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Estate Plans that Fail to Protect Your Family; when Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney and Asset Transfers Are Not Enough

Roger McClure Oct. 15, 2010

What is Estate Planning? Insurance companies, banks, financial planners and attorneys all advertise that they will help you with your estate plan. When we talk about estate planning, people are often confused as whether we provide financial or legal advice. Our name, Washington Wealth Counsellors, lends to this confusion. The answer: an effective estate plan is one that protects and provides for you and your loved ones now and in the future and distributes your property the way you want, when you want and how you want with the minimum of taxes and expenses. This requires the skills of lawyers, accountants, financial planners, insurance professionals and trust officers.

Sam and Sally. Sam and Sally come to us for an estate plan. During the interview we discover that Sam has several old life insurance policies which would provide $300,000 to Sally if Sam died and the total cash value of the policies are $280,000. The cash value is what the insurance company would pay Sam today if Sam turned in (surrendered) the insurance policies while Sam is alive. After Sam dies, his wife receives only half of his pension and then Sally will have less income than she needs without selling the house. Sally has spent thousands of hours in her flower beds and decorating her kitchen to make her home a very pleasing and comfortable place and has many wonderful memories of family gatherings there. As lawyers, we can do the wills, trusts, powers of attorney and property transfers to make their estate plan perform as they desire. But, the documents do not save Sally’s house.

What is the Central Problem? The central problem in Sam and Sally’s estate is not the legal documents, although the proper legal documents will make sure that their property goes to whom they want, when they want and how they want with the minimum of taxes and expenses. Instead, the central problem is that Sally, who statistically is likely to survive Sam, will not have enough income to stay in her beloved home after Sam dies. The children of Sam and Sally have their own families, are well established and do not need Sam and Sally’s money to live on. Sally does not have the stamina or skills to go back to work.

Providing for the Surviving Spouse. The solution to this central problem is for Sam to exchange his insurance policies for a new insurance policy that will provide enough money for Sally to live on after Sam dies. The tax code under Section 1035 allows Sam to exchange his old policies for a new policy with a higher death benefit and lower cash value without paying any taxes at the time of the exchange even though he is using his untaxed earnings in his insurance policy to buy something of greater value to him. When not being used as an investment and tax saving vehicle, the purpose of life insurance is usually to replace the income of the breadwinner when the breadwinner dies and to shift the risk of a premature death of the breadwinner from the policy holder to the insurance company. Here, with $280,000 of cash value and a death benefit of $300,000, Sam has nearly all of the risk of his death on his shoulders and his insurance is providing him virtually no leverage. We brought this up to Sam and Sally during a review of their estate plan because we ask questions about how much will Sally have to live on after Sam dies, how much insurance they have and what is the cash value of their insurance.

Solving the Central Problem. We referred Sam and Sally to a qualified trustworthy insurance professional. The insurance professional shopped the insurance companies and came up with a policy that will provide a death benefit of $1,000,000 up to age 97 for Sam in exchange for the cash value in the policies. Sam and Sally pay for this by using the cash value in the insurance policies, do not write a new check, do not pay taxes when they trade the cash value for a new policy and have no future insurance payments because they used the cash value to pay for this new policy. If Sam dies before age 97, Sally receives $1,000,000 and this, with their other assets, will be enough for Sally to stay in her beloved home. Of course, Sam had the alternative of taking the $280,000 out of the policy and investing it in hopes that next year or any year thereafter he would have grown the $280,000 to $1,000,000. With many experts stating that the stock market will be flat for the next 6-9 years, how will Sam invest these funds to make sure the $1,000,000 would be there for Sally? The insurance company invests these funds, takes over the risk that Sam will die soon, and guarantees to pay the $1,000,000 under the terms of the contact and makes a profit.

How Can This Happen? I do no know why Sam’s prior insurance agent never talked to Sam about this problem. If Sam had consulted any of the financial planners we work with, the financial planner would have brought up this solution. This happens too often because in this era of specialization, the specialist attorney or other advisors put their blinders on and only look at what concerns their narrow specialty rather than solving the problems of their clients. We spotted the problem and bought in an insurance professional with the license, credentials, honesty and experience to solve the problem. What is a necessity for an estate plan that meets all of your goals is that you must have a team of professionals looking out for you – your accountant, your lawyer, your insruance professional, your financial planner and your personal banker. All of them have a contribution to maqke to protect you and your family.

Plan Now. If you want a comprehensive estate plan, call us for an appointment for a review by our team.