14. How can I evaluate a corporate trustee?

Talk to several. Visit them if you can. Ask how long the trust department has been in business, how many trusts they manage, minimum and average size of trusts they manage (most require a certain amount of assets) and how much experience their people have in the trust business.

Compare investment returns, fees (including when and how much the last increase was), and services. Ask to see samples of statements or reports you would receive and see how easy they are to understand.

Facts and numbers are important, but so are the people. Do they seem to genuinely care about you and your family? Do they listen and seem to understand your concerns? Can you understand them? How confident are you that they will be there for you and your family when they are needed?

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21. What about a Roth IRA?

If you qualify, you may want to convert some or all of your tax-deferred money into a Roth IRA, but you’ll have to pay taxes on the amount you convert. Also, if you qualify, you can make after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA.

Unlike a traditional IRA that requires you to start taking money out on April 1 after age 70 1/2, there are no minimum distributions required during your lifetime with a Roth IRA. And, generally, after five years or age 59 1/2 (whichever is later), all withdrawals are income tax-free. So you can leave your money there, growing tax-free, for as long as you wish.

You can stretch out a Roth IRA just like a regular IRA. After you die, distributions can be paid over the actual life expectancy of your beneficiary. Your spouse can even do a rollover and name a new beneficiary. And, remember, all distributions to your beneficiaries will be income tax-free.

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20. When can I change my beneficiary?

You can change your beneficiary at any time while you are living, and the distributions after you die will be paid over that beneficiary’s life expectancy (unless they cash out).

It is very important to name both primary and contingent beneficiaries while you are living to allow for greater flexibility and “clean up” after your death. For example, your spouse could disclaim some benefits so a grandchild could inherit. No new beneficiaries can be added after you die (unless your spouse names new ones with a rollover), so make sure you include all appropriate ones.

Some employer-sponsored plans (401(k), pension and profit sharing plans, etc.) have restrictions on beneficiary distribution options. But under a new rule, any beneficiary may now inherit employer plan assets and roll them into an IRA in the name of the decedent, continuing the tax-deferred growth over the beneficiary’s own life expectancy. (Some restrictions apply.)

If your plan will not let you do what you want, rolling your account into an IRA will usually give you more options. If your money is already in an IRA and the institution will not agree to your wishes, move your IRA to one that will.

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17. What can I do about estate taxes?

You can reduce your taxable estate by giving some assets to your loved ones now, often at discounted values. You can buy life insurance to pay estate taxes at a reduced cost. And, if you are married, make sure you use both your estate tax exemptions.

You see, everyone is entitled to an estate tax exemption. But many married couples waste one when they leave all their assets to each other. The marital deduction lets you leave your spouse an unlimited amount of assets when you die and pay no estate taxes at that time. But when your spouse dies later, he or she will only be entitled to one exemption. That can cause your family to pay too much in estate taxes.

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16. What are estate taxes and why should I care?

Estate taxes are different from, and in addition to, income taxes. When you die, your estate must pay estate taxes if its net value (including your tax-deferred accounts) is more than the amount exempt at that time. In 2012, the federal exemption is $5,120,000; every dollar over this amount is taxed at 35%. Some states also have their own estate/inheritance tax; your estate could be exempt from federal tax but not from state tax.

Estate taxes must be paid in cash, usually within nine months of your death. If money must be withdrawn from a tax-deferred account to pay the estate taxes, the result can be disastrous – because income taxes must be paid on the money that is withdrawn to pay the estate taxes.

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15. Option 5. Some or All of the Above

You don’t have to choose just one of these options. You can divide a large IRA into several smaller ones and name a different beneficiary for each one. (If your money is in an employer’s plan, you can roll it into an IRA and then split it.)

If you name several beneficiaries for one IRA, the oldest one’s life expectancy will determine the payout after you die. But with separate IRAs (one for each beneficiary), each life expectancy will be used, providing the maximum stretch out.

This is especially important if a charity is involved. It has a life expectancy of zero, so the IRS would consider it the oldest beneficiary. Depending on when you die, this could cause the entire IRA to be paid out in just five years.

If you divide your IRA now, you will need to calculate a distribution for each one, but it can be worth the trouble. Under the new rules, your IRA can be divided even after you die. Splitting a large IRA can also save estate taxes.

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