Posts Tagged ‘beneficiary designations’

Estate Planning is a Process, Not a Binder of Forms

JANUARY 23, 2017 VOLUME 24 NUMBER 4
There really is no question that it is important for almost every adult to have a will, and to consider signing both financial and health care powers of attorney. That is what we mean by “estate planning,” and it is important to go through the process of preparing those documents.

But that is not enough. There also are questions about beneficiary designations and other ownership arrangements. Some consideration should be given to whether a trust is necessary or important. And the whole process needs to be undertaken on a recurring basis. Signing your will is usually not the end of the process, and even when it is the whole thing needs to be reviewed again whenever you have major life changes.

Want a story that explains why you need to update your estate plan? Consider Robert Hendricks (not his real name) from Illinois. He was the father of two young sons. He and the mother of those two boys had recently undergone a difficult divorce. He wanted his sister to manage his estate, and to act as trustee for the benefit of his sons. He even signed a will making those changes — naming his sister as personal representative (executor), naming her as trustee for the boys’ benefit, and leaving his entire estate to the boys’ trusts.

Shortly after the divorce was finalized, Robert tragically took his own life. His sister initiated a probate proceeding, and his will was admitted to probate. But one of the Robert’s principal assets was his 401(k) plan, set up through his work. What would become of that retirement plan?

Robert’s 401(k) account simply did not name a beneficiary. In that case, would it pass to his estate, and thus to the trust for his sons? No, as it turns out.

Like many 401(k) plans, Robert’s spelled out what happens when no beneficiary is named. According to the plan’s summary documents, in that case the participant’s spouse would be the beneficiary, and if there was no spouse then the participant’s children would become beneficiaries. Since Robert’s divorce was final at the time of his death, that made his sons beneficiaries of his retirement plan.

Problem solved. That’s also what Robert’s will specified, right? Well, not quite. Robert’s will would have left all of his money in that trust, controlled by his sister. If his sons are the direct beneficiaries of his retirement plan, then their mother — Robert’s ex-wife — would have priority to manage the funds until the boys reached the age of majority.

Robert’s sister filed a petition with the probate court, asking to be named as the custodian of the retirement accounts for the benefit of the boys as specified in the will. The probate court agreed, and ordered the proceeds paid into accounts under Robert’s sister’s control. The boys’ mother objected, and appealed the decision.

The Illinois Court of Appeals disagreed, and overruled the probate court’s order. The appellate judges noted that Robert’s ex-wife, as the only parent of the two boys, had the clear priority to serve as conservator of their funds, or custodian of any money in a Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) account, or in any other capacity.

Furthermore, the proceeds from Robert’s 401(k) were not within the control of the probate court, said the appellate judges. His will did not control where the proceeds went, since the summary plan documents themselves made clear that they went directly to the beneficiaries. The Court of Appeals directed the probate court to reverse its order and leave Robert’s sister out of the loop with regard to his retirement assets. Estate of Hintz, January 10, 2017.

Robert’s story is illustrative of a problem we see on a regular basis. If a client carefully considers his or her estate planning, and signs documents perfectly calculated to accomplish their goals, the inquiry (and, often, our task) is not completed. Beneficiary designations and titling arrangements can undo the best-laid plans. What’s worse: even if everything gets done, and done right, at the time of our office appointment, changes in documents, life arrangements or circumstances can undo the good work of careful estate planning.

All of that is why we ask a lot of questions about insurance beneficiaries, retirement arrangements, and financial account titling. That is also why we ask clients to come back and visit with us every five years or so — or, as in Robert’s case, when they get divorced, have children, get married, change employment arrangements or have other major life changes.

Estate planning is not a set of documents. It is a process, and it continues, morphs and develops over time.

You Have a Trust — Now You Need a Beneficiary Designation

MARCH 21, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 11

You have decided to create a revocable living trust, naming your oldest daughter as successor trustee. Your trust directs that, upon your death, $10,000 is to go to each of your grandchildren, $50,000 to the Good Intentions charity, and everything else will be divided equally among your three children. So what should you put on your IRA beneficiary designation?

You might already have recognized that we just served up a trick question. There is, sadly, not an easy and obvious answer — at least not on the basis of the information spelled out so far.

It is going to be hard to tell you the correct (or even the best) answer here, but let’s look at some of the options. As you consider them, you might want to have your IRA custodian’s actual beneficiary designation form at hand. Don’t have one with you? Not a problem: you can probably download the form. Most major financial institutions offer their forms online — here are forms for Vanguard, Fidelity, TIAA-CREF. Look for your IRA custodian before we move on. We’ll wait.

Here’s something we notice about your IRA custodian’s form: it isn’t terribly flexible. Want to designate two charities? You might need to attach a separate sheet. Want to try to leave dollar amounts (“up to the first $100,000”)? You might not be able to do it at all. But let’s still look at some of the options. For the moment, we’re going to assume that you do not have a living spouse — but we’ll come back to that later.

You could just leave the IRA to the trust. This has several advantages. It’s straightforward. It lets you make any other changes you want in the trust document, and you’ll never have to fill out the beneficiary designation form again. It automatically takes care of a batch of follow-up questions unaddressed on the beneficiary designation form (like “what happens if a beneficiary is under age 18?” or “what happens if one of my beneficiaries dies before me?”).

It should be said that there are some problems with naming a trust as beneficiary. For one, the named beneficiaries might have to take all their inherited IRA money out slightly faster than if they had been named individually. For another, you might be assured — again and again — that you “can’t” name the trust as beneficiary, or that you incur extra tax liability if you do (this is incorrect, but common, advice). You’ll need to arm yourself with enough understanding that you don’t succumb and make more changes later.

So how do you actually name the trust? The online forms we looked at tell you to put down the name of the trust (“The Jones Family Trust”) and its date. Check the appropriate box (is this a current trust, or one created under your will?). Leave blank the space for a tax identification number if your trust uses your Social Security number.

You could just leave the IRA to your children. Let your trust fund the $10,000 for each grandchild, and the $50,000 to charity. The IRA could just pass to your children. The good news: it’s pretty straightforward to fill out the form (just list the three children, put 33.33% as to each and, probably, check the “per stirpes” box to make sure that any deceased child’s share goes to his or her children). The bad news: any share of the IRA designated to your child with a disability, or a spending problem, or a greedy spouse — will go outright to that child. It might cause other financial problems, but that might not be an important consideration.

