What Parts of Estate Plan Should Be Reviewed in the Pandemic?

Forbes’ April article entitled “6 Parts Of Your Estate Plan You Should Review Now” discusses several items in your plan that should be examined, in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

In this pandemic, who will make important financial and medical decisions for you, if you’re unable to make them for yourself?

Make certain that you’ve designated a person who is trustworthy and reliable. Don’t forget to name a back-up for your power of attorney and health care proxy.

Look at your will. Make sure the person you’ve named as the executor of your estate is current. This is the individual who’ll attend to your affairs after you die and take care of probating your will, if necessary. She will also file income and tax returns on behalf of the estate. If you have minor children, name a guardian for them in the will.

Review your trust. Your revocable living trust usually benefits you while you’re alive. It can also be used to benefit others, such as a spouse and children. Name those who will receive the assets at your death. If your beneficiaries are minors or not mature enough to handle a sizeable sum, you might hold assets for them in trust, until they’re old enough to handle the money themselves. Review your decision regarding your trustee and see that this is the right person to administer the trust, based on your wishes.

Be sure to fund the trust. This will avoid probate of the assets on your death and lets the successor trustee control the assets for your benefit, if you’re incapacitated. If you fail to do so, it will create a host of problems after you’re gone. Your heirs will need court authority to access your assets, which can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Update your beneficiary designations. This includes the beneficiary designations on your life insurance policies, retirement accounts and any brokerage accounts that are payable on death to a beneficiary.

Ask your estate planning attorney about taking advantage of estate tax opportunities. It is important to have everything in order in the pandemic.

Reference: Forbes (April 15, 2020) “6 Parts Of Your Estate Plan You Should Review Now”

How Do I Avoid the Three Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes?

After you die, your last will and testament must be approved by the local probate court. The judge will determine if the document is the last will of the deceased, review the inventory of the estate and confirm who will administer the estate proceeds. It’s known as “executing” a will.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones” discusses some mistakes that people make and how to avoid them.

  1. You don’t have a will, or you have a will that was written in another state. You also should have a current will. Life changes, and you need a will for where you live in now. Residency is defined differently in each state, and an out-of-state will delays the probate process, because it fails to satisfy state requirements. Worse yet, it may even be declared invalid.

If there is no will, the deceased is said to have died “intestate,” and his estate must go through probate. However, an administrator will be named by the judge to distribute assets, according to state law. It can be a lengthy and often costly process.

Some people don’t want to hire an attorney to create their estate plan or write a will, because they believe it’s too expense or they never get around to doing it. However, if you die without a will, the legal costs will be even more and that will be paid by your estate—that decreases what’s left to give to your heirs.

  1. Mixing up estate taxes with probate. Your estate may be too small to be subject to federal tax, if it is less than the $11.58 million exemption. However, you still will be subject to probate and possibly a state estate tax. Therefore, you still need an estate plan.
  2. Disregarding easy things to keep some assets from probate. Most states have a “mini-probate” that is expedited for small estates. With this process, heirs may have fewer fees, less paperwork and shorter waiting.

You can also create a living trust (revocable trust) to avoid probate altogether, if done correctly. This is a legal vehicle to which all of your assets pass upon your death. Ask an estate planning lawyer to help you create a trust, because they can be complicated. Whether you need a trust, a will, or both, an experienced estate planning attorney has worked through a variety of situations and will have sound and creative ideas. Investing time and money with an attorney makes life easier for you now and for your family later.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 18, 2020) “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones”

Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

How to Keep the Family Vacation Home in the Family

If this winter-like weather plus pandemic have left you wondering about how to get started on passing the family vacation home to the family or preparing to sell it in the future, you’ll need to understand how property is transferred. The details are shared in a useful article titled “Exit strategy for keeping the cabin in the family” from The Spokesman Review.

Two options to consider: an outright sale to the adult children or placing the cabin in a qualified personal residence trust. Selling the vacation home and renting it back from the children, is one way that parents can keep it in the family, enjoy it without owning it, and help the children out with rental income.

One thing to bear in mind: the sale of the vacation home will not escape a capital gains tax. It’s likely that the vacation home has appreciated in value, especially if you’ve owned it for a long time. If you have made capital improvements over that time period, you may be able to offset the capital gains.

The actual gain is the difference between the adjusted sales price (that is, the selling price minus selling expenses) and their adjusted basis. What is the adjusted basis? That is the original cost, plus capital improvements. These are the improvements to the property with a useful life of more than one year and that increase the value of the property or extend its life. A new roof, a new deck, a remodeled kitchen or basement or finished basement are examples of what are considered capital improvements. New curtains or furniture are not.

Distinguishing the difference between a capital improvement and a maintenance cost is not always easy. An estate planning attorney can help you clarify this, as you plan for the transfer of the property.

Another way to transfer the property is with the use of a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT). In this situation, the vacation home is considered a second residence, and is placed within the trust for a specific time period. You decide what the amount of time would be and continue to enjoy the vacation home during that time. Typical time periods are ten or fifteen years. If you live beyond the time of the trust, then the vacation home passes to the children and your estate is reduced by the value of the vacation home. If you should die during the term of the trust, the vacation home reverts back to your estate, as if no trust had been set up.

A QPRT works for families who want to reduce the size of their estate and have a property they pass along to the next generation, but the hard part is determining the parent’s life expectancy. The longer the terms of the trust, the more estate taxes are saved. However, if the parents die earlier than anticipated, benefits are minimized.

The question for families considering the sale of their vacation home to the children, is whether the children can afford to maintain the property. One option for the children might be to rent out the property, until they are able to carry it on their own. However, that opens a lot of different issues. They should do so for period of one year at a time, so they receive the tax benefits of rental property, including depreciation.

Talk with a qualified estate planning attorney about what solution works best for your estate plan and your family’s future. There are other means of conveying the property, in addition to the two mentioned above, and every situation is different.

Reference: The Spokesman Review (April 19, 2020) “Exit strategy for keeping the cabin in the family”

Relocating for Retirement, Family … or Taxes?

When the current health crisis finally passes, many people will have spent time considering what they want to do with their remaining years. That may include relocating. For some people, taxes are a real reason to move to a new state, but some states are more tax-friendly than others, says the article “Best States to Die In…For Taxes” from Tucson.com.

No matter where you live, you have to pay federal estate taxes. However, there are eighteen states in the U.S. that require citizens to pay either estate taxes or inheritance taxes or both. The estate taxes are subtracted from an estate before its assets are distributed to heirs. Inheritance taxes are paid by heirs of the deceased, and it doesn’t matter if the heirs live in another state.

Here are the six states with inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The good news is that spouses are exempted from having to pay any inheritance taxes, and in New Jersey, it also applies to domestic partners. In some states, children and grandchildren are exempted, but not in Nebraska or Pennsylvania.

For people who live in Nebraska, immediate relatives must pay a 1% tax on inheritance amounts that are more than $40,000. In Pennsylvania, tax rates start at 4.5% for children and lineal heirs. Nebraska has the highest top inheritance tax rate of all the estates, at 18%. The others range from 10% to 16%.

Each state has certain exemptions, based on the amount of the inheritance and the heir’s relationship to the deceased. If you receive an inheritance from someone who lives in one of the inheritance tax states, speak with an estate planning attorney, so that you know what tax is due. State law categorizes heirs into types for the purposes of assigning exemptions and tax rates, and these vary by state.

The worst state to die in from an inheritance tax and estate tax perspective is Maryland, which imposes a 16% tax on inheritances above $5 million for persons who died in calendar year 2019. Until recently, New Jersey had a scaled estate tax that ranged from 0.8% to 16.0% on estates over $675,000, but the state no longer imposes any estate tax on the estate of decedents, who die on or after January 1, 2018.

Many inheritances pass through to spouses and children. The exemptions are generally fairly generous, so many people may not run into this issue with estate or inheritance taxes. However, if your estate includes a home within an expensive real estate market, your family may be in for some surprise taxes.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s estate and inheritance tax rates are, and plan for the future. If you are in a high tax state, relocating may not be a bad idea. Your heirs will appreciate your planning.

Reference: Tucson.com (March 27, 2020) “Best States to Die In…For Taxes”

Should I Use Life Insurance in My Estate Planning?

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses like estate taxes. It will help keep other assets intact.

For example, Hector passes away and leaves his rather large estate to his daughter, Isabella. Because of the size of the estate, there’s a hefty estate tax due. However, unfortunately, most of Hector’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Isabella may not be keen on a quick forced sale of the real estate to free up some cash for the taxes. If Isabella taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll have to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate” that in this scenario, Hector could plan ahead. Anticipating such a result, he could buy insurance on his own life. The proceeds of that policy could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Isabella can then keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) that are warranted by law from the inherited IRA. If the insurance policy is owned by Isabella or by a trust, the proceeds most likely won’t be included in Hector’s estate, and the money won’t increase the estate tax liability she has.

However, some common life insurance mistakes can sabotage your estate plan:

  • Designating your estate as the beneficiary. This will place the policy proceeds in your estate, which exposes the funds to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people, trust or charities.
  • Naming just a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” beneficiaries to decrease confusion, in the event the main beneficiary should die before you.
  • Placing your policy in the “file and forget” drawer. Review your policies at least once every three years, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation, in writing, from the insurance company.
  • Inadequate insurance. In the event of your untimely death, if you have a young child, in all likelihood it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college tuition. Failing to purchase adequate insurance coverage may hurt your family. This also shouldn’t be a hardship with term insurance costs so low.

Reference: FedWeek (Feb. 6, 2020) “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate”

How Bad Will Your Estate’s Taxes Be?

The federal estate tax has been a small but steady source of federal revenue for nearly 100 years. The tax was first imposed on wealthy families in America in 1916. They were paid by families whose assets were previously passed down through multiple generations completely and utterly untaxed, says the article “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?” from The Orange County Register.

The words “Death Tax” don’t actually appear anywhere in the federal tax code, but was the expression used to create a sympathetic image of the grieving families of farmers and small business owners who were burdened by big tax bills at a time of personal loss, i.e., the death of a parent. The term was made popular in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.

Fast forward to today—2020. Will the federal government tax your estate when you die, seize your home and everything you had hoped to hand down to your children? Not likely. Most Americans don’t have to worry about estate or death taxes. With the new federal exemptions at a record high of $11,580,000 for singles and twice that much for married couples, only very big estates are subject to a federal estate tax. Add to that, the 100% marital deduction means that a surviving spouse can inherit from a deceased spouse and is not required to pay any estate tax, no matter how big the estate.

However, what about state estate taxes? To date, thirteen states still impose an estate tax, and many of these have exemptions that are considerably lower than the federal tax levels. Six states add to that with an inheritance tax. That’s a tax that is levied on the beneficiaries of the estate, usually based upon their relationship to the deceased.

Many estates will still be subject to state estate taxes and income taxes.

The personal representative or executor is responsible and legally authorized to file returns on a deceased person’s behalf. They are usually identified in a person’s will as the executor of the estate. If a family trust holds the assets, the trust document will name a trustee. If there was no will or trust, the probate court will appoint an administrator. This person may be a professional administrator and likely someone who never knew the person whose estate they are now in charge of. This can be very difficult for family members.

If the executor fails to file a return or files an inaccurate or incomplete return, the IRS may assess penalties and interest payments.

The final individual income tax return is filed in just the same way as it would be when the deceased was living. All income up to the date of death must be reported, and all credits and deductions that the person is entitled to can be claimed. The final 1040 should only include income earned from the start of the calendar year to the date of their death. The filing for the final 1040 is the same as for living taxpayers: April 15.

Even if taxes are not due on the 1040, a tax return must be filed for the deceased if a refund is due. To do so, use the Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due to a Deceased Taxpayer. Anyone who files the final tax return on a decedent’s behalf must complete IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship, and attach it to the final Form 1040.

If the decedent was married, the widow or widower can file a joint return for the year of death, claiming the full standard deduction and using joint-return rates, as long as they did not remarry in that same year.

An estate planning attorney can help with these and the many other details that must be taken care of, before the estate can be finalized.

Reference: The Orange County Register (March 1, 2020) “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?”

The Latest on Kirk Douglas’ Estate

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War” explains that Douglas worked steadily in a four-decade period but slowed down after the early 1980s. Since that’s almost 40 years ago, one might think that what would be considered a modest legacy by modern standards would be whittled down considerably. However, Kirk Douglas died extremely rich, despite a long life and decades of semi-retirement.

Douglas was one of the first to ask to participate in the profit of his movies and was one of the first stars to form his own production company. For example, Spartacus was big enough to gross $30 million on its $12 million budget. When he started his company, he refused to pay himself for that film. Instead he took 60% of the profit and wound up about $3 million ahead. His company owned the films and sold off distribution rights.

His widow Anne is now the only shareholder of record. She’s rolled the money into a family trust that over the decades created numerous tiers of holding companies and joint ventures. One of those joint ventures ended up owning half the land under Marina Del Rey’s high-rise Shores apartment complex, a property that cost a reported $165 million to build. The land is nearly priceless.

Now that it’s only Anne, the successor trustees will one day need to decide what to do with the land. She called the shots on the accounting side. Kirk remarked that he didn’t even know where the money was. However, when he found out, he got eager to give it all away. Tens of millions have already been committed to hospitals, schools and theaters.

Estate tax won’t be an issue because Kirk and Anne conducted thorough estate planning so that any wealth that goes to the family will transfer via a trust. That way, they’ll get a portion of the income without triggering estate tax concerns.

Thanks to all of Kirk’s films—many of which he owned like Spartacus—he compiled tens of millions of dollars in cash and stock during his lifetime. In almost 70 years of marital bliss, his planning added up to a lot of marital property. It was good life with good things yet to come.

It’s a testament to the power of long-term thinking. Kirk Douglas’ fortune has remained intact for generations and will undoubtedly keep helping the world for many years to come.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (Feb. 4, 2020) “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War”

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?”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”