What Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people. The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion is an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The estate tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

How Can Siblings Work Together to Care for Dad?

Sibling rivalries can reappear when the family must pull together to help care for an aging parent. This is especially true, if one adult child is doing the bulk of the caregiving and there’s little support from siblings.

The same is true when one sib is paying for professional caregiving or medical expenses. There can also be power struggles between older and younger siblings, who think they know what’s best for Dad and want to have control these types of decisions.

AARP’s recent article entitled “Family Conflict: Primary Caregiver Often Pitted Against Siblings” adds  the fact a parent may have a preference for which child will be the primary caregiver. That can create resentments with siblings. The article provides some smart strategies that can help you navigate potential issues with siblings:

  1. Create consensus. Have a meeting with your siblings and talk about Dad’s condition, the caregiving needs and what may occur going forward. When you’re in agreement, create a caregiving plan that speaks to the part each person will play. Although one person will do most of the work, the other sibs must be supporting players or provide respite care. Make sure to review what’s happening with your Dad and how his needs are changing. Adjust the plan as needed.
  2. Set up a division of labor. Discuss the sibling who’s best suited to which responsibilities based on abilities, financial resources, location to your parent, availability and other factors. You should also, try to be flexible about swapping tasks from one sibling to another, as circumstances changes.
  3. Decide how to communicate. Make sure everyone agrees to keep each another apprised of any changes in your parent’s condition or needs. Get together to determine the preferred way of communication (like group texts or email) for sharing important data between scheduled meetings.
  4. Ask for what’s needed. If you’re the primary caregiver, don’t set yourself up to shoulder every caregiving task or decision. That can create resentment and burnout. Be assertive and direct. Detail the specifics of what you need.

Reference: AARP (Oct. 28, 2019) “Family Conflict: Primary Caregiver Often Pitted Against Siblings”

Alternatives for Stretch IRA Strategies

The majority of many people’s wealth is in their IRAs, that is saved from a lifetime of work. Their goal is to leave their IRAs to their children, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “Three Replacements for Stretch IRAs.” The ability to distribute IRA wealth over years, and even decades, was eliminated with the passage of the SECURE Act.

The purpose of the law was to add an estimated $428 million to the federal budget over the next 10 years. Of the $16.2 billion in revenue provisions, some $15.7 billion is accounted for by eliminating the stretch IRA.

Existing beneficiaries of stretch IRAs will not be affected by the change in the law. But going forward, most IRA heirs—with a few exceptions, including spousal heirs—will have to take their withdrawals within a ten year period of time.

The estate planning legal and financial community is currently scrutinizing the law and looking for strategies will protect these large accounts from taxes. Here are three estate planning approaches that are emerging as front runners.

Roth conversions. Traditional IRA owners who wished to leave their retirement assets to children may be passing on big tax burdens now that the stretch is gone, especially if beneficiaries themselves are high earners. An alternative is to convert regular IRAs to Roth IRAs and take the tax hit at the time of the conversion.

There is no guarantee that the Roth IRA will never be taxed, but tax rates right now are relatively low. If tax rates go up, it might make converting the Roth IRAs too expensive.

This needs to be balanced with state inheritance taxes. Converting to a Roth could reduce the size of the estate and thereby reduce tax exposure for the state as well.

Life insurance. This is being widely touted as the answer to the loss of the stretch, but like all other methods, it needs to be viewed as part of the entire estate plan. Using distributions from an IRA to pay for a life insurance policy is not a new strategy.

Charitable Remainder Trusts (CRT). The IRA could be used to fund a charitable remainder trust. This allows the benefactor to establish an income stream for heirs with part of the IRA assets, with the remainder going to a named charity. The trust can grow assets tax free. There are two different ways to do this: a charitable remainder annuity trust, which distributes a fixed annual annuity and does not allow continued contributions, or a charitable remainder unitrust, which distributes a fixed percentage of the initial assets and does allow continued contributions.

Speak with your estate planning lawyer about what options may work best in your unique situation.

Reference: Think Advisor (Jan. 24, 2020) “Three Replacements for Stretch IRAs”

The High Cost of Medicare Mistakes

A 68-year-old woman knew that she had to sign up at age 65 for Medicare Part A for hospital care and Part B for outpatient care, since she did not have employer provided health insurance from an employer with 20 or more employees. She knew also that if she did not have health insurance from an employer and didn’t sign up immediately, she’d face a penalty with higher Part B and Part D premiums for the rest of her life when eventually she did sign up, reports Forbes in the article “Beware Medicare’s Part B Premium Penalty And Surcharge Traps.”

Here’s where it got sticky: she thought that Medicare provided an eight-month special enrollment period after one job ended to apply penalty free. She is employed on a sporadic basis, so she thought she had a window of time. Between the ages of 65 and 68, she had several jobs with large employers, and was never out of work for more than eight months.

She was out of work for 25 months total between ages 65 and 68, when she was not enrolled in Medicare. She thought that since she was never out of work for more than eight months, she didn’t have to sign up until she officially stopped working and would then enroll penalty free in traditional Medicare Parts A, B, and D.

She had read information on the Medicare website and her interpretation of the information was wrong. It was a costly mistake.

In determining whether you need to permanently pay a Medicare Part B penalty, Medicare counts up all the months between age 65 and the month you first enroll in Part B, even if you have a job with a large employer with no gaps in employment for more than eight months.

She got hit with a 20% lifetime Medicare Part B premium penalty. For every 12 months that you’re not covered by Medicare B after reaching 65 and before you enroll, the penalty is an additional 10%. And making things worse, she was hit with a Medicare Part B penalty based on the cumulative (not consecutive, which is an important difference) 25 months that she went without credible prescription drug coverage.

This is the sort of problem that does not self-resolve or get better over time. In this case, another mistake in timing is going to hurt her. She sold some assets and realized a capital gain in 2018, which increased her Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI). In 2020, she’s going to have to pay the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA). If your MAGI, two years before the current year, is less than $87,000, you are exempt from IRMAA in the current year. Her cost: $1,735.20 more this year. Had she instead realized those capital gains over the course of several years, her 2018 MAGI might not have crossed the $87,000 threshold. Most people are not aware of the IRMAA and take capital gains in larger amounts than they need.

This is a harsh lesson to learn, at a time in life when there’s not a lot of flexibility or time to catch up. Talking with an estate planning lawyer about Medicare and about tax planning, as well as having an estate plan created, would have spared this woman, and countless others, from the harsh consequences of her mistakes.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 29, 2020) “Beware Medicare’s Part B Premium Penalty And Surcharge Traps”

How Can I Move On after a Loved One Dies?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One” says that there really are no rules about how you should feel or how long it will take you to regain your energy and ability to move forward. Grief is difficult to avoid, but there are many financial and legal tasks that will require your immediate attention. Here are some of the actions that can ease this process and help you to get back on track financially.

Here’s a breakdown of what you will need to address in the near future:

  • Gather important information, such as the deceased’s Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate and military discharge papers.
  • Obtain at least 10 copies of the death certificates, because each claim will need to have an original copy of the death certificate attached.
  • Inform the Social Security office about the death and file a Social Security benefits claim form to qualify for the death benefit.
  • Find the title to any automobiles
  • Print out up-to-date statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.
  • The executor should file the deceased’s will (if there is one) with the Probate Court.
  • The executor should obtain letters testamentary from the court.
  • File a death claim with the deceased’s life insurance company, if applicable.
  • Contact the Employer’s Benefits department about survivorship pension, health insurance, unpaid salary and life insurance benefits, if applicable.
  • Prepare a preliminary monthly budget and income summary.

You should seek the advice of an experienced estate planning or probate attorney. You should also retitle any joint accounts into your name and transfer any inherited IRA into your name and take out a required minimum distribution (RMD), if applicable. New beneficiaries should also be named and deeds for any real estate jointly held with rights of survivorship updated.

You need to file a federal estate tax return within nine months.

Don’t face these challenges alone. Contact an experienced estate planning lawyer for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 8, 2020) “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One”

How is a Guardianship Determined?

Because the courts call guardianship “a massive curtailment of liberty,” it’s important that guardianship be used only when necessary.

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article asks, “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?” As the article explains, courts must be certain that an individual is truly “incapacitated.”

For example, Oklahoma law defines an incapacitated person as a person 18 years or older, who is impaired by reason of:

  1. Mental illness;
  2. Intellectual or developmental disability;
  3. Physical illness or disability; or
  4. Drug or alcohol dependency.

In addition, an incapacitated person’s ability to receive and evaluate information or to communicate decisions is impaired to such a level that the person (i) lacks capacity to maintain health and safety; or (ii) is unable to manage financial resources.

A person who is requesting to be appointed guardian by the court must show evidence to prove the person’s incapacity. This evidence is typically presented with the professional opinion of medical, psychological, or administrative bodies.

In some instances, a court may initiate its own investigation with known medical experts. In these cases, the type of professional chosen to provide an opinion should match the needs of the person (the “ward”), who will be subject to guardianship.