You could leave the IRA to Good Intentions. It turns out that IRAs are particularly good resources for any charitable inclinations you might have. Why? Because the charity doesn’t have to pay any income tax on the IRA proceeds. But you are leaving a flat dollar amount to the charity, rather than a percentage — and most of the beneficiary designation forms assume percentages. So you have to either create a personalized beneficiary designation (and hope your custodian will accept it), or adjust the amount you leave to the charity outside the IRA, or modify your estate plan every year or two as your IRA grows and shrinks.Still, this approach might make sense. How to carry it out? Just put the charity in as beneficiary. Ask them for their tax ID number (they’ll give it to you). And watch the IRA balance every year to make sure you’re leaving the right amount (not too little, not too much) to Good Intentions.

You could leave the IRA to your grandchildren. You’re planning on leaving a small amount to each grandchild anyway, and leaving it in an IRA for most of their lives would allow it to grow, tax free, for years. But they will have to withdraw small sums every year after your death, so it can actually complicate things (especially if they are under age, or not yet ready to manage their own funds).Want to use this approach? Just list each grandchild, with date of birth. Pay attention to new additions (by birth or adoption). Make a decision about step-grandchildren, and monitor familial relationships accordingly. Review your beneficiary designation every year or two.

But what about your spouse? We promised we’d come back to this. For most people, in most circumstances, it makes sense to name your spouse as the primary beneficiary. Most of the specific items we’ve listed here will fit under the “Secondary Beneficiaries” or “Contingent Beneficiaries” section of the form.Why is this important? You probably want the account to benefit your spouse first. You might need your spouse’s approval to make any other arrangement. There are significant income tax advantages a spouse has over other beneficiaries (well, most other beneficiaries). But everyone’s situation is different, so make sure you explore this with your estate planning attorney before changing the beneficiary designation.

This looks pretty easy, right? What could go wrong? Well, how about this, or this. Be careful out there. Are you our client? Let us help you with the beneficiary designation form. Not our client? Talk to your estate planning lawyer.

IRA Beneficiary Designation Raises Ambiguity About Intent

JANUARY 6, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 1

Here’s an estate planning question we get asked a lot: if you have created a revocable living trust and transferred essentially all of your assets to the trust’s name, should you also make the trust beneficiary of your IRA, 401(k) and other retirement accounts? It’s a great question, and difficult to answer without referring to your own situation. Does your trust  continue for the benefit of children or grandchildren? Are there charities named as beneficiaries in your trust? Are you single? If you are married, is the trust a joint trust between you and your spouse? Do you have an estate large enough to be taxable? Are your children about the same age, or is there a significant age span among them? Are they going to receive your estate in equal or unequal shares? All of those questions and a few more are important when deciding whether to make your trust the beneficiary of your IRA.

We were thinking about this issue while reading a recent case decided by the Arizona Court of Appeals. It involved a substantial IRA and a change in the precise language of the beneficiary designation shortly before the owner’s death. The case ultimately turned on the evidence of the owner’s actual intention, but the unintended ambiguity introduced in the beneficiary designation should give every IRA owner (and every estate planner) pause.

Frank Merriwether (not his real name) married Melissa late in life, after the death of his first wife. Melissa died, tragically, of breast cancer just five years after their marriage. Frank wanted to leave something to the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson, hoping that research into breast cancer causes and treatment might make a difference in the future.

Frank and Melissa had established a joint trust which, upon Melissa’s death, divided into two separate trusts. One, the “Survivor’s Trust,” could be amended by Frank. If he did not amend it, the Survivor’s Trust indicated that fixed dollar amounts would be divided among several recipients, including $100,000 to the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. After those specific distributions, the residue of Frank’s share of the trust would be distributed to a “Charitable Trust” described in the trust document — a trust set up as charitable lead trust.

Shortly before Melissa’s death, Frank changed the beneficiary designation on his IRA account to name Melissa as first beneficiary, and the “[Merriwether] Charitable Trust as specified in [the trust document]” as contingent beneficiary. After Melissa’s death, he changed the beneficiary designation to the “[Merriwether] Charitable Trust as specified in para 8 of [the trust document].” Part of his thinking, according to the financial adviser who handled his IRA, was that he could make future changes in the beneficiary designation by amending his trust, without having to fill out the paperwork with the stock brokerage acting as IRA custodian.

A few years later Frank’s financial adviser changed firms. As part of the shift to the new brokerage company, Frank’s beneficiary designation was changed to the “charitable organizations as called out in the [Merriwether] Survivors Trust UAD 6-1-2005.” That, according to Frank’s stockbroker, was intended to refer to the charitable trust in Frank’s trust document, and to, again, allow him to make beneficiary changes without having to fill out the beneficiary designation form. Shortly after that form was completed, Frank amended his trust to make the Arizona Cancer Center the sole beneficiary of the charitable trust. Frank died just six weeks later.

As successor trustee of the trust, Frank’s nephew made a distribution of $100,000 to the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. The Church, however, argued that it was one of the “charitable organizations as called out in the” Survivor’s Trust, and should share in part of the rest of the distribution. The trustee disagreed, and the dispute went to court.

The trial judge ruled that the beneficiary designation was ambiguous, and that it could consider other evidence of Frank’s intention in deciding what the designation meant. With the testimony of his stockbroker, it was clear that Frank intended the money to go to the Arizona Cancer Center, and the judge ordered the trustee to follow his wishes. St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church appealed.

The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge. The appellate judges agreed that the evidence of Frank’s intention was clear, after consideration of his stockbroker’s testimony. The only real question was whether it was permissible to consider that evidence. The general rule of law, ruled the appellate court, is that you look only to the written documents to determine intent — unless the evidence is ambiguous, in which case you can consider other evidence. In this case, the language of the beneficiary designation created an ambiguity that permitted the stockbroker to explain Frank’s wishes. The church lost, and was even ordered to pay a portion of the University of Arizona’s legal fees. In the Matter of the Estate of Maynard, November 21, 2013.

We always try to extract deeper meaning from the appellate cases we describe. Is there a broader lesson for someone in Frank’s position, or for the stockbroker, or for the lawyer (we can only assume that a lawyer was involved) who prepared Frank’s estate plan? Perhaps we can suggest a couple of points:

  1. When changing beneficiary designations — even if it is a simple change occasioned (as Frank’s was) by a change from one IRA custodian to another — it might make sense to send the new beneficiary designation to your lawyer for review and suggestions. Frank’s earlier beneficiary designations looked much better than the final one, and his lawyer might have made a simple suggestion that could have saved tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
  2. When naming a trust as beneficiary of an IRA, it is easier if you can name the entire trust, perhaps like this: “The Jones Family Trust Dated ______, as it may be amended from time to time.” Of course, that wouldn’t have accomplished Frank’s intention. If a sub-trust of the Jones Family Trust is being named as beneficiary, it makes sense to give it a name in the trust document and then refer to that name. That’s essentially what Frank’s first beneficiary designation did, and the second one was even better.
  3. When you are leaving a substantial IRA to a sub-trust, you might consider creating a separate, stand-alone trust. If, for example, Frank had created the Merriwether Charitable Trust Dated ____, his main trust could then have left a share to that trust — and his IRA beneficiary designation could have named that separate trust, leaving no room for ambiguity.

Of course, all of this assumes that it is appropriate to name the trust as beneficiary of the IRA in the first place, and that isn’t always the case. That takes us back to our opening observation — this question is very fact-specific, and be very careful about how you handle beneficiary designations.

How To “Fund” Your Revocable Living Trust

APRIL 15, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 15
We keep bumping into versions of the same story:

“Mom and dad created a revocable living trust. They wanted to avoid probate, and my sister lives in a group home because she is developmentally disabled. The trust named me as trustee, and my sister’s share goes into a special needs trust. Problem is, they named the kids as beneficiaries on their IRAs, and the house wasn’t transferred into the trust. Is that going to cause any difficulties?”

In a word: yes. Two kinds of difficulties, in fact:

  1. Not transferring assets to the trust (like the house) means that the probate avoidance value of the trust is lost altogether. Probably we will have to file a probate proceeding to transfer the house to the trust — and then it can be distributed properly. The good news is that those assets they DID transfer into the trust won’t be subject to the probate proceeding. The bad news: there will still have to be a probate proceeding. Your parents failed in their goal to avoid probate.
  2. The IRA beneficiary designations create a different difficulty. The other kids will get their shares of the IRA just fine, even though your parents didn’t use the trust. But your sister’s share will go outright to her, and will cause her to lose her eligibility for at least some public benefits — and we will probably have to have a court proceeding (in Arizona, a conservatorship) to get you or someone else authority to handle her inherited IRA. Plus we may have to have a related court proceeding to set up a special needs trust (we can’t use the one that your parents created) to receive those funds — and if we do, that trust will get paid back to the state when your sister dies. In other words, your parents also failed in their goal to provide protection for your sister’s inheritance.

How did this happen? Didn’t the creation of the trust address both kinds of problems?

No. Creation of the trust was one thing. Funding of the trust is another.

“Funding” is the term lawyers usually use to describe all the different kinds of things that have to be done to get assets titled in the name of a revocable living trust. It is an essential part of the process, and usually is part of the job taken on by the lawyer who drafted the trust. Not every lawyer agrees, but we at Fleming & Curti, PLC, feel that we have not completed our job unless we have at least initiated the process of getting assets transferred to the trust. The practical effect: even after you sign your estate planning documents, you may still be working with our office for weeks or months to get the “funding” done.

Some assets are fairly easy. The house title (at least for Arizona properties) is easy for us to prepare. If there is out-of-state real property, we may need to involve a lawyer from the state where the property is — but even that is usually a fairly modest cost.A lawyer in, say, Indiana might transfer Indiana property to the Arizona trust at a low cost, hoping that we will return the favor the next time she has an Arizona property to transfer into an Indiana trust (we probably will).

Other assets can be more complicated. Your bank, credit union or brokerage house may resist changing accounts into the trust’s name. Some may flat out refuse. Some will appear to have done it right, but then later decide that the title hasn’t actually been changed at all (and they may not tell us).

Then there are the assets that get changed after the trust is signed. If you have refinanced your home mortgage, or purchased a certificate of deposit from a new financial institution, or talked to your “personal banker” about accounts, you might well have signed new title documents. You often will not even realize that that is what you were doing — no one ever says: “you know, if you sign this document it might just mess up your trust funding — you should talk with your estate planning attorney first.” We wish they would say just that.

Some assets get overlooked. Did you remember that you inherited a 5/24 interest in some oil and gas rights in Texas? Did you tell us about the small bank account you kept in your hometown bank when you moved to Arizona 23 years ago? Did you even remember that you had a life insurance policy from your time in the military at the end of World War II?

Then there are the beneficiary designations. Life insurance, IRAs and other retirement accounts and annuities almost always have them. Bank and brokerage accounts and, in Arizona and a handful of other states, even real estate can have them. Our clients are forever tinkering with them — you go to a seminar, or listen to the bank manager explain the value of annuities, or talk to a tax preparer who assures you that lawyers are overpriced, and then the beneficiary designation gets disconnected from the rest of your estate plan.

Don’t panic. (“Towel Day,” incidentally, is May 25 — go ahead and look it up. We’ll wait.) The problem might not be insoluble.

It would be best, of course, if we could get things right while you’re still alive. Haven’t met with your lawyer in five years? Make an appointment, gather up all the statements, titles and beneficiary designations you can, and sit down to review the funding of your trust. Not every beneficiary designation should name the trust in every situation. Not every account will actually be held the way you believe it is, or the way your lawyer believes it should be.

Even if you don’t get it straightened out while you’re still alive, there may be things your heirs can do. In Arizona, up to a total of $50,000 (that may be changing to $75,000 in a few months, incidentally) can be collected into your trust without having to do a full-blown probate. Up to $75,000 of real property (soon to be $100,000) can be collected in a simplified probate proceeding, too. There are rules and limitations, but many problems of failure to fund trusts can be taken care of through those provisions of law. Not in Arizona? We don’t know for sure (we don’t practice in your state), but there are similar rules in most, perhaps all, states.

Thank goodness your lawyer is such a nice person, and the staff is so pleasant. That makes it easier to follow up, even after you’ve already signed your revocable living trust.

Divorced, Separated or Filing Soon? Think About Your Estate Plan

JULY 23, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 28
We’re sorry to hear about your marriage breaking up, and we know you have a lot of other things on your mind. But could we get you to think about your estate plan for a moment? We suspect that in the process of getting divorced or separated, you haven’t given it any thought.

