Posts tagged retirement accounts
What types of assets are distributed by your Will?

A major focus of estate planning is to ensure that there's a coordinated, coherent, and unified distribution of your assets. That is, you should have a relatively clear idea of who gets what after you pass away.

Many times people confuse exactly which assets get distributed in accordance with their Will. For example, if Bill created a Will where he says he leaves everything to Jessica, Bill may believe that Jessica will get all of his assets when he passes away. However, some assets are not controlled by the Will (i.e., nonprobate assets), and to the extent that Bill has those types of property, extra steps need to be taken to ensure that they go to the appropriate people.

Here's a rundown of some of these types of assets:

  1. Joint Tenancy Assets - Any asset held as "joint tenants" or "joint tenants with right of survivorship" with others will automatically pass to the surviving joint tenants upon death. 
  2. Community Property With Right of Survivorship - In California, married couples may hold some assets as "community property with right of survivorship". This operates similar to joint tenancy in terms of having property pass to the survivor.
  3. Revocable Transfer on Death Deed - This is a special type of deed, which allows real property to be transferred automatically to designated beneficiaries upon the owner's death.
  4. Pay-on-Death Accounts - Some types of bank accounts allow you to name a beneficiary to receive the account after the owner passes away.
  5. Life Insurance - The proceeds from life insurance are payable to the beneficiaries that the policy owner(s) have named.
  6. Retirement Accounts - Similar to life insurance policies, retirement accounts get paid to the beneficiaries that the owner(s) have named.

It's easy to lose track of all of these assets, especially if for example, you've switched jobs a number of times and have multiple 401k accounts with various employers. However, to have a clear and unified estate plan, it's important to have a thorough understanding of who will receive each of your assets at the time of your death, since the Will controls the disposition of only certain types of property.

When do you need spousal consent to transfer assets with beneficiary designations?

There are a whole class of assets that pass without the need for probate, if you've properly named beneficiaries on those accounts. These include life insurance policies, pay-on-death accounts, and retirement plans (e.g., IRAs, 401ks, etc.).

If you acquired any of these assets during marriage, and absent an agreement between you and your spouse to the contrary, each spouse should have a 1/2 interest in each since they would be considered community property. Therefore, even if you've been funding your 401k plan at work with your salary, because that salary is considered community property, your spouse has a 1/2 interest in the account.

Because the law recognizes the community property nature of these assets, if you want to name a beneficiary for your 401k (other than your spouse), your spouse must consent and typically must also sign the beneficiary designation form waiving his or her right.

Check out California Probate Code Section 5020, which states:

"A provision for a nonprobate transfer of community property on death executed by a married person without the written consent of the person’s spouse (1) is not effective as to the nonconsenting spouse’s interest in the property and (2) does not affect the nonconsenting spouse’s disposition on death of the nonconsenting spouse’s interest in the community property by will, intestate succession, or nonprobate transfer."

If you're like many clients, you have probably never checked on the beneficiary designations on assets such as life insurance policies or retirement accounts since you acquired them. You might have acquired some of those accounts before you got married and named your parents or a sibling as the beneficiary.

Part of the estate planning process should entail you reviewing assets which are transferred by beneficiary designation to make sure they are up to date.

How does estate planning help with asset protection?

Asset protection generally involves planning to make sure that creditors cannot reach your assets or that the creditors of your beneficiaries cannot reach the assets that you are leaving behind for them.

Although many people will use this as a buzzword to motivate people into estate planning, in my experience, these types of issues are usually very minimal or non-existent, and are more often than not, a marketing device. Moreover, many of the more complicated techniques are quite costly to implement, and too expensive for a typical client.

Finally, if you already have creditors, the options for protecting your assets may be severely limited.

Trust Provisions

One practical way to provide asset protection for your beneficiaries (for example, if you have a trust set up for your children), is to have the distributions to your beneficiary made at the discretion of an independent third party trustee. You could also incorporate a "spendthrift" provision in the beneficiary's trust to prevent him or her from transferring or borrowing against their beneficial interest in the trust.

Retirement Accounts

Some assets have inherent creditor protection. For example, retirement accounts such as 401ks and IRAs have creditor protection features that may cause them to be attractive for those who are worried about creditors. Not to mention, retirement plans generally have great tax savings benefits as well. There are, however, limits to how much one can contribute annually to retirement plans, and generally withdrawals from these accounts are limited until one reaches 59 1/2 years of age (with some exceptions).

Asset protection should be part of the conversation you have with an estate planning lawyer; however, it's only one aspect and should be put into the context of your overall family and financial situation.

What are some other common reasons why people have a hard time transferring their property?

There are countless reasons, legal or otherwise, for why a person may not be able to transfer his or her assets. Here are a few that estate planning lawyers run into from time to time:

Spendthrift Provisions - If you're the beneficiary of a trust that was established for you by someone else, chances are there is a "spendthrift" provision or clause in the trust. These types of clauses prevent the beneficiary of a trust from giving away their interest in the trust. These are often included to give beneficiaries protection against creditors.

Pension and Retirement Plans - Except for the ability to name a beneficiary, generally, it's not possible to transfer ownership of a pension plan. Similar problems exist with IRAs or other retirement accounts, unless the owner of the account is willing to withdraw the amounts from the IRA thereby causing recognition of taxable income.

Roth IRAs don't result in taxable income upon withdrawal, but the account owner would give up the ability to have the account grow tax free. There's one exception for spouses of the retirement account owner. In the case of spouses, when one dies, the surviving spouse may be able to "rollover" the account into his or her own IRA and continue the tax-deferred growth of the account.

Non-Public Businesses - If you're a partner or shareholder in a business, the governing documents or shareholder agreements may include a provision that limits your ability to transfer shares. Alternatively, securities laws may hinder the ability to transfer ownership in the business to others.

There are other scenarios where transfers of assets may not be possible, for example, a membership in a country club, businesses that are involved in controlled substances such as alcohol, and certain professional practices.

It's therefore important to consider the types of assets that you own when discussing your estate planning options.