Getting an Inheritance? Don’t Make These Mistakes

It turns out you’ve got a pretty good shot of landing an inheritance.

According to the Washington, D.C-based CFP Board, one-third of Americans can expect get a “significant” inheritance in their lives. If you fall into that fortunate category, congratulations. The Board says inheritance cash has multiple benefits, from providing the ability to pay off long-term debt to financing a family member’s college education.

But as hard as it might be to believe, there can be a downside or two with an inheritance, primarily because many recipients squander the inheritance and don’t want wind up using the money wisely.

Windfalls can turn into mixed blessings when people indulge themselves or rush into their decisions about what to do with their inheritances, states Jill Schlesinger, a financial planner and senior CFP Board ambassador.

Schlesinger lists the most common – and most financially painful – mistakes made by people who squander an inheritance. It all starts with bad decisions. Here’s a look:

Mindless spending: Some people begin mindless spending on “just a small indulgence,” Schlesinger notes. “A series of those kinds of purchases can morph into a spending splurge that might rob people of their ability to reach their overall goals for the inheritance.”

Forgoing professional financial advice: Even Americans who manage their 401(k)’s or their taxes well on their own can benefit from help, Schlesinger adds. “That’s because a windfall, whether it’s an inheritance or even lottery proceeds, is different,” she says. “Those who receive an inheritance should consider assembling a team, including an estate attorney, an accountant and a certified financial planner.”

Rushing big decisions: People receiving an inheritance should be careful not to make any big life decisions, like selling a house or quitting a job, too early in the process, Schlesinger explains. “An inheritance often coincides with loss, and many people aren’t thinking clearly when their emotions run high,” she says.

Doing nothing: Sometimes people who receive a lump sum become so worried about “investing at the top,” that they do nothing, she adds. “These individuals should consider dollar cost averaging, the investment strategy that divides available money into equal parts and then periodically puts the money to work in a diversified portfolio over time,” Schlesinger states.

Being too charitable: Schlesinger notes that people love their kids, friends and charitable organizations – so much so that they sometimes neglect to take care of themselves after a financial windfall. “Push the pause button,” she advises. “There is plenty of time to provide generous support after a plan is established.”

Overall, approximately 50% of inheritances are “squandered,” says Darren T. Case, a tax and estate planning attorney at Tiffany & Bosco, P.A. in Phoenix. “And they’re squandered almost immediately,” notes Case. “Often times this is due to the beneficiary simply being unprepared to receive the inherited windfall.”

Like Schlesinger, Case advises heirs who inherit a financial windfall to get good help right out of the gate, and bring in a professional, if necessary.

“From an estate planning standpoint, avoiding a blown inheritance often starts with family discussions about inherited wealth, which very much differs psychologically from earned wealth,” he says. “However, assuming that the family meeting never occurred prior to the beneficiary receiving the inheritance, one recommendation to beneficiaries is to come up with a plan of what to do with the inheritance with a reputable financial advisor, and also strongly consider waiting a significant amount of time prior to making any decision.”

Other financial professionals advise against heirs taking a lump sum payment in an inheritance.

“A large percentage of net worth for most people is tied up in retirement accounts,” offers Brent R. Sutherland, a financial planner with Ntellivest in Pittsburgh.

When the owner of a traditional retirement account (an IRA or work retirement plan) passes away, the beneficiary has three options in which to receive their inheritance, Sutherland says:

1) As a lump sum distribution.

2) As payments spread over five years

3) As payments spread over the course of their lifetime.

“A lot of people make the mistake of taking the lump sum distribution, not knowing that all those funds get treated as ordinary income, which often bumps them into the highest tax bracket,” he says. “In this situation, a significant portion of the inheritance is lost immediately via the Internal Revenue Service.” Sunderland says the beneficiary is usually always better off taking a smaller distribution over longer periods of time. “This way, the money can continue to grow tax-deferred while also helping keep the beneficiary in a lower tax bracket,” he adds.

In addition, the way inheritances are set up, there may be other tax considerations that most people just don’t know about, and can wind up costing them even more money.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make with inherited assets is spending them right away without considering the tax implications,” notes Anthony D. Criscuolo, a portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Criscuolo says that, depending on the type of assets one inherits, hasty action could mean handing over a substantial portion of your inheritance to the tax man. “For instance, if you inherit an IRA, distributions are subject to ordinary income tax,” he says. “Many people who inherit such accounts may regret acting hastily, without understanding the tax hit involved in an immediate withdrawal of funds.”

When you receive an inheritance, take the time to consider whether it changes your overall financial position, your future tax situation or your retirement plans, Criscuolo advises. “Depending on what you receive, you may be able to adjust your portfolio’s asset allocation, pay down high-interest debt or make new investments that were previously out of your reach,” he says. “It’s important to make a long-term plan and to avoid the temptation to make big purchases, such as a vehicle or a home, right away.”

“Instead, take your time, and consider hiring a financial professional to help you make the most of your windfall,” he adds.


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