Monthly Archives: December 2013

Separate Assets, Joint Problems


Some married couples enjoy living together while keeping their financial assets separate. Separate ownership of assets can be advantageous in some instances, but oftentimes loving couples misunderstand the results of holding separate assets.  The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted four potential pitfalls for couples maintaining separate accounts:

  1. The assets are not necessarily separate under Nevada law.

Simply having your name on an account does not mean the account is yours alone.  Under Nevada law, pursuant to community property principles, all of your earnings and wages after marriage are the property of both parties.   This is true even if you have your paycheck deposited into a separate account.

Nevada inheritance laws can surprise couples. If you die without a will and leave a surviving spouse, no children and surviving parents, your parents are entitled to a portion of your estate.  Many spouses intend for their entire estate to go to a surviving spouse.  However, unless that desire is set forth in a will or trust, the state may direct otherwise.

  1. Separate accounts most often mean lack of communication.

Communication between spouses is critical.  Many spouses have separate retirement accounts and manage those accounts in isolation.  This isolated planning can undermine the couple’s financial objectives and their combined risk tolerance.  Regularly, I meet with clients where both spouses are unaware of accounts or policies that one spouse possesses.  These omissions could cause the account proceeds to go missing or remain unclaimed for long periods of time.

In addition, holding similar investments in two separate accounts can be more costly.  Combining the separate holdings may result in lower advisory fees.

  1. Separately-owned property may be at greater risk in bankruptcy or a lawsuit.

Nevada has very liberal exemptions for bankruptcy purposes.  These protections can be utilized best by conferring with an attorney who focuses on asset protection planning.

Joint ownership can make your assets less appealing to creditors.  Creditors loathe joint assets in which they will hold only a one-half interest.  Separately-owned property is less-protected from creditors.  The home is the primary asset to hold jointly or through a trust.

  1. Separate accounts are more difficult to administer.

The death of a loved one causes plenty of heartache.  Maintaining separate account causes needless headaches too.  The time delay in accessing separately-owned accounts can lead to draining financial stress.  Many financial institutions demand formal court orders before allowing access to financial accounts, even when such orders are not necessary.  At a minimum, couples should maintain a joint checking or savings account to make sure the day-to-day expenses can be satisfied.

Careful with Deathbed Planning

As death looms, people become much more focused on arranging their affairs.  Even those with few assets will develop a laser-like focus on leaving a suitable legacy.  There are pitfalls to death-bed estate plans or revisions to existing plans.  In a perfect world, an estate plan is constructed carefully after much thought and revisions are made regularly.  However, lawyers and financial advisors are often solicited to make changes when a client fears an imminent demise.


Recently, I helped clients update their revocable living trust after the wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  They created their trust 20 years ago and had not made any updates since that time.  In the intervening years, one of their five children had passed away and numerous grandchildren had been born.  The prior version of their trust provided that if one of their children predeceased them, the surviving children would receive the estate equally.  The clients instead wanted the trust share that would have passed to the deceased child to be held in trust for the deceased child’s children or the clients’ grandchildren.  If nothing had been done, the clients would have disinherited their grandchildren.

When making near-death amendments or creating new estate plans, advisors and clients must consider the income tax ramifications. A common mistake is to transfer a home or real property to children or grandchildren prior to death.  Such a transfer results in loss of the step-up in basis of the property to the date-of-death fair market value.  The child or grandchild receiving the property steps into the shoes of the transferring parent or grandparent and takes the transferor’s basis in the property.  Usually, the basis is much lower than the present day fair market value.  When the child or grandchild sells the property, he or she will incur a much higher capital gains tax than necessary.

Finally, to avoid a contest, a medical or mental competency examination can assure that the client is competent to make the change.  These exams can be administered by the client’s regular physician.  By using their normal physician, the client will feel more at ease and the physician will already have a history with the client and be able to differentiate whether the client lacks capacity.

Death-bed planning can be done effectively but there are numerous considerations and precautions to follow.