At Fleming & Curti, PLC, we have seen a number of cases where a separated or recently divorced spouse has died without having taken care of estate planning. If you have recently gotten divorced or legally separated, or if you or your spouse have recently filed, you should consider the effect of this major life change on your will, living trust, beneficiary designations and custody arrangements set up for your children. In fact, we wish you would think about it for a moment if you have ever gotten divorced — a number of the cases we have handled have involved someone who didn’t get around to making appropriate changes for years after the divorce. Here are some of the issues you should think about, and discuss with either your divorce lawyer or your estate planning attorney:

Default state law. In Arizona (and in some other states — but we don’t practice law in those states) there is a statute that says divorce causes your ex-spouse to be treated as if he or she died before you. So if your will leaves everything to your husband, and then you get divorced, he should be treated as having died, which means your will now leaves everything according to the alternate provisions you spelled out. Same thing for life insurance beneficiary designations — even joint tenancy titling in real estate. If you would like to read the Arizona law on divorce and estate planning, it is available online.

But don’t rely on that law. There are a number of problems with doing so, and they are mostly not things the legislature could even fix if they tackled the issues. For instance: what about a decree of legal separation? In Arizona, that is not a divorce — the spouses are still married. The law assumes that if they wanted to really sever all rights they might have in one another’s estates, they would have gotten divorced (or had the marriage annulled). Consequently, a decree of legal separation will not have the same effect.

What about people who want their ex-spouses to receive property even though they have gotten divorced? We do see this — fairly often, in fact. Because of the presumption that the divorce effectively changed the spouses’ estate plans, if you want to leave anything to an ex-spouse you would be well-advised to sign a new will (or trust) and make it clear that your divorce has not changed your wishes.

What about couples who are not yet divorced, but who are in the middle of filing? Perhaps they have even been involved in a protracted, bitter legal struggle — but until the divorce is final, they are not divorced for purposes of estate planning. So if you are in the process of getting divorced, you would be well advised to talk with your lawyer (either the divorce lawyer or your estate planning lawyer) about what you should do between now and the finalization of the divorce decree. But note: there is a related rule which kicks in automatically in every pending Arizona divorce proceeding. It prevents the spouses from making any transfers of property or changing ownership arrangements (you can read the automatic “preliminary injunction” online), so be very careful about how you change your estate plan. The more contested the proceeding, the more urgent the need to make the change — and the more dangerous it can be to do it. So talk to your lawyer(s).

Federal law. Some kinds of property are not governed by the Arizona law treating divorced spouses as having each died before the other. The most important illustration: benefits governed by ERISA, (known to its friends as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974). Even if your divorce decree says, for instance, “husband gives up all rights he may have in wife’s retirement account at XYZ, Inc.” it may not be effective. It is critically important that you make sure that (a) your divorce decree qualifies as a QDRO (a Qualified Domestic Relations Order) and that you have taken steps to formalize the change in beneficiaries and (b) you actually get a new beneficiary designation in place. Again and again we see long-divorced spouses who have never gotten around to changing the beneficiary on their work-sponsored insurance or retirement plans, and whose ex-spouses end up with the benefits.

Look at your decree — and show it to us. Suppose your divorce decree requires you to maintain life insurance payable to your kids. Fifteen years later, after a remarriage (and the birth of two more kids by your second spouse) you decide to update your estate plan. We tell you what changes we want you to make in your life insurance beneficiary designation. Do you think we need to know about your almost-forgotten divorce decree before actually making those changes? You bet we do — and you need to remember to look at it from time to time, too, if it contains any instructions which might continue to apply to you.

Custody of your children. Maybe you were in a bitter divorce, and you think your ex-spouse is really not a good parent. Can you provide that someone else gets custody of your children on your death?

Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make any provisions for guardianship. What if your ex-spouse dies before you, or chooses not to seek custody after your death? You should have a conversation with your estate planning attorney about guardianship, even if your expression of preference may not be effective. It might turn out to have been important.

You need new powers of attorney. Just as your ex-spouse ceases to be your heir after the divorce, he or she also loses the role as agent under both your financial and health care power of attorney (under Arizona law, at least). But that could mean that you haven’t named an agent at all — and the last thing you want is for your new spouse, or your brother or sister, to be fighting with your ex-spouse about whether the documents are valid. You need to sign new powers of attorney — in fact, we think it is even more important that you do that while the divorce is pending (since the automatic rules have not yet kicked in).

What about your joint revocable living trust? Oh, what a good question. This one often requires some close communication between your divorce and estate planning attorneys. You need to separate assets and estate plans, but you have to be careful not to violate that automatic preliminary injunction we talked about earlier. Get both attorneys talking to one another (and maybe your spouse’s divorce attorney, too) as early as possible. And if your joint trust is irrevocable (as it might be, for instance, if it holds life insurance), the problems can be even more difficult, and cooperation more important.

How are step-kids treated? Remarrying someone who brings children into the marriage? You need to talk with us about how to treat your step-children (and maybe other step-relatives). The legal system makes some assumptions about how you want your children treated; those same assumptions may not apply to step-children, and so you need to be especially careful — and specific — in order to get your wishes recognized.

That’s just a sampling of some of the estate planning issues we see in cases involving divorced — or divorcing — spouses. There are a lot more issues out there, and some of them are very complex. For us, the key is communication: you need to tell us about your marital history, and we need to let you know why that can be important.

Retirement Account Is Community Property But Need Not Be Split Equally

MAY 21, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 20
Arizona is one of the nine U.S. states which recognize “community property” (a tenth, Alaska, allows couples to voluntarily create community property interests). The other eight community property states: California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

Mention community property to a lawyer who has never studied or practiced in one of the community property states, and you are likely to see a twitch at the corner of his or her eyes. There is much mystique about how community property works, but it is actually pretty straightforward: all property acquired during the period of a marriage is presumed to be community property, and therefore belongs half to each spouse. In the event of divorce, the courts will probably unwind the community interest by dividing each asset in half — though it may be possible (depending on state law) to segregate assets so that roughly half the total value of community property goes to each spouse.

But of course the devil is in the details. There are lots of ways in which the simple statement of community property principles can get confusing.

The probate estate of Frank Kerns (not his real name) demonstrated one such confusion. Frank left a widow, a son from his first marriage, and an Individual Retirement Account (an IRA). He and his second wife had been married for several years, and at first he had named his wife as the sole beneficiary of his IRA. At some point, however, he changed the beneficiary designation on his IRA, naming his son as beneficiary as to 83% of the account, and his wife as beneficiary as to the other 17%. That was how the beneficiary designation read when he died.

