While most estate planning focuses on the physical property, like your home, and liquid assets, such as investment accounts, retirement plans can actually make up a large portion of one’s estate. Due to the specific tax rules governing these assets at death, you must plan carefully to ensure these funds are integrated properly into your estate distribution plans and tax savings strategies.
You probably made beneficiary designations for your retirement accounts, when you opened them. Remember: who you designated can affect your overall estate planning objectives. Because of this, when including your retirement assets in your estate, ask yourself if anything has changed in your life since then that would affect their status as your beneficiaries, as well as how they’d receive the retirement assets.
Beneficiary Designations. Review your beneficiary designations after major life changes. If you fail to make these designations, the funds will most likely go into your estate—a horrible outcome from a tax and planning perspective. If your estate is named a beneficiary, your heirs must wait until probate is finished to access your retirement accounts. It is usually better to name an individual or a retirement plan trust as your beneficiary.
Protecting Retirement Funds With a Trust. Another option is to include a retirement plan trust in your estate planning, instead of giving your retirement funds directly to named individuals. This allows you more control over the distribution while protecting your heirs from additional paperwork and taxes. Trust distributions keep a beneficiary from accessing and spending their inheritance all at once. It’s also a good idea if your beneficiaries include minor children who shouldn’t have direct access to the money until they are adults. Be sure to consult with an estate planning attorney, because there are tax and other complexities associated with designating a trust as beneficiary.
Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Your retirement plans have rules about when you are required to start taking distributions. For 401(k) accounts, you are required to start taking RMDs at age 70½. However, if you die and leave retirement plans and accounts to your heirs, these rules apply to them instead. A spousal beneficiary can roll over your retirement funds tax-free into their retirement plan and make their own distribution choices. However, other beneficiaries don’t have the same option. The tax treatment and distribution options vary, depending on who is receiving your retirement assets.
Tax Considerations. The biggest worry you need to address when designating retirement accounts as part of your estate plan, is how they’ll be taxed. Consider how to withdraw from these accounts while you’re alive and how to minimize tax consequences after you’ve passed.
Our estate planning attorneys have a strong understanding of retirement accounts and the tax and legal requirements of estate planning. By working with our attorneys, you can be certain your retirement assets are distributed to the proper beneficiaries with the least tax liability.