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Category: Assets

Potential changes to the estate tax

Potential Changes to the Estate Tax

Potential changes to the estate tax that are now being considered by President Biden may expand the number of Americans who will need to pay the federal estate tax in one of two ways: raising rates and lowering qualifying thresholds on estates and increasing the liability for inheriting and selling assets. It is likely that these changes will raise revenues from the truly wealthy, while also imposing estate taxes on Americans with more modest assets, according to a recent article “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax” from The New York Times.

Inheritance taxes are paid by the estate of a person who died. Some states have estate taxes of their own, with lower asset thresholds. As of this writing, a married couple would need to have assets of more than $23.4 million before they had to plan for federal estate taxes. This historically high exemption may be ending sooner than originally anticipated.

One of the changes being considered is a common tax shelter. Known as the “step-up in basis at death,” this values the assets in an estate at the date of death and disregards any capital gains in a deceased person’s portfolio. Eliminating the step-up in basis would require inheritors to pay capital gains whenever they sold assets, including everything from the family home to stock portfolios.

If you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, this little item has been an accounting gift for many years. A person who inherits stock doesn’t have to think twice about what their parents or grandparents paid decades ago. All of the capital gains in those shares or any other inherited investment are effectively erased, when the owner dies. There are no capital gains to calculate or taxes to pay.

However, those capital gains taxes are lost revenue to the federal government. Eliminating the step-up rules could potentially generate billions in taxes from the very wealthy but is likely to create financial pain for people who have lower levels of wealth. A family that inherited a home, for instance, would have a much bigger tax burden, even if the home was not a multi-million-dollar property but simply one that gained in value over time.

Reducing the estate tax exemption could lead to wealthy people having to revise their estate plans sooner rather than later. Twenty years ago, the exemption was $675,000 per person and the tax rate was 55%. Over the next two decades, the exemption grew and the rates fell. The exemption is now $11.7 million per person and the tax rate above that amount is 40%.

Lowering the exemption, possibly back to the 2009 level, would dramatically increase tax revenue.

What is likely to occur and when, remains unknown, but what is certain is that potential changes to the estate tax will require your attention. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly. If you are interested in learning more about the estate tax, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The New York Times (March 12, 2021) “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax”

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charitable contribution deductions from an estate

Charitable Contribution Deductions from an Estate

The interest in charitable giving increased in 2020 for two reasons. One was a dramatic increase in need as a result of the COVID pandemic, reports The Tax Advisor’s article “Income tax deductions for trusts and estates.” The other was more pragmatic from a tax planning perspective. The CARES Act increased the amounts of charitable contributions that may be deducted from taxes by individuals and corporations. What if a person wishes to make a donation from the assets that are held in trust? Is that still an income tax deduction? It depends. The rules for charitable contribution deductions from an estate are substantially different than those for individuals and corporations.

The IRS code allows an estate or nongrantor trust to make a deduction which, if pursuant to the terms of the governing instrument, is paid for a purpose specified in Section 170(c). For trusts created on or before October 9, 1969, the IRS code expands the scope of the deduction to allow for a deduction of the gross income set aside permanently for charitable purposes.

If the trust or estate allows for payments to be made for charity, then donations from a trust are allowed and may be tax deductions. Otherwise, they cannot be deducted.

If the trust or estate allows distributions for charity, the type of asset contributed and how it was acquired by the trust or estate determines whether a tax deduction for a charitable donation is permitted. Here are some basic rules, but every situation is different and requires the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Cash donations. A trust or estate making cash donations may deduct to the extent of the lesser of the taxable income for the year or the amount of the contribution.

Noncash assets purchased by the trust/estate: If the trust or estate purchased marketable securities with income, the cost basis of the asset is considered the amount contributed from gross income. The trust or estate cannot avoid recognizing capital gain on a noncash asset that is donated, while also deducting the full value of the asset contributed. The trust or estate’s deduction is limited to the asset’s cost basis.

Noncash assets contributed to the trust/estate: If the trust or estate acquired an asset it wants to donate to charity as part of the funding of the fiduciary arrangement, no charity deduction is permitted. The asset that is part of the trust or estate’s corpus, the principal of the estate, is not gross income.

The order of charitable deductions, compared to distribution deductions, can cause a great deal of complexity in tax planning and reporting. Required distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries must be accounted for first, and the charitable deduction is not taken into account in calculating distributable net income. The recipients of the distributions do not get the benefit of the deduction. The trust or the estate does.

Charitable distributions are considered next, which may offset any remaining taxable income. Last are discretionary distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries, so these beneficiaries may receive the largest benefit from any charitable deduction.

If there are charitable contribution deductions from an estate, it must file form 1041A for the relevant tax year, unless it meets any of the exceptions noted in the instructions in the form.

These are complex estate and tax matters, requiring the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney for optimal results. If you would like to learn more about charitable giving in your estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Tax Advisor (March 1, 2021) “Income tax deductions for trusts and estates”

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how the probate process works

How the Probate Process Works

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. It is important to have a firm understanding of how the probate process works.

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

If you would like to learn more about probate and trust administration, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

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It is important to talk to your children about your estate planning

Talk to Your Children about Your Estate Planning

It is important to talk to your children about your estate planning. Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of your estate plan and having candid discussions with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball.

Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in your discussion.

What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Having these discussions is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. So talk to your children about your estate planning. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.

If you would like to learn more about family communication and estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

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the stretch IRA is not completely gone

Donor Advised Fund is a Win-Win for All Concerned

Many Americans are feeling charitable these days, and with good reasons. It’s a hard time for many, and if you are financially able, making donations may help you feel you are making a difference for others during uncertain times. There are many options when making donations, and the recent article “Choosing Charity: How Donor-Advised Funds Benefit Your Contributions” from Fort Worth Magazine explains your choices. A Donor Advised Fund is a win-win situation for all concerned.

Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) can be opened for varying amounts, that are set by the sponsoring organizations. Smaller community foundations would welcome a DAF for $5,000, for instance. DAFs can be funded with cash or other assets, but once the donation is made, the asset no longer belongs to you. However, you may be able to decide when donations are distributed, and which charities receive funding. There are no required distribution dates, so the funds could go unused for a long time, while you receive the tax write-off right away.

You may also determine the investments within the fund, level of risk and overall investment strategy.

Another good reason to use DAFs: the sponsoring organization becomes the donor of record. Therefore, DAFs are an excellent way to make anonymous contributions.

There are also DAFs that involve active involvement from an advisor, if that is of value to you.

Why is now a great time to use a Donor-Advised Fund?

Some investors have highly appreciated assets that could lead to a significant tax liability, if they were sold right now. DAF offers an alternative—rather than sell the assets and pay taxes, putting them into a DAF can achieve the following:

  • You receive a tax deduction,
  • There are no capital gains taxes, and
  • Your chosen the charity that fully benefits from the funds.

The pandemic has left many people facing uncertainty. Therefore, now isn’t the right time for everyone to open their wallets and a DAF. However, if you are charitably-minded and in a financial position to benefit, a Donor Advised Fund is a win-win for all concerned. If you would like to learn more about charitable giving, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Fort Worth Magazine (Feb. 3, 2021) “Choosing Charity: How Donor-Advised Funds Benefit Your Contributions”

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Is it better to have a Living Will or a Living Trust?

Extend IRA distributions with a Charitable Remainder Trust

Since the mid-1970s, saving in a tax-deferred employer-sponsored retirement plan has been a great way to save for retirement, while also deferring current income tax. Many workers put some of their paychecks into 401(k)s, which can later be transferred to a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Others save directly in IRAs. You may also extend IRA distributions with a Charitable Remainder Trust.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT” says that taking lifetime IRA distributions can give a retiree a comfortable standard of living long after he or she gets their last paycheck. Another benefit of saving in an IRA is that the investor’s children can continue to take distributions taxed as ordinary income after his or her death, until the IRA is depleted.

Saving in a tax-deferred plan and letting a non-spouse beneficiary take an extended stretch payout using a beneficiary IRA has been a significant component of leaving a legacy for families. However, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the SECURE Act), which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, eliminated this.

Under the new law (with a few exceptions for minors, disabled beneficiaries, or the chronically ill), a beneficiary who isn’t the IRA owner’s spouse is required to withdraw all funds from a beneficiary IRA within 10 years. Therefore, the “stretch IRA” has been eliminated.

However, there is an option for extending IRA distributions to a child beyond the 10-year limit imposed by the SECURE Act: it’s a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT). This trust provides for distributions of a fixed percentage or fixed amount to one or more beneficiaries for life or a term of less than 20 years. The remainder of the assets will then be paid to one or more charities at the end of the trust term.

Charitable Remainder Trusts can provide that a fixed percentage of the trust assets at the time of creation will be given to the current individual beneficiaries, with the remainder being given to charity, in the case of a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT). There is also a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), where the amount distributed to the individual beneficiaries will vary from year to year, based on the changing value of the trust. With both trusts, the amount of the charity’s remainder interest must be at least 10% of the value of the trust at its inception.

Implementing a CRT to extend distributions from a traditional IRA can have tax advantages and can complement the rest of a comprehensive estate plan. It can be very effective when your current beneficiary has taxable income from other sources and resources, in addition to the beneficiary IRA.  It can also be effective in protecting the IRA assets from a beneficiary’s creditors or for planning with potential marital property, while providing the beneficiary a lengthy predictable income stream.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if one of these trusts might fit into your comprehensive estate plan. If you would like to learn more about Charitable Remainder Trusts, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2021) “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT”

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Is it better to have a Living Will or a Living Trust?

A Trust Must Be Funded to Work

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. A trust must be funded to work. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. A trust must be funded to work. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. A trust must be funded to work. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships. If you would like to learn more about funding a trust, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

how the probate process works

What to Do First when Your Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do first when your spouse dies:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. So take the time to consider what to do first when your spouse dies. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

If you are interested in learning more about planning after your loved one passes away, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

Some Fundamental Responsibilities of an Executor

If you are asked to be an executor, you should learn some of the basics of the job before agreeing to the task. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses. There are some fundamental responsibilities of an executor.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor named in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address some of the responsibilities of an executor, like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probating (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the probate process is finished, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. He or she must change the name of the insurance on home and auto policies. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the agency will need to know of the decedent’s death to stop benefits. Checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

These are just some of the fundamental responsibilities of an executor. An executor’s task can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

If you would like to learn more about being an executor, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

Use a Trust to Protect the Family Farm

There are four elements to a trust, as described in this recent article “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool,” from Ag Decision Maker: trustee, trust property, trust document and beneficiaries. The trust is created by the trust document, also known as a trust agreement. The person who creates the trust is called the trustmaker, grantor, settlor, or trustor. The document contains instructions for management of the trust assets, including distribution of assets and what should happen to the trust, if the trustmaker dies or becomes incapacitated. It is possible to use a trust to protect the family farm.

Beneficiaries of the trust are also named in the trust document, and may include the trustmaker, spouse, relatives, friends and charitable organizations.

The individual who creates the trust is responsible for funding the trust. This is done by changing the title of ownership for each asset that is placed in the trust from an individual’s name to that of the trust. Failing to fund the trust is an all too frequent mistake made by trustmakers.

The assets of the trust are managed by the trustee, named in the trust document. The trustee is a fiduciary, meaning they must place the interest of the trust above their own personal interest. Any management of trust assets, including collecting income, conducting accounting or tax reporting, investments, etc., must be done in accordance with the instructions in the trust.

The process of estate planning includes an evaluation of whether a trust is useful, given each family’s unique circumstances. For farm families, gifting an asset like farmland while retaining lifetime use can be done through a retained life estate, but a trust can be used as well. If the family is planning for future generations, wishing to transfer farm income to children and the farmland to grandchildren, for example, the use of a trust to protect the family farm will work.

Other situations where a trust is needed include families where there is a spendthrift heir, concerns about litigious in-laws or a second marriage with children from prior marriages.

Two main types of trust are living or inter-vivos trusts and testamentary trusts. The living trust is established and funded by a living person, while the testamentary trust is created in a will and is funded upon the death of the willmaker.

There are two main types of living trusts: revocable and irrevocable. The revocable trust transfers assets into a trust, but the grantor maintains control over the assets. Keeping control means giving up any tax benefits, as the assets are included as part of the estate at the time of death. When the trust is irrevocable, it cannot be altered, amended, or terminated by the trustmaker. The assets are not counted for estate tax purposes in most cases.

It is possible to use a trust to protect the family farm. When farm families include multiple generations and significant assets, it’s important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the farm’s property and assets are protected and successfully passed from generation to generation.

If you would like to learn more about legacy planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Ag Decision Maker (Dec. 2020) “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool”