MONEY Financial Planning

7 Pre-New Year’s Financial Moves That Will Make You Richer in 2015

champagne bottle with $100 bill wrapped around it
iStock

Before you pop the champagne this December 31, get your financial house in order.

Didn’t 2014 just start? At least that’s the way it feels to me. Well, regardless of how things seem, the reality is the year is just about over. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a big impact on your financial future before the big ball drops in Times Square.

You can still achieve some very important financial goals before Dec. 31.

1. Make a Plan to Get Out of Debt

You may not be able to get out of debt between now and the end of the holiday season but you can set yourself up now so you’ll be debt-free very soon. Of course the first step is to watch your spending over the holidays. Don’t overdo it. That only makes it harder to solve your debt situation.

Next, create a system to eliminate debt by first consolidating and refinancing to the lowest possible interest rate. Once you do that, put all the muscle (and money) you can towards paying off the highest cost debt you have and make the minimum payments towards other credit card balances. As you pay off your most expensive debt continue to keep your debt payments as high as possible towards the next highest-cost debt. Repeat this process until you are debt-free. Believe me it won’t take that long. But you won’t ever be done if you don’t start. Why not begin the process of lowering your cost of credit card debt today? (You can use this free calculator to see how long it will take to pay off your credit card debt. You can also check your credit scores for free to see how your debt is affecting your credit standing.)

2. Track Your Spending

Even if you aren’t in debt, it’s important to know what you spend on average each month. Once you know where the money is going, you can decide if you are spending it as wisely as possible or if you need to make some changes.

Many people think they know how much they spend on average but most of us underestimate our monthly nut by 20-30%. You can use a program, a spreadsheet or simply look at your bank statements and track your total withdrawals for the month. It doesn’t matter how you do it. But if you aren’t tracking your spending, I recommend you start doing so now.

What’s great about starting to track spending before the new year is that you get used to your system and if you use a program or spreadsheet, it will also simplify your tax reporting for next year. This is especially helpful if you do your own taxes.

3. Review Your Estate Plan

Things usually slow down at work during the holidays. That gives you time to get to important items you may have been putting off. Estate planning is one of those items that people often procrastinate on.

I’m not asking you to get your will or trust done by Dec. 31 (although you could). But at the very least do two things:

  1. Educate yourself about the difference between wills and trusts.
  2. Find a good estate planning attorney or legal service and start the process.

My parents completely ignored this topic. When they both died young and unexpectedly, it made it monumentally more painful, difficult and scary for my siblings and I. Don’t take chances. You can and should start taking care of your estate planning now.

4. Review Your Life Insurance

As long as we’re talking about estate planning, we might as well dust off your old life insurance policies and give them the old once over. Some people have outdated and overly expensive life insurance they no longer need. Others walk around woefully under-insured, exposing their loved ones to great risk that is completely avoidable.

Pull out your old policies today. Do you still need those policies? If not, cancel them. If you do need insurance, start comparison shopping to make sure you have the right coverage at the right price.

5. Start Investing

If you’ve been on the fence about investing it’s time to stop thinking and start doing. If you don’t know how to get started, there are plenty of great resources on the Web. You need to understand the basis, of course, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics before you leave the starting gate. Once you read up on the basics of investing, be prepared to start slow and learn as you go. You will be fine.

And remember: You don’t need a pile of dough in order to start investing. If you are a DIY investor, there are plenty of good online brokers who will open an account for as little as $500. Can you think of a good reason to wait until next year to start investing? I can’t either. Let’s go.

6. Maximize Your Retirement Contributions

Before year-end, make sure you have maximized allowable contributions to your retirement plan at work. Unless you are in debt, you want to take advantage of employer matching if at all possible. Even if there is no matching program at work, try to maximize your plan contributions. This will give you the benefit of tax deferral and a forced savings plan.

Call your HR department today to find out if you can bump up your retirement plan contributions for the year.

7. Get in Front of Your Finances

You have an amazing opportunity right now. Make sure you are on top of your financial game now, next year and beyond. Take out a calendar right now and schedule when you are going to begin and follow through on the items on this list.

Look at your calendar for the next seven days. When are you going to:

  1. Inquire about refinancing your debt?
  2. Set up your spending tracking system?
  3. Start asking for estate planner referrals?
  4. Review your life insurance?
  5. Set up your investment account?
  6. Call HR and make sure to bump up your retirement contributions to max out for the year?

Taken all together, the list above might seem overwhelming. But if you do one task each day, you can really change your financial life this week. Each task above will take you between 15 minutes to three hours to complete. Are you going to do one item each day this week? How will you feel once you’ve begun? Or are you going to wait until “after the holidays”?

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Financial Planning

How Families Can Talk About Money Over Thanksgiving

Family Thanksgiving dinner
Lisa Peardon—Getty Images

Holiday get-togethers are a great time for extended family members to discuss topics like estate planning and eldercare. Here's how to get started.

While most Americans are focused on turkey dinners and Black Friday sales, some financial advisers look to Thanksgiving as a good time for families to bond in an unlikely way: by talking about money.

The holiday spirit and together-time can make it easier for families to discuss important financial matters such as parents’ wills, how family money is managed, retirement plans, charity and eldercare issues, advisers say.

While most parents and adult children believe these discussions are important, few actually have them, according to a study conducted last spring by Fidelity Investments. Family members may avoid broaching these sensitive subjects for fear of offending each other.

That is where advisers can shine.

“When you help different generations communicate and cooperate on topics that may keep them up at night, it bonds them as a family,” says Doug Liptak, an Atlanta-based adviser who facilitates family meetings for his clients. It can also help the adviser gain the next generation’s trust.

Advisers can encourage their clients to call family meetings. They can also offer to facilitate those meetings or suggest useful tips to families that would rather meet privately.

Talking Turkey

Family meetings should not be held over the holiday table after everyone has had a few drinks, but at another convenient time.

“That may mean in the living room the next afternoon, over dinner at a fun restaurant, or at a ski lodge,” says Morristown, N.J.-based adviser Stewart Massey, who has vacationed with clients’ families to help them hold such mini-summits.

It is critical to have an agenda “and be as transparent as possible,” he says. Discussion points should be written out and distributed to family members a few weeks ahead to avoid surprises. Massey also suggests asking clients which topics are taboo.

Liptak likes to meet one-on-one with family members before the meeting. If you can get to know the personalities and viewpoints of each family member and make everyone feel included and understood, you will be more effective, he says.

“You might have two siblings who are terrible with or ambivalent about money, while the youngest is financially savvy, but you can’t give one person more say,” says Liptak.

It also helps to get everyone motivated if the adviser brings in the client’s children or other family members ahead of time to teach them about money management topics, like how to invest, says Karen Ramsey, founder of RamseyInvesting.com, a Web-based advisory service.

Sometimes the clients are the adult children who are afraid to ask how the parents are set up financially or where documents are, she says.

Ramsey says advisers can help by letting clients and their families know that a little discomfort may come with the territory. She will say, and encourages her clients to say: “There’s something we need to talk about and we’ll all be a little uncomfortable, but it’s okay.”

The adviser can kick off a family meeting by asking leading questions, such as “What one thing would you like to accomplish as a family in 2015?” says Liptak. Then the adviser can take notes and continue to facilitate the discussion by making sure everyone gets heard and pulling out prepared charts and data when necessary.

Massey suggests families build some fun around the meetings. His clients often schedule them around the holidays and in the summer, often tucked into a vacation or weekend retreat. It is a good practice to have them regularly, like board meetings, he says.

And if the family has never had a meeting before?

“Don’t start with the heavy stuff,” says Liptak. “It’s a good time to focus on giving and generosity, like charities the family can contribute to.

“You can collaborate on an agenda for later for the bigger issues.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s a Smart Way To Boost Your Tax-Free Retirement Savings

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am maxing out my 401(k). I understand there’s a new way to make after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA. How does that work?

A: You can thank the IRS for what is essentially a huge tax break for higher-income retirement savers, especially folks like yourself who are already maxing out contributions to tax-sheltered retirement plans.

A recent ruling by the IRS allows eligible workers to easily move after-tax contributions from their 401(k) or 403(b) plan to Roth IRAs when they exit their company plan. “With this new ruling, retirement savers are getting a huge increase in their ability contribute to a Roth IRA,” says Brian Holmes, president and CEO of investment advisory firm Signature Estate and Investment Advisors.

The Roth is a valuable income stream in retirement because contributions are after-tax, which means you don’t owe Uncle Sam anything on the money you withdraw. Unlike traditional IRAs which require you to start withdrawing money once you turn 70 ½, Roths have no mandatory distribution requirements, so your investments can continue to grow tax-free. And if you need to take a chunk out for a sudden big expense, such as medical bills, the withdrawal won’t bump you up into a higher tax bracket.

For high-income earners, the IRS ruling is especially good news. Singles with an adjusted gross income of $129,000 or more can’t directly contribute to a Roth IRA; for married couples, the income cap is $191,000. If you are are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, you can’t contribute more than $5,500 this year or next ($6,500 for people over 50). The IRS does allow people to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs but you must pay income tax on your gains.

Now, with this new IRS ruling, you can put a lot more into a Roth by diverting your 401(k) assets into one. The annual limit on pre-tax contributions to 401(k) plans is $17,500 and $23,000 for people over 50; those limits rise to $18,000 and $24,000 next year. Including your pre-tax and post-tax contributions, as well as pre-tax employer matches, the total amount a worker can save in 401(k) and 403(b) plans is $52,000 and $57,500 for those 50 and older. (That amount will rise to $53,000 and $59,000 respectively in 2015.) When you leave your employer, you can separate the after-tax money and send it directly to a Roth, which can boost your tax-free savings by tens of thousands of dollars.

To take advantage of the new rule, your employer plan must allow after-tax contributions to your 401(k). About 53% of 401(k) plans allow both pre-tax and after- tax contributions, according to Rick Meigs, president of the 401(k) Help Center. You must also first max out your pre-tax contributions. The transfer to a Roth must be done at the same time you roll your existing 401(k)’s pre-tax savings into a traditional IRA.

The ability to put away more in a Roth is also good for people who want to leave money to heirs. Inherited Roth IRAs are free of tax, and because they don’t have taxable minimum required distributions, they can give your heirs decades of tax-free growth. “It’s absolutely the best asset to die with if you want to leave money behind,” says Holmes.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: 4 Disastrous Retirement Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

MONEY Savings

How Blended Families Can Overcome Their Savings Obstacles

THE BRADY BUNCH
Unlike TV's "The Brady Bunch," real-life blended families often face big financial challenges. Courtesy Everett Collection

Remarrying brings special savings hurdles and leaves blended families further behind, new research shows.

The nuclear family went out of fashion 40 years ago, and what has replaced it is a far cry from TV’s blissfully blended Brady Bunch. Modern families include more same-sex, single-parent and multi-generational make-ups—and, new research shows, these households have special savings obstacles.

Today, just 19% of U.S. households are married heterosexual couples with young children vs. 40% in 1970, according to Census Bureau data. The rise of non-traditional families is reshaping household economics and, it seems, deepening the nation’s savings crisis.

Blended families, where parents have remarried with young children, are the biggest segment of the new-look household. About 75% of divorced people remarry. In roughly 43% of all marriages it is the second time around for at least one member of the couple, and 65% of remarriages involve children from a previous marriage. In such families, the average level of savings is $158,600, vs. $264,300 for traditional families, according to a new Love Family Money study from Allianz.

Only 46% of blended families believe they are on track towards their financial goals vs. 60% of traditional households. Some 55% of blended families live paycheck to paycheck vs. 41% of traditional families; and 30% of blended families say they are not saving any money vs. 20% of traditional families.

Behind this struggle, in many cases, is the financial stress of a broken household, Allianz found. Parents in blended families are more likely to say that they or their partner brought financial baggage to the marriage, and a third cite insufficient monetary support from their ex as a major problem keeping them from saving. They often find it difficult to merge their financial resources and plans, which means they tend to wind up with multiple, and frequently competing, goals within the household.

Some 35% say they and their partner have different financial priorities that are difficult to navigate. They are almost twice as likely to feel less aligned as a family than those in a traditional household. Yet there is some good news. Perhaps because they have a hard time planning as a unit, blended families are more likely to talk about money and take steps to teach their children to budget and save, Allianz found.

How can blended families overcome their struggles? With the rise of non-traditional households more financial firms are weighing in. It’s not enough to talk to the kids about money. Couples need to talk to each other and develop mutual goals and a plan for getting there. Agree on a fair distribution of responsibility. To get on the right path to your financial goals, start is by finding ways to trim your major expenses, then make a budget that leaves room for saving. If you can’t free up much cash to put away now, start small and increase that amount with future raises. It’s also important to take a careful look at wills and legacy planning, since you want to protect your family financially as long as possible.

More on marriage and money:

Retirement makeover: 4 kids, 2 jobs and no time to plan

7 ways to stop fighting about money and grow richer, together

Common money problems; uncommonly smart solutions

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Pick a Pro to Manage Your Money When You’re Gone

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Are there professional administrator services for private wills? I’m single with no family or appropriate friends. – Paul, Calif.

A: Everyone needs a person or institution to act as executor and administer the estate though the probate process.

Because your executor will be in charge of collecting the estate’s assets, inventorying the property, paying claims against the estate (including taxes), and distributing assets to beneficiaries, you want to give the job to someone who is financially responsible and trustworthy.

That could be someone you know, say a relative or close friend, but it can also be an institution, or what you referred to as a professional will administrator.

Because of the complexity involved, many individual executors have to hire professionals to help. So even if you do have someone close to you take on the role, having a reliable and impartial professional as backup would be smart.

How to find the right pro

You could name your lawyer, accountant, or financial adviser as your executor, but Greg Sellers, a certified public accountant and president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils, warns against it, no matter how good a working relationship you already have.

“If your executor is also the one drafting your estate planning documents, there is the opportunity for them to do some self-dealing,” says Sellers. “While they may be legally bound to carry out your wishes, it presents a chance for conflicting interests. They could have undue influence on the documents, could charge higher than normal fees.” And acting as an executor may not be in the normal scope of what your accountant and financial adviser do.

Sellers recommends using a corporate trust company, either one affiliated with a financial institution like your bank or full-service brokerage, or an independent trust company. These companies have teams that manage estates full time. You don’t need a trust to use a trust company; they take on jobs just handling will administration.

What a pro will charge

Of course, hiring a professional will mean paying a fee (leaving a little less for your heirs). Some states set maximums that an executor can charge, but Sellers says that except in rare circumstances, executor fees should not go above 5% of the value of the estate.

The fee will likely land on the high end of the scale if your estate has lots of moving parts, such as a small business, personal property that needs to be sold, or investment accounts in more than one place. The total value of your assets matters too: the larger the estate, the smaller the percentage a professional executor will deduct.

This one-time fee will be paid from your estate after your death and is typically non-negotiable, Sellers says. While companies are upfront about the likely fees, they will not settle on an amount until they find out exactly what being executor involves, which can’t be known until your death.

Once you’ve settled on a company to be you executor, Sellers recommends letting it know and sending a copy of your will (though it isn’t necessary—you can simply note who you picked in your will).

Any company has the right to reject the job, which is why Sellers recommends naming a backup. If both your first and second choices reject the job, the probate court will assign an executor.

TIME Retirement

The Last Will and Testament of a Millennial

Portrait of woman writing letter at desk
Portrait of woman writing letter at desk, circa 1950 George Marks—Getty Images

It started with leaving my boyfriend my share of the rent — then things got complicated

I’m going to die, I reminded my boyfriend. My eventual death was something I’d been mentioning to lots of people, on Facebook and at engagement parties and at my high-school reunion.

It wasn’t that I thought death was going to come any time soon or in any special way, it’s just that, as they say on Game of Thrones, all men must die. So I was writing a will. I’d downloaded a template. I’d filled it out. I just hadn’t signed it yet, and in the mean time it had become my favorite topic of conversation: I’m going to die, we’re all going to die, I’m filling out paperwork about it, what’s new with you?

I asked my boyfriend: Is there anything else you want me to leave you? Besides my share of the rent. Besides the fish tank and the fish. Besides the coffee table, the pots and pans, the things that I call ours that are legally mine.

He said: Yes, but don’t tell me what it is. Make it something special.

That was a good answer, which wasn’t surprising. He takes deep questions seriously, and we’re well past the point where you have to act like it’s awkward to imply that your relationship will exist more than a few years in the future. So of course he had a good answer — but it was also a difficult one. What object that I owned could possibly say what I needed it to? There was, it must be said, not too much to choose from.

That’s a big part of the reason why young unmarried people with no children — that’s me: 28, legally unattached, childless — don’t usually bother with a will. Unlike a medical directive, which everyone should have, wills are something we can do without. The law of intestacy, the statutes that cover what happens when you die without said last testament, should take care of you just fine unless you’re very wealthy, whereas I fall into the It’s A Wonderful Life category: worth more dead than alive. I’m living comfortably, but my life-insurance policy is my most valuable asset.

Plus, most young people don’t need a will for an even more basic reason. Most of them don’t die.

However, even if death is a constant, life has changed. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report finding that nearly half of American women 15–44 cohabitated with a partner prior to marriage, using data from 2006–2010. That was a major increase from past studies, and by now the numbers may well be even higher. A cohabitating partner is entitled to nothing when the other dies. Marriage and children are also coming later in life, which means that people are acquiring more wealth before the laws regarding spousal inheritance kick in and before they have to choose a guardian for their child. So for people like me, without a will, there’s no way to say give this thing to my friend, give this thing to my brother, donate this thing to charity.

Hence, my will obsession. If all goes according to plan, it will be the umbrella that keeps the rain from falling, rendered obsolete within a few years. Marriage and children and my inevitable Powerball victory will change my priorities, and I’ll have to write a new one. But, as anyone who’s ever thought about a will must have realized, not everything goes according to plan.

***

Given changing social norms, estate planning ought to be a mainstay for millennial trend-watchers, except that there’s no way to know how many of us are actually out there thinking about the topic. There’s no way to know how many wills there are, period. Lawrence Friedman, a professor at Stanford Law and the author of Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Law estimates that — though there’s no way to track them — wills may be getting more common as popular awareness increases. A century ago, even counting the super-wealthy, he thinks probably half of the population gave it a thought. But, he says, the role of wills is also changing, as people live longer and are more likely to give their children money while everyone is still alive.

What’s not changing is that wills are fascinating to think about. Whether it’s the buzzy economist Thomas Piketty discussing the way inherited wealth affects society or a historian analyzing Shakespeare’s bequeathing his “second-best bed” to his wife, people who look at wills see more than what the dead person wants to do with his stuff. “I used to say to my class that what DNA is to the body this branch of law is to the social structure,” Friedman puts it.

Though it may seem obvious today that each adult has the right to leave his property to whomever he chooses, that privilege isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. Historically, there have been two competing theories behind inheritance law. One side holds that having a will is an inalienable right; the 17th century scholar Hugo Grotius wrote that, even though wills can be defined by law, they’re actually part of “the law of nature” that gives humans the ability to own things. John Locke agreed: if we believe property can be owned, it follows that we must believe that ownership includes the right to pass that property to whomever the owner chooses.

On the other hand, there’s just as long a tradition of the idea that wills are a right established by government and not by nature, because, not to put too fine a point on it, you can’t take it with you. If ownership ends at death, the state should get to decide how inheritance works, for example by saying that all property must always go to the eldest son, or by allowing children written out of a will to appeal to the state. Perhaps due to colonial American distaste for the trappings of aristocracy, the U.S. ended up with the former system — and Daniel Rubin, an estates lawyer and vice president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, says it’s a right worth exercising. “For most young people, it’s not going to be relevant. But it’s a safeguard. People should appreciate the opportunity to do what they want with their stuff,” he says. “We’ve got a concept in the United States of free disposition of your wealth. You can choose to do with it whatever you want.”

Most wills written by young people won’t be read — except maybe by our future selves, nostalgic for the time when a $20 ukulele was a prized possession — and the ones that will be seen will be sad. If I die tomorrow, that will be what’s known as an unnatural order of death, the child going before the parents. Inheritance is not meant to flow upward. On that, tax law and the heart agree. It’s one area where millennials’ will-writing and older generations’ diverge: usually, estate law is a happier field than one might expect, something I’ve been trying to keep in mind. Rubin says he cannot imagine practicing any other area of law and finding it so rewarding.

“It’s never sad. Sometimes people are reluctant to deal with these issues. Perhaps they feel it brings bad luck although they rarely express it that way. It’s probably that they just don’t see the need to do it because they don’t think they’re going to die soon,” he says. “It’s almost uniform that even the most reluctant clients will sign their wills and then leave my office and feel great.”

***

Of course, it’s not as if “what if I die” is a rare thought, even for people under 30. Tom Sawyer took it to extremes; Freud thought we’re all itching to find out. People will be sad, we hope. Maybe we care about funeral arrangements, like the tragic Love, Actually character whose pallbearers march to the sound of the Bay City Rollers. Maybe we think we know what comes next; maybe we think nothing does. Maybe we’ve thought about who gets the heirlooms, the things that always carry a whiff of death about them.

What happens to the ordinary stuff that fills our homes is less likely to cross our minds. And lot of what we have, or at least what I have, is just crap on some level, mostly. That used starter-level Ikea, left behind by an old roommate who moved to California, isn’t exactly something I’d pass down. My most valuable possessions are mostly Bat Mitzvah gift jewelry. And my favorite possessions aren’t necessarily valuable. And if I did give these things away, how would they be received?

Once, I got a gift from a family friend days before she died. It was a beautiful silk scarf. The death was not unexpected, but I didn’t write a thank-you note in time. The envelope meant for that task was on my desk for years. It was hers, though she never got it, so I couldn’t send it to someone else. Nor could I bring myself throw it away. So I put it aside, indefinitely, until I moved apartments and it was lost in the shuffle, quite literally, in a box marked “stationery.” I didn’t want my crap to become that envelope, useless and painful and eventually lost. Potential candidates: an Altoids tin full of spare buttons, my half-filled journals, decade-old mix tapes; pens and pencils, giveaway tote bags, decks of cards, reference books; nice things like a painting, a laptop, that scarf; the stuff that goes unnamed in the will, under the clause that includes the words “all the rest of my estate.”

The things we leave behind can be heavy. Perhaps the most special something I could leave my boyfriend would be the freedom not to carry me with him. I was reminded of a poem that the rabbi always reads during the memorial portion of the Yom Kippur service. “When all that’s left of me / is love, / give me away,” it ends. I’d never really thought I was paying attention during that part, but it was there, in my brain, waiting for such a moment. (I looked it up; it’s called “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy).

That’s the other option — and, for a while, despite having spent so much time thinking about my will, I was tempted. I could write a simpler will, with only the instruction to give everything to charity, or I could follow the long-standing young person’s tradition and just scrap the whole endeavor.

Except stuff is the only language left to speak. Even Rubin, who says his work is 97% concerned with money rather than objects, knows the feeling: he has a samovar that came to America with his family when they left Eastern Europe with almost nothing. It’s worth little but referred to throughout his life by his mother as his yerushe, Yiddish for inheritance. And “leave me something special” wasn’t all that my boyfriend said. It’s sad to think about, he said, but I like the idea of being named in your will. It’s a privilege to hear someone speaking to you when you thought the chance was gone, he said. No matter what it says in the will, he said, I’ll be happy to hear your voice. He has a point. After all, the verb “bequeath” is from an Old English word meaning “to speak.”

So I decided not to give up on the will. I’ll give my junk and my money to the people I love — though I did end up adding two more clauses before I felt finished. First, I added a few sentences in my own words to the legalese of the template I’d found online: don’t feel bad if you have to get rid of something, I told my heirs. Legally enforceable? No. Worth saying? Yes. Second, I found that something special, something not too heavy.

I printed the will. I found some witnesses and we signed the paper. I folded it up and put it in an envelope and put that envelope somewhere safe. And then I went back to my life.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Beneficiary for a Health Savings Account

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “What happens to the money in a health savings account when the account owner dies?”–James McKay

A: It’s up to you to decide.

But let’s back up a step: A health savings account offers those in high-deductible health insurance plans the opportunity to save pretax dollars and tap them tax-free to pay for qualified medical expenses, with unused funds rolling over from year to year. Unlike a Flexible Spending Account, you have the opportunity to invest the money. And once you hit age 65, the money can be used for any purpose without penalty—though you will pay income tax, similar to a traditional IRA. So for many people, an HSA also functions as a backup retirement account.

When you open an HSA, you will be asked to designate a beneficiary who will receive the account at the time of your death. You can change the beneficiary or beneficiaries any time during your lifetime, though some states require your to have your spouse’s consent.

Your choice of beneficiary makes a big difference in how the account will be treated after you’re gone.

If you name your spouse, the account remains an HSA, and your partner will become the owner. He or she can use the money tax-free to pay for qualified healthcare expenses, even if not enrolled in a high-deductible health plan, says Todd Berkley, president of HSA Consulting Services. Should your spouse be younger than 65, take a distribution of funds and use them for something other than medical expenses, however, he or she will pay a 20% penalty tax on the amount withdrawn plus income taxes (a rule that also applies to you while you’re alive).

Thus, Berkley warns against a spouse taking a full distribution to close the HSA. He says that it’s better to leave money in the account first for medical expenses, then later for retirement expenses both medical and non—since your partner gets the same perk of penalty-free withdrawals for other expenses after turning 65.

When the beneficiary is not your spouse, the HSA ends on the date of your death. Your heir receives a distribution and the fair-market value becomes taxable income to the beneficiary—though the taxable amount can be reduced by any qualified medical expenses incurred by the decreased that are then paid by the beneficiary within a year of the death.

Failure to name a beneficiary at all means the assets in your account will be distributed to your estate and included on your final income tax return.

MONEY charitable giving

Give to Charity Like Bill Gates…Without Being Bill Gates

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, co-founder of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Chesnot—Getty Images

You don't have to be rich to set up the equivalent of a charitable foundation — one that can continue making donations even after your death.

One of my clients — I’ll call him Jonathan — came to me recently with concerns about his estate planning. Jonathan was a successful corporate manager who received a big payday when a major firm acquired the company he worked for. With no children of his own, he’d arranged for most of his wealth to be divided between two favorite charities: a local boys club and an organization that helped homeless people train for work and find jobs. Life had been good to Jonathan, and he wanted to give back.

But recently, there had been some management changes at the homeless support agency, and Jonathan was no longer confident that his gift would be well used. He was thinking about removing them from his trust.

We suggested something that sounded to him like a bold plan, but was really quite simple. Amend your trust, we told him, so that upon your death your funds go to a donor-advised fund — a type of investment that manages contributions made by individual donors.

Jonathan knew what a DAF was. He was already using one for his annual charitable giving because it let him donate appreciated securities, thus maximizing his annual tax deduction. Like many people, however, he’d never thought about donating all his wealth to a DAF after his death. He was under the impression that a donor needed to be alive to advise the fund.

Not so. Jonathan just needed to establish clear rules on who the future adviser or advisory team would be and how he would want them to honor his philanthropic wishes. With a DAF, he could arrange for a lasting legacy of continued giving beyond his own life. Another plus: Because no organization’s name is written into trust documents, changing your mind about what charities to give to is quick and simple. With a trust, changing a charitable beneficiary often requires a trip to your lawyer.

People tend to think that leaving an ongoing charitable legacy is exclusively for uber-wealthy people such as Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation gave away $3.6 billion in 2013. While there is no defined level under which a foundation is “too small,” Foundation Source, the largest provider of foundation services in the US, serves only foundations with assets of $250,000 and up. While foundations offer trustees greater control over investing and distribution of gifts, they are costly to set up and run, and have strict compliance rules.

DAFs offer an alternative. Their simplicity, relatively low cost, and built-in advisory board make them an ideal instrument for securing a financial legacy. Unlike foundations, there is no cost to set them up. And the tax advantages are better. The IRS allows greater tax deduction for gifts of cash, stock, or property to a DAF, compared with a foundation. Foundations have to give away 5% of their assets annually, but there are no distribution requirements for DAFs.

All DAFs have a board of directors as part of their structure. Many of them are willing to maintain the gifting goals of a donor after their death and insure that the recipient charities are eligible for the grants each year. At my firm, we have been asked to serve as part of clients’ DAF’s adviser team, to which we have agreed. Upon Jonathan’s death, we will continue to monitor his charitable recipients for quality of services, efficiency, and results — all very important goals of Jonathan’s.

You have many options to choose from. DAFs come in many shapes and sizes, from local community foundations to national organizations. Most of the independent brokerage firms have their own funds, with minimum initial contributions as low as $5,000.

With a little research, a family should be able to find a suitable home for their estate and leave a lasting legacy — whether they are rich, Bill-Gates-rich, or not wealthy at all. To learn about finding the DAF that fits you or your loved one’s vision and values, one way to get started is to check out the community foundation locator at the Council on Foundations.

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Scott Leonard, CFP, is the owner of Navigoe, a registered investment adviser with offices in Nevada and California. Author of The Liberated CEO, published by Wiley in 2014, Leonard was able to run his business, originally established in 1996, while taking his family on a two-year sailing trip from Florida to New Caledonia in the south Pacific Ocean. He is a speaker on investment and wealth management issues.

MONEY Estate Planning

The Hardest Part of Making a Will: Telling Your Kids What’s in It

Kids taking cookies from plate
Gene Chutka—Getty Images

An awkward part of estate planning is telling your kids how much — or how little — they'll get. Here's how a financial planner can help.

For clients, one of the most stressful aspects of estate planning — already an emotionally difficult process — is the prospect of telling heirs what they plan to do with their assets. Because conversations about legacy plans can be terribly difficult, clients may avoid them at all costs — and the costs can indeed be substantial.

Financial planners, however, can help clients overcome the challenges of having these important conversations. Here are a few suggestions for how to do it:

  1. Encourage clients to communicate their values about money in a larger context. Often, clients’ estate plans reflect lifelong values such as a commitment to charitable giving or a wish to provide first for their families. If children are familiar with their parents’ values, chances are they will have a good idea of what to expect from their estates.
  1. Help clients evaluate their children’s money skills. Just because kids grew up in the same family doesn’t mean they will have the same knowledge and attitudes about money. Especially if children will inherit significant amounts, conversations about estate planning can become part of larger conversations designed to help teach them how to manage and become comfortable with their legacies.
  1. If a client’s estate plan does not treat children “equally,” for whatever reasons, it’s best to share that information well in advance and to communicate it privately to each child. There are many reasons why treating children differently in an estate plan can be the fairest thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wise to let them learn the specifics when a will is read. If parents and individual children can discuss these provisions and the reasons for them ahead of time, there is less likelihood of conflict between siblings after the parents are gone.
  1. Encourage clients not to allow children to assume they are inheriting more than is the case. Not telling them may avoid conflict now, but it will sow seeds for deeper conflict and resentment after your client’s death.
  1. Help clients prepare children for large or unexpected inheritances. I’ve worked with heirs who were stunned to receive legacies much larger than their parents’ lifestyles had led them to expect. If clients have a substantial net worth that’s under the radar — perhaps in the form of land or business ownership — their children may be totally unprepared for what they will inherit. Planners can suggest ways to help the heirs learn more about both the financial and the emotional aspects of managing inherited wealth. They may also encourage parents to consider options, such as giving more to the children during their lifetime, that might reduce the impact of a sudden inheritance.
  1. Acknowledge clients’ fears, even indirectly. Although it is seldom expressed, perhaps the strongest reason for not discussing estate plans with family members is fear. Parents may be afraid that children will be angry or disappointed, will build too much on their expectations for an inheritance, or will be resentful of other heirs.

Talking to family members about estate planning and legacies can be difficult and even painful. Those discussions, however, will almost certainly be less painful in the long run than the stories children may make up after parents are gone about why they made the choices they did.

Financial planners can play an important role, not by taking on the task of telling heirs what parents want them to know, but by facilitating the family conversations. In especially difficult circumstances, the help of a financial therapist can be invaluable. Supporting clients as they discuss their wishes with family members can be an important estate planning service that enhances the legacy parents want to pass on to their children.

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Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

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