Frank’s widow brought an action in probate court, arguing that community property rules made one-half of the IRA hers — and that Frank could not change the beneficiary designation as to “her” half. She asked the probate judge to order that she was the beneficiary of her half, and that the maximum amount Frank could leave to his son was the other 50%. The probate judge agreed.

The Arizona Court of Appeals did not agree with Frank’s widow. Or, rather, the appellate court did not agree with the conclusion of the argument. Frank’s son and widow agreed that the IRA was community property, but the Court of Appeals adopted Frank’s son’s interpretation of what that meant for the IRA.

Some community property states have adopted what is often called an “item” theory of community property. Under that analysis, one-half of each community property item belongs to each spouse, and if that theory applied to Frank his widow would be right. He would not have the power to name his son as beneficiary for anything more than what we might think of as “his” share of the IRA.

But the Court of Appeals decided that Arizona has embraced an alternate approach, generally referred to as the “aggregate” theory of community property. Under that analysis, Frank owned one-half of all the couple’s assets taken together — but so long as his widow received at least one-half of the aggregate community assets, she could not complain about what he had done with “his” half of the aggregation. Since Frank’s widow may have received some other assets (perhaps by beneficiary designation, or payable-on-death titling), the appellate court remanded the case back to the probate judge for a determination of whether “her” share of the couple’s assets had been properly protected.

Frank’s widow also argued that IRA and other retirement accounts should receive special treatment. Retirement funds, she insisted, are intended to provide for the care of the beneficiary and his or her spouse — and it should not be permissible to direct them to children or others except in unusual circumstances. The Court of Appeals was not persuaded, holding that all assets left to a spouse are intended to help provide for the spouse. In re the Estate of Kirkes, March 8, 2012.

So is community property really hard to understand, or are the principles difficult to apply? Not really. States where community property principles are not relevant also have complications and exceptions. But the basic rules are clear in both kinds of states: in community property states, property acquired during the marriage is generally presumed to be community property unless it was acquired by gift or inheritance. Property owned before the marriage generally remains separate property of the spouse who brought it into the marriage — unless he or she does something to convert it into community property. And then there are those details.

How To Avoid Probate — And What Doesn’t

APRIL 23, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 16
Let us try to demystify probate avoidance for a moment. Note that for the purposes of this description, we are not going to argue with you about whether avoidance of probate is good, bad, desirable or a foolish goal — we start here with the assumption that probate avoidance is important. Another day, perhaps, we will discuss with you whether you ought to be concerned about probate avoidance.

Definition of terms first: probate is the court process by which your estate is settled and distributed to your heirs (if you have not made a valid will) or your devisees (if you have). Confusingly, “probate” is also the term applied (in most states) to the court where probate proceedings, guardianship, conservatorship and sometimes even civil commitment and adult adoptions are conducted. We are not talking here about how to avoid probate court altogether, but just about how to keep your estate from having to go through the probate process upon your death.

Arranged (more or less) from least desirable to most, here are some of the ways to avoid probate of your estate upon your death:

Die poor. In Arizona, an estate consisting of up to $75,000 of personal property can be collected by the people who claim to be entitled to it without the need of a probate court proceeding. The affidavit for collection of personal property is widely available and usually free. Your survivors can use it to transfer title to your auto, or to collect small bank (or other financial) accounts. The statute providing for collection of small estates also provides a mechanism for the surviving spouse to get a decedent’s last paycheck, and for beneficiaries to transfer title to real property up to another $100,000 in value. Most other states have a similar law, but with dollar limits that vary widely. [Note: the small estates numbers were updated to the figures listed here by the Arizona legislature in 2013.]

Give it all away. One sure-fire way to avoid probate: give everything to your kids (or whomever you want to receive your stuff) now. The main problem with this approach should be obvious — what if they won’t let you live in your house any more, or withhold the interest you counted on them returning to you each month? Things change: you might change your mind about leaving everything to that child, or to all your children. The child you transfer assets to might marry someone you don’t trust. Worse yet, that child might die — leaving you at the mercy of his or her spouse and children. Maybe you and the child you give your stuff to will end up disagreeing about when you need to go to a nursing home, or whether you ought to get married late in life, or even take in a roommate.

As an aside, it amazes us how often clients come to us after having given everything to their children. Things so often do not work out as planned. This is a very poor way to handle your estate planning — but it would avoid probate. We hear that those new-fangled strap-on jet packs avoid traffic jams, too — but we don’t recommend them as a means of getting to the doctors office.

Joint tenancy. People often refer to this method of holding title by its formal name: “joint tenancy with right of survivorship.” That makes the value of the title pretty clear — the surviving joint tenant(s) own the deceased joint tenant’s portion of the property upon death of one joint tenant. You can have more than two joint tenants — upon the death of any one, the survivors’ interests all increase. We liken this arrangement to a tontine — a lovely idea that combines the best elements of estate planning and lotteries.

Lawyers generally discourage the use of joint tenancy in estate planning. The problems are less obvious than simply giving away your stuff, but they are still real. You might later decide that the child you established the joint tenancy with should get a larger or smaller share of your estate — but the joint tenancy is always, by definition, an equal ownership interest with all the other joint tenants. People who favor joint tenancy as an alternative to good estate planning invariably, in our experience, seem to think it would be OK to name just one child as joint tenant, and to trust her (or him) to divide the property among siblings. That often works just fine — but it often leads to family disputes when the children have different expectations or understandings.

Other problems with joint tenancy: you subject your property to the creditors, spouses and business partners of the child you put on your title. You lose the power to refinance your home, to cash out your certificate of deposit, or to liquidate your government bonds — more accurately, you lose the power to do those things unless your joint tenant will also go to the title company or the bank with you and sign willingly.

Lawyers tend to dislike joint tenancy, except in one circumstance. Many people own their property in joint tenancy with spouses (homes are especially likely to be titled in that fashion), and we lawyers generally think that is alright. In Arizona, there is another alternative between spouses that we like a little better: community property with right of survivorship. That conveys some income tax benefits to a surviving spouse while still avoiding the necessity of any probate on the first spouse’s death.

Beneficiary designations. You probably have a beneficiary (maybe multiple beneficiaries) named on your life insurance policy, on any annuities you have been talked into buying, and on your retirement account (if there is any death benefit included). Did you know that you can do the same thing with bank accounts, stocks and bonds, and even (in Arizona and a handful of other states) real estate?

  • POD (payable on death) bank accounts — you can designate a POD beneficiary (some banks use the acronym ITF — “in trust for” — and it means the exact same thing) who has no current interest in your account but receives it automatically upon your death. You can even name multiple POD beneficiaries. And you can do this at banks, credit unions, savings and loans. Caution: if you go to your bank and say “I heard that there’s a way I can put my son’s name on my bank account” the clerk will almost always hand you a joint tenancy signature card. Make clear that you’re talking about POD designations — they are used less commonly but are a better fit for most people.
  • TOD (transfer on death) for stocks and bonds — there is a designation similar to the bank POD account for stocks, bonds, brokerage accounts and mutual funds. It is usually referred to by its acronym, TOD. It is actually more flexible than the POD designation available to banks — it allows you to designate what happens if a TOD beneficiary should die before you, for instance. Talk to your stockbroker about this titling arrangement if you think it might be a good idea for you — but talk to your lawyer first.
  • Beneficiary deeds for real estate — this one is available in only about a dozen states, but Arizona is one of those. It is like a POD or TOD designation for real estate — including your home. It only works on real estate located in Arizona or one of the other beneficiary deed states. The beneficiary deed conveys no current interest in your property, but avoids probate and vests directly in your beneficiary upon recording of your death certificate. You and your spouse can, for example, own your home as community property with rights of survivorship but upon the second death automatically transfer to your children in equal shares (with provisions about what happens if one of them should not survive both of you) upon the second death. We have written about beneficiary deeds in Arizona before, and our earlier explanations are still valid (even though our newsletter style has been updated).

What’s wrong with these beneficiary-based devices? Two things, at least: (1) they don’t provide for what happens if you make life changes that effectively adjust your estate plan (if, for instance, you live off of one account that was to go to one or two children, and thereby reduce their share of the estate) and (2) they make it hard to change your estate plan (if you decide to disinherit a child, for instance, you have to make sure to change all of the operative documents and titles). But in the right circumstance, beneficiary designations can effectively transfer your estate without probate — they act as a sort of a “poor man’s” trust.

Trusts. Which gets us to the most efficient way to avoid probate for most people — the living trust. To be clear, the trust doesn’t really avoid probate at all — but your trust assets do not have to go through the probate process and so anything you have transferred during life to the trust will avoid probate. It is the “funding” of the trust that avoids probate, not the trust itself.

So there you have it. Probate avoidance in a nutshell. But wait — what’s not on that list? Did you notice? There is so much confusion about the missing item, which does not avoid probate:

Making a will. Preparing and signing your will is a good thing to do. It avoids intestate succession, which might not be right for you. It designates who will be appointed by the court to act as your personal representative. It can name the person who will be your children’s (or your incapacitated spouse’s) guardian. It can even create a trust. But it does not avoid probate.

Your will is instead instructions to the probate court. It has no effect unless and until it is admitted to probate, which another way of saying that a court has determined that it really is your last will. Clients frequently say: “thank goodness I’ve signed my will today. Now I can sleep better knowing my children won’t have to go through probate.” We say: “sit down. We have some more talking to do. Obviously we have failed to get you to understand the distinction between wills and probate avoidance.” Then we talk about living trusts.

We have more information in our YouTube channel on this subject: .

Did that help? Do you have a better idea for probate avoidance (we’ve left a couple of less common methods off)? We’d love to hear from you.

We Take a Stab at Some Of Our Common Legal Questions

FEBRUARY 21, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 6
We get asked plenty of general legal questions. We try to give helpful answers, recognizing that we can not give specific legal advice to non-clients (and particularly to questioners from outside Arizona, where we are licensed to practice law). Often our best answer is “check with a local lawyer familiar with the appropriate area of law.” Unsatisfying, but it really is the right answer in many cases.

Still, we want to get general legal concepts out to the public. Why? Because we think it makes non-lawyers recognize when the legal problem they face is too complex for self-help, and it even helps make the questioner a better client when they do get to the lawyer’s office.

What kind of legal questions can we answer? very general ones. Like these, which are some of our most common questions:

Does my living trust need a new tax ID number? The best way to answer this is probably to explain when a trust doesn’t need its own “Employer Identification Number” (EIN — even if the trust isn’t an “employer,” that’s the kind of tax ID number it will get).

General rule: every separate entity requires its own TIN, whether that is a Social Security number (for you) or an EIN (for your corporation, trust, LLC, or whatever). First major exception to the general rule: if your trust is revocable, and you are the trustee, for tax purposes it is not a separate entity at all — you don’t need an EIN and, in fact, you shouldn’t get one.

Now let’s make it a little more complicated. If your trust is irrevocable, or you are not the trustee, the rules are a little harder to parse. The key question is whether your trust is a “grantor” trust. If it is, and if there is only one grantor (or one married couple), then it does not need an EIN. If it is not, or if there are multiple grantors, it must have its own EIN.

Note that whether or not the trust needs (or is even permitted to get) an EIN is not the same question as whether it has to file a separate tax return. That one is more complicated, and we’ll save it for another day.

Can a revocable trust be named as beneficiary of an IRA? Yes, but be careful. This is something you should discuss with your attorney or your accountant (or both).

Before we talk about naming your trust as the beneficiary, we have a question for you: what are you trying to accomplish by naming the trust as beneficiary? If your trust divides equally and distributes outright among a fairly small number of beneficiaries upon your death, why not just name those beneficiaries on the IRA as well as in the trust? Then you don’t have to figure out the rules on naming a trust as beneficiary, and you don’t have to keep wondering if you’ve done it right.

Maybe you have a child who is ill, or a spendthrift, or needs to have his inheritance placed in trust. In that case — and in a few other cases — it can make sense to name your trust as beneficiary of your IRA. Now you need to become familiar with the difference between what lawyers usually call “conduit” trusts and “accumulation” trusts. The former require distribution of any money received from the IRA’s minimum distribution requirements each year, and the latter allow (but do not require) the IRA distributions to accumulate. The distinction is important; the accumulation trust will require distributions on the basis of the oldest possible beneficiary of the trust. That is the result in most cases where a trust is named as beneficiary.