The court will receive this evidence and if it’s acceptable, in many cases, require that the experts provide a plan for the care and administration of the ward and his assets. This plan will become a control measure, as well as guidance for the guardian who’s appointed.

These controls will include regular monitoring and reports of performance back to the court.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Jan. 23, 2020) “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?”

Unintended Kiddie Tax Change Fixed in the SECURE Act

Families were hurt by a change in the kiddie tax that took effect after 2017, but they’ll be able to undo the damage from 2018 and 2019 now that a fix has become law. The SECURE Act contains a provision that fixed this unintended change, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle’s recent article, “Congress reversed kiddie-tax change that accidentally hurt some families.”

The kiddie tax was created many years ago to prevent wealthy families from transferring large amounts of investments to dependent children, who would then be taxed at a much lower rate than their parents. It taxed a child’s unearned income above a certain amount at the parent’s rate, instead of at the lower child’s rate. Unearned income includes investments, Social Security benefits, pensions, annuities, taxable scholarships and fellowships. Earned income, which is money earned from working, is always taxed at the lower rate.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 changed the kiddie tax in a way that had severe consequences for military families receiving survivor benefits. Instead of taxing unearned income above a certain level—$2,100 in 2018 and $2,200 in 2019—at the parent’s tax rate, it taxed it at the federal rate for trusts and estates starting in 2018.

Hitting military families with a 37% tax rate that starts at $12,750 in taxable income is unthinkable, but that’s what happened. Low and middle-income families whose dependent children were receiving unearned income, including retirement benefits received by dependent children of service members who died on active duty and scholarships used for expenses other than tuition and books, were effectively penalized by the change.

Under pressure from groups representing military families and scholarship providers, Congress finally added a measure repealing the kiddie tax change to the SECURE Act, which seemed as if it was going to be passed quickly in May. The bill was stalled until it was attached to the appropriations bill and was not passed until December 20, 2019.

There is a specific provision in the bill: “Tax Relief for Certain Children” that completely reverses the change starting in 2020. It also says that subject to the Treasury Department issuing guidance, taxpayers may be able to apply the repeal to their 2018 and 2019 tax years, or both.

The IRS has not yet issued guidance, but the expectation is that amended returns will be required, if a taxpayer elects to use the parents’ tax rate for that year.

Some parents whose children have investment income may be better off using the estate-tax rate for the two years that it is in place. In 2019, those trust brackets may actually allow more capital gains and dividends be taxed at the 0% and 15% rates than by using the parents’ rates.

Reference: San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 20, 2020) “Congress reversed kiddie-tax change that accidentally hurt some families”

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true, if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it won’t become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

The Need for Long-Term Care Insurance

More than 70% of seniors 65 and over will need some type of long-term care in their lifetime. This could be a few months of home health aide assistance or years in an assisted living facility or nursing home. Unfortunately, Medicare won’t pay for long-term care, which means the majority of seniors could have some very big bills.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “Only 16% of Older Americans Have Made This Smart Retirement Move” says that’s the reason why it’s critical to secure long-term care insurance. Your 50s are generally when it’s considered to be the best time to apply. At that point, you’re not signing up to pay premiums for too long, but you’re also more likely to get approved for a policy and get a discount on its cost based on your health. However, research from TD Ameritrade found that just 16% of Americans in their 50s have a long-term care policy.

Many seniors don’t know just how expensive long-term care is, until they actually need it. Medicare generally doesn’t cover this because its’ considered custodial care, another term for non-medical assistance. Medicare will pay for seniors to recuperate from injury or illness, but often, the need for long-term care isn’t a result of that situation.

A long-term care insurance policy isn’t cheap. Your premium costs will depend on a number of factors, such as your age at the time of your application, the state of your health and the specific amount of coverage you want.

For example, a 55-year-old man in New Jersey applying today could receive a benefit of $150 per day for up to two years. Let’s say that he ends up spending two years in an assisted living facility that costs $150 per day.

That’s going to total $109,500. Assume you also pay an annual premium of $1,195.43 for 20 years to obtain that benefit, for a total of $23,908.60. Even with the large amount of money you’ll end up paying in premiums, it’s nothing when compared to the $109,500 you might otherwise be required to shell out for your care.

It’s impossible to predict whether you’ll need long-term care, but if you’d rather not risk bankrupting your estate and yourself, look at a policy. Even though it’s ideal to apply while you’re in your 50s, you may qualify for affordable coverage in your 60s. Therefore, despite the preferred application window being closed, it may be beneficial to see what options are available to you now.

Reference:  Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “Only 16% of Older Americans Have Made This Smart Retirement Move”

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