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in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.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?”

Life Insurance Is a Good Estate Planning Tool but Needs to Be Done Carefully

With proper planning and the help of a seasoned estate planning or probate attorney, insurance money can pay expenses, like estate tax and avoid the need to liquidate other assets, says FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Errors to Avoid in Using Life Insurance for Estate Planning.”

As an example, let’s say that Reggie passes away and leaves a large estate to his daughter Veronica. There’s a big estate tax that’s due. However, the majority of Reggie’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. In light of this, Veronica might not want to proceed directly into a forced sale of the real estate. However, if she taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll be required to pay income tax on the withdrawal and forfeit a very worthwhile opportunity for extended tax deferral.

If Reggie plans ahead, he could purchase insurance on his own life. The proceeds could be used to pay the estate tax bill. As a result, Veronica can retain the real estate, while taking only minimum required distributions (RMDs) from the inherited IRA.

If the insurance policy is owned by Veronica or by a trust, the proceeds probably won’t be included in Reggie’s estate and won’t increase her estate taxes.

Along these same lines, here are some common life insurance errors to avoid:

Designating your estate as beneficiary. When you make this move, it puts the insurance policy proceeds into your estate, exposing it to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have to deal with more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people or charities.

Designating just a single beneficiary. You should name at least two “backup” beneficiaries. This will decrease any confusion, if the primary beneficiary predeceases you.

Throwing the copy of your life insurance policy in the “file and forget” drawer. You should review your policies at least once every few years. If the beneficiary is an ex-spouse or someone who’s passed away, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation from the insurance company in writing.

Failing to carry adequate insurance. If you have a youngster, it undoubtedly requires hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college bills, in the event of your untimely death.

Talk to a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney about the particulars of your situation.

Reference: FEDweek (Dec. 12, 2019) “Errors to Avoid in Using Life Insurance for Estate Planning”

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So, do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen, but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults, which they are, and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust, or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct, less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter, but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor, when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

How Can Life Insurance Help My Estate Plan?

In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for people to buy second-to-die life insurance policies to help pay federal estate taxes. However, in 2019, with estate tax exclusions up to $11,400,000 (and rising with the cost-of-living adjustments), fewer people would owe much for estate taxes.

However, IRAs, 401(k)s, and other accounts are still 100% taxable to the individuals, spouses and their children. The stretch IRA options still exist, but they may go away, as Congress may limit stretch IRAs to a maximum of 10 years.

Forbes’ recent article, “3 Ways Life Insurance Can Help Your Estate Plan,” explains that as the IRA is giving income from the RMDs, it may also be added, after tax, to the life insurance policy. If this occurs, it’s even possible that the death benefits could grow in the future, giving a cost-of-living benefit to children. This is one way how life insurance can be used creatively to help your estate plan.

For married couples, one strategy is to consider how life insurance on one individual could be used to pay “conversion tax” at death, using tax-free benefits. When the retiree dies, the spouse beneficiary can then convert all the IRA (taxable money) to a Roth IRA, which is tax-exempt with new, lower income tax rates (37% in 2018-2025 versus 39.6% in 2017 or earlier).

This tax-free death benefit money can be used to pay the taxes on the conversion, letting the surviving beneficiary have a lifetime of tax-exempt income without RMD issues from the Roth IRA. The Social Security income could also be tax-exempt, because Roth withdrawals don’t count as “income” in the calculation to see how much of your Social Security is taxed. However, you’d have to be within the threshold for any other combined income.

Life insurance for both individuals (if married) may also be a good idea. If the spouse of the IRA owner dies, the money from the life insurance can be used once again. If this is done in the tax year of the death for married individuals, the tax conversion could be done under “married filing status” before the next year, when the individual must use single tax filing status.

Another benefit of the IRA-to-Roth conversion is the passing of Roth IRAs to heirs, which could create a lasting legacy, if planned well. New life insurance policies that add long-term care features with chronic care and critical care benefits can also provide an extra degree of benefits, if one of the insureds has health issues prior to death.

Be sure to watch the tax rates and possible changes. With today’s lower tax rates, this could be very beneficial. Remember that there are usually individual state taxes as well. However, considering all the tax-optimized benefits to spouses and beneficiaries, the long-term tax benefits outweigh the lifetime tax liabilities, especially when you also consider SSI tax benefits for the surviving spouse and no RMD issues.

Life insurance in retirement can help protect, build and transfer wealth in one of the easiest ways possible. If you’re not certain about where to start with your life insurance needs, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (November 15, 2019) “3 Ways Life Insurance Can Help Your Estate Plan”

What Should I Know about Estate and Inheritance Taxes with Property in Two States?

If you’re set to receive your full Social Security benefits next year, you may want to make sure you understand the estate and inheritances taxes of owning property, especially if it’s in more than one state.

Let’s say you own two co-ops in Manhattan and a home in New Jersey. All are all mortgage-free but you have a $69,000 home equity loan on the house. You may wonder if it’s better to continue to live in New Jersey with assets in New York or to move back to New York—or even somewhere else. This decision should be based at least in part on how your assets will be taxed, when you pass away. You also want to think about the beneficiaries of your property.

nj.com’s recent article asks, “Are estate and inheritances taxes worse in New York or New Jersey?” The article explains that estate and inheritance taxes are two different things, and it’s important to understand them.

An estate tax is levied on the estate of the decedent. An inheritance tax is paid by the beneficiary who gets the distribution from the estate. Few states have inheritances taxes. New Jersey abandoned their estate tax effective Jan. 1, 2018. However, New Jersey still has an inheritance tax. It is only applicable to non-Class A beneficiaries, which typically are heirs who are not lineal descendants. Children or grandchildren are Class A beneficiaries, so the inheritance tax would not apply to them.

There’s no inheritance tax in New York. However, the estate tax is imposed on taxable estates in excess of the state exemption. That’s $5.49 million in 2019 and will go up to $5.85 million in 2020. New York estate tax rates begin at 3.06% and increase to 16.0% for taxable estates in excess of $10.1 million.

An estate of a New York non-resident is required to file a New York State estate tax return, if the estate includes any real or tangible property in New York State and the amount of the non-resident’s federal gross estate, plus the amount of any “includable gifts,” is more than the state’s exclusion amount at the time of death. “Includable gifts” are gifts made while the decedent was a New York resident during the preceding three-year period ending on the date of death. These aren’t included in the decedent’s federal gross estate.

In the example above, it looks like New Jersey would be the better domicile in which to claim residency, because no estate or inheritance tax would be due. Depending on the value of the two co-ops in New York, he may owe New York estate tax, if the value exceeds the New York State estate exclusion amount. That’s true whether he’s a New York or New Jersey resident.

Under current New Jersey law, moving to another non-estate tax state, like Florida, won’t help him with any additional estate tax benefit. As always, talk with an estate planning attorney regarding the above specifics and to make certain that your estate plan is complete and follows your goals.

Reference: nj.com (December 4, 2019) “Are estate and inheritances taxes worse in New York or New Jersey?”

What Do I Need to Know About Owning Property with Someone Other than My Spouse?

Have you ever considered owning property jointly with a family member, friend, or a business associate? Inside Indiana Business’ recent article, “Risky: Property Owned with a Non-Spouse,” says that you should think about the negatives, such as loss of control, unknown creditor issues and tax consequences.

Loss of Control. When you choose to co-own an asset with another person, you can enter into a legal ownership agreement known as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or “JTWROS.” When one of the owners dies, the surviving owner automatically becomes sole owner of the property. However, you give up some control of ownership, when you own property in this way. For example, you can’t direct your portion to go to a spouse or a child after your death in your will or other estate planning documents. OK, you can, but your co-owner’s ownership title takes precedence over your estate documents. As a result, she will become the sole owner. You can also lose some control over the property, if the non-spouse co-owner transfers her interest in the property to another individual without your consent. It’s also tough to remove a co-owner from the property title without his or her full cooperation.

Creditors. Another issue with jointly held property is that it’s subject to creditors’ claims against both owners. If your brother, as a co-owner of your cabin, has financial troubles and files for bankruptcy, his ownership in the cabin could possibly be claimed by a creditor. He could also be forced to sell it to pay off his debts. So, unless you can buy out his ownership in the cabin, you may now own the property with a stranger.

Potentially Higher Taxes. Adding a non-spouse as co-owner of an asset, allows for a simple property transfer at your passing. However, it could also mean both a gift tax to you and an increased capital gain tax for your heir. By adding a non-spouse to the property title, you’re making a gift to the new joint owner. Therefore, based on the current value of the property being gifted, you could be liable for gift tax. In addition, the heir of the property may have to pay increased capital gain taxes. Property transferred at death receives a step-up in basis. This means the heir’s cost basis is equal to the fair market value of the property at your death, instead of your cost basis (the amount you paid for the property). Receiving a step-up in basis reduces the heir’s capital gain on the appreciation of the property when it’s sold. However, if you add a co-owner, only your interest in the asset has the benefit of stepped-up basis at your death, not the entire property. When the property is sold, this may mean a higher capital gain tax.

JTWROS vs. Tenants in Common. When deciding to co-own an asset with another person, you can also enter into an ownership agreement known as “tenants in common.” Here’s a key difference: holding property JTWROS with another person means that when one owner dies, the other owner receives the property outright and automatically. When owning property as tenants in common with another person, when one owner dies, the owner’s heirs receive his share in the property. A co-owner can again transfer his interest in the property without approval as the other co-owner. This loss of control may place you in a difficult position.

When considering property ownership with another party, look at the pros and cons of both JTWROS and tenants in common. The cons usually outweigh the pros. However, if owning property with a non-spouse is what you want, discuss this with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Inside Indiana Business (December 1, 2019) “Risky: Property Owned with a Non-Spouse”

What Does Portability Mean, and How Do I Use It?

WMUR’s recent article, “Money Matters: Portability and estates,” explains that each taxpayer is typically permitted what is called an applicable exclusion amount. This is the amount of assets that, at your death, you can bequeath to others tax-free for estate tax purposes. Prior to the law change, spouses couldn’t share their exclusions. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased this exclusion significantly. In 2019, the exclusion is $11.4 million per person.

The portion that’s not used by the deceased spouse can be transferred to the surviving spouse. The exclusion is indexed for inflation. However, this exemption level is only in effect until 2025. It will then again lower, probably to around half of its current level.

Before this tax law change, the most frequent way to maximize the exclusion was to set up a trust for each spouse—sometimes known an A/B trust. When the first spouse passes away, an amount equal to the exclusion would go to the B trust (also called a credit-shelter bypass trust).

The assets in this trust would be outside the surviving spouse’s estate and, because the exclusion was applied, were not subject to estate taxes. Anything remaining in the estate of the first to die, would be given to the survivor or could be placed in another trust. This trust is often called an A trust (or marital trust). Transfers to spouses aren’t usually subject to estate tax, so assets passing to the A marital trust would have no estate tax liability. At the surviving spouse’s death, his exclusion would be applied to the assets in the A trust. That way, both spouses would get the benefit of their exclusion.  However, this changed with the new tax law. The first spouse to die now uses the exclusion against assets in his estate. Any unused exclusion amounts can then be used by the surviving spouse with their own, at her death.

This would appear to simplify estate planning, for some, the use of two separate trusts will no longer be needed. However, remember these thoughts: (i) the unused applicable exclusion amount from an earlier marriage usually isn’t available, and you can use the amounts only from your last deceased spouse in your estate planning; (ii) these unused exclusion amounts aren’t indexed for inflation, so the property your spouse receives at your death may increase in value in the future, and its value could ultimately be greater than the unused exclusion; and (iii) to use portability, an estate tax return must be filed, so the estate executor must make an election to do so, by filing a return—even if the estate wouldn’t usually be required to do so.

Because of the tax law changes, estate documents drafted before 2010 may not accurately reflect your desire,s because portability and the increase in the exclusion amount can have an effect. Review the changes with your estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (November 21, 2019) “Money Matters: Portability and estates”

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