These same rules apply, by the way, for other tax-qualified accounts, like 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Some advisers will tell you it is not even permitted to name a trust as beneficiary of an IRA or qualified plan. They are wrong, but the rules are a little difficult to figure out in individual cases. Also, some account custodians (that is, the bank or financial institution where the money is held) may limit or even prohibit trusts as beneficiaries.

How does community property work in Arizona? Nine U.S. states are usually listed as the “community property” states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In addition, Puerto Rico recognizes community property, and Alaska allows couples to choose community property treatment of their joint assets.

But what does it mean to have property held as community property? In Arizona, it means that the property is jointly owned, that each spouse has an equal interest, and that either spouse has the right to manage the property on behalf of the community.

When one spouse dies, his (or her) half int0erest in the community property normally passes according to his will or, if he did not sign a will, to his children (including those who are also children of the surviving spouse). To avoid that result couples are permitted to specifically designate their property as “community property with right of survivorship.” If that title has been used, the surviving spouse receives the entire community asset on the first spouse’s death. Note that the different community property states treat the right of survivorship differently, and we are only describing Arizona’s approach here.

It is also possible for a portion of an asset to be subject to community rights. This might happen, for example, if one spouse brought the property into the marriage but mortgage payments were made during the period of marriage from community income or assets. This kind of calculation is usually much more important in divorce proceedings than upon the death of one spouse.

Property received by inheritance or gift, and property owned before the marriage, are not community property — they are the separate property of the recipient or owner. Couples can choose to convert their community property into separate property, and can even agree that property acquired in the future will be treated as separate property.

Thanks. But I have a different question to ask. Go ahead — pose your question as a comment here, and we’ll try to answer it. Don’t be too surprised if we tell you that it is too specific, or requires knowledge of another state’s laws, or we can’t answer it for some other reason. But we’ll try to be helpful.

One word of caution: do not give us a detailed fact pattern and ask us for advice. We simply can not provide individual legal advice — free or even for a fee — based on unsolicited e-mails or comments. You will not have any lawyer/client privilege for your recitation of the facts, and we will not be able to help with that kind of inquiry. We do welcome your general questions that give us a chance to explain legal principles, though.

Trust Named as IRA Beneficiary? Here’s How it Works

OCTOBER 18, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 32
Three weeks ago we wrote about how to leave an IRA (or other qualified retirement plan) to a special needs trust for your child who has a disability. Two weeks ago we wrote about whether you should (and how you would) name any trust as beneficiary of an IRA. At the risk of getting too technical for most readers, this week we are going to tread lightly where few have gone before: let us explain what happens after you have named a trust as beneficiary of your IRA, and what choices the trustee of your trust might face.

First we have to clarify a couple of often-misunderstood concepts. We will write here about IRAs, but the same rules will apply to pretty much any “qualified” retirement plan. That means 401(k), 403(b), Keogh, SIMPLE, SEP-IRA and other plans will follow the same rules. Different tax rules apply to Roth accounts, but some of the same distribution principles will apply. For convenience, though, we will keep talking about IRAs.

There are actually several stages of IRA we might discuss. Let’s distinguish among them:

  • A regular IRA is “owned” by the contributor. There may be some community property rules in the state in which the contributor resides, or some marital rights attaching to the IRA in non-community property states, but for tax purposes the contributor “owns” the IRA.
  • One choice your beneficiary may have after your death is to “roll over” your IRA. If your beneficiary is your spouse, he or she can roll the IRA over into a new IRA in their name. This, incidentally, is where the IRA/401(k) (and etc.) distinction gets muddy; your spouse can roll your 401(k) account over into a new IRA. Those IRAs, whatever their source, are usually referred to as “roll-over” IRAs.
  • Spouses are not the only ones who can roll IRAs into a new account. Non-spouse beneficiaries can also do something similar, and the resulting accounts are often called “roll-over” IRAs, too. But they are different. They are also “inherited” IRAs (see below), and the beneficiary must begin withdrawing money from an inherited IRA immediately.
  • If a non-spouse beneficiary leaves your IRA right where it is, they become the owner but the IRA is now an “inherited” IRA. They can designate a beneficiary in case they die before withdrawing all the IRA funds, but any beneficiary will have to make withdrawals at your beneficiary’s rate. So, in other words, you name your 45-year-old daughter as beneficiary, you die, she names her 22-year-old son as her beneficiary, and upon her death he has to withdraw based on her actuarial life expectancy, not his own. She might have decided to move your IRA to another custodian; in that case she has an IRA that is both a “roll-over” and an “inherited” IRA.

With that background, the Internal Revenue Service has recently clarified how this all can work if you name a trust as beneficiary of your IRA. In Private Letter Ruling 201038019, issued on September 24, 2010, the IRA gave guidance to an individual taxpayer who requested approval for a proposed way of handling just this problem.

Private Letter Rulings, by way of background, are not intended to be official regulations or rules. They are individual guidance offered (for a substantial fee) to individual taxpayers who want to be sure they are not going to get in trouble. Although “private” in the sense that they apply only to that taxpayer, they are public in the sense that the IRS discloses them to everyone, and they do give some indication of how the IRS thinks about the issues addressed. You are probably safe proceeding on the basis of an Private Letter Ruling.

Here’s what the taxpayer proposed to do, and what the IRS approved, in the recent Private Letter Ruling:

  1. The decedent had named his revocable living trust as beneficiary of two IRAs. He had three children, each of whom was to receive an equal share of the trust after his death.
  2. The trustees of his trust proposed to divide each of the IRAs into three separate IRAs. In other words, there would be a total of six IRAs, still (for the moment) in the name of the decedent. Then each child would be named as beneficiary of two of the IRAs — one from each of the original IRAs.
  3. Once that was accomplished, each of the six “transitional” (their term) IRAs would be rolled over into a new IRA. Each of those new IRAs would name one of the children as the inherited owner, and each child could then name his or her own IRA beneficiaries.
  4. The custodians of those “final” six IRAs were each given a copy of the decedent’s revocable living trust, which was valid under state law and became irrevocable upon the decedent’s death. Those elements of the plan critical because they are required by federal tax law.
  5. Each of the three children would be required to begin withdrawing their IRAs immediately, and at the rate calculated for the oldest of the three children.

The taxpayer’s proposed approach was fine with the IRS, but it would not necessarily be the only way to proceed. The trustee of the trust might be permitted, for instance, to leave the IRAs right where they were, to withdraw the funds over the period of the oldest child’s life expectancy, and to distribute those withdrawn amounts to the three children. But the IRS guidance makes it clear that this approach works, too.

The Private Letter Ruling doesn’t address one question. Why would the original IRA owner have named his trust as beneficiary if the IRAs were going to be distributed outright to the three children anyway? In such a case, we usually recommend that the owner name his children as beneficiaries directly — thereby avoiding the shortened payout period based on the oldest child’s life expectancy, as well as the need to go through the intermediate steps described in the Private Letter Ruling.

There are a number of reasons the IRA owner might have chosen to leave his IRAs to his trust. Usually those reasons include a disabled spouse, a child receiving public benefits, an unequal distribution of proceeds or some other complication. The Private Letter Ruling in this case does not give us enough information to determine which, if any, of those conditions applied. Still, it does give us valuable guidance for those cases in which a trust is named as beneficiary of an IRA.

How to Leave Your IRA to a Trust — And Why You Might

OCTOBER 4, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 31
Last week we wrote about how you can go about leaving your IRA (or 401(k), 403(b), etc.) to a child with a disability. In passing we mentioned that the discussion about how to leave your IRA to any trust could wait for another day. Today is that day. Let’s tackle this as a Q&A session (or, if you prefer, we can call it a FAQ list).

Can I name a trust as beneficiary of my IRA?
Yes. That was easy.

Are the rules the same for 401(k), 403(b) and other retirement accounts?
Generally, yes. If you have more esoteric retirement accounts, talk to someone to make sure you are doing the right thing. What the heck — talk to an expert in any case. Our purpose here is just to give you some background and introduce the language and issues, not to give you direct legal advice.

Before you tell me how to do it, why would I want to name a trust as beneficiary of my IRA?
There are several reasons you might:

  • If you have a child who is a spendthrift, or married to a spendthrift, or who is involved in tax issues or legal proceedings, you might want the retirement account to be protected against creditors.
  • If you worry that your child might get divorced and want to keep your retirement account out of the divorce calculations and proceedings, a trust might help protect the account (and, for that matter, other assets you are considering leaving to that child).
  • You might just want to delay the withdrawal of your retirement account as long as possible. Of course, you could name your child as beneficiary and trust him or her to withdraw the money as slowly as is permissible. With a trust you can help assure that “stretch-out” of the IRA.

Why is my banker/broker/accountant telling me I can’t name a trust as beneficiary?
That used to be the rule, and lots of professionals are not yet caught up. There are also a couple of special rules that apply when you name a trust as beneficiary — though they are not at all hard to comply with, so it’s not clear why advisers get hung up on those rules. Finally, even though the rules permit naming a trust as beneficiary they do not require all account custodians to go along — so your broker might be telling you that, while the rules permit naming a trust, your account can not take advantage of those rules.

If I want to name a trust as beneficiary, what must I do?
There are a handful of requirements. The important ones: give the IRA custodian a copy of the trust (that, by the way, can be taken care of later — but you can do it now if you want), name only one income beneficiary for the trust, and make sure your beneficiary designation comports with the trust set-up and your larger plans. That probably means you should get competent professional assistance, but that’s usually a good idea for your estate planning anyway.

Are there bad things that happen if I name a trust as beneficiary?
Yes, but not very bad. Depending on the ages of all the beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries, you might have shortened the stretch-out time to a period less than the life expectancy of the primary beneficiary.

Uh, could you please repeat that — in English?
Of course. Let’s use an illustration.

Suppose you have three children: Abigail, Ben and Candy. You are OK with Abbie and Ben getting their shares of your IRA in their names — you trust them to make sound judgments about how quickly to withdraw the money, and you don’t want to bother with a trust for them. Candy is a different story. The details of that story don’t matter: you just want to put Abigail in charge of deciding whether to withdraw more than the minimum amount each year from Candy’s share of the IRA.

You can name a trust for the benefit of Candy as beneficiary of 1/3 of your IRA (naming Abbey and Ben as the other two beneficiaries outright). But what will happen if Candy dies before the IRA is closed out?

As it happens, Candy does not have children. You decide to have the trust say that upon Candy’s death the remaining trust interest in “her” share of your IRA will go to Abigail and Ben. Abigail is ten years older than Candy. That all means that Candy will have to make her IRA withdrawals using Abigail’s age and life expectancy.

But wait. Candy does have children?
Well, why didn’t you say so? That makes it even easier. You can have the trust provide that if Candy dies before the last IRA withdrawal her children become the beneficiaries of the trust (and, indirectly, the IRA). As before, we use the oldest potential beneficiary as the determining age — and we are going to assume for the sake of this piece that Candy is older than all of her children. No effect on Candy’s withdrawal rate. But note that if Candy does die, her children will still have to withdraw from the IRA at Candy’s rate, not their own.

What about estate taxes?
Now you’re talking about a whole different kettle of fish (or something). As you know, the estate tax situation is in flux right now, and some states have their own estate tax rules. That makes it very hard to generalize, and unnecessarily complicates this discussion. Suffice it to say that your IRA will be part of your estate for estate tax purposes, and just because there is income tax due on it does not mean that there won’t also be an estate tax liability attached to it. But if your entire estate is worth less than $1 million, you probably are not going to care very much. Stay tuned for a new number to be inserted in that sentence sometime before the end of 2010.

That sounds pretty simple. Could you please make it more complicated?
We’d be happy to, but it’s not required. We could give you information about what lawyers call “conduit” trusts and “accumulation” trusts. We could explain why you can’t have the money go to a charity upon Candy’s death. We could even try to give you some better names for your imaginary children (while still adhering to the A, B and C convention). But for most of our clients, those complications are unnecessary.

The bottom line: it is not that hard to name a trust as beneficiary of your IRA, 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan. You just need to review the rules, and understand why you might want to do such a thing.

It is also permissible to consider all that, try to get the rules straight, and then decide not to bother. One thing that we don’t want to allow you to do, though: ignore the issue, prepare a will that seems to handle all of your assets, and then have an IRA beneficiary designation that doesn’t agree with the rest of your estate plan, imposes an undue burden on your children and beneficiaries, or fails to address your child’s disability, money problems or legal or financial situation.

We hope this has helped demystify a subject that lawyers and accountants often seem to enjoy complicating. Your life, however, tends to be complicated. Please get good legal, financial and investment advice before you decide what you should do.

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