Posts Tagged ‘IRA’

We Are Creeping Up On a Quarter Century Here

JANUARY 4, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 1

Note the “Volume” number above. Is it even possible that we’ve been doing this for 23 years?

In that time, a number of topics have been perennially popular. We see a lot of internet traffic, and get a lot of questions or comments, when we write about:

Of all those topics (we now have an archive of well over a thousand weekly newsletter articles), which is our favorite? That’s easy: the one you read, gain something from, and have a follow-up question about.

So what’s your question? We won’t try to give individualized legal advice, but maybe we can help you with a relevant legal principle, or perhaps we can elucidate some of your alternatives. We will often tell you that the right answer is “consult an attorney,” but maybe you can get to the attorney’s office as a better-informed client.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

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.

We Invite Your Questions, and Answer a Few

MAY 30, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 19
Periodically we try to answer some of our readers’ frequent questions, which we enjoy receiving. Some more recent questions and our quick attempts at simple answers follow. Remember, please, that slight variations in fact patterns can lead to different answers; these are intended as illustrations and guidance, not as iron-clad answers to your legal concerns. Please consult your lawyer (and we’d be interested in taking on that role, if you live in Arizona and would like to call and make an appointment) before relying on this information.

Can I leave my IRA account to a third-party special needs trust for my daughter?

Yes, you can. It may not be the best answer, and it may raise a number of other issues and concerns, so please talk to your lawyer about your specific situation. But one of your choices is indeed to leave the IRA (or a retirement plan of any kind) to your daughter’s special needs trust.

If a significant portion of your wealth is tied up in an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) or other tax-deferred retirement plan, there is plenty of information out there about how important it is to name individual beneficiaries, how the plan ought to be divided upon your death into shares for each beneficiary, and how your beneficiaries should be encouraged to “stretch out” their withdrawals as long as possible. We agree with all of that — but if one of your beneficiaries has a disability, and particularly if she is receiving Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid or other means-based public benefits, it is also important to create a special needs trust for that beneficiary. There is no reason her share of your IRA can not be made payable to that special needs trust.

The notion of naming a trust as beneficiary of a retirement account is fairly novel. Not too many years ago it was absolutely to be avoided, and many investment advisers, accountants, lawyers and financial companies retain that anti-trust bias deeply embedded in their collective and corporate psyches. But the rules are different now, and it is much easier to name a trust as beneficiary. You just need good advice from someone who is familiar with those rules and can explain how they affect your retirement account in your family situation.

In general terms, the primary effect of naming a trust as beneficiary will usually be that the age of the oldest person who might ever receive benefits from the trust will be used to calculate the withdrawal rate. But let’s see if we can make the explanation clearer. Let’s assume that your daughter, Diana, is 47. You also have two sons, Steven (age 54) and Scott (age 43). You have named Diana’s special needs trust as beneficiary of 1/3 of your IRA. Sadly, you die this year (we don’t mean anything personal — we have to let you die some time in order to ever figure out the effect of your beneficiary designations).

Next year Steven will have to withdraw at least 1/29.6 of his share of your IRA (we figure that as about 3.38%). Scott has to withdraw at least 1/39.8 of his share (that looks like about 2.51%). Diana would have to withdraw at least 1/36 (2.78%) if she had been named as beneficiary outright, but she wasn’t. So how much will her special needs trust have to withdraw?

It depends on who is named as remainder beneficiary. If upon Diana’s death the remaining money in the special needs trust goes to Scott and Steven, then we use Steven’s age for the calculation and the trust will have to withdraw the same 3.38% that he had to withdraw from his share. If Diana’s trust goes instead to her two sons (ages 15 and 17) then Diana herself is the oldest beneficiary and we can use her age — and the withdrawal will be 2.78%.

Clear as mud? Yes, but you should have seen the rules before they were simplified in 2002. While the numbers are daunting, the current rules are actually pretty easy to figure out,  and the ability to stretch out distributions from your IRA for another 36 years (or so) allows Diana’s share to continue to grow tax-deferred, despite the need to put her share in trust.

Want more information, or the numbers for your own children’s ages? Look at the IRS’s Publication 590. Appendix C is Table I, the Single Life Expectancy table to be used by IRA (and 401(k), 403(b) and other) beneficiaries.

