Do I Need an Attorney for Probate?

Having an estate planning attorney manage the probate process can alleviate a great deal of stress for the family, says the recent article “Reasons to hire a lawyer for probate” from The Mercury.

For one thing, the attorney will know what your state requires in the way of executing the will. You may need to pay a state inheritance tax, or you may have to file certain documents specific to your state. Even if the surviving spouse is the only beneficiary and all assets are either jointly titled or are distributed through beneficiary designations, there are other details you may miss.

A surviving spouse will certainly appreciate not having to undertake a mountain of paperwork or electronic forms on their own, especially if there are no adult children living nearby to help. Which beneficiary form needs to be completed, and what will financial institutions need to change accounts to the proper ownership? It can be daunting, especially during mourning.

Depending upon the state, there may be exemptions, discounts and deductions from the estate. A layperson likely does not know if their state deducts the attorney’s fees and/or the executor fees. Even attorneys who do not practice estate law do not always know about these potential benefits.

An estate planning attorney will also know how long the probate process will take. If the surviving spouse is the executor and is unable to attend probate court, some cases accept a remote process. There are also COVID-specific procedures in some states, which a layperson may not know about.

If there are family disputes between beneficiaries regarding distribution, an estate planning attorney could be a very important resource. There may need to be a settlement agreement created that conforms to the state’s law. If it is not handled properly, the agreement could be deemed invalid if challenged in court.

What if the family home is being sold? Sometimes executors working without an attorney do not realize the requirements from title insurance companies regarding the sale of a property where one of the parties has passed. Failing to make sure that these requirements are met, could delay the settlement of the estate and put the property sale in jeopardy.

If there are health or creditor issues, or disputes over property, an estate planning attorney is invaluable in protecting the surviving spouse and/or executor. In many cases, the estate is left with substantial medical bills, Medicaid claims or related costs. Executors may not know their rights, or how to defend the estate. A knowledgeable estate planning attorney will.

Reference: The Mercury (Feb. 8, 2022) “Reasons to hire a lawyer for probate”

When Should a Trust Be Reviewed?

Life changes, and laws change too. The great trust created two decades ago may not be a good idea today and may no longer be suitable for you or your beneficiaries. As a general rule, you should review your estate plan and trust every other year, according to the article “Revisit trust on a regular basis” from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Start with the Table of Contents, if there is one. There should be language concerning “Successor Trustees.” Are the trustees you named still alive? Are they still part of your life, and do you still trust them? How are their money skills? If they don’t get along with the rest of the family, or if they have been embroiled in a series of petty disputes, they may not be appropriate to manage your trust. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Your estate planning attorney will know how to do this smoothly and properly.

Next, find the paragraph that discusses “Disposition on Death” or “Disposition on Death of Surviving Spouse.” Does it still make sense for your loved ones? Have any children or family members who are listed as receiving benefits died? Are any heirs disabled and receiving government benefits? Have any of your children developed addictions, problems handling money, married people you don’t trust, or are preparing to divorce their spouses? Changes can be made to protect your children from themselves and from others in their lives.

Look for a “Schedule of Trust Assets.” When was the last time this was updated? If you’ve moved and the trust still lists your last residence, you need to change it. Is your new home in the trust? Are retirement accounts correctly listed? Do you have new assets you’ve never placed in the trust? This is a common, and costly, oversight.

If married, how does the trust address what occurs between the death of the first spouse and the surviving spouse? Do you have an A/B trust to divide everything between a Survivor’s Trust and a Bypass Trust or Exemption Trust? Maybe you don’t need or want an A/B trust anymore. Talk with your estate planning attorney to be sure this is structured properly for your life right now.

How is your health? If you or a spouse are in a nursing home or if one of you is ill and likely to needs nursing home care, it may be time to start planning for a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust.

While you’re reviewing your trusts, trustees and beneficiaries, don’t forget to review the people named as beneficiaries for your retirement accounts and life insurance policies. These should be reviewed regularly as well.

Reviewing your trust and estate plan on a regular basis is just as necessary as an annual physical. Leaving your accumulated assets unprotected is easily fixed, while you are alive and well.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (Nov. 20, 2021) “Revisit trust on a regular basis”

Before They’re Gone—Estate Planning Strategies

As Congress continues to hammer out the details on impending legislation, there are certain laws still in effect concerning estate planning. The article “Last Call for SLATs, GTRATs, and the Use of the Enhanced Gift Tax Exemption?” from Mondaq says now is the time to review and update your estate plan, just in case any beneficial strategies may disappear by year’s end.

Here are the top five estate planning items to consider:

Expect Exemptions to Take a Dive. Estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions are $11.7 million per person and are now scheduled to increase by an inflationary indexed amount through 2025. Even if there are no legislative changes, on January 1, 2026, this number drops to $5 million, indexed for inflation. Under proposed legislation, it will revert to $6,020,000 and will continue to be indexed for inflation. This is a “use it or lose it” exemption.

Married Couples Have Options Different Than Solos. Married persons who don’t want to gift large amounts to descendants have the option to gift the exemption amount to their spouse using a SLAT—Spousal Lifetime Access Trust. The spouses can both create these trusts for each other, but the IRS is watching, so certain precautions must be taken. The trusts should not be identical in nature and should not be created at the same time to avoid application of the “reciprocal trust” doctrine, which would render both trusts moot. Under proposed legislation, SLATs will be includable in your estate at death, but SLATs created and funded before the legislation is enacted will be grandfathered in. If this is something of interest, don’t delay.

GRATs and other Grantor Trusts May be Gone. They simply won’t be of any use, since proposed legislation has them includable in your estate at death. Existing GRATs and other grantor trusts will be grandfathered in from the new rules. Again, if this is of interest, the time to act is now.

IRA Rules May Change. People who own Individual Retirement Accounts with values above $10 million, combined with income of more than $450,000, may not be able to make contributions to traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and defined contribution plans under the proposed legislation. Individuals with large IRA balances may be required to withdraw funds from retirement plans, regardless of age. A minimum distribution may be an amount equal to 50% of the amount by which the combined IRA value is higher than the $10 million threshold.

Rules Change for Singles Too. A single person who doesn’t want to make a large gift and lose control and access may create and gift an exemption amount to a trust in a jurisdiction with “domestic asset protection trust” legislation and still be a beneficiary of such a trust. This trust must be fully funded before the new legislation is enacted, since once the law passes, such a trust will be includable in the person’s estate. Check with your estate planning attorney to see if your state allows this strategy.

Reference: Mondaq (Sep. 24. 2021) “Last Call for SLATs, GTRATs, and the Use of the Enhanced Gift Tax Exemption?”

Should You Put Your House in Your Child’s Name?

One of the ways families build wealth across generations is through home ownership. Parents who can afford to give a property to children who either sell the home and distribute profits or keep it in the family have a definite advantage over generations of renters. How to transfer the home is not always straightforward. A recent article from The Washington Post titled “Don’t put your kids on the title of your home. There’s a better way for them to inherit the property” explains how to do this.

In this article, the mother placed an adult child on the deed to a home purchased some five years ago. The mom wants to sell the house and buy a smaller one nearby. The adult child has never lived in the home. The mother wants to do an 80/20 split of profits from the sale, with the child receiving the majority amount. This would push the child into a higher tax bracket, although the child says she could use the income.

The mother, despite her good will, has made a classic estate planning mistake. Was she trying to avoid probate at death, or to give the child some or all of the property?

As the homeowner, the mother may exclude the first $250,000 in profits from federal income taxes, if she was the sole owner. If she were married, that number would be up to $500,000. However, she’s not the sole owner.

When a person dies, heirs inherit real estate at its current market value. If the home was purchased for $100,000 and its worth is $500,000 when the owner dies, a child who inherits the home outright and then sells it immediately will receive about $400,000 in profits. If the house was inherited after death and then sold shortly thereafter, the IRS would say the property value is $500,000.

If someone inherits a home worth $500,000 and then sells it for $500,000, there is no profit because of the stepped-up value of the home assigned at the time of the owner’s death. However, if the estate in total is worth less than $11.7 million, estate taxes are not a concern.

Here’s the twist: if the mother and child are co-owners of the home and the mother dies, the child inherits only one-half the value of the home (and receives the stepped-up basis for the half but won’t benefit from the stepped-up basis) If the child sells the home, they won’t pay taxes on the share inherited from the mother but would pay taxes on the child’s share of the home.

If the mom bought the house for $100,000 and the mother and child are co-owners, the child would inherit the mother’s half of the property at the stepped-up basis of $500,000. When the home was sold, the mother’s half is shielded from taxes, but the child’s profit is calculated based on the difference between the purchase and sales price, or $400,000, of which their share is $200,000. They would owe taxes on the $200,000, instead of inheriting the home tax-free.

There are many estate planning and real estate tax rules making this more complicated. However, one better alternative is for the mom to put the home in a living trust, so she controls the home while she is alive, and the child can inherit the home through the trust upon her death. Talk with an estate planning attorney about how to create a living trust and how it would work to benefit both of you.

Reference: The Washington Post (Oct. 20, 2021) “Don’t put your kids on the title of your home. There’s a better way for them to inherit the property.”

Will Inheritance and Gift Taxes Change in 2021?

Uncertainty is driving many wealth transfers, with gifting taking the lead for many wealthy families, reports the article “No More Gift Tax Exemption?” from Financial Advisor. For families who have already used up a large amount or even all of their exemptions, there are other strategies to consider.

Making gifts outright or through a trust is still possible, even if an individual or couple used all of their gift and generation skipping transfer tax exemptions. Gifts and generation skipping transfer tax exemption amounts are indexed for inflation, increasing to $11.7 million in 2021 from $11.58 million in 2020. Individuals have $120,000 additional gift and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions that can be used this year.

Annual exclusion gifts—individuals can make certain gifts up to $15,000 per recipient, and couples can give up to $30,000 per person. This does not count towards gift and estate tax exemptions.

Don’t forget about Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT) options. The GRAT is an irrevocable trust, where the grantor makes a gift of property to it, while retaining a right to an annual payment from the trust for a specific number of years. GRATS can also be used for concentrated positions and assets expected to appreciate that significantly reap a number of advantages.

A Sale to a Grantor Trust takes advantage of the differences between the income and transfer tax treatment of irrevocable trusts. The goal is to transfer anticipated appreciation of assets at a reduced gift tax cost. This may be timely for those who have funded a trust using their gift tax exemption, as this strategy usually requires funding of a trust before a sale.

Intra-family loans permit individuals to make loans to family members at lower rates than commercial lenders, without the loan being considered a gift. A family member can help another family member financially, without incurring additional gift tax. A bona fide creditor relationship, including interest payments, must be established.

It’s extremely important to work with a qualified estate planning attorney when implementing tax planning strategies, especially this year. Tax reform is on the horizon, but knowing exactly what the final changes will be, and whether they will be retroactive, is impossible to know. There are many additional techniques, from disclaimers, QTIPs and formula gifts, that an experienced estate planning attorney may consider when planning to protect a family legacy.

Reference: Financial Advisor (April 1, 2021) “No More Gift Tax Exemption?”

What Could Proposed Estate Tax Bill Mean to You?

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has released proposed legislation named “For the 99.5%” Act. If passed in its present form, the legislation would bring estate tax exemptions back to the 2009 thresholds of $3.5 million per individual and $7 million per married couple. Exemptions are currently $11.7 million and $23.4 million, as reported by Think Advisor in a recent article “Sen. Bernie Sanders Introduces Estate Tax Bill.”

Larger estates would also be subject to higher tax rates. The current 40% tax rate would be raised to 45% and taxable estates larger than $10 million would be taxed at 50%, amounts greater than $50 million at 55% and any estates valued at greater than $1 billion would be taxed at 65%.

The same rates would apply for all gift taxes, for which the threshold would be lowered to $1 million.

Sanders spoke at a Senate Budget Hearing committee, stating that his bill was designed to have the families of the “millionaire class not only not get a tax break but start paying their fair share of taxes.”

Another bill introduced by Sanders would prevent corporations from shifting profits offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes and restoring the top corporate rate to 35%, where it has been since 2016.

In contrast, Senators John Thune, South Dakota (R) and John Kennedy, Louisiana (R), introduced legislation in early March to repeal the estate tax entirely.

Frank Clemente, executive director for Americans for Tax Fairness, said the tax plan released by President Biden during his campaign also tracked the 2009 estate tax levels that are the basis of Sanders’ bill, but because of the higher tax brackets for larger estates, his group believes the Sanders bill would raise about twice as much revenue as the Biden plan.

History teaches us that there is a long distance between the time that a bill is introduced, and many changes are made as proposed legislation makes its way through the law-making process. In this case, it can be safely said that there will be changes to the tax and estate laws, and that may be the only sure thing.

Now is a good time to review your estate plan, if these federal estate changes will have an impact on your family’s wealth. Familiarity with your current estate plan and staying in touch with your estate planning attorney, who will also be watching what Congress does in the coming months, will allow you to be prepared for changes to the tax planning aspect of your estate plan in the near or distant future.

Reference: Think Advisor (March 25, 2021) “Sen. Bernie Sanders Introduces Estate Tax Bill”

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”

Should a GRAT Be Part of My Estate Plan?

A Grantor-Retained Annuity Trust, or GRAT, is funded by the grantor, the person who creates the trust, in exchange for a stream of annuity payments at a predetermined interest rate—the IRS Section 7520 rate. The interest rate in December 2020 is 0.6%, as reported in the article “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages” from Financial Advisor.

GRAT assets need only appreciate greater than the Section 7520 rate over the term of the trust, and any excess earnings will pass to beneficiaries, or to an ongoing trust for beneficiaries with no gift or estate tax.

Because the grantor takes back the amount equal to that which was transferred to the trust (often two or three years), which is set by the IRS when the trust is funded, future appreciation over and above the interest rate passes gift-tax free.

There’s little upkeep. Once the trust agreement is in place, a gift tax return needs to be filed once a year. If the trust is set up without a tax ID number, there’s no need to file an income tax return.

The grantor is responsible for the income generated by the asset in the GRAT, but that’s it. If the value of the property is increased following an audit, the gift won’t be increased but the annuity will. If the GRAT property decreases in value, the only out of pocket is the set-up costs.

Assets in a GRAT may be anything from an investment portfolio to shares in a closely held business.

Most GRATs are designed to have the value of the retained annuity be equal to the value of the property that is transferred to the GRAT. If the values are equal, then the amount of the gift for tax purposes is zero, since the value of the transfer less the annuity value is zero.

GRATs are not for everyone. The success of the GRAT depends upon the success of the underlying assets. If they don’t appreciate as expected, then there might not be a significant amount transferred out of the estate after paying for the legal, accounting and appraisal fees. If the grantor dies during the term of the GRAT before payments back to the grantor have ended, the GRAT will be unsuccessful.

Generation skipping transfers cannot utilize GRATS, since the generation skipping tax exemption may not be applied to a GRAT, until the grantor’s death.

Ask your estate planning attorney about whether a GRAT could benefit your family. If a GRAT is not a good fit, they will know about many other tools available.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 30, 2020) “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages”

Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate planning should be a business-like process, where people evaluate the assets they have accumulated over time and make clear decisions about how to leave their assets and legacy to those they love. The reality, as described in the article “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe,” from Kiplinger, is not so straightforward. Emotions take over, as does a feeling that time is running short, which is sometimes the case.

Reactive decisions rarely work as well in the short and long term as decisions made based on strategies that are set in place over time. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make, when creating an estate plan or revising one in response to life’s inevitable changes.

