What Does Portability Mean in Estate Planning?
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What Does Portability Mean in Estate Planning?

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse can choose to make a portability election. This means that any unused federal gift or estate tax exemption can be transferred from the deceased spouse to the surviving spouse. This does not happen automatically, says the recent article “It’s So Important to Elect ‘Portability’ For Your Farm Estate” from Ag Web Farm Journal, but it is worth doing.

Your estate planning attorney will explain how you can take advantage of this opportunity, which must be done at the latest within two years of death. In most cases, no taxes are due, but you must file a form to obtain the exemption.

Before portability was an option, spouses each owned about the same amount of assets, or the amount of assets which would use up each other’s exemptions. For many farm and ranch families, the family’s property is titled one-half to each spouse. Now, however, because of portability, the assets can flow through to the surviving spouse.

At the first spouses’ death, the survivor files for the portability election and then has two exemptions to cover assets.

Here’s an example. A family owns assets jointly and their net worth is about $11 million. They have one son, who also farms. When the husband dies, the wife owns everything. However, she neglects to speak with the family’s estate planning lawyer. No estate taxes are due at this time because of the unlimited marital deduction between the two spouses.

When the wife dies in 2026, when the current federal estate tax exemption is set to drop back to $6 million, their son has to pay $2 million in federal estate taxes. There was $11 million in original assets, but only $6 million for the wife’s exemption. Had she filed for portability when the higher estate tax exemption enacted into law under President Trump, then the $5 million taxable estate would have been reduced by the husband’s exemption by $6 million. No federal estate tax would be due.

Farmers, ranchers and any family business owners need to take into consideration the potential estate taxes in future years. In addition, 17 states still have state estate taxes, and usually the amounts taxed are higher than the federal amount.

An experienced estate planning attorney can work with the family to evaluate their tax liability and see if portability will be sufficient, or if a bypass trust or other tools are needed to protect their legacy.

Reference: Ag Web Farm Journal (April 18, 2022) “It’s So Important to Elect ‘Portability’ For Your Farm Estate”

What Happens to IRAs and 401(k) when Spouse Dies?

For married couples who own large IRA and 401(k) accounts, the question is often whether the couple should consider paying all or a portion of their accounts to a bypass trust to benefit the surviving spouse. This takes the designated portion of the IRA or 401(k) proceeds out of the surviving spouse’s taxable estate and helps with asset distribution, according to the article “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s” from Financial Advisor.

In 2013, the portability election became law. Portability allows the surviving spouse to use the unused federal estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse, thereby capturing not one but two estate tax exemptions. Why would a couple need a bypass trust?

The portability election does not remove appreciation in the value of the assets moved from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate. A bypass trust removes all appreciation. An estate planning attorney will review your entire situation to determine the optimal path.

There are also situations when the portability election does not apply. One is if the surviving spouse remarries and then the new spouse predeceases them. With a bypass trust, remarriage does not matter (although estate planning documents do need to be updated).

The portability election also does not apply for federal generation-skipping transfer tax purposes. In other words, the amount that could have passed to an estate and generation-skipping transfer tax-exempt bypass trust, including appreciated value, could now be subject to federal transfer tax in the heir’s estate.

If you use the portability election, those assets are subject to potential lawsuits against the surviving spouse and, if remarriage occurs, to any potential claims of a new spouse. A bypass trust provides better protection from lawsuits and claims.

Using the portability election may result in the first spouse to die losing the option to control where those assets go upon the death of the surviving spouse. A bypass trust provides more control for asset distribution.

The calculations for each situation must be considered, but the bypass trust can help reduce the taxable estate for children, after the surviving spouse has passed. It may also make sense for a portion of the IRA or 401(k) plan proceeds to go to the bypass trust and another portion to the surviving spouse outright. The use of the beneficiary designation may allow for a full or partial disclaimer by the surviving spouse. However, the bypass trust could provide more flexibility than keeping assets in the original accounts.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Jan. 7, 2022) “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s”

Do It Yourself Estate Planning Leads to Bad Outcomes

While the attraction of simplicity and low cost is appealing, the results are all too often disastrous, affirms Insurance News in the article “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories.” The increasing number of glitches that estate planning attorneys are seeing after the fact has increased, as much as the number of people using online estate planning forms. For estate planning attorneys who are concerned about their clients and their families, the disasters are troubling.

A few clumsy mouse clicks can derail an estate plan and adversely affect the family. Here are five real life examples.

Details matter. One of the biggest and most routinely made mistakes in DIY estate planning goes hand-in-hand with simple wills, where both spouses want to leave everything to each other. Except this typical couple neglected something. See if you can figure out what they did wrong:

John’s will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Phyllis’ will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Unless John dies and Phyllis marries someone named Phyllis, this will is not going to work. It seems like a simple enough error, but the courts are not forgiving of errors.

Life insurance mistakes. Jeff owns a life insurance policy and has been using its cash value as a “rainy day” fund. He had intended to swap the life insurance into his irrevocable grantor trust in exchange for low-basis stock held in the trust. The swap would remove the life insurance from Jeff’s estate without exposure to the estate tax three-year rule, and the stock would receive a stepped-up basis at death, leading to tax savings on both sides of the swap.

However, Jeff had a stroke recently, and he’s incapacitated. He planned ahead though, or so he thought. He downloaded a free durable power of attorney form from a nonprofit that helps the elderly. The POA specifically included the power to change ownership of his life insurance.

Jeff put his name in the space designated for the POA. As a result, the insurance company won’t accept the form, and the swap isn’t going to happen.

Incomplete documents. Ellen created an online will leaving her entire probate estate to her husband. It was fast, cheap and she was delighted. However, she forgot to click on the space where the executor is named. The website address for the website company is the default information in the form, which is what was created when she completed the will. The court is not likely to appoint the website as her executor. Her heirs are stuck, unless she corrects this, hoping the court will understand. Hope is a terrible estate plan.

Letting the form define the estate plan. Single parent Joan has a 6-year-old son. Her will includes a standard trust for minors, providing income and principal for her son until he turns 21, at which point he inherits everything. Joan met with a life insurance advisor and applied for a $1 million convertible 20–year term life insurance policy. It will be payable to the trust. However, her son has autism, and receives government benefits. There are no special needs provisions in her will, so her son is at risk of losing any benefits, if and when he inherits the policy proceeds.

Don’t set it and forget it. One couple created online wills, when the estate tax exclusion was $2 million. They created a credit shelter, or bypass, trust to reduce their estate taxes, by allowing each of them to use their estate tax exclusion amount. However, the federal estate tax exclusion today is $11.4 million per person. With $4 million in separate assets and a $2 million life insurance policy payable to children from a previous marriage, the husband’s separate assets will go into the bypass trust. None of it will go to his wife.

An experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state is the best source for creating and updating estate plans, preparing for incapacity and ensuring that tax planning is done efficiently.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Sep. 9, 2019) “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories”