What Happens If You Don’t Name Beneficiaries? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is always good to check into your retirement accounts and consider if you are saving enough and if your investments are properly balanced. However, what is just as important is whether you have reviewed named beneficiaries for these and other accounts. The recommendation comes from the article titled “Review your IRA, 401(k) beneficiaries” from Idaho State Business Journal, and it’s sound advice.

In more cases than you might think, people overlook this detail, and their loved ones are left with the consequences. After all, you opened those accounts long ago, and who even remembers? Does it really matter?

In a word, yes. What if your family circumstances have changed since you named a beneficiary? If divorce and remarriage occurred, do you want your former spouse to receive your IRA, 401(k) and life insurance proceeds?

It is important to understand that beneficiary designations supersede anything in your last will and testament. Therefore, while you have been dutifully updating your estate plans whenever life changes occur and neglecting beneficiary designations, your ex or someone else who is no longer in your life could receive a surprise windfall.

Here is another detail often overlooked: retirement plans, and insurance policies may need more than one beneficiary. Any time there is an opportunity to name a contingent beneficiary, take advantage of it. If the primary beneficiary dies or refuses the inheritance and there is no contingent or secondary beneficiary, the proceeds could end up back into your estate. Depending on the laws of your state, they might end up being taxable, in addition to not going to your intended heir.

This is an easy thing to fix, but it takes diligence and in some cases, a fair amount of time.

Start by gathering information on all your accounts, including retirement, checking and savings accounts, 401(k)s, pension plans, insurance policies and any accounts containing assets you want to pass to loved ones. If you see anything incorrect or outdated, immediately contact the financial institution, your company’s benefits manager or your insurance representative to request a change-of-beneficiary form.

Once you receive the form, immediately address making the changes. Request a printed confirmation from the financial organization to confirm the change has been made. Do not accept a verbal acknowledgement by a call center employee—this is too important to leave to chance.

To be on the safe side, it would be wise to have your estate planning attorney work with you on documenting your beneficiary designations as part of your estate plan. You may also pick up some smart pointers on other suggestions for dealing with beneficiaries.

For example, children are not permitted to control assets until they reach the age of majority. But when most children reach age 18 or 21, they are not ready to manage substantial sums of money. Your will names a guardian for minor children, but it is also wise to create a trust for the benefit of a minor that controls when distributions are made when they are older.

Most people want to leave something behind for those they love. Make sure to do it in the right way—including paying attention to beneficiary designations.

Reference: Idaho State Business Journal (July 27, 2021) “Review your IRA, 401(k) beneficiaries”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Does a Married Couple without Children Need a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

While estate planning for couples with no children seems like it would be very simple, the opposite is almost always the case, according to this informative article titled “Three keys to estate planning for couples without children” from The News-Enterprise.

If there is no last will, intestate succession laws dictate who will receive property.

There are three relatively simple ways for couples to be sure their wishes will be followed, and property distributed as they want.

A secondary level of beneficiaries. Couples do not always die at the same time, although it does happen. For the most part, upon one spouse’s death, assets owned together, including Payable on Death, or POD accounts, remain in the possession of the surviving spouse. If all of the assets are owned jointly, the surviving spouse may be able to avoid probate altogether. However, they should check with an estate planning attorney to be sure their state will accept this.

There should be provisions in the last will, in case of a simultaneous death. This lets the more important provisions focus on the beneficiaries. While property may pass easily outside of probate to the survivor, the same will not be true if property is to pass to beneficiaries. The estate will go through probate.

If at all possible, couples should have the same designated beneficiaries. If the couple intends to leave everything to the surviving spouse, they will need to decide who will receive joint property after both have died.

Last wills for each spouse must be created to work together. Designating separate lists of beneficiaries in each spouse’s last will and testament ultimately results in the marital property being left only to one spouse’s loved ones. The result: the other spouse’s family can end up being disinherited.

One way to address this is to create marital shares of property. Couples generally divide marital property in equal shares, although couples in blended families may choose to use a different fractional share.

For each fractional share, each spouse should write out their own list of beneficiaries, being sure that the total ends up being 100%.

Another point to be determined: will survivors within the group receive a larger share pro rata, or will children of the deceased beneficiaries receive their shares? This needs to be clarified when the estate plan is created to avoid potential problems for beneficiaries.

Beneficiaries could potentially be changed after the death of the first spouse, so if the couple wants to prevent anyone from being disinherited, they can use a revocable living trust. This can lock up the deceased spouse’s shares in a manner to allow the property to remain available for the survivor, but the survivor cannot change beneficiaries for the deceased spouse’s share.

Estate planning for couples with no children can have its own pitfalls, so consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know how to protect all members of the family.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (July 27, 2021) “Three keys to estate planning for couples without children”

 

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Do You have to Go through Probate when Someone Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate involves assets, debts and distribution. The administration of a probate estate involves gathering all assets owned by the decedent, all claims owed to the decedent and the payments of all liabilities owed by the decedent or the estate of the decedent and the distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries. If this sounds complicated, that is because it is, according to the article “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know” from The Dallas Morning News.

The admission of a decedent’s will to probate may be challenged for up to two years from the date it was admitted to probate. Many people dismiss this concern, because they believe they have done everything they could to avoid probate, from assigning beneficiary designations to creating trusts. Those are necessary steps in estate planning, but there are some possibilities that executors and beneficiaries need to know.

Any creditor can open a probate estate and sue to pull assets back into the estate. A disappointed heir can sue the executor/administrator and claim that designations and transfers were made when the decedent was incapacitated, unduly influenced or the victim of fraud.

It is very important that the administrator handles estate matters with meticulous attention to detail, documenting every transaction, maintaining scrupulous records and steering clear of anything that might even appear to be self-dealing. The administrator has a fiduciary duty to keep the beneficiaries of the estate reasonably informed of the process, act promptly and diligently administer and settle the estate.

The administrator must also be in a position to account for all revenue received, money spent and assets sold. The estate’s property must not be mixed in any way with the administrator’s own property or funds or business interests.

The administrator may not engage in any self-dealing. No matter how easily it may be to justify making a transaction, buying any of the estate’s assets for their own benefit or using their own accounts to temporarily hold money, is not permitted.

The administrator must obtain a separate tax identification number from the IRS, known as an EIN, for the probate estate. This is the identification number used to open an estate bank account to hold the estate’s cash and any investment grade assets. The account has to be properly named, on behalf of the probate estate. Anything that is cash must pass through the estate account, and every single receipt and disbursement should be documented. There is no room for fuzzy accounting in an estate administration, as any estate planning lawyer will advise.

Distributions do not get made, until all creditors are paid. This may not win the administrator any popularity contests, but it is required. No creditors are paid until the taxes are paid—the last year’s taxes for the last year the decedent was alive, and the estate taxes. The administrator may be held personally liable, if money is paid out to creditors or beneficiaries and there is not enough money in the estate to pay taxes.

If the estate contains multiple properties in different states, probate must be done in all of those different states. If it is a large complex estate, an estate planning attorney will be a valuable resource in helping to avoid pitfalls, minor or major.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (May 16, 2021) “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Are 529 Plans Part of Your Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. They are also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here is how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax free, as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you do not hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you are blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it is needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”

 

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What Do I Need to Know about Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Your idea of planning for the future may include vacations and visits to family and friends—estate planning, not so much. However, it should, advises Real Simple in the article “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now.” Estate planning concerns decisions about distributing your property when you die, and while that is not as much fun as planning a trip to an adventure park, it has become increasingly important for adults of all ages.

A survey by caring.com found that the number of young adults with a last will (ages 18-34) increased by 63 percent since 2020. Many tough lessons were learned through the pandemic, and the importance of having an estate plan was one of them.

An estate plan is more than documents for when you die. There are also documents for what should happen if you become disabled. The last will is one piece of the larger estate plan. An estate plan is also an opportunity to plan for wealth accumulation and building generational wealth, at any level.

Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of their net worth. People with lower incomes actually need estate planning more than the wealthy. There is less room for error. Estate planning is everything from where you want your money to go, to who will be in charge of it and who will be in charge of your minor children, if you have a young family.

It may be rare for both parents to die at the same time, but it does happen. Your last will is also used to name a guardian to raise your minor children. With no last will, the court will decide who raises them.

If you have filled out 401(k) and life insurance paperwork at work, you have started estate planning already. Any document that asks you to name a beneficiary in case of your death is part of your estate plan. Be certain to update these documents. Young adults often name their parents and then neglect to change the beneficiaries when they get married or have children.

For single people, estate planning is more important. If you have no estate plan and no children, everything you own will go to your parents. What if you have a partner or best friend and want them to receive your assets? Without an estate plan, they have no legal rights. An estate planning attorney will know how to plan, so your wishes are followed.

Estate planning includes planning for disability, also known as “incapacity.” If you become too sick to manage your affairs, bills still need to be paid. Who can do that for you? Without an estate plan, a family member will need to go to court to be assigned that role—or someone you do not even know may be assigned that role. Your last will names an executor to manage your affairs after you die.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your last will, power of attorney, medical power of attorney and other parts of your estate plan created. The court system and processes are complex, and the laws are different in every state. Trying to do it yourself or using a template that you download, could leave you with an invalid last will, which will cause more problems than it solves.

Reference: Real Simple (May 12, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

What is not Covered by a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A Last Will and Testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died.  A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how Wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a Will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of Guardians for any minor children and the Executor of your estate. Without a Will, both of those decisions will be made by the court.  It is better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a Will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a Will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court.  However, some assets do not pass through probate.  Here is how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the Trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries.  Whatever a Will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries.  In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions.  The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner.  They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your Will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a Will.  A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits.  Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law.  If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a Trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

 

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What Is a Living Trust Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Living trusts are one of the most popular estate planning tools. However, a living trust accomplishes several goals, explains the article “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate” from The Record Courier. A living trust allows for the management of a beneficiary’s inheritance and may also reduce estate taxes.  A person with many heirs or who owns real estate should consider including a living trust in their estate plan.

A trust is a fiduciary relationship, where the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor,” “settlor,” “trustor” or “trustmaker,” gives the “trustee” the right to hold title to assets to benefit another person. This third person is usually an heir, a beneficiary, or a charity.

With a living trust, the grantor, trustee and beneficiary may be one and the same person. A living trust may be created by one person for that person’s benefit. When the grantor dies, or becomes incapacitated, another person designated by the trust becomes the successor trustee and manages the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary or heir. All of these roles are defined in the trust documents.

The living trust, which is sometimes referred to as an “inter vivos” trust, is created to benefit the grantor while they are living. A grantor can make any and all changes they wish while they are living to their trust (within the law, of course). A testamentary trust is created through a person’s will, and assets are transferred to the trust only when the grantor dies. A testamentary trust is an “irrevocable” trust, and no changes can be made to an irrevocable trust.

There are numerous other trusts used to manage the distribution of wealth and protect assets from taxes. Any trust agreement must identify the name of the trust, the initial trustee and the beneficiaries, as well as the terms of the trust and the name of a successor trustee.

For the trust to achieve its desired outcome, assets must be transferred from the individual to the trust. This is called “funding the trust.” The trust creator typically holds title to assets, but to fund the trust, titled property, like bank and investment accounts, real property or vehicles, are transferred to the trust by changing the name on the title. Personal property that does not have a title is transferred by an assignment of all tangible property to the trustee. An estate planning attorney will be able to help with this process, which can be cumbersome but is completely necessary for the trust to work.

Some assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, do not need to be transferred to the trust. They use a beneficiary designation, naming a person who will become the owner upon the death of the original owner. These assets do not belong in a trust, unless there are special circumstances.

Reference: The Record Courier (April 3, 2021) “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate”

 

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Can a Charity Be a Beneficiary of an Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The interest in charitable giving increased in 2020 for two reasons. One was a dramatic increase in need as a result of the COVID pandemic, reports The Tax Advisor’s article “Charitable income tax deductions for trusts and estates.” The other was more pragmatic from a tax planning perspective. The CARES Act increased the amounts of charitable contributions that may be deducted from taxes by individuals and corporations.

What if a person wishes to make a donation from the assets that are held in trust? Is that still an income tax deduction? It depends.

The rules for donations from trusts are substantially different than those for charitable contribution deductions for individuals and corporations. The IRS code allows an estate or nongrantor trust to make a deduction which, if pursuant to the terms of the governing instrument, is paid for a purpose specified in Section 170(c). For trusts created on or before October 9, 1969, the IRS code expands the scope of the deduction to allow for a deduction of the gross income set aside permanently for charitable purposes.

If the trust or estate allows for payments to be made for charity, then donations from a trust are allowed and may be tax deductions. Otherwise, they cannot be deducted.

If the trust or estate allows distributions for charity, the type of asset contributed and how it was acquired by the trust or estate determines whether a tax deduction for a charitable donation is permitted. Here are some basic rules, but every situation is different and requires the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Cash donations. A trust or estate making cash donations may deduct to the extent of the lesser of the taxable income for the year or the amount of the contribution.

Noncash assets purchased by the trust/estate: If the trust or estate purchased marketable securities with income, the cost basis of the asset is considered the amount contributed from gross income. The trust or estate cannot avoid recognizing capital gain on a noncash asset that is donated, while also deducting the full value of the asset contributed. The trust or estate’s deduction is limited to the asset’s cost basis.

Noncash assets contributed to the trust/estate: If the trust or estate acquired an asset it wants to donate to charity as part of the funding of the fiduciary arrangement, no charity deduction is permitted. The asset that is part of the trust or estate’s corpus, the principal of the estate, is not gross income.

The order of charitable deductions, compared to distribution deductions, can cause a great deal of complexity in tax planning and reporting. Required distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries must be accounted for first, and the charitable deduction is not taken into account in calculating distributable net income. The recipients of the distributions do not get the benefit of the deduction. The trust or the estate does.

Charitable distributions are considered next, which may offset any remaining taxable income. Last are discretionary distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries, so these beneficiaries may receive the largest benefit from any charitable deduction.

If the trust claims a charitable deduction, it must file form 1041A for the relevant tax year, unless it meets any of the exceptions noted in the instructions in the form.

These are complex estate and tax matters, requiring the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney for optimal results.

Reference: The Tax Advisor (March 1, 2021) “Charitable income tax deductions for trusts and estates”

 

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What are the Stages of Probate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it is simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

The Stretch IRA Is Diminished but Not Completely Gone – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Before the SECURE Act, named beneficiaries who inherited an IRA were able to take distributions over the course of their lifetimes. This allowed the IRA to grow over many years, sometimes decades. This option came to an end in 2019 for most heirs, but not for all, says the recent article “Who is Still Eligible for a Stretch IRA?” from Fed Week.

A quick refresher: the SECURE ActSetting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement—was passed in December 2019. Its purpose was, ostensibly, to make retirement savings more accessible for less-advantaged people. Among many other things, it extended the time workers could put savings into IRAs and when they needed to start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs).

However, one of the features not welcomed by many, was the change in inherited IRA distributions. Those not eligible for the stretch option must empty the account, no matter its size, within ten years of the death of the original owner. Large IRAs are diminished by the taxes and some individuals are pushed into higher tax brackets as a result.

However, not everyone has lost the ability to use the stretch option, including anyone who inherited an IRA before January 1, 2020. This is who is included in this category:

  • Surviving Spouses.
  • Minor children of the deceased account owner–but only until they reach the age of majority. Once the minor becomes of legal age, he or she must deplete the IRA within ten years. The only exception is for full-time students, which ends at age 26.
  • Disabled individuals. There is a high bar to qualify. The person must meet the total disability definition, which is close to the definition used by Social Security. The person must be unable to engage in any type of employment because of a medically determined or mental impairment that would result in death or to be of chronic duration.
  • Chronically ill persons. This is another challenge for qualifying. The individual must meet the same standards used by insurance companies used to qualify policyowners for long-term care coverage. The person must be certified by a treating physician or other licensed health care practitioner as not able to perform at least two activities of daily living or require substantial supervision, due to a cognitive impairment.
  • Those who are not more than ten years younger than the deceased account owner. That means any beneficiary, not just someone who was related to the account owner.

What was behind this change? Despite the struggles of most Americans to put aside money for their retirement, which is a looming national crisis, there are trillions of dollars sitting in IRA accounts. Where better to find tax revenue, than in these accounts? Yes, this was a major tax grab for the federal coffers.

Reference: Fed Week (March 3, 2021) “Who is Still Eligible for a Stretch IRA?”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys