What’s the Difference between Probate Assets and Non-Probate Assets? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Updating estate plans and reviewing beneficiary designations are both important estate planning tasks, more important than most people think. They are easy to fix while you are alive, but the problems created by ignoring these tasks occur after you have passed, when they cannot be easily fixed or, cannot be fixed at all. The article “Who gets the brokerage account?” from Glen Rose Reporter shares one family’s story.

The father of three children had an estate plan done when the children were in their twenties. His Last Will and Testament directed all assets in a substantial brokerage account to be equally divided between the three children.

His Last Will and Testament was never updated.

Thirty years later, his two sons are successful, affluent physicians with high incomes. His daughter is a retired educator who had raised two children as a single mom and struggled financially for many years.

When her father met with his investment advisor, he signed a beneficiary designation leaving the substantial brokerage account, including the substantial growth occurring over the years, to his daughter.

When he dies, the two brothers claim his Last Will and Testament, dividing all assets equally, must be the final word. They insist the brokerage account is to be divided equally among the three children.

Any assets held in an account with a beneficiary designation are considered non-probate assets. They do not pass through the probate process. Their disposition is not controlled by the Last Will and Testament. The contract between the institution and the individual is paramount.

Insurance policies, retirement accounts, bank and brokerage accounts usually have these designations. They often include a pay-on-death provision, and the person who is to receive the assets upon death of the owner is clearly named.

If the owner of the account fails to sign a right of survivorship, pay-on-death or to name a beneficiary designation before they die, then the assets are paid by the financial institution to the probate estate. This is to be avoided, however, since it complicates what could be a simple transaction.

The two sons were correctly advised by an estate planning attorney of their sister’s full and protected right to receive the investment account, despite their wishes. When the provisions in the Last Will and Testament conflict with a contract made between an owner and a financial institution, the contract prevails.

In this case, a less financially secure daughter and her family benefited from the wishes and foresight of her father.

Last Wills and Testament and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed and revised to ensure that they reflect the wishes of the parent as time goes by.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Jan. 13, 2022) “Who gets the brokerage account?”

 

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Can I Change My Estate Plan During Divorce? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Divorce is never easy. Adding the complexities of estate planning can make it harder. However, it still needs to be included during the divorce process, says a recent article entitled “How to Change Your Estate Plan During Divorce from the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Some of the key things to bear in mind during a divorce include:

Is your Last Will and Testament aligned with your pending divorce? The unexpected occurs, whether planning a relaxing vacation or a contentious divorce. If you were to die in the process, which usually takes a few years, who would inherit your worldly goods? Your ex? A trust created to take care of your children, with a trusted sibling as a trustee?

Are your beneficiary designations up to date? For the same reason, make sure that life insurance policies, retirement accounts and any financial accounts allowing you to name a beneficiary are current to reflect your pending or new marital status.

Certain changes may not be made until the divorce is finalized. For instance, there are laws concerning spouses and pension distribution. You might not be able to make a change until the divorce is finalized.  If your divorce agreement includes maintaining life insurance for the support of minor children, you must keep your spouse (or whoever is the agreed-upon guardian) as the policy beneficiary.

Once the divorce decree is accepted by the court, the best path forward is to have a completely new will prepared. Making a patchwork estate plan of amendments can be more expensive and leave your estate more vulnerable after you have passed. A new will revokes the original document, including naming an executor and a guardian for minor children.

The will is far from the only document to be changed. Other documents to be created include health care directives and medical and financial powers of attorney. All of these are used to name people who will act on your behalf, in the event of incapacity.

It is a good idea to update these documents during the divorce process. If you are in the middle of an ugly, emotionally charged divorce, the last person you want making life or death decisions as your health care proxy or being in charge of your finances is your soon-to-be ex.

Talk with your estate planning attorney so your attorney knows you are going through the divorce process. They will be able to make further recommendations to protect you, your children and your estate during and after the divorce.

Reference: Waco Tribune-Herald (Oct. 18, 2021) “How to Change Your Estate Plan During Divorce”

 

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What a Will Won’t Accomplish – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Everyone needs a will. A last will and testament is how an executor is named to manage your estate, how a guardian is named to care for any minor children and how you give directions for distribution of property. However, not all property passes via your will. You will want to know what a will can and cannot do, as well as how assets are distributed outside of a will. This was the topic of “The Legal Limits of Your Will” from AARP Magazine.

Retirement and Pension Accounts

The beneficiaries named on retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs, receive these assets directly. Some states have laws about requiring spouses to receive some or all assets. However, if you do not keep these beneficiary names updated, the wrong person may receive the asset, like it or not. Do not expect anyone to willingly give up a surprise windfall. If a primary beneficiary has died and no contingency beneficiary was named, the recipient may also be determined by default terms, which may not be what you have in mind.

Life Insurance Policies.

The beneficiary designations on an insurance policy determine who will receive proceeds upon your death. Laws vary by state, so check with an estate planning attorney to learn what would happen if you died without updating life insurance policies. A simpler strategy is to create a list of all of your financial accounts, determine how they are distributed and update names as necessary.

Note there are exceptions to all rules. If your divorce agreement includes a provision naming your ex as the sole beneficiary, you may not have an option to make a change.

Financial Accounts

Adding another person to your bank account through various means—Payable on Death (POD), Transfer on Death (TOD), or Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (JTWROS)—may generally override a will, but may not be acceptable for all accounts, or to all financial institutions. There are unanticipated consequences of transferring assets this way, including the simplest: once transferred, assets are immediately vulnerable to creditors, divorce proceedings, etc.

Trusts

Trusts are used in estate planning to remove assets from a personal estate and place them in safekeeping for beneficiaries. Once the assets are properly transferred into the trust, their distribution and use are defined by the trust document. The flexibility and variety of trusts makes this a key estate planning tool, regardless of the value of the assets in the estate.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Sep. 29, 2021) “The Legal Limits of Your Will”

 

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When Should You Fund a Trust? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it does not happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you will need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

 

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Can You Have Bitcoin in IRA? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Experts on both sides of the cryptocurrency world agree on one thing: it is still early to put these kinds of investments into retirement accounts, especially IRAs. A recent article from CNBC, “Want to put bitcoin in your IRA? Why experts say you may want to rethink that, explains why this temptation should be put on pause for a while.

Investors who have remained on the sidelines on cryptocurrency are taking a second look as this new asset class surpassed the $2 trillion mark in late August. Looking at retirement accounts flush with positive growth from stocks, it seems like a good time to take some gains and test the crypto waters.

However, the pros warn against using cryptocurrency in retirement accounts. “Not just yet” is the message from both bulls and bears. One expert says using cryptocurrency in a retirement account is like taking a delicate and exotic animal out of its natural element and putting it in a concrete zoo. Cryptocurrency is not like “regular” money.

The accounts are structured differently.  The average investor also will not be able to hold the keys to their own cryptocurrency investment.  It’s a buy and hold, with no individual ability to move the assets around. While there are some investment platforms working to change that, an inability to move assets, especially such volatile assets, is not for everyone.

Cryptocurrency is a much riskier investment. A quarterly look at account updates would be like only checking your retirement accounts every five years. Cryptocurrency values are volatile, and an account balance can change dramatically from one week, one day or even one hour to the next one. Crypto is a 24/7/365-day market.

Self-directed IRAs are allowed to have crypto assets, but just because you can does not mean you should. Another reason: stocks, bonds and real estate have a stated market value, which means they are taxed when withdrawals are taken. However, the expected value of cryptocurrencies is not clear. They are not regulated, while IRAs are among the most highly regulated accounts. This is a big reason as to why most IRA account administrators do not permit cryptocurrencies in their accounts.

Investment decisions are based on the eventual use of the funds. For IRAs, the intention is not to lose money, and ideally for it to grow, so there is more money for your retirement, not less. Separate margin or trading accounts are typically used for riskier investments.

One expert advised limiting cryptocurrency investments to 5% of your total retirement accounts. If money is lost, it will not destroy your retirement, and any wins are extra money. Another expert says investing such a small amount will not be worth the time or effort, so don’t even bother.

For those who are determined to get in the game, a Roth IRA may be preferable if you have an extended time horizon and can stand the ups and downs of cryptocurrency investments. The appreciation in a Roth IRA will be tax-free.

Reference: CNBC (Aug. 17, 2021) “Want to put bitcoin in your IRA? Why experts say you may want to rethink that

 

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How Do You Plan for the Death of a Spouse? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. Make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

 

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When Should You Have ‘The Talk’ with Your Kids? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Talking about who will control your assets is always a tricky thing, says AARP.org in a recent article “Do Your Kids Know Where to Find All Your Money if Tragedy Strikes?” The risk of adult children being caught unawares or without access to a parental funds could lead to big problems, if the parents should die or become incapacitated unexpectedly. Experienced estate planning attorneys know the conversation is better had now, than pushed into the background with a giant surprise in the future.

When a parent’s finances are revealed only after their death, or if dementia strikes, the unexpected responsibility can create a lot of stress. However, there are also reasons not to tell. If a child has a substance abuse problem, or is in a bad marriage, this information may be best kept under wraps. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are some universal rules to consider.

Short on cash? Do not make a secret of it. If you might end up needing help during retirement, it is best to tell your children early on. Family members have helped each other since there were families, but the earlier you involve them, the more time they have to help you find more resources and make plans.

Dealing with big numbers? You might want to wait. The amount of money you have worked a lifetime to save may look like an endless supply to a 22-year old. When young adults learn there is a pot of gold, things can go south, fast. If you have a spouse and are relatively young and healthy, then all the children need to know, is that you are well set for retirement. By the time you are closer to 80, then your children and/or a trusted financial representative and your estate planning attorney will need to know where your money is and how to access it.

How to share the details? Start by making a complete list of all of your assets, including account numbers, key contacts and any other details your executor or agents will need to handle your affairs. Put that information into an envelope and make sure that your children or your estate planning lawyer know where it is. If the information is kept on your computer or on an online portal, make sure the right people have access to the passwords, so they can access the information.

How to share the big picture? Estate planning attorneys often recommend a family meeting in their offices, with all of the children present. It is helpful to have this meeting happen in neutral territory, and even children who tend to squabble among themselves behave better in a lawyer’s conference room. You can explain who the executor will be, and why.

Introduce them to your team. Chances are you have a long-standing relationship with your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and accountant. These are the people your children will be working with after you have passed. Having them meet before you die or become incapacitated, will be better for a working relationship that will likely occur during a stressful time.

Reference: AARP.org (April 24, 2020) “Do Your Kids Know Where to Find All Your Money if Tragedy Strikes?”

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What Should I know about Financial Powers of Attorney? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A financial power of attorney is a document allowing an “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on the principal’s behalf. It usually allows the agent to pay the principal’s bills, access her accounts, pay her taxes and buy and sell investments. This person, in effect, assumes the responsibilities of the principal and can act for the principal in all areas detailed in the document.

Kiplinger’s recent article from April entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” acknowledges that these responsibilities may sound daunting, and it is only natural to feel a little overwhelmed initially. Here are some facts that will help you understand what you need to do.

Read and do not panic. Review the power of attorney document and know the extent of what the principal has given you power to handle in their stead.

Understand the scope. Make a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the individual for whom you are caring is organized, then that will be simple. Otherwise, you will need to find these items:

  • Brokerage and bank accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • Mortgage papers
  • Tax bills
  • Utility, phone, cable, and internet bills
  • Insurance premium invoices

Take a look at the principal’s spending patterns to see any recurring expenses. Review their mail for a month to help you to determine where the money comes and goes. If your principal is over age 72 and has granted you the power to manage her retirement plan, do not forget to make any required minimum distributions (RMDs). If your principal manages her finances online, you will need to contact their financial institutions and establish that you have power of attorney, so that you can access these accounts.

Guard the principal’s assets. Make certain that her home is secure. You might make a video inventory of the residence. If it looks like your principal will be incapacitated for a long time, you might stop the phone and newspaper. Watch out for family members taking property and saying that it had been promised to them (or that it belonged to them all along).

Pay bills. Be sure to monitor your principal’s bills and credit card statements for potential fraud. You might temporarily suspend credit cards that you will not be using on the principal’s behalf. Remember that they may have monthly bills paid automatically by credit card.

Pay taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes. If so, you will be responsible for filing and paying taxes during the principal’s lifetime. If the principal dies, the executor of the principal’s will is responsible and will prepare the final taxes.

Ask about estate planning. See if there is an estate plan and ask a qualified estate planning attorney for help. If the principal resides in a nursing home paid by Medicaid, talk to an elder law attorney as soon as possible to save the principal’s estate at least some of the costs of their care.

Keep records. Track your expenditures made on your principal’s behalf. This will help you demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests, as well as for reimbursement for expenses.

Always act in the principal’s best interest. If you do not precisely know the principal’s expectations, then always act with their best interests in mind. Contact the principal’s attorney who prepared the power of attorney for guidance.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

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The SECURE Act and Your Retirement – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

For anyone who has saved a high six- or seven-figure balance in their retirement accounts, the SECURE Act will definitely affect their retirement plans. That includes 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other workplace plans, as well as traditional IRAs and Roth IRA accounts. The article “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement” from the Daily Camera provides a clear picture of the changes.

Stretch IRAs are Curtailed. Anyone who inherited an IRA (traditional or Roth) from a parent before 2020, may take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from those accounts over their own life expectancy. Let us say a parent died when you were 48—you could stretch those distributions out over the course of 36 years. This option gave heirs the ability to spread income and the taxes that come with the income out over decades—with little distributions having little impact on taxes. If you inherited a Roth IRA, you could benefit from its tax-free growth over your entire lifetime.

All that is changed now. A non-spousal heir (or one who is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child) now has ten years in which to take their distributions. They have to pay ordinary income taxes on the amount they take out, over a far shorter period of time. Newly inherited Roth IRAs have the same rules, but usually there are no taxes due. If a minor inherits an IRA, once they reach the age of majority, they have ten years in which to take their distributions.

A Small Break for Required IRA Distributions. Until the SECURE Act, retirees had to start taking their RMDs out of IRAs soon after turning 70½. The new age for taking RMDs is now 72 for those who are younger than age 70½ at the end of 2019. This will not alter the plans of most retirees, since they usually start taking those distributions well before age 72 to cover expenses. Roth IRAs have another benefit: they continue to escape distribution requirements, unless they are inherited.

No Age Cap for Traditional IRA Contributions. Workers may now continue to contribute funds into a traditional IRA at any age. Before the SECURE Act, workers had to stop contributing funds once they turned 70½. Note that you or your spouse are still required to have earned income to put funds in a traditional or Roth IRA.

Other Changes. There are many more changes from the SECURE Act and thought leaders in the estate planning community will be reviewing and analyzing the law for months, or perhaps years, to come. Some of the changes that are widely recognized already include the ability to withdraw $5,000 penalty-free from retirement plan accounts per newly born or adopted child, although in most cases, income tax will need to be paid on the withdrawal.

Section 529 educational savings accounts can be used, up to a lifetime limit of $10,000 per student, to pay off student loans. In most states, this will be considered a non-qualified withdrawal and state income taxes will be due, but at least the money can be used for this purpose.

Lastly, there are new tax credits available to smaller companies that set up new retirement plans, and there are new rules regarding including part-time employees in company sponsored 401(k) plans.

The changes from the SECURE Act, particularly regarding the loss of the IRA Stretch, have created a need for people to review their estate plans, if they included leaving large retirement accounts to their children. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your plan still works.

Reference: Daily Camera (Jan. 11, 2020) “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement”

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What’s the Best Way to Take My Required Minimum Distribution? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

CNBC’s recent article, “These tips can help retirees make required minimum distributions easy and tax penalty free,” gives the steps to follow, so we don’t leave money on the table.

RMDs or required minimum distributions, are the minimum amount people age 70½ and older must withdraw from their retirement funds. If you’ve inherited a retirement account, you may also have to make a withdrawal. The amount you need to withdraw varies from year to year and is based on specific calculations, including what your account values were as of December 31 the prior year and your age.

The time to get started on your RMD for this year is right now, because the paperwork may take some time. You have until April 1, if you just turned 70½ this year. Let’s look at a few tips:

Get your paperwork organized. In order to know how much you have to withdraw, you have to have an accurate picture of what you own. Create a list of accounts and take an inventory first, so you know where all your retirement accounts are located.

Know what you can take from what account. If you have multiple IRAs, you can take your total RMD from any one of those accounts because of the aggregation rule. However, with multiple IRAs, you still must calculate the amount you take out based on the value of all of them. It’s that same with multiple 403(b) retirement accounts. The rule doesn’t apply to 401(k) plans. If you have multiple 401(k) accounts, you must take money from each one, and you can’t take an RMD from an IRA to satisfy a 401(k), or vice versa.

Understand the rules, if you’re still working. If you’re 70½ and still employed, you could get a break from taking your RMD in certain circumstances. Generally, 401(k) plans have a still-working rule, which stipulates that you don’t have to take the RMD until you retire. However, you can only delay the RMDs, if the plan is attached to the company where you’re currently employed. Other accounts from a previous employer are excluded, so you must still take distributions from those.

Keep an eye on any inherited accounts. If you’ve inherited a retirement account, you may have to take an RMD by the end of this year. That generally doesn’t apply if you inherited the money from your spouse, because spouses can do a rollover and keep postponing the distributions. However, if you’re a non-spouse beneficiary, you probably must take a distribution by the end of 2019. If you inherited the account in 2018, you’ll need to take your first RMD in 2019.

RMDs from a Roth IRA will likely be tax-free. However, if you’ve inherited one of these accounts and you didn’t take that money out, you’ll have to pay a 50% penalty on the funds you should’ve withdrawn.

Consider giving to charity. A good way to avoid paying taxes on your RMD, is to give the money to charity. A qualified charitable distribution lets you make donations to a charity directly from your IRA, instead of taking the RMD yourself. Therefore, if your RMD is $5,000, and you typically give $5,000 to charity each year, you can donate that money directly and not pay tax on it.

Reference: CNBC (November 29, 2019) “These tips can help retirees make required minimum distributions easy and tax penalty free”

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