Do alimony payments continue when someone goes on Medicaid long-term care assistance?

Short answer: yes. Now let’s parse the question a little bit more.

Assume husband and wife, married many years, were divorced five years ago. He was ordered to pay alimony of $1,000/month to her for the rest of her life. She has now gone into the nursing home, and has spent all of her own funds for her care. She has qualified for Arizona’s Long Term Care System (ALTCS — it’s Arizona’s version of the long-term care Medicaid program) payments toward her nursing home bills; she turns over her alimony payment and all but about $100/month of her Social Security, and ALTCS pays the balance of her nursing home bill.

If her ex-husband could legally stop paying the alimony payments, ALTCS would simply increase the payment to the nursing home by $1,000. She would be no worse off and he wouldn’t be subsidizing her nursing home care any more.

Because he is legally obligated to continue the alimony payments, however, ALTCS will continue to count them in its calculation of how much to pay to the nursing home. And if he went to court to argue “changed circumstances” and no continuing need to pay alimony, he might find that her attorney argues that the changed circumstances justify increasing the alimony payments so that she is not on ALTCS at all. Even if that didn’t happen, ALTCS might be inclined to view the proceeding as a sham just to get him out of paying the support payments. So it is far from certain that he would be better off by going back to the courts.

What about the reverse situation? Let’s imagine for a moment that it is the ex-husband who has gone into the nursing home. He has spent down all of his assets and applied for ALTCS. He receives $2,800/month in Social Security another $1,500 in private retirement; ALTCS says that he must turn over all but about $100/month of that income to the nursing home, and it will pick up the (small) difference.

Can he stop paying alimony? Well, no. The divorce court has ordered him to pay, and he needs to go back to argue “changed circumstances” as a way of getting out of having to make the payments. Will ALTCS, then, reduce his contribution requirement, recognizing that he is under a legal obligation to pay the alimony? Well, no. They say that his care comes first, and the entire income (minus his small personal needs allowance) has to go toward his care — and their payment to the nursing home will reflect that calculation.

What should he do? He needs to get legal help and get his support order modified. He should not simply ignore the outstanding alimony award.

Please note that “alimony” is not called that any more, and “divorce” is also an old-fashioned word. They are common in the vernacular, but the legal terms — at least in Arizona — are now “spousal maintenance” and “dissolution,” respectively. We know that, but we fear that it makes the explanation so much harder to read.

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.

Uniform Transfers to Minors Act Accounts in Arizona: A Primer

JANUARY 31, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 4
One question we are frequently asked: isn’t it a good idea to set aside money for a child or grandchild, and isn’t a UTMA (Uniform Transfers to Minors Act) account a simple way to do that? OK — that’s really two questions. Our answers: Yes, it is a good idea to set aside money. Yes, the UTMA account is a simple way to do it. Don’t set up a UTMA account, however, until you understand the consequences.

There are confusing issues about UTMA accounts. Sometimes the confusion is heightened by the fact that each of the 48 states which have adopted versions of the UTMA Act has changed it a little bit — so what is true in Arizona may not be true in another state (and vice versa). Rather than indulge in all that confusion, however, we are going to tell you in straightforward language what to watch for in Arizona. Be careful about applying these principles to other states’ UTMA acts.

First, the good news. Here are the positive things about Arizona UTMA accounts:

  1. They are inexpensive to set up and to administer. They do not require a lawyer, and avoid courts and formal accounting requirements altogether. All you have to do to create an Arizona UTMA account is to include the name of a custodian, the name of the beneficiary, and the letters UTMA in the title. This will work: “John Jones as custodian pursuant to the Arizona UTMA for the benefit of Marie Smith.”
  2. A UTMA account can simplify the gifting of substantial amounts of money by multiple family members. Set up an account for your 2-year-old, and all four grandparents can put $13,000 each into the account each year (using 2011 numbers — the maximum non-taxable gift may go up next year or in future years).
  3. They automatically end at 21, so the money will not be tied up indefinitely. One of the points of confusion: sometimes UTMA accounts end at 18 in other states, and in some circumstances in Arizona. But if you are putting your money into an account for a minor in Arizona, the end date is age 21.
  4. They encourage regular savings by simplifying the process. Open an account with, say, $1,000, and put $50/month into the account. You won’t save a fortune in 15 years, but you will have $10,000 that you wouldn’t otherwise have saved without this discipline. Plus the earnings and growth on the investment, as a bonus.
  5. If the minor receives public benefits like SSI or Medicaid, the money will usually not be treated as “available” (and therefore reduce or eliminate benefits) until age 21.

Of course it’s not all good news. Here are some problems or limitations:

  1. The money in the UTMA account will need to be reported on the minor’s FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form when applying for student aid — and it will be treated as completely available to the student. In other words, the very existence of a UTMA account may prevent receipt of needs-based student aid.
  2. The income in the UTMA will be taxed at the minor’s parents’ income tax rates. Unless, of course, there is so much money in the minor’s name that his or her rate is higher — then the UTMA account will be taxed at that higher rate.
  3. The minor may have to file an income tax return if the UTMA money produces significant income. The UTMA account may be used to pay any income tax due, and the tax preparation costs, but it will require that a return be prepared.
  4. At age 21 the (former) minor is entitled to receive all the money. Period. It doesn’t matter if he or she has become a drug addict, a spendthrift or a cult member.
  5. If the (former) minor receives public benefits like SSI or Medicaid, at age 21 the UTMA account becomes an “available” resource and may compromise those benefits.
  6. If the UTMA custodian is the parent of the minor (which is by far the most common arrangement), then there may be additional complications in how the money can be used and/or what tax effect the money might have. Since a parent has an obligation to support his or her minor children, the UTMA account generally can not be used by a parent/custodian in ways that reduce or satisfy that support obligation. If, on the other hand, the donor of the money acts as custodian, he or she may not have gotten the money out of his or her estate (which is usually one intention on the donor’s part).
  7. Although UTMA accounts are usually seen as simple mechanisms avoiding lawyers and conflict, the custodian still has an obligation to give the minor (or his or her guardian) account information. Thinking of giving a divorced and non-custodial parent money for the benefit of his or her minor child? Know that you are inviting a dispute between the custodial parent and the UTMA custodian over how the money is invested and spent (or not spent).
  8. What happens if the custodian dies or becomes incapacitated? There is no easy mechanism to select a successor custodian; it may require a court proceeding to name a successor. A fourteen-year-old minor may be able to select his or her own custodian, which could raise concerns for a thoughtful donor. (Note: Arizona law does allow the current custodian to name his or her own successor custodian, but few do. If you are planning on setting up a UTMA account, insist that the custodian select a successor.)
  9. What happens if the beneficiary dies before reaching age 21? The money goes to his or her estate — which may require a probate proceeding (if the total is over $50,000 in Arizona) and usually means that the money will be split between the child’s parents. That may be fine, but it may not be what the donor intends or wants.
  10. The effect of interstate proceedings is unclear. If you live in New Mexico and set up a UTMA account in an Arizona bank with an Arizona custodian for a minor who lives in Iowa, what happens when your custodian moves to Wisconsin? What courts might the custodian have to answer to, and whose law applies in the case of a disagreement? Fortunately, this problem seldom arises — there are few legal proceedings involving UTMA disputes. But they do happen, and increasingly so in an increasingly mobile society.

What are your alternatives to a UTMA account? Consider 529 plans for educational purposes, and separate trusts if the money is intended to be for more general use. For a child who earns income an IRA might even be an appropriate choice — if the child earns $3,000 in a given year, he or she can contribute up that amount to an IRA (and the source of the money does not have to be the earnings). Talk to your financial adviser and your lawyer about the cost of the various options, the problems they raise, and the best alternative in your circumstances.

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.

How To Leave An IRA To A Child Who Has a Disability

SEPTEMBER 27, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 30
This is so confusing to clients, but it needn’t be. The rules are actually simpler than they seem. Stay with us, and we’ll walk you through it.

OK, here’s the set-up: You have three children, one of whom (the youngest) has a disability. We’ve decided to name her Cindy (sorry if we got that part wrong). Your estate plan is to leave everything equally to your three children, but you know that (1) Cindy can’t manage money, and (2) even if she could, leaving her money directly would knock her off of her public benefits. Just to make things more complicated, nearly half of your net worth is held in an IRA.

Before we roll up our sleeves, let us make a few observations about your situation:

  1. If instead of an IRA you have a 401k, a 403b, Keogh or other retirement plan, the rules are pretty much the same. They’re somewhat different if you have a Roth IRA; we may tackle that issue in a future newsletter.
  2. If Cindy’s disability entitles her to public benefits but she is able to manage money just fine then some of the trust issues might be different from what we describe here.
  3. We’ve decided that your estate (your combined estate, if you are married) is just under the estate tax limits, whatever they might be. That’s so we don’t have to complicate this explanation with an estate tax element. But the truth is, that wouldn’t complicate things all that much — we just don’t want to have to throw those oranges into our apple basket. Not today, anyway.

Ready? Here we go. We’ll start by asking you some questions:

First question: What benefits does Cindy get? Is she on Supplemental Security Income (SSI)? Does she also get Social Security benefits, either on her own work history or on yours? Is she receiving Medicare coverage? How about Medicaid (or, in Arizona, AHCCCS)? Does she also get a housing subsidy, benefits through the Division of Developmental Disabilities, or therapy and care from the school district?

This question is important, because first we need to figure out whether her benefits will be affected by any trust you might set up for her. Here’s a surprise: it’s not enough to figure out what benefits she is on now, particularly if she was disabled before age 22. She might be eligible to receive benefits on your work history (or your spouse’s), and those benefits could go up when you retire and again when you die. Since your estate plan is all about what happens to your money when you die, the benefits Cindy gets then will be more important than the benefits she receives now.

Second question: How important is it to you to give your children the chance to “stretch-out” your IRA? We’re sorry — we didn’t explain what that means.

You already know that you have to withdraw money at a set pace, calculated based on your life expectancy, once you reach age 71 (we know — it’s really 70.5; it’s actually the year after you turn 70.5, so let’s just call it 71, okay?). You probably also realize that your beneficiaries get to use their own life expectancies after they inherit your IRA. Or at least they do most of the time.

If that is important to you, your beneficiary designation should make it easy for your children to use the longest stretch-out period possible. Since they are probably all different ages that means there is a benefit — maybe a slight one, but a benefit — to the youngest children to be able to use their own age rather than being stuck with an older sibling’s age.

Note: this assumes your children share your interest in stretching out the IRA withdrawals. Take the simple case, with Cindy not involved: if you make the other two children (let’s call them Amelia and Barbara) beneficiaries of the IRA, Barbara (the younger) will be able to take a little less out each year than Amelia is required to do. But if either of them decides to just withdraw all the money and use it for an extended European vacation, then they can choose to make a decision that is not tax-wise. If you want to prevent them from doing that, you have raised the complication factor — but it can be done. We’re just not going to try to explain it here. But we do — here.

Third question: Do you want to try to give Cindy some non-IRA assets rather than an interest in the IRA, just to make this simple? Let’s say you left your IRA to Amelia and Barbara, and increased Cindy’s share of the non-IRA assets to make the shares equal. Would that work?

Well, yes — but it’s not quite that easy. Say you leave $100,000 in an IRA to Amelia — is that worth $100,000 to her? No, because she will have to pay taxes on it when she takes it out. How much? It depends on her state, her marginal tax rate and how long she leaves it in the IRA, so it’s very hard to figure out the “real” value to Amelia. Plus we know that the real value of the same amount of IRA will be different for Barbara, making the calculation that much more difficult.

Maybe we can use a rule of thumb, though. Let’s guess that Amelia and Barbara will delay taking out their inherited IRA money as long as possible, and that when they do they’ll both be retired and not making a lot of income. Perhaps the “real” value (to them) of your IRA will be 65% to 80% of its balance when you die. Is that close enough for you to figure out what would be “fair” if you gave Cindy more cash and less IRA? We can’t tell you — this one is a judgment call for you.

Fourth question: Who will manage Cindy’s money after your death? Amelia, the banker (and classic first-born)? Barbara, who has some financial challenges of her own but has always been close to Cindy, and still lives in the same community with her? Your local bank? A family friend, or a professional you have worked with?

Enough questions for a moment. Let us tell you what we think, based on your answers.

First, you can create a trust and name it as beneficiary of your IRA. Don’t listen to your banker or your accountant if they tell you that you can not do that — they are reciting old rules that no longer apply.

