What’s Happening to the Estate Tax?

Proposals 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 there will be changes to the federal estate tax. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly.

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

Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?

Did you know that Hawaii and the State of Washington have the highest estate tax rates in the nation at 20%? There are 8 states and DC that are next with a top rate of 16%. Massachusetts and Oregon have the lowest exemption levels at $1 million, and Connecticut has the highest exemption level at $7.1 million.

The Tax Foundation’s recent article entitled “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?” says that of the six states with inheritance taxes, Nebraska has the highest top rate at 18%, and Maryland has the lowest top rate at 10%. All six of these states exempt spouses, and some fully or partially exempt immediate relatives.

Estate taxes are paid by the decedent’s estate, prior to asset distribution to the heirs. The tax is imposed on the overall value of the estate. Inheritance taxes are due from the recipient of a bequest and are based on the amount distributed to each beneficiary.

Most states have been steering away from estate or inheritance taxes or have upped their exemption levels because estate taxes without the federal exemption hurt a state’s competitiveness. Delaware repealed its estate tax at the start of 2018, and New Jersey finished its phase out of its estate tax at the same time. The Garden State now only imposes an inheritance tax.

Connecticut still is phasing in an increase to its estate exemption. They plan to mirror the federal exemption by 2023. However, as the exemption increases, the minimum tax rate also increases. In 2020, rates started at 10%, while the lowest rate in 2021 is 10.8%. Connecticut’s estate tax will have a flat rate of 12% by 2023.

In Vermont, they’re still phasing in an estate exemption increase. They are upping the exemption to $5 million on January 1, compared to $4.5 million in 2020.

DC has gone in the opposite direction. The District has dropped its estate tax exemption from $5.8 million to $4 million in 2021, but at the same time decreased its bottom rate from 12% to 11.2%.

Remember that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 raised the estate tax exclusion from $5.49 million to $11.2 million per person. This expires December 31, 2025, unless reduced sooner!

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about estate and inheritance taxes, and see if you need to know about either, in your state.

Reference: The Tax Foundation (Feb. 24, 2021) “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”

If My Estate Is the Beneficiary of My IRA, How Is It Taxed?

The named beneficiary of an IRA can have important tax consequences, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “How is tax paid when an estate is the beneficiary of an IRA?”

If an estate is named the beneficiary of an IRA, or if there’s no designated beneficiary, the estate is usually designated beneficiary by default. In that case, the IRA must be paid to the estate. As a result, the account owner’s will or the state law (if there was no will and the owner died intestate) would determine who’d inherit the IRA.

An individual retirement account or “IRA” is a tax-advantaged account that people can use to save and invest for retirement.

There are several types of IRAs—Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs. Each one of these has its own distinct rules regarding eligibility, taxation and withdrawals. However, with any, if you withdraw money from an IRA before age 59½, you’re usually subject to an early-withdrawal penalty of 10%.

A designated beneficiary is an individual who inherits the balance of an individual retirement account (IRA) or after the death of the asset’s owner.

However, if a “non-individual” is the beneficiary of an IRA, the funds must be distributed within five years, if the account owner died before his/her required beginning date for distributions, which was changed to age 72 last year when Congress passed the SECURE Act.

If the owner dies after his/her required beginning date, the account must then be distributed over his/her remaining single life expectancy.

The income tax on these distributions is payable by the estate. A compressed tax bracket is used.

As such, the highest tax rate of 37% is paid on this income when total income of the estate reaches $12,950.

For individuals, the 37% tax bracket isn’t reached until income is above $518,400 or $622,050 if filing as married.

Therefore, you can see why it’s not wise to leave your IRA to your estate. It’s not tax-efficient and generally should be avoided.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 26, 2021) “How is tax paid when an estate is the beneficiary of an IRA?”

When Do I File a Tax Return for an Estate?

In this example, Mom’s entire estate is valued at less than $20,000. This includes a mobile home worth about $12,000, which the children plan to sell.

Would the estate need to report income tax?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “We are settling an estate. What tax returns do we have to file?” says that there are a few issues to consider.

One is the mother’s Social Security income for 2020. There shouldn’t be any income tax filing requirement, if she didn’t have any other reportable income during that year.

An individual taxpayer with income under $34,000 must recognize up to 50% of the Social Security income. Therefore, in this example, since the mother’s Social Security income was only $20,000, she would have to recognize $10,000 of income.

However, that amount of taxable income is below the individual federal standard deduction of $12,000. As a result, there’d be no requirement to file a federal income tax return for her.

There may be a tax on the Social Security at the state level.

Note that Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia impose state income tax on Social Security payments to at least some beneficiaries.

However, there is income on capital gains recognized on the sale of the mobile home, which must be reported on federal and state income tax returns.

The basis of the mobile home would be adjusted to the value of that property as of the mom’s date of death, if she was the sole owner of that asset.

If the mobile home is sold for more than its adjusted basis, the gain would have to be recognized and reported on that excess amount.

However, if the mobile home is sold for an amount equal to its date of death value, then there would be no gain. Used mobile homes are not high demand, so it is likely there would be no gain on the sale.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 18, 2021) “We are settling an estate. What tax returns do we have to file?”

How Do I Use a Charitable Remainder Trust with a Large IRA?

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.

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.

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

How Does the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax Work in Estate Planning?

The generation-skipping transfer tax, also called the generation-skipping tax, can apply when a grandparent leaves assets to a grandchild—skipping over their parents in the line of inheritance. It can also be triggered, when leaving assets to someone who’s at least 37½ years younger than you. If you are thinking about “skipping” any of your heirs when passing on assets, it is important to know what that may mean tax-wise and how to fill out the requisite form. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you and counsel you on the best way to pass along your estate to your beneficiaries.

KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “What Is the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?” says the tax code imposes both gift and estate taxes on transfers of assets above certain limits. For 2020, you can exclude gifts of up to $15,000 per person from the gift tax, with the limit twice as much for married couples who file a joint return. Estate tax applies to estates larger than $11,580,000 for 2020, increased to $11,700,000 in 2021.

The gift tax rate can be as high as 40%, and the estate tax is also 40% at the top end. The IRS uses the generation-skipping transfer tax to collect its portion of any wealth that is transferred across families, when not passed directly from parent to child. Assets subject to the generation-skipping tax are taxed at a flat 40% rate.

Note that the GSTT can apply to both direct transfers of assets to your beneficiaries and to assets passing through a trust. A trust can be subject to the GSTT, if all trust beneficiaries are considered to be skip persons who have a direct interest in the trust.

The generation-skipping tax is a separate tax from the estate tax, but it applies alongside it. Similar to the estate tax, this tax begins when an estate’s value exceeds the annual exemption limits. The 40% GSTT would be applied to any transfers of assets above the exempt amount, in addition to the regular 40% estate tax.

That is the way the IRS gets its money on wealth, as it moves from one person to another. If you passed your estate to your child, who then passes it to their child then no GSTT would apply. The IRS would just collect estate taxes from each successive generation. However, if you skip your child and leave assets to your grandchild, it eliminates a link from the taxation chain, and the GSTT lets the IRS replace that link.

You can use your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption limits, which can help to offset how much is owed for the generation-skipping tax. However, any unused portion of the exemption counted toward the generation-skipping tax is lost when you pass away.

If you’d like to minimize estate and gift taxes as much as possible, there are several options. Your experienced estate planning attorney might suggest giving assets to your grandchildren or another generation-skipping person annually, rather than at the end of your life. That’s because you can give up to $15,000 per person each year without incurring gift tax, or up to $30,000 per person if you’re married and file a joint return. Just keep the lifetime exemption limits in mind when planning gifts.

You could also make payments on behalf of a beneficiary to avoid tax. For instance, to help your granddaughter with college costs, any direct payments you make to the school to cover tuition would generally be tax-free. The same is true for direct payments made to healthcare providers, if you’re paying medical expenses on behalf of another.

Another option may be a generation-skipping trust that lets you transfer assets to the trust and pay estate taxes at the time of the transfer. The assets you put into the trust must stay there during the skipped generation’s lifetime. Once they die, the trust assets can be passed on tax-free to the next generation.

There’s also a dynasty trust. This trust can let you pass assets to future generations without triggering estate, gift, or generation-skipping taxes. However, they are meant to be long-term trusts. You can name your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and subsequent generations as beneficiaries and the transfer of assets to the trust is irrevocable. Therefore, when you place the assets in the trust, you will not be able to take them back out again. You can see why it’s so important to understand the implications, before creating this type of trust.

The generation-skipping tax can make a big impact on the assets you’re able to leave to heirs. If you’re considering using this type of trust to pass on assets or you’re interested in exploring other ways to transfer assets while minimizing taxes, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: KAKE.com (Feb. 6, 2021) “What Is the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?”

Should I Create Estate Plan Myself?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes” provides some issues that do-it-yourself estate planners might encounter and why it is best to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Right Questions to Ask?  Completing a simple and straightforward form—like a beneficiary designation for your IRA— is one thing, but what about tax consequences, probate law, new legislation and court procedures? Are you ready to take these on? The trick is that you may not know what you don’t know. That’s why it’s money well-spent to employ the services of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Is My Situation Complex? Likewise, you may have property and assets all over the country (or world) that require expert advice. You must be certain that your planning, tax planning and financial planning all work together because they’re all interrelated. If you only work on one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another area and unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. It can also create headaches and expense for your heirs. If you have a child with special needs, a blended family, or want to control how and where a beneficiary spends your money, a cookie cutter approach won’t do. Instead, you should see an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Probate Laws in My State? Estate planning laws and taxes are different in each state.  Your state will have different rules and legal procedures for creating and administering an estate. There are many different state laws that govern inheritance taxes. There are 17 states plus DC that tax your estate, inheritance or both, and the tax laws can affect your situation when planning. Eleven states plus DC have only an inheritance tax. One state taxes both inheritances and estates.

