Don’t Miss Out on Estate Planning Opportunities

The recent article, “Rooting Out Estate Planning Opportunities,” from Financial Advisor offers a number of frequently missed opportunities in estate planning. Chief among them are failing to update estate plans, as changes to tax laws could mean that strategies used when your estate plan was initially created may no longer be relevant.

Before these opportunities can be discovered, it’s important to have a clear accounting of all of your assets, including a balance sheet of each “bucket” of resources: personal assets, trust assets, qualified plan assets, etc. The secret to success: meeting with your estate planning attorney every few years to review this entire picture to identify potential opportunities.

Once you have a sense of the whole picture, it’s easier to spot opportunities for your Estate Planning. For instance:

A Spousal Lifetime Access Trust, or SLAT, is an irrevocable trust used when a grantor wants to transfer part of their spousal exclusion into a SLAT to provide for their spouse and descendants. The SLAT keeps assets out of the donor’s estate and authorizes the trustee to make distributions to the grantor’s spouse, while at the same time it allows children or other heirs to be named as beneficiaries. Many couples use these trusts to protect assets from lawsuits.

There are some drawbacks to keep in mind. If one spouse is the beneficiary of the other spouse, all is well while both are living. However, if one spouse dies or becomes incapacitated and all assets are in the trust, the other may lose access to the trust created for the now deceased spouse.

The loss of access and the restrictions on SLAT distribution could be addressed by having both spouses purchase life insurance policies to fill the gap. At the same time, the couple would be well advised to look into disability and long-term care insurance.

Another situation is the use of a credit shelter trust, often called a bypass trust because it bypasses the surviving spouse’s estate. They are not as advantageous as they used to be because of today’s high estate tax exemption. They were also popular when the surviving spouse wasn’t able to use their deceased spouse’s estate tax exemption.

With the federal estate tax exemption up to more than $12 million, many who still have credit shelter trusts may find they don’t make sense in the short term. However, for now the federal estate exemption is set to drop down to $6 million when the Jobs and Tax Act sunsets. Depending upon your circumstances, it may be worthwhile to maintain this trust. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you.

Merging old trusts into new ones, or “decanting” them, makes sense in some situations. A new trust can be better crafted to align with the latest in tax laws and serve the same beneficiaries for as long as your state’s laws permit.

The two important takeaways here:

  • Estate planning requires a complete look at all of your assets and liabilities to make the best decisions on how to structure any estate and tax strategies; and
  • Estate planning needs to be reviewed on a regular basis—every three to five years at a minimum—to ensure the strategies still work, despite any changes in tax laws and your situation.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 1, 2022) “Rooting Out Estate Planning Opportunities”