share? This does happen.

You hate your next-of-kin. Not every family is as happy as their Facebook photos. If you don’t want your lawful next of kin inheriting your assets, you need a will. Remember that as time passes and people enter and exit the family, through birth, death, marriage and divorce, the person who is your next-of-kin will likely change over time.

Do you want to give specific gifts? Under the intestacy laws, your relatives (next-of-kin) inherit your property in percentages that are based on their degree of relationship to you and the number of other relatives at that same degree. Outside of designating a beneficiary or joint owner of an assets, having a will that is properly prepared under the laws of your state, is the only way to ensure that you can determine who gets what.

You know how you want things to work after you die. If you want to have any control over what happens to your assets, how you want your funeral to be paid for, what you want to happen to personal property, etc., a will may be the best way to do this. The person named to be your executor is legally responsible to carrying out your wishes, unless it’s impossible, impractical or illegal for them to do so.

You have a living trust. If you took the trouble to have a living trust, then you should also have a will. You need, specifically, a “pour-over” will. This ensures that any assets not titled in the name of the trust at the time of your death, are transferred into the trust. Otherwise, your non-trust assets are subject to intestacy law.

The ONLY reason you may not need a will? If every single asset you own has either joint ownership or beneficiary designations. That’s very unusual, in part because it takes a lot of detail to make sure that every asset is titled correctly. You can leave real property to another person through a joint ownership deed, which establishes that person as the co-owner of the property. Accounts can be left to a person of choice, by naming a person as beneficiary.

Joint ownership and beneficiary designations do supersede the intestacy laws. However, what happens if a beneficiary dies before you do and you neglect to change the name on the asset? There are also gift and tax implications.

A will can be as complex or as simple as you want. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can make sure that your will and any other documents are prepared to achieve your wishes for your estate, protect your family, and don’t leave anything to chance.

Reference: Daily Memphian (March 8, 2019) “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t)”

Should Pets Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

Most of us don’t have the luxury (or the need) to leave our pets $12 million, but to make sure that our pets are cared for, having a legally enforceable trust for a pet, which is allowed in New York State, can provide peace of mind. That is part of the answer to the question posed by the Times Herald-Record in the article “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

A will is a document used in a court proceeding called probate, if you die with assets that are only in your name. When the will goes through probate, it becomes a public document. A trust, on the other hand, is a document that does not become part of the public record, unless it was created under a will. Some people use trusts for their beloved pets, to pay for their care and maintain their lifestyle. Some pets lead fancier lives than others!

Most people leave the care of pets in the hands of friends or relatives and hope for the best. Visit any animal shelter and you’ll see the animals whose owners could not take care of them, or whose friends or family members intended to take care of them, but for whatever reasons, could not care for them. Putting a pet trust into your estate plan, is a better way to care for pets, if you outlive them.

The pet trust has several steps, and an estate planning attorney will be able to set it up for you. First, you need to appoint a trustee of the trust funds. This person is in charge of the financial aspect of the trust, from paying vet bills, making sure pet health insurance premiums are paid, to providing money for the caretaker to buy supplies. It’s a good idea to have a secondary trustee, just in case.

Next, you name a caretaker of the pet. This person can be the same as the trustee, although it may be better to name a different person, to create some checks and balances on the funds. You can, if you like, give the trustee the right to appoint a caregiver or a back-up caregiver. Make sure you discuss all of these details with the trustee and the caregiver and their back-ups to be sure that everyone understands their roles, and all are willing to take on these responsibilities. Some pets can live a long time, and you want to have everyone understand what they are undertaking.

Third, you’ll need to designate the amount of money to be held in trust for the pets for medical care, daily living costs and support until the pet dies. Don’t forget to include the cost of burial or cremation.

Finally, name the persons or organizations you wish to receive any remaining funds.

An informal letter of instruction to both the trustee and the caregiver would be very helpful. Provide details on the pet’s personality, quirky behavior, preferences for food, treats, play and any information that will help all the parties get along well. You should also provide information on your pet’s vet, any registration numbers for microchips, medical and dental records, medications, etc.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (March 9, 2019) “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”