If you mess up your estate planning documents, if could cause significant problems for your family. You best bet is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state.

Reference: US News & World Report (Dec. 18, 2020) “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

What Do I Need to Know about Creating a Will?

A simple or basic will allows you to specifically say the way in which you want your assets to be distributed among your beneficiaries after your death. This can be a good starting point for creating a comprehensive estate plan because you may need more than just a basic will.

KAKE’s recent article entitled “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?” explains that a last will and testament is a legal document that states what you want to happen to your property and “worldly goods” when you die. A simple will can be used to designate an executor for the will and a legal guardian for minor children and specify who (or which organizations) should inherit your assets when you die.

A will must be approved in the probate process when you pass away. After the probate court reviews the will to make sure it’s valid, your executor will take care of the collection and distribution of assets listed in the will. Your executor would also be responsible for paying any debts owed by your estate.

Whether you need a basic will or something more complex, usually depends on a few factors, including your age, the size of your estate and if you have children (and their ages).

Having a will in place can be a good starting point for estate planning. However, deciding if it should be simple or complex can depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • The size of your estate
  • The amount of estate tax you expect to owe
  • The type of assets and property you own
  • Whether you own a business
  • The number of beneficiaries you want to name
  • Whether the beneficiaries are individuals or organizations (like charities)
  • Any significant life changes you anticipate, like marriages, divorces, or having more children; and
  • Whether any of your children or beneficiaries have special needs.

With these situations, you may need a more detailed will to plan how you want your assets to be distributed. In any event, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. With life or financial changes, you may need to create a more complex will or consider a trust. It is smart to speak with an estate planning attorney, who can help you determine which components to include in your plan and help you keep it updated.

Reference: KAKE (Nov. 23, 2020) “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?”

What Do I Need to Know about Gift-Giving with the Biden Administration?

After the election, many people are wondering what will happen to the federal gift and estate tax exemption. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Making a Gift This Year? Some Key Questions to Consider,” explains that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically upped the lifetime gift, estate and generation-skipping tax exemption to $11.58 million per individual ($23.16 million per couple). This exemption, however, is set to expire at the end of 2025. Some observers say that Democrats could significantly shorten the time frame, ending it as early as 2021.

Some families may face the possibility of losing an opportunity to transfer wealth out of their estate and save on future estate taxes sooner than anticipated. No matter when the gift is made, here are some important issues to consider.

Can I afford to give? For couples who have a significant taxable estate, gifting assets and removing future appreciation could result in some substantial tax savings for their heirs. However, just because someone has the means to make a large gift, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right move. Some are so eager to take advantage of the tax benefits that they underestimate their own cost of living down the road. Look at whether the grantor has enough assets to maintain their desired lifestyle. Then, think about what can be transferred without negatively impacting goals and lifestyle choices.

How Do I Structure a Gift? There are many ways of distributing assets. Remember that any transfer is gift tax-free up to the annual exclusion amount ($15,000 per person per donor for 2020). Any gift over this will count against the donor’s lifetime exemption amount. Once that’s exhausted, the gift will be subject to gift tax.

Outright Cash Gifts. This may be the most uncomplicated way of gifting, but for families with significant wealth, this could have some drawbacks. Some recipients may not be prepared to manage money, and it may demotivate them to live off their inheritance rather than becoming productive on their own.

Trusts. These are frequently used for bigger gifts to provide for beneficiaries, while using some restrictions by the grantor to protect the assets from being squandered. One plan is to distribute the trust assets in stages, when the beneficiary reaches a certain age or achieves a specific goal. Another option is to leave assets in a discretionary lifetime trust, which would maintain the assets in a trust for the beneficiary’s entire lifetime. Drafted properly by an experienced estate planning attorney, this offers a high level of protection from divorcing spouses, lawsuits, bad decisions and outside influences. It also lets grantors create a lasting family legacy for many generations.

Gifts for Education Expenses. You can also make direct payments for education or for medical expenses with no gift tax consequences.

Uniform Trust to Minors Act (UTMA) and Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA). These custodial accounts are usually less restrictive than trusts and allow minor beneficiaries access to funds at age a specific age, depending on state law.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 30, 2020) “Making a Gift This Year? Some Key Questions to Consider”