5 Ways to Put Your Tax Refund to Good Use This Year.

Expecting a big, fat refund from the government this year? Rather than spending it on something frivolous, put it to a good long term use. Here are 5 effective ways to use your tax refund to improve your financial health:

1. Pay off a credit card. A tax refund can jump-start a debt repayment plan. If you carry a balance on a high interest (or any) credit card, use the refund to pay it off! And then use the money freed up every month to pay off another card balance. If you have no other credit card debt, then start paying yourself by banking the monthly savings.

2. Start an emergency fund. Many people live paycheck-to-paycheck with no financial cushion in case of an emergency. If you are one of them, it’s time to create an emergency fund – your own stash – for “just in case.” Who knows when the transmission on your car will need repair, or if you’ll have a medical emergency. These things happen when we least expect, or can afford them. An emergency fund will give you peace of mind and protect you should the unexpected occur.

3. Save for retirement. It’s never too late to start saving for your retirement. Use your refund to open an IRA (traditional or Roth), or consider upping your contribution to your 401(k) or other employer provided plan. Your refund can help make up the difference in your take home pay.

4. Start a college fund. If you have a child, consider starting a college savings account through a state-sponsored 529 college education savings plan. The money grows tax free, and when your child starts college, withdrawals used for qualifying education expenses are tax free. (Bonus – Michigan allows its residents a tax deduction for contributions to accounts under its program.)

5. Make a long neglected home repair. Roof worn out, furnace on its last leg, windows leaking or drafty?   Use the refund to make necessary home repairs.  Repairs can save you money in the long run in lower energy costs, improve your home’s livability, and even boost its market value.

Don’t Overlook Beneficiary Designations In Your Estate Planning

I’ve written previously about the importance of making sure that you have beneficiaries designated for assets such as life insurance and retirement accounts. Proper beneficiary designations are a key component of estate planning. Naming beneficiaries of certain assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, is the most effective way to make sure assets pass to the intended parties upon your death in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of overlooking this important aspect of estate planning. Failing to designate beneficiaries, or not keeping beneficiary designations up to date can result in assets being subject to the expense and delay of probate.

WealthManagement.com has a short, but very good article on the importance of beneficiary designations in your estate planning. Please take a few minutes to read the article here.

5 Points to Consider When Naming a Beneficiary

Who is a “beneficiary?” The word includes more than just the recipient of insurance funds or the inheritor of property. A beneficiary can be the recipient of funds or other property from a will, trust, retirement plan or life insurance. But there are differences with each beneficiary type. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discusses 5 important considerations when naming a beneficiary.

1. A beneficiary of a will must wait until the will goes into probate before they receive any of their inheritance. Beneficiaries of a will can wait months or even years before receiving their inheritance, and court costs and fees can erode the amount they eventually receive. That’s why many people choose to incorporate a revocable living trust into their estate plan.

2. A beneficiaries of a life insurance policy or retirement plan account will receive the money directly. These assets do not (generally) go through probate. Rather, the proceeds are paid to the beneficiary usually upon proof of identity of the beneficiary and proof of death of the account owner.

3. Minors generally do not make good beneficiaries. While the beneficiary is under age 18, a conservator will manage money or property for them until they reach age 18, when they receive the money outright. Which means that there is no further direction or control over how the money is spent – goodby college fund, hello Corvette!

4. Chose beneficiaries with care. Naming the “correct” beneficiary of a retirement account could allow the account to grow tax deferred for many years.

5. Beneficiary designations have consequences and you need to consider them carefully. For instance, naming a disabled person as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy could render that person ineligible for valuable governmental benefits such as Social Security supplemental income and Medicaid.

Please take a few minutes and read the entire article here.

Never Assume – Here’s Another Reason Why.

People can be surprisingly nonchalant when it comes to beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies. They assume even if they have missed a beneficiary designation or it is out-of-date, the remaining account balance will automatically go to their surviving spouse or children upon death.

However, a recent survey done by the National Investment Company Service Association (NICSA), reveals that there is little consistency among IRA providers as to how default IRA beneficiary designations are handled. According to the survey, the default beneficiary will vary widely depending on the provider. For example, 43% of accounts default to a surviving spouse, then the estate; 30% default to the account owner’s estate (not a spouse or children); and only 22% percent default automatically to a spouse, then the children, then the estate. To complicate matters, many people have multiple IRAs at more than one institution, which means the default beneficiary treatment of each account will vary.

A beneficiary designation on an IRA or other retirement account is critical because retirement accounts are automatically excluded from an account owner’s probate estate as long as the account has at least one person designated as the beneficiary who survives the account owner. If there is no then living beneficiary, the account is deemed to have no beneficiary and it must be paid to the deceased owner’s estate. This has two very bad effects: First, a probate estate has no life expectancy and, consequently, the account has to be liquidated, which can result in a significant income tax bill; Second, because the account must be paid to the owner’s estate, it becomes subject to the claims of the owner’s creditors – and the creditors enjoy a prior right to the funds ahead of surviving family members, even a spouse.

IRA providers will include default beneficiary designation clauses in their account agreements so that if the account owner fails to designate a beneficiary before death, or the designated beneficiary dies before the account owner, the balance in the account will still pass to a default beneficiary per the account agreement. But as the survey shows, you cannot assume who that beneficiary is, and there’s a nearly 1-in-3 chance the default beneficiary will be the owner’s estate.

I’ve seen too many cases where a retirement account or life insurance benefits passed to an unintended beneficiary, and it’s next to impossible to correct something like that after the owner’s death.

One of the homework assignments I give to all of my planning clients is to verify all of their beneficiary designations on each of their retirement accounts and life insurance policies. It is very common for clients to come back to my office having discovered that they missed a beneficiary designation or one or more were out-of-date. At least they have a chance to correct them.

So, don’t leave it to chance. Do your homework and make sure your beneficiary designations are up to date.