Express your wishes.
Actor Lee Marvin once said, “As soon as people see my face on a movie screen, they [know] two things: first, I’m not going to get the girl, and second, I’ll get a cheap funeral before the picture is over.”
Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about their own funeral, and yet, many of us have a vision about our memorial service or the handling of our remains. A letter of instruction can help you accomplish that goal.
A letter of instruction is not a legal document; it’s a letter written by you that provides additional, more personal information regarding your estate. It can be addressed to whomever you choose, but typically, letters of instruction are directed to the executor, family members, or beneficiaries.
Make a Cheat Sheet. Think of a letter of instruction as a “cheat sheet” to your estate. Here are a few ideas and concepts that may be included:
*The location of important legal documents, such as your will, insurance policies, titles to automobiles, deeds to property, etc.
*A list of financial assets, including savings and checking accounts, stocks, bonds, and retirement accounts. Be sure to include account numbers, PINs, and passwords where applicable.
*A list of pensions or profit-sharing plans, including the location of their explanatory booklets.
*The location of your latest tax return and Social Security statements.
*The location of any safe deposit boxes and their keys.
*Information on your social media accounts and how they can be accessed.
Identify Funeral Wishes. A letter of instruction is also a good place to leave burial or cremation wishes. You should consider giving the location of your cemetery plot deed, if you have one. You may even wish to specify which hymns or speakers you would like included in your memorial service. Although a letter of instruction is not legally binding, your heirs will probably be glad to know how you would like to be remembered. It also may be helpful to leave a list of contact information for people who should be notified in the event of your death.
There is no “best way” to write a letter of instruction. It can be written in your style and reflect your personality, or it can be written to simply convey information. You should decide what type of letter best fits your estate strategy.
Not all gifts are taxable.
I’d like for you to meet my friend, Hugh. He’s a retired film stuntman who, after a long career, is enjoying his retirement. Some of what he’s enjoying about his retirement is sharing part of his accumulated wealth with his family, specifically his wife and two sons. Like many Americans, Hugh likes to make sure that, when he’s sharing that wealth, he isn’t giving the I.R.S. any overtime.
Hugh knows about the gift tax and knows how to make those gifts without running headlong into a taxable situation. This is Hugh’s responsibility because the I.R.S. puts the onus on the giver. If the gift is a taxable event and Hugh doesn’t pay up, then the responsibility falls to the beneficiaries after he passes in the form of estate taxes. These rules are in place so that Hugh can’t simply, say, give his entire fortune to his sons before he dies.
Exemptions for family and friends. It would be different for Hugh’s wife, Barbara. The unlimited marital deduction means that gifts that Hugh gives to Barbara (or vice versa) never incur the gift tax. There’s one exception, though. Maybe Barbara is a non-U.S. citizen. If so, there’s a limit to what Hugh can offer her, up to $155,000 per year. (This is the limit for 2019; it’s pegged to inflation.)
The gift limit for other people is $15,000 and it applies to both cash and noncash gifts. So, if Hugh buys his older son Tony a $15,000 motorcycle, it’s the same as writing a $15,000 check to his younger son, Jerry, or gifting $15,000 in stock. Spouses have their own separate gift limit, as well; Barbara could also write Jerry a $15,000 check from the account she shares with Hugh.
Education and healthcare. The gift tax doesn’t apply to funds for education or healthcare. So, if Tony breaks his leg riding that motorcycle, Hugh can write a check to the hospital. If Jerry goes back to college to become a chiropodist, Hugh can write a tuition check to the college. This only works if Hugh is writing the check to the institution directly; if he’s writing the check to the beneficiaries (i.e. Tony and Jerry), he might incur the gift tax.
The Lifetime Gift Tax Exemption. What if Hugh were to go over the limit? The lifetime gift tax exemption would go into effect, and the rest would be reported as part of the lifetime exemption via Form 709 come next April. Unlike the annual exemption, the lifetime exemption is cumulative for Hugh. Currently, that lifetime exemption is $11.4 million.