Estate plans are all about tax planning. Strategies to minimize taxes are part of estate planning, but they should not be the primary focus. Since the federal exemption is $11.58 million for 2020, and fewer than 3% of all taxpayers need to worry about paying a federal estate tax, there are other considerations to prioritize. If there is a family business, for example, what will happen to the business, especially if the children have no interest in keeping it? In this case, succession or exit planning needs to be a bigger part of the estate plan.

The children should get everything. This is a frequent response, but not always right. You may want to leave your descendants most of your estate, but ask yourself, could your lifetime’s work be put to use in another way? You don’t need to rush to an automatic answer. Give consideration to what you’d like your legacy to be. It may not only be enriching your children and grandchildren’s lives.

My children are very different, but it’s only fair that I leave equal amounts to all of them. Treating your children equally in your estate plan is a lot like treating them exactly the same way throughout their lives. One child may be self-motivated and need no academic help, while another needs tutoring just to maintain average grades. Another may be ready to step into your shoes at the family business, with great management and finance skills, but her sister wants nothing to do with the business. The same family includes offspring with different dreams, hopes, skills and abilities. Leaving everyone an equal share doesn’t always work.

Having a trust takes care of everything. Well, not exactly. In fact, if you neglect to fund a trust, your family may have a mess to deal with. A sizable estate may need revocable or irrevocable trusts, but an estate plan is more complicated than trust or no trust. First, when an asset is placed into an irrevocable trust, the grantor loses control of the asset and the trustee is in control. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, not the grantor of the trust. The beneficiaries include the current and future beneficiaries, so the trustee may have to answer to more than one generation of beneficiaries. Problems can arise when one family member has been named a trustee and their siblings are beneficiaries. Creating that dynamic among family members can create a legacy of distrust and jealousy.

My estate advisors are all working well with each other and looking out for me. In a perfect world, this would be true, but it doesn’t always happen. You have to take a proactive stance, contacting everyone and making sure they understand that you want them to cooperate and act as a team. With clear direction from you, your professional advisors will be able to achieve your goals.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 17, 2020) “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe”

Distributing Inherited Assets in Many Accounts

This generous individual may be facing a number of legal and logistical hurdles, before assets in eight separate accounts can be passed to three relatives, says the article “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts” from the Houston Chronicle. Does the heir need to speak with each of the investment companies? Would it make sense to combine all the assets into one account for the estate and then divide and distribute them from that one account?

If all the accounts were payable to this person upon the death of the brother, then the first thing is for the heir to contact each company and have all funds transferred to one account. It might be an already existing account in their name, or it may need to be a new account opened just for this purpose. The account could be at any of the brother’s investment firms, or it could be with a different firm.

If the accounts are not payable to the heir, but they are to be inherited as part of the brother’s estate, the estate must be probated before the funds can be claimed. In this case, it would be very helpful if the sole beneficiary is also the executor. This would put one person in charge of all of the work that needs to be done.

However, the person eventually will become the owner of all eight accounts. Once everything is in the heir’s name, then the assets can be distributed to the three relatives. There are some tax issues that must be addressed.

First, if the estate is large enough, it may owe federal estate taxes, which will diminish the size of the estate. The limit, if the brother died in 2020, is $11.58 million. If he died in an earlier year, the exemption will be considerably lower, and the estate and the executor may already be late in making federal tax payments. Penalties may apply, so a conversation with an estate planning attorney should take place as soon as possible.

If the brother lived in another state, there may be state estate or inheritance taxes owed to that state. While Texas does not have a state estate or inheritance tax, other states, like Pennsylvania, do. A consultation with an estate planning attorney can also answer this question.

When gifts are ultimately made to the three relatives, the first $15,000 given to each of them during a calendar year will be treated as a non-taxable gift. However, if any of the gifts exceed $15,000, the person will be using up their own $11.58 million exemption from gift and estate taxes. A gift tax return will need to be filed to report the gifts. If the heir is married, those numbers will likely double.

It may be possible to disclaim the inheritance, with the assets passing to the three relatives to whom the heir wishes to make these gifts. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to work through the details to determine the best way to proceed with receiving and distributing the assets. Depending upon the size of the estate, there will be tax consequences that must be considered.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (March 24, 2020) “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts”