Dear Liz: What would be the ownership status of assets covered in our will and our retirement accounts when our heirs and beneficiaries receive them? In the case of married heirs, do the asset ownership laws of their state of residence dictate whether inheritance proceeds get held individually or jointly? In addition to having a candid conversation with our kids, we are debating the need for and risk associated with a revocable living trust to provide some assurance that our wishes be honored for our direct descendants to receive and manage any proceeds.
Answer: Inherited assets can be kept as separate property, even in community property states where assets acquired during marriage are typically considered jointly owned. Keeping property separate requires some vigilance, however. If an inheritance is deposited in a joint account, or joint funds are used to improve a separately owned house, those assets could become marital property.
Even if your heirs are scrupulous about keeping property separate, their spouses may ultimately inherit should your heirs die first. If those spouses remarry, the assets could wind up with another family, rather than with your grandkids.
If you want your assets to ultimately get to your grandchildren, there are a few ways to do that, such as bequeathing assets directly to them or through generation-skipping trusts. You can use either a will or a revocable living trust.
You’d be smart to talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about what you want and the best way to achieve those ends.
Big severance creates a tax problem
Dear Liz: My husband is being laid off with a severance package equal to seven months’ pay. What's better for tax avoidance in California, a 529 college savings plan contribution or investing in an IRA?
Answer: A 529 college savings plan contribution won’t save you taxes in California. There’s no federal deduction for such contributions, and unlike most other states, California doesn’t offer a state tax break, either.
Your husband can contribute up to $5,500 to IRAs for each of you, plus an additional $1,000 per person if you’re 50 or over. Whether the money will reduce your 2018 tax bill depends on your income and whether you’re covered by workplace retirement programs.
If your husband had a 401(k) or similar plan, he would be able to deduct his contribution only if your modified adjusted gross income as a married couple filing jointly is under $101,000. A partial deduction is available until the tax break phases out at $121,000.
If you aren’t an active participant in a workplace plan, however, higher income limits apply. Your husband can make and deduct a spousal IRA contribution for you as long as your joint modified adjusted gross income is under $189,000. A partial deduction is available until the tax break phases out at $199,000.
Even if you’re able to reduce your taxable income with such contributions, you’ll still probably owe a sizable tax bill on this severance. Please consult a tax pro about how much of the money to put aside and whether you’ll need to make any payments before next year’s tax deadline.
Getting spousal benefits after divorce
Dear Liz: When I retired at 63, my husband had been on Social Security for several years. We had been divorced about six months at that time. Should I have been bumped up to his benefits? We had been married for 42 years.
Answer: You wouldn’t get an amount equal to his benefit if he’s still alive — that’s called a survivor’s benefit, and it’s only available after his death. But you could get a spousal benefit of up to half of his check if that amount is larger than your own retirement benefit.
Both spousal and survivor benefits are available to divorced spouses if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Neither benefit reduces what your ex or any subsequent spouses get.
You should call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 to see if you qualify for a larger check.