Do Most People Need a Living Trust?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?

Avoiding the costs and extensive time needed to settle an estate through probate is one reason people like to use trusts in estate planning. This type of trust allows you to designate a trustee to manage the assets in the trust after you have passed.  This is especially important if heirs are minor children or adults who cannot manage a large inheritance. A living trust, as explained in the article titled “The Lowdown on Living Trusts” from Kiplinger, has additional benefits. However, there are some pitfalls to be cautious about, especially concerning transferring assets.

Certain assets do not belong in a living trust. Regardless of their size, some assets should never be placed in a living trust, including IRAs, 401(k)s, tax deferred annuities, health savings accounts, and medical savings accounts and others .

Placing these assets in a trust requires changing the ownership on the accounts. Don’t do it! The IRS will treat the transfer as a distribution. You will be required to pay income taxes and penalties, if any are triggered, on the entire value of the account.

You may be able to make the trust a beneficiary of the retirement accounts. However, it is not appropriate for everyone. Changes to IRA distribution rules from the SECURE Act may make this a dangerous move, since the trustee may be required to empty the IRA within ten years of your death.

For practical purposes, assets like cars, boats or motorcycles do not belong in a trust. To transfer ownership to the trust, you will need to retitle them. This would result in fees and taxes. You would also have to change the insurance, since the insurance company may not cover assets owned by trusts. The cost may outweigh the benefits.

Assets belonging in a trust include real estate, especially your primary residence. Placing your home in a trust will minimize the hassle of transferring the home to heirs, if this is your plan. If you own property in another state, transferring the title to a living trust allows your estate to avoid probate in more than one state. Remember to get a new deed to transfer ownership to the trust. If you refinance or take a home equity line of credit, you may need to transfer the property out of the trust and into your name to get the loan. You will then need to transfer the property back into the trust.

Financial assets can be placed in a trust. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, money market funds, bank savings accounts and even safe deposit boxes can be placed in a trust. There may be a lot of paperwork, and in some cases, you may need to open a new account in the name of the trust.

Once the trust has been created, do not neglect to fund it by transferring assets. Retitling assets requires attention to detail to make sure all of the desired assets have been retitled. The trust needs to be reviewed every few years, just as your estate plan needs to be reviewed. Be sure to have a secondary trustee named, if you are the primary trustee.

Trusts are an excellent option if you live in a state where probate is onerous and expensive. Assets placed in the trust can be distributed with a high degree of specificity, which also provides great peace of mind. If you believe your oldest son will benefit from receiving a large inheritance when he is 40 and not 30, you can do so through a trust. The level of control, avoidance of probate and protection of assets makes the living trust a powerful estate planning tool.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 24, 2022) “The Lowdown on Living Trusts”

What Can I Do Instead of a Stretch IRA?

The idea of leaving a large inheritance to loved ones is a dream for some parents. However, without careful planning, heirs may end up with a large tax bill. When Congress passed the SECURE Act in December 2019, one of the changes was the end of the stretch IRA, as reported by Kiplinger in a recent article titled “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block.”

Before the SECURE Act, people who inherited traditional IRAs needed to only take a minimum distribution annually, based on their own life expectancy. The money could grow tax-deferred for the rest of their lives. The tax impact was mild, because withdrawals could be spread out over many years, giving the new owner control over their taxable income. The rules were the same for an inherited Roth IRA. Distributions were based on the heirs’ life expectancy. Roth IRA heirs had the added benefit of not having to pay taxes on withdrawals, since Roth IRAs are funded with post-tax dollars.

After the SECURE Act, inherited traditional and Roth IRAs need to be emptied within ten years. Heirs can wait until the 10th year and empty the account all at once—and end up with a whopping tax bill—or take it out incrementally. However, it has to be emptied within ten years.

There are some exceptions: spouses, disabled or chronically ill individuals, or those who are not more than ten years younger than the original owner can stretch out the distribution of the IRA funds. If an underage minor inherits a traditional IRA, they can stretch it until they reach legal age. At that point, they have to withdraw all the funds in ten years—from age 18 to 28. This may not be the best time for a young person to have access to a large inheritance.

These changes have left many IRA owners looking for alternative ways to leave inheritances and find a work-around for their IRAs to protect their heirs from losing their inheritance to taxes or getting their inheritance at a young age.

For many, the solution is converting their traditional IRA to a Roth, where the IRA owner pays the taxes for their heirs. The strategy is generous and may be more tax efficient if the conversion is done during a time in retirement when the IRA owner’s income is lower, and they may be in a lower tax bracket. The average person receiving an IRA inheritance is around 50, typically peak earning years and the worst time to inherit a taxable asset.

