Short-Cuts to Estate Planning can Lead to Costly Consequences

It seems like a simple way for the children to manage mom’s finances: add the grown children as owners to a bank account, brokerage account or make them joint owners of the home. However, these short-cut methods create all kinds of problems for the parent’s estate and the children themselves, says the article entitled “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price” from Florida Today.

By adding an adult child as owner to the account, the child is being given 50% ownership. The same is true if the child is added to the title for the home as joint owner. If there is more than $30,000 in the account or if the asset is valued at more than $30,000, then the mother needs to file a gift tax return—even if no gift tax is due. If the gift tax return is not filed in a timely manner, there might be a gift tax due in the future.

There is also a carryover basis in the account or property when the adult child is added as an owner. If it’s a bank account, the primary issue is the gift tax return. However, if the asset is a brokerage account or the parent’s primary residence, then the child steps into the parent’s shoes for 50% of the amount they bought the property for originally.

Here is an example: let’s say a parent is in her 80s and you are seeing that she is starting to slow down. You decide to take an easy route and have her add you to her bank account, brokerage account and the deed (or title) to the family home. If she becomes incapacitated or dies, you’ll own everything and you can make all the necessary decisions, including selling the house and using the funds for funeral expenses. It sounds easy and inexpensive, doesn’t it? It may be easy, but it’s not inexpensive.

Sadly, your mom dies. You need some cash to pay her final medical bills, cover the house expenses and maybe a few of your own bills. You sell some stock. After all, you own the account. It’s then time to file a tax return for the year when you sold the stock. When reporting the stock sale, your basis in the stock is 50% step-up in value based on the value of the stock the day that your mom died, plus 50% of what she originally paid for the stock.

If your mom bought the stock for $100 twenty years ago, and the stock is now worth $10,500, when you were added to the account, you now step into her shoes for 50% of the stock—$50. You sold the stock after she died, so your basis in that stock is now $5,050—that’s $5,000 value of stock when she died plus $50: 50% of the original purchase. Your taxable gain is $5,450.

How do you avoid this? If the ownership of the brokerage account remained solely with your mother, but you were a Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiary, you would not have access to the account if your mom became incapacitated and had appointed you as her “attorney in fact” on her general durable power of attorney. What would be the result? You would get a step-up in basis on the asset after she died. The inherited stock would have a basis of $10,000 and the taxable gain would be $500, not $5,450.

A better alternative—talk with an estate planning attorney to create a will, a revocable trust, a general durable power of attorney and the other legal documents used to transfer assets and minimize taxes. The estate planning attorney will be able to create a way for you to get access or transfer the property without negative tax consequences.

Reference: Florida Today (May 20, 2021) , “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price”

How Do You Keep Inheritance Money Separate?

Families with concerns about the durability of a child’s marriage are right to be concerned about protecting their children’s assets. For one family, where a mother wishes to give away all of her assets in the next year or two to her children and grandchildren, giving money directly to a son with an unstable marriage can be solved with the use of estate planning strategies, according to the article “Husband should keep inheritance in separate account” from The Reporter.

Everything a spouse earns while married is considered community property in most states. However, a gift or inheritance is usually considered separate property. If the gift or inheritance is not kept totally separate, that protection can be easily lost.

An inheritance or gift should not only be kept in a separate account from the spouse, but it should be kept at an entirely different financial institution. Since accounts within financial institutions are usually accessed online, it would be very easy for a spouse to gain access to an account, since they have likely already arranged for access to all accounts.

No other assets should be placed into this separate account, or the separation of the account will be lost and some or all of the inheritance or gift will be considered belonging to both spouses.

The legal burden of proof will be on the son in this case, if funds are commingled. He will have to prove what portion of the account should be his and his alone.

Here is another issue: if the son does not believe that his spouse is a problem and that there is no reason to keep the inheritance or gift separate, or if he is being pressured by the spouse to put the money into a joint account, he may need some help from a family member.

This “help” comes in the form of the mother putting his gift in an irrevocable trust.

If the mother decides to give away more than $15,000 to any one person in any one calendar year, she needs to file a gift tax return with her income tax returns the following year. However, her unified credit protects the first $11.7 million of her assets from any gift and estate taxes, so she does not have to pay any gift tax.

The mother should consider whether she expects to apply for Medicaid. If she is giving her money away before a serious illness occurs because she is concerned about needing to spend down her life savings for long term care, she should work with an elder law attorney. Giving money away in a lump sum would make her ineligible for Medicaid for at least five years in most states.

The best solution is for the mother to meet with an estate planning attorney who can work with her to determine the best way to protect her gift to her son and protect her assets if she expects to need long term care.

People often attempt to find simple workarounds to complex estate planning issues, and these DIY solutions usually backfire. It is smarter to speak with an experienced elder law attorney, who can help the mother and protect the son from making an expensive and stressful mistake.

Reference: The Reporter (Dec. 20, 2020) “Husband should keep inheritance in separate account”

Do It Yourself Wills Go Wrong–Fast

What happens when a well-meaning person decides to create a will, after reading information from various sources on the internet? There’s no end of problems, as described in the Glen Rose Reporter’s article “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry.”

The woman started her plan by deeding her home to her three children, retaining a life estate for herself.

By doing so, she has eliminated the possibility of either selling the house or taking out a reverse mortgage on the home, if she ever needs to tap its equity.

Since she is neither an estate planning attorney nor an accountant, she missed the tax issue completely.

By deeding the house, the transfer has caused a taxable transaction. Therefore, she needs to file a gift tax return because of it. At the same time, her life estate diminishes the value of the gift, and her estate is not large enough to require her to actually pay any tax.

She was puzzled to learn this, since there wasn’t any tax when her husband died and left his share of the house to her. That’s because the transfer of community property between spouses is not a taxable event.

However, that wasn’t the only tax issue to consider. When the house passed to her from her husband, she got a stepped-up basis, meaning that since the house had appreciated in value since she bought it, she only had to pay taxes on the difference in the increased value at the time of her husband’s death and what she sold the property for.

By transferring the house to the children, they don’t get a stepped-up basis. This doesn’t apply to a gift made during one’s lifetime. When the children get ready to sell the home, the basis will be the value that was established at the time of her husband’s death, even if the property increased in value by the time of the mother’s death. The children will have to pay tax on the difference between that value, which is likely to be quite lower, and the sale price of the house.

There are many overlapping issues that go into creating an estate plan. The average person who doesn’t handle estate planning on a regular basis (and even an attorney who does not handle estate planning on a regular basis), doesn’t know how one fact can impact another.

Sitting down with an estate planning attorney, who understands the tax issues surrounding estate planning, gifting, real estate, and inheritances, will protect the value of the assets being passed to the next generation and protect the family. It’s money well spent.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (September 17, 2019) “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry”