Are You Ready for Longevity? 4 Steps to Take Now

A long life is a great gift, but with the joys come some financial and legal challenges. The earlier you act to address them, the better off you and your heirs will be.

Happy senior couple traveling down road on motor scooter.
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Did you know that a non-smoking 65-year-old woman today has a 50% chance of living until 88? A non-smoking 65-year-old man has a 50% chance of living until 85? That’s how life expectancy works – the longer you live, the more likely you will live longer.

Given that you could be well on your way to becoming a nonagenarian, here are four smart moves to help keep you and your family protected as you age.

1. Consider long-term care

For a married couple, on average, it's likely that one spouse will end up in a nursing home. The time to think about how to pay for long-term care is well before you ever need it. Consider purchasing long-term care insurance while you’re still healthy enough to qualify, so you don’t have to use all of your own money to pay for your care. Long-term care insurance typically pays for both skilled nursing home care and in-home health care aides.

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Traditional long-term care policies can be expensive and difficult to obtain, but there are hybrid policies that combine long-term care benefits with life insurance. If you don’t use the long-term care benefits during your life, your loved ones can receive the life insurance proceeds upon your death. The death benefits take away the worry that you’ll pay premiums and never receive benefits. It’s also possible that married couples can be covered under one policy, providing a pool of benefits available to the spouse who needs them, while at the same time helping protect the inheritance of your loved ones.

2. Plan for incapacity

Many people believe that their spouse has the automatic ability to make medical and financial decisions for them in the event they become incapacitated. Many times, however, this is not case. Not preparing for this possibility can take a financial and emotional toll on your family. Medical advance directives, such as health care proxies and health care powers of attorney, allow you to name another person to make your medical decisions when you are no longer able.

If you become incompetent and do not have a medical advance directive, your family may need to go to court to get authority to make these decisions for you – this is known as a guardianship proceeding, which is expensive and invasive of your privacy.

The same is true for financial decisions. You need a durable power of attorney for financial and legal decisions so that someone else can sign on your behalf and access your accounts if you are not able to. (Note that it’s extremely important to name someone trustworthy in this role.)

Yes, your spouse can access your joint accounts. However, retirement accounts can never be joint and can only be accessed by an authorized person – you or your power of attorney. In addition, jointly held real estate cannot be transferred or refinanced without a power of attorney if you cannot sign for yourself. In such a case, a court-appointed conservator would be needed to manage your affairs. The court requires a full financial reporting, and many times an insurance bond must be purchased in case the conservator mismanages assets.

3. Avoid probate

When you die if you have assets in your sole name (without a joint owner or beneficiary), your loved ones will need to go to court to get access. This is known as probate, and it can be a very costly and timely process. Probate can cost between a few thousand and many thousands of dollars depending on where you live. In probate it can also take anywhere from a few weeks to many months to access assets.

Revocable trusts can help avoid probate by owning assets in the name of the Trust. The Trust can own many of your assets during your life and say what you want to happen to your assets after you pass. In this manner, the Trust helps avoid probate and essentially acts like your will. (Note that you should also have a will in case you miss putting some of your assets into your Trust.)

Using a revocable trust can help you and your family save time and money. However, Trusts are tricky to set up correctly on your own. So, it’s best to consult an attorney who specializes in trusts.

4. Minimize taxes

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017, federal estate taxes no longer apply if you own assets totaling less than $11.2M. (Note, this amount is scheduled to decrease to about half that amount after 2025.) Even though the vast majority of people no longer need to be concerned about federal estate taxes, there are other taxes that you should worry about – namely state estate and inheritance taxes and capital gains taxes.

As I discussed in a previous article, a handful of states and the District of Columbia still have state estate taxes, and a few have inheritance taxes. An attorney experienced in estate planning can help you minimize, or possibly avoid, these state estate taxes. Estate planning techniques such as credit shelter trusts, giving assets away during your life, or even changing the state in which you live, can help minimize the impact of these taxes.

In addition, if you have highly appreciated assets, it may be best to avoid giving those away during your life, whether or not you live in a state with an estate tax. If you give those appreciated assets to your children while you’re alive, and your children sell them later on, they will pay the capital gains taxes. You children will receive your tax-basis, under “carry-over basis” rule.

If, however, you own those same assets when you die, the basis will become the fair market value (under the “step-up in basis” rule). And, if your children then sell those assets after you die, they will not pay capital gains taxes. Again, these rules and planning techniques can be complicated, so it’s always best to consult a tax professional.

Oftentimes people put off planning for their golden years because no one likes to think about dying or the possibility that their quality of life in their final years will not be the same as it is in the present. But planning for longevity is important. It will give you peace of mind and give your family a sense of security so that you can spend your time doing the things you enjoy and not worrying about the future.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Tracy Craig, Fellow, ACTEC,  AEP®
Partner and Chair of Trusts and Estates Group, Mirick O'Connell

Estate attorney Tracy Craig is a partner and chair of Mirick O'Connell's (opens in new tab) Trusts and Estates Group. She focuses on estate planning, estate administration, prenuptial agreements, tax-exempt organizations, guardianships and conservatorships and elder law. Craig is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and an AEP®. She has received an AV® Preeminent Peer Review Rating by Martindale-Hubbell, the highest rating available for legal ability and professional ethics.