But if you do name a trust as beneficiary, you are likely to force everyone to use a shorter stretch-out date — probably all three daughters will be stuck with Amelia’s life expectancy. If there are only a few years’ difference between the girls, that may not be a big deal. If this issue is important, then we probably can work around it — we can name Amelia and Barbara as beneficiaries directly, and a stand-alone “special needs” trust for Cindy’s benefit to receive her share of the IRA. If we do that, though, you have to make us a promise: you can’t let anyone else tell you to change your beneficiary designations after we get them set up. At least you have to promise not to make any changes until after you have met with us and gone back over the beneficiary form.

In fact, you will find that you have to help educate lots of folks about IRA beneficiary designations. Over time you will be told that you have a mistake in your designation, that you have unnecessarily caused tax increases for your daughters, that your lawyer obviously doesn’t know how to do this. We do, and we can help you respond to those bankers, accountants and others who tell you that you need to make changes. Keep us in the loop, please.

We also need to make sure you realize Cindy’s share can’t go to charity after her death. None of it. Even though the non-profit which provides a sheltered workshop for her would be the logical beneficiary of a share of “her” IRA portion, it mucks everything else up.

So how do we get Cindy’s portion of the IRA — and for that matter the rest of her inheritance — set up to benefit her without knocking her off of her SSI, Medicaid, AHCCCS and other government benefits? That’s what a special needs trust is all about.

We have important advice for you: Be careful as you look for information about special needs trusts, though: much of what you read will be about the rules (and limitations) on so-called “self-settled” special needs trusts, and Cindy’s trust will not be one of those. You will be establishing a “third-party” special needs trust, and the rules will be much different, and much more liberal. You can leave IRA and non-IRA assets in a special needs trust for Cindy’s benefit, and you will actually improve the quality of her life without jeopardizing the programs and benefits she receives.

We hope this helps sort through some of the finer points of IRA beneficiary designations. If you want more, we can recommend a really thorough article by our friend Ed Wilcenski, a New York lawyer. He wrote for Forbes.com, and he’s a smart guy who writes well.

Incidentally, we’d love to hear from you. Maybe you have a question about IRAs and special needs trusts, or you just want to tell us whether this helped you out. Maybe you want to quibble with some of our advice. We love to hear from readers.

We will not, however, undertake to represent you based on a simple e-mail or internet inquiry — we need much more information (starting with where you live — we don’t practice outside Arizona) before undertaking a lawyer/client relationship. We won’t be able to answer your specific questions about your own legal situation, either. What good are we, then? Well, we’ll try to demystify some of the general rules and answer general questions about these topics. Contact us if you’d like us to try, or simply Leave a Reply below. We’ll read your comments and let you know, even if we can’t help you with individual legal problems.

Our Free Seminar Reviews 2010 Law Changes For Estate Plans

APRIL 19, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 13

This has been a tumultuous year for estate planning attorneys—and for their clients. The federal estate tax has been repealed, there are new rules in effect governing Roth IRAs, and heirs are facing higher capital gains liability. We don’t profess to have all the answers, but we think we have a pretty good handle on the questions.

You may agree with us when we say it would be productive to get together and review the current situation. In the next in our series of client education program, scheduled for Thursday, May 6, 2010, we hope to meet with as many of our clients as we are able, to review what is happening, what might change and what should be done.

As of January 1st, the federal estate tax has been eliminated – for this year only. What are the consequences of the repeal of the estate tax? What are the chances Congress will act this session to reinstate the estate tax? What does the tax look for 2011? What does the elimination of the “step-up in basis” mean for your heirs? Is it possible that your family could pay more in capital gains tax than they would have paid in estate tax?

We’ll talk about the (temporary) repeal of the estate tax and whether you should consider changes to your family trust or estate plan. We’ll talk about the competing proposals for changes to the estate tax exemption and the tax rate, and speculate about how likely it is that any one proposal will become law.

Recent rule changes make it easier for wealthier individuals to convert traditional Individual Retirement Accounts to Roth IRAs. Together, we’ll compare the ways in which IRAs and Roth IRAs are taxed, the distribution requirements for each, and the costs associated with making a conversion, so that you can decide what is right for you.

We know from talking to many of our clients that reducing the burden of probating your estate is a major concern. Beneficiary designations are an important tool for transferring assets to your family upon your death. Sadly, many people fail to take full advantage of this useful estate planning tool, or neglect to update their beneficiary designations when family situations (or estate plans) change.

We’ll take this opportunity to review the categories of assets that can be transferred via beneficiary designation, explain how the beneficiary designations work, and encourage you to review your existing designations to make sure that they are consistent with the rest of your estate plan.

This client education program is scheduled for Thursday, May 6th. The program is available to our clients (and family members and invitees) free of charge, but space is limited. To make reservations, telephone Yvette at (520) 622-0400. We look forward to seeing you there!

Roth IRA Conversion in 2010 More Attractive For Some

JANUARY 11, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 2

Recent changes in federal regulations affecting the Roth IRA now make this retirement savings plan available to wealthier individuals. We list some of the factors to consider in determining whether to convert your existing traditional IRA to a Roth IRA – so that you can discuss the matter in greater detail with your financial advisor.

What are the benefits of a traditional IRA? A traditional IRA allows you to contribute pre-tax dollars to your account. You pay taxes (on the original contribution, plus any increase in value) when you take distributions from the retirement account. The idea is, you will presumably be in a lower tax bracket when you are retired, and taking distributions, than you are as an employed person paying in to the account. The downside to the traditional IRA is that after you reach age 70½, you must take a minimum distribution from the IRA each year. The amount of the distribution is calculated annually and is based on the value of your retirement account and your life expectancy. If you are taking mandatory distributions each year, that will reduce the amount remaining in the account to pass along to your heirs when you die.

(It has long been the case that your spouse can inherit your IRA and continue to take annual distributions based on his or her own life expectancy. Other family members often had to cash out the account in five years, or fewer. Rule changes enacted in 2006 made it easier to pass along the remaining money in your IRA to people other than your spouse – a non-marital partner, or your kids, for example – and allow the beneficiary to take distributions over a longer period of time. See Elder Law Issues November 13, 2006 edition for more detail about those changes).

Why would I want to create a Roth IRA, when I already have a traditional IRA? A Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars. This means that as the account increases in value over the years, it increases tax-free. Unlike the traditional IRA, there are no mandatory distribution requirements for the account owner – meaning that more money remains in the account to pass along to your heirs. Although distributions will be mandatory for your heirs, the distributions are tax-free. If you have other sources of income, and you plan to use your retirement account mostly as a vehicle of passing money along to your heirs, rather than to fund your own retirement, a Roth IRA may be preferable to a traditional IRA.

Why are you telling me about a Roth IRA now? Until now, the Roth IRA has only been available to taxpayers whose annual income is less than $100,000. Effective January 1st, taxpayers whose income exceeds $100,000 can convert their traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. This means having to pay the tax on the account contemporaneously with the conversion. And if you make the conversion in 2010, you can spread out the tax payments over two years.

Why might converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA be a good option?

  • If you believe that the income tax rate will only increase in the future, you might decide that it makes sense to pay the tax now, rather than pay it at a higher rate twenty or thirty years down the road.
  • If you have sufficient wealth that you don’t think you will drop into a lower tax bracket upon retirement – or if you plan to leave your retirement account to your kids and they will be in a higher tax bracket – it might make sense to pay the tax now.
  • If your traditional IRA has suffered a big decline in value over the last couple of years (and whose hasn’t?), you may find it more appealing to convert it to a Roth IRA and pay the tax now, in the hope that the account will increase in value (tax-free) over the coming decades.

You are making a bet, though, that Congress won’t decide to begin taxing the capital gains on the Roth IRA. And, you will need to have money available in order to pay the tax on the conversion – preferably, money coming from a source other than your traditional IRA.

What factors should I consider in making the decision? Here are a few:

  • The availability of funds to pay the taxes now;
  • Your willingness to pay taxes now, rather than later;
  • Whether you are already taking distributions from your IRA;
  • When you plan to retire; and
  • Whether you intend to live off your retirement account or pass it to heirs.

There are rules about making the conversion (or, having made the conversion, undoing it) and the timing of paying the taxes for the conversion (a lump sum versus installments over two years). There are penalties for withdrawing funds from a Roth IRA within the first five years of establishing an account. For all of these reasons, we encourage you to have a candid conversation with your financial advisor, to see if converting your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is right for you.

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