Being a stuntman and an active extreme sportsman, Hugh is concerned about his estate strategy. Were he to borrow Tony’s motorcycle and attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, what would happen if he didn’t make it across? If that unfortunate event occurred in 2019, and he gave $9 million over his lifetime, and his estate and all of that giving totaled more than $2.4 million, the estate may owe a federal tax and possibly a state estate tax. Barbara would have her own $11.4 million lifetime exemption, however, and since she is the spouse, estate taxes may not apply.
Any wise stuntman will tell you, “leave this to the experts.” Talk to a trusted financial professional about your own plans for giving.
How can you make things easier on them later in life?
Worldwide, the number of people aged 60 and older is growing. By 2050, this demographic will be more than twice as large as it was in 2015.¹
Some of these seniors could face a financial test. Will they be able to look after their investments or financial matters at age 80 or 90 with the same level of scrutiny they exercised earlier in life?
Your parents may be facing such a challenge. If you sense that they are not quite up to it, then a conversation about financial issues could be in order.
If you need to have this kind of talk with your parents, it is best to proceed gently, while acknowledging some potential risks that may heighten if the status quo persists.
Start by talking about your own financial matters or investments. Ask your parents for their thoughts on this-or-that topic – an upcoming car purchase, a type of insurance coverage or investment, or their approach to saving or investing when they were your age. Start this conversation while you do something else together, something relaxed or pleasurable. A one-on-one conversation is best, with an informal tone. A formal discussion involving multiple family members might come across like some kind of financial intervention and may not be appreciated.
Alternately, if you have made or updated a will or created a power of attorney, you can talk about your decision to do so and ask your parent if they have either of these items. That could lead to a conversation about family wealth or eldercare.
Helpful and gentle suggestions can follow. If your parents are neglecting to open account statements, you can offer help monitor their accounts by asking to register with the bank or investment custodian, so that you may receive copies of these documents. If you sense bills are past due, you can suggest setting up automated payments, referencing how useful they have been in your own financial life.
There can be resistance to such suggestions, of course. One possible way to counter that resistance is by expressing how much you care about their financial well-being, their wishes, and their quality of life. How would they feel, for example, if a financial error or oversight they made resulted in more income tax or a decline in the value of their accounts?
By treating your parent with love and respect and communicating openly, you can let them know that you are ready to provide the help needed during this time of life.
Not making a move may not always be the best move to make.
A decision not made may have financial consequences. Sometimes, we fall prey to a kind of money paralysis, in which financial indecision is regarded as a form of “safety.”
Retirement seems to heighten this tendency. If you are single and retired, you may be fearful of drawing down your retirement savings too soon or assuming investment risks. Memories of this-or-that market downturn may linger.
Even so, “paralysis by analysis,” or simple hesitation, may cost you in the long run. Your retirement may last much longer than you presume it will – perhaps, 30 or 40 years – and maintaining your standard of living could require some growth investing. As much as you may want to stay out of stocks and funds, their returns often exceed the rate of inflation, which is important. Creeping inflation can reduce your quality of life in retirement by subtly reducing your purchasing power over time.
Retirement calls for distributing some of your accumulated assets. Some new retirees are reluctant to do this, even when some of that money has been set aside for goals or dreams. Frugality suddenly reigns: a long vacation, a new car to replace an old one, or a kitchen remodel may be seen as extravagances.
We cannot control how long we will live, how much money we will need in the future, or how well the economy will perform next year or ten years on. There comes a point where you must live for today. Pinching pennies in retirement with the idea that the great bulk of your savings is for “someday” can weigh on your psyche. What does your retirement dream amount to if it is unlived?
If you fear outliving your money, remember that certain investing approaches offer you the potential to generate a larger retirement fund for yourself. If you seek more retirement income, ask a financial professional about ways to try and arrange it – there are multiple options, and some involve relatively little risk to principal.
There is one situation where waiting may be wise. If you wait to file for Social Security until age 65 or 70, your monthly Social Security benefit will be larger than if you had filed earlier in life. Why? Social Security has what it calls “full retirement age,” or FRA – the age at which you can receive the full Social Security benefit you are entitled to, based on your earnings record.
If you were born in 1960 or later, your FRA is 67. If you were born during 1954-59, your FRA is 66 (and it gradually increases toward 67, depending on your birth year within that date range).
Most retirees claim Social Security benefits in their early sixties (eligibility begins at age 62). In a way, they are shortchanging themselves by doing so. Because they are claiming benefits before reaching their FRA, their monthly benefit is smaller than it would be at age 66 or 67 – in fact, it may be as much as 30% smaller. On the other hand, those who claim after their FRA at age 68, 69, or 70 receive monthly benefits that are larger than they would get at age 66 or 67. Roughly speaking, for every year you delay claiming benefits beyond your FRA, you will increase the size of your monthly benefit payment by around 8%.
Your approach to investing has been created with your retirement in mind. A practical outlook on investing and decisions to work longer or claim Social Security later can potentially help you amass and receive more money in the future.
Will your accumulated assets be threatened by them?
All too often, family wealth fails to last. One generation builds a business – or even a fortune – and it is lost in ensuing decades. Why does it happen, again and again?
Often, families fall prey to serious money blunders. Classic mistakes are made; changing times are not recognized.
Procrastination. This is not just a matter of failing to plan, but also of failing to respond to acknowledged financial weaknesses.
As a hypothetical example, say there is a multimillionaire named Alan. The named beneficiary of Alan’s six-figure savings account is no longer alive. While Alan knows about this financial flaw, knowledge is one thing, but action is another. He realizes he should name another beneficiary, but he never gets around to it. His schedule is busy, and updating that beneficiary form is inconvenient.
Sadly, procrastination wins out in the end, and as the account lacks a payable-on-death (POD) beneficiary, those assets end up subject to probate. Then, Alan’s heirs find out about other lingering financial matters that should have been taken care of regarding his IRA, his real estate holdings, and more.
Minimal or absent estate planning. Every year, there are multimillionaires who die without leaving any instructions for the distribution of their wealth – not just rock stars and actors, but also small business owners and entrepreneurs. According to a recent Caring.com survey, 58% of Americans have no estate planning in place, not even a basic will.
Anyone reliant on a will alone risks handing the destiny of their wealth over to a probate judge. The multimillionaire who has a child with special needs, a family history of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or a former spouse or estranged children may need a greater degree of estate planning. If they want to endow charities or give grandkids a nice start in life, the same applies. Business ownership calls for coordinated estate planning and succession planning.
A finely crafted estate plan has the potential to perpetuate and enhance family wealth for decades, and perhaps, generations. Without it, heirs may have to deal with probate and a painful opportunity cost – the lost potential for tax-advantaged growth and compounding of those assets.
The lack of a “family office.” Decades ago, the wealthiest American households included offices: a staff of handpicked financial professionals who worked within a mansion, supervising a family’s entire financial life. While traditional “family offices” have disappeared, the concept is as relevant as ever. Today, select wealth management firms emulate this model: in an ongoing relationship distinguished by personal and responsive service, they consult families about investments, provide reports, and assist in decision-making. If your financial picture has become far too complex to address on your own, this could be a wise choice for your family.
Technological flaws. Hackers can hijack email and social media accounts and send phony messages to banks, brokerages, and financial advisors to authorize asset transfers. Social media can help you build your business, but it can also expose you to identity thieves seeking to steal both digital and tangible assets.
Sometimes a business or family installs a security system that proves problematic – so much so that it is turned off half the time. Unscrupulous people have ways of learning about that, and they may be only one or two degrees separated from you.
No long-term strategy in place. When a family wants to sustain wealth for decades to come, heirs have to understand the how and why. All family members have to be on the same page, or at least, read that page. If family communication about wealth tends to be more opaque than transparent, the mechanics and purpose of the strategy may never be adequately explained.
No decision-making process. In the typical high net worth family, financial decision-making is vertical and top-down. Parents or grandparents may make decisions in private, and it may be years before heirs learn about those decisions or fully understand them. When heirs do become decision-makers, it is usually upon the death of the elders.
Horizontal decision-making can help multiple generations commit to the guidance of family wealth. Estate and succession planning professionals can help a family make these decisions with an awareness of different communication styles. In-depth conversations are essential; good estate planners recognize that silence does not necessarily mean agreement.
You may plan to reduce these risks to family wealth (and others) in collaboration with financial and legal professionals. It is never too early to begin.