Another way to avoid the stretch IRA is life insurance. Distributions from the IRA can be used to pay premiums on a life insurance policy, with beneficiaries receiving death benefits. The proceeds from the policy are tax-free, although the proceeds are considered part of the policy owner’s estate. With the current federal exemption at $12.06 million for individuals, the state estate tax is the only thing most people will need to worry about.

A Charitable Remainder Trust can also be used to mimic a stretch IRA. A CRT is an irrevocable split-interest trust, providing income to the grantor and designated beneficiaries for up to twenty years or the lifetime of the beneficiaries. Any remaining assets are donated to charity, which must receive at least 10% of the trust’s initial value. If the CRT is named as the IRA beneficiary, the IRA funds are distributed to the CRT upon the owner’s death and the estate gets a charitable estate tax deduction (and not an income tax deduction) for the portion expected to go to the charity. Assets grow within the charitable trust, which pays out a set percentage to beneficiaries each year. The distributions are taxable income for the beneficiaries. There are two types of CRTs: Charitable Remainder Unitrust and a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust. An estate planning attorney will know which one is best suited for your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 3, 2022) “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block”

Do You Have to Pay Taxes on Inherited IRAs?

If you’ve inherited an IRA, you won’t have to pay a penalty on early withdrawals if you take money out before age 59½. However, you may have to make those withdrawals earlier than you’d wanted. Doing so may trigger additional income taxes, and even push you into a higher tax bracket. The IRA has always been a complicated retirement account. While changes from the SECURE Act have simplified some things, it’s made others more stringent.

A recent article titled “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?” from Aol.com explains how the traditional IRA allows tax-deductible contributions to be made to the account during your working life. If the IRA includes investments, they grow tax—free. Taxes aren’t due on contributions or earnings, until you make withdrawals during retirement.

A Roth IRA is different. You fund the Roth IRA with after-tax dollars, earnings grow tax free and there are no taxes on withdrawals.

With a traditional inherited IRA, distributions are taxable at the beneficiary’s ordinary income tax rate. If the withdrawals are large, the taxes will be large also—and could push you into a higher income tax bracket.

If your spouse passes and you inherit the IRA, you may take ownership of it. It is treated as if it were your own. Howwever, if you inherited a traditional IRA from a parent, you have just ten years to empty the entire account and taxes must be paid on withdrawals.

There are exceptions. If the beneficiary is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child, or ten years younger than the original owner, you may treat the IRA as if it is your own and wait to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) at age 72.

Inheriting a Roth IRA is different. Funds are generally considered tax free, as long as they are considered “qualified distributions.” This means they have been in the account for at least five years, including the time the original owner was alive. If they don’t meet these requirements, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. Your estate planning attorney will know whether the Roth IRA meets these requirements.

If at all possible, always avoid immediately taking a single lump sum from an IRA. Wait until the RMDs are required. If you inherited an IRA from a non-spouse, use the ten years to stretch out the distributions.

If you need to empty the account in ten years, you don’t have to withdraw equal amounts. If your income varies, take a larger withdrawal when your income is lower and take a bigger withdrawal when your income is higher. This can result in a lower overall tax liability.

If you’ve inherited a Roth IRA and funds were deposited less than five years ago, wait to take those funds out for at least five years. When the five years have elapsed, withdrawals will be treated as tax-free distributions.

One of the best ways for heirs to avoid paying taxes on an IRA is for the original owner, while still living, to convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, paying taxes on contributions and earnings. This reduces the taxes paid if the owner is in a lower tax bracket than beneficiaries, and lets the beneficiaries withdraw funds as they want with no income tax burden.

Reference: Aol.com (Feb. 25, 2022) “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?”

How Do I File Taxes on a CARES 401(k) Withdrawal?
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act Badges: Pile of CARES Act Buttons With US Flag, 3d illustration

How Do I File Taxes on a CARES 401(k) Withdrawal?

Several bills were passed by Congress to ease financial challenges for Americans during the pandemic. One of the provisions of the CARES Act was to allow workers to withdraw up to $100,000 from their company sponsored 401(k) plan or IRA account in 2020. This is a big departure from the usual rules, says an article from U.S. News & World Report titled “How to Avoid Taxes on Your CARES Act Retirement Withdrawal.”

Normally, a withdrawal from either of these accounts would incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty, but the CARES Act waives the penalty for 2020. However, income tax still needs to be paid on the withdrawal. There are a few options for delaying or minimizing the resulting tax bill.

Here are three key rules you need to know:

  • The penalties on early withdrawals were waived, but not the taxes.
  • The taxes may be paid out over a period of three years.
  • If the taxes are paid and then the taxpayer is able to put the funds back into the account, they can file an amended tax return.

It’s wise to take advantage of that three-year repayment window. If you can put the money back within that three-year time period, you might be able to avoid paying taxes on it altogether. If you are in a cash crunch, you can take the full amount of time and repay the money next year, or the year after.

For instance, if you took out $30,000, you could repay $10,000 a year for 2020, 2021, and 2022. You could also repay all $30,000 by year three. Any repayment schedule can be used, as long as all of the taxes have been paid or all of the money is returned to your retirement account by the end of the third year period.

If you pay taxes on the withdrawal and return the money to your account later, there is also the option to file an amended tax return, as long as you put the money back into the same account by 2022. The best option, if you can manage it, is to put the money back into your retirement account as soon as possible, so your retirement savings has more time to grow. Eliminating the tax bill and re-building retirement savings is the best of all possible options, if your situation permits it.

If you lost your job or had a steep income reduction, it may be best to take the tax hit in the year that your income tax levels are lower. Let’s say your annual salary is $60,000, but you were furloughed in March and didn’t receive any salary for the rest of the year. It’s likely that you are in a lower income tax bracket. If you took $15,000 from your 401(k), you might need to pay a 12% tax rate, instead of the 22% you might owe in a higher income year.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 23, 2021) “How to Avoid Taxes on Your CARES Act Retirement Withdrawal”

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?”

Are You Making the Most of the SECURE and CARES Acts?
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act: Letter Tiles CARES Act On US Flag, 3d illustration

Are You Making the Most of the SECURE and CARES Acts?

The SECURE Act made a number of changes to IRAs, effective January 1, 2020. It was followed by the CARES Act, effective March 27, 2020, which brought even more changes. A recent article from the Milwaukee Business Journal, titled “IRA planning tips for changes associated with the SECURE and CARES acts,” explains what account owners need to know.

Setting Every Community Up for Retirement (SECURE) Act

The age when you have to take your RMD increased from 70½ to 72, if you turned 70½ on or before December 31, 2019. Younger than 70½ before 2020? You still must take your RMDs. But, if you can, consider deferring any distributions from your RMD, until you must. This gives your IRA a chance to rebound, rather than locking in any losses from the current market.

Beneficiary rules changed. The “stretch” feature of the IRA was eliminated. Any non-spousal beneficiary of an IRA owner who dies after Dec. 31, 2019, must take the entire amount of the IRA within 10 years after the date of death. The exceptions are those who fall into the “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” category. That includes the surviving spouse, a child under age 18, a disabled or chronically ill beneficiary, or a beneficiary who is not more than ten years younger than the IRA owner. The Eligible Designated Beneficiary can take distributions over their life expectancy, starting in the year after the death of the IRA holder. If your estate plan intended any IRA to be paid to a trust, the trust may include a “conduit IRA” provision. This may not work under the new rules. Talk with your estate planning attorney.

IRA contributions can be made at any age, as long as there is earned income. If you have earned income and are 70 or 71, consider continuing to contribute to a Roth IRA. These assets grow tax free and qualified withdrawals are also tax free. If you plan on making Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD), you’ll be able to use that contribution (up to $100,000 per year) from the IRA to offset any RMDs for the year and not be treated as a taxable distribution.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act

The deadline for contributions for traditional or Roth IRAs this year is July 15, 2020. The 2019 limit is $6,000 if you are younger than 50 and $7,000 if you are 50 and older.

RMDs have been waived for 2020. This applies to life expectancy payments. It may be possible to “undo” an RMD, if it meets these qualifications:

  • The RMD must have been taken between February 1—May 15 and must be recontributed or rolled over prior to July 15.
  • RMDs taken in January or after May 15 are not eligible.
  • Only one rollover per person is permitted within the last 12 months.
  • Life expectancy payments may not be rolled over.

Individuals impacted by coronavirus may be permitted to take out $100,000 from an IRA with no penalties. They are eligible if they have:

  • Been diagnosed with SARS-Cov-2 or COVID-19
  • A spouse or dependent has been diagnosed
  • Have experienced adverse consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed or laid off or having work hours reduced due to the virus, are unable to work because of a lack of child care, closed or reduced hours of a business owned or operated by the individual or due to other factors, as determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.
  • Note that these distributions are still taxable, but the income taxes can be spread ratably over a three-year period and are not subject to the 10% early distribution penalty.

Keep careful records, as it is not yet known how any of these distributions/redistributions will be accounted for through tax reporting.

Reference: Milwaukee Business Journal (June 1, 2020) “IRA planning tips for changes associated with the SECURE and CARES acts”

Will Your Estate Plan Work Now?

The demise of the stretch IRA is causing many IRA owners and their advisors to take a look at how their estate plans will work under the new law. An article from Financial Advisor titled “Navigating The New Estate Planning Realities” offers several different planning alternatives.

Take larger IRA distributions during your lifetime. If possible, take the IRA distributions and reinvest them in a Roth IRA or other assets that will receive a stepped-up income tax basis on the death of the account owner. The idea is to take out significant additional penalty-free amounts from IRAs during your lifetime, so you will hopefully be taxed at a lower rate than you would be otherwise, with the net after-tax funds then reinvested in either a Roth IRA or other assets that will receive a stepped-up income tax basis when you die.

Paying all or part of the IRA portion of the estate to lower-income tax bracket beneficiaries. The theory here is that if we have to learn to live with the new tax law, at least we can attempt to minimize the tax pain by doing estate planning with a focus on tax planning. If a person has four children, two in high-income tax brackets and two who are in lower tax brackets, leave the IRA portion of the assets to the children in the lower tax brackets and assets with a stepped-up basis to the higher earners.

Withdrawing additional funds early and using the after-tax amount to purchase income-tax-free life or long-term care insurance. Rather than withdrawing all of the IRA funds early, freeze the current value of the IRA, by withdrawing only the account growth or the RMD portion, whichever is greater. Note that this won’t work if the withdrawals push the person’s income into the next higher tax bracket. All or a portion of the after-tax withdrawals then go into an income-tax-free life insurance policy, including second-to-die life insurance that pays only upon the death of both spouses.

Paying IRA benefits to an income tax-exempt charitable remainder trust. This involves designating an income-tax exempt charitable remainder trust as the beneficiary of the IRA proceeds. Let’s say a $100,000 IRA is made payable to a charitable remainder unitrust that pays three adult children or their survivors 7.5% of the value of the trust corpus (determined annually) each year, until the last child dies. Assume this occurs over the course of 30 years, and that the trust grows at the same 7.5% rate for the next twenty years. The children would net nearly $400,000. Note that the principal of the trust may not be accessed, until it’s paid out to the children, according to the designated schedule.

Every situation is different, so it is important to sit down with your estate planning attorney and review your entire estate, tax liabilities under the new law and how different scenarios will work to both minimize taxes during your lifetime and for your heirs. It’s possible that your situation benefits from a combination of all four strategies.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Feb. 11, 2020) “Navigating The New Estate Planning Realities,”

How Much Control from the Grave Can Parents Have?

Parents who want to protect their home from being sold by heirs can do so by way of a dynasty trust, but it gets complicated, explains the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s article “Not a good idea to keep home in ‘dynasty trust.’” Every situation is different, so every family considering this strategy should meet with an estate planning attorney to learn if this is a solution or an added complication.

Why would the parents want to make their children’s lives complicated? Perhaps they think the children are likely to end up in a bad situation, and they are attempting to provide a safe landing for what they believe is inevitable. Or they simply cannot manage the idea, that one day the house won’t be part of the family.

The house can be protected from a sale, through the use of a revocable trust. Instead of distributing the home in equal shares among their children, along with all of their other assets, the house can be put in the trust and their trust can continue after their deaths. The trust can include any restrictions they want, with respect to how they want the home to be maintained after their deaths.

They can even put their home into a dynasty trust. Done correctly, a dynasty trust can hold the property for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. However, there are some issues.

First, if the home is held in trust, it means that the trust must be funded, since there will be expenses for the home, including maintenance and upkeep. Unless the home is used as a rental property, there won’t be any income to pay for these expenses. The parents will need to leave a significant amount of assets in the trust, so that big and small items can be paid for, or the children may be charged with paying for the expenses.

Next is the problem of capital gains taxes. When the parents pass, the home receives a stepped-up cost basis. That means that when the property is eventually sold, the amount of capital gains tax and in this case, California income tax due, will be based on the increase of the value of the property since the surviving spouses’ date of death.

If the home is held in trust until all of the siblings have died, the value of the house will likely have increased dramatically. Where is the money to pay the taxes coming from? Will the house need to be sold to pay the tax?

What if one of the children decides to move into the house and lets it get run down? The other two siblings may never receive their inheritance. There are so many different ways that this could lead to an endless series of family disputes.

Keeping a “spare” house may not be realistic. It may force the children to become rental property managers when they don’t want to. It may exhaust their finances. In other words, it may become a family burden, and not a place of refuge.

Talk with an estate planning attorney. It may be far better to distribute the home outright to the children along with other assets and let them decide what the best way forward will be.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (December 1, 2019) “Not a good idea to keep home in ‘dynasty trust.’”