How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

Parents with disabled children worry about how their offspring will manage when parents are no longer able to care for them. Leaving money directly to a child receiving means-tested government benefits, like Social Security Supplemental Income or Medicaid, could make them ineligible for these programs, explains an article from Kiplinger titled “Estate Planning: A Special Trust for a Special Need.” In most states, beneficiaries of either program are only allowed to have a few thousand dollars in assets, with the specific amount varying by state. However, the financial support from government programs only goes so far. Many families opt to have their own family member with special needs live at home, since the benefit amount is rarely enough.

The solution is a Special Needs Trust, which provides financial support for a disabled individual. The SNT owns the assets, not the individual. Therefore, the assets are excluded from asset limit tests. The funds in the trust can be used to enhance quality of life, such as a cell phone, a vacation or a private room in a group living facility. The SNT is a means of making sure that a vulnerable family member receives the money and other relatives, such as a sibling, don’t have a financial burden.

SNTs can only be created for those who are younger than age 65 and are meant for individuals with a mental or physical disability so severe they cannot work and require ongoing support from government agencies. A disabled person who can and does work isn’t eligible to receive government support and isn’t eligible for an SNT, although an estate planning attorney will be able to create a trust for this scenario also.

Each state has its own guidelines for SNTs, with some requiring a verification from a medical professional. There are challenges along the way. A child with autism may grow up to be an adult who can work and hold a job, for instance. However, estate planning attorneys recommend setting up the SNT just in case. If your family member qualifies, it will be there for their benefit. If they do not, it will operate as an ordinary trust and give the person the income according to your instructions.

SNTs require a trustee and successor trustee to be responsible for managing the trust and distributing assets. The beneficiary may not have the ability to direct distributions from the trust. The language of the trust must state explicitly the trustee has sole discretion in making distributions.

Because every state has its own system for administering disability benefits, the estate planning attorney will tailor the trust to meet the state’s requirements. The SNT also must be reported to the state. If the beneficiary moves to another state, the SNT may be subjected to two different sets of laws and the trustee will need to confirm the trust meets both state’s requirements.

SNTs operate as pass-through entities. Tax treatment favors ongoing distributions to beneficiaries. Any earned investment income goes to the beneficiary in the same year, with distributions taxed at the beneficiaries’ income tax rate. Trust assets may be used to pay for the tax bill.

As long as all annual income from the trust is distributed in a given year, the trust will not owe any tax. However, a return must be filed to report income. For any undistributed annual investment income, the trust is taxed at one of four levels of tax rates. These range from 10% and can go as high as 37%, depending on the trust income.

An SNT can be named as the beneficiary of a traditional IRA on the death of the parent. Investments grow tax deferred, as long as they remain in the retirement account and the SNT collects the required minimum distributions for the retirement account each year, with the money passing as income. However, any undistributed amount of the required distribution will be taxed at the trust’s highest tax rate.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 8, 2022) “Estate Planning: A Special Trust for a Special Need”

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

Just What Is in an Estate Plan?

Getting your affairs in order may not be on anyone’s top ten fun list for a weekend. However, once it is done, you can relax, knowing your loved ones will be cared for. Is estate planning more or less painful than doing taxes once a year? The answer depends on who you ask, but a recent article titled “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order” from South Florida Reporter breaks it down into easy-to-manage steps.

A last will and testament outlines how your assets will be distributed after your death. They include personal property, real estate, bank accounts, etc. You can name a guardian for minor children, and name an executor, the person who will be in charge of managing your estate.

Proof of identity. Your executor will need information including a valid birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage or divorce certificates, a prenuptial agreement, or military service discharge papers.

Digital asset information. With so much of our lives lived online, everyone needs a digital vault, an integrated password manager or some kind of system for managing your digital assets. Without this, your traditional and digital assets are vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Property deeds and titles. You have titles for cars, homes, or real estate property. They need to be gathered and kept in a safe place, then one or two highly trusted individuals need to be told where these documents are located.

Revocable living trust. Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney can help loved ones avoid the time and cost of having your estate go through probate. The trust creates a legal entity allowing you to control property while you are alive but preparing for the future. If you are living and become incapacitated, the successor trustee controls the assets owned by the trust.

Debts. These do not disappear when you die. Your executor will need to know what debts exist because they will need to address them. Compile a list of your debts, which may include mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans and student loans. Add contact information for the lender, account number, login information and approximate amount of the debt. If you have credit cards you rarely use, include those also, so they can be closed out before identity theft occurs.

Non-Probate Assets and Beneficiaries. Assets with named beneficiary designations can be transferred directly to beneficiaries. However, this does not happen automatically. Your executor will need to provide beneficiaries with the information for the assets, including the name of the insurance company or financial institution, the location of policies, account numbers and the value of the asset. The beneficiary may need to provide a death certificate and identification information before the assets are released.

Financial information. Let your executor skip the scavenger hunt. Create a detailed list information including bank accounts, car insurance, credit cards, health, home and life insurance, pension plans, retirement plans and tax returns.

Advanced Health Care Directive. This document is an opportunity for you to tell health care providers how you want medical decisions to be made, if you cannot communicate your wishes. The AHCD typically has two parts: Health Care Power of Attorney (also known as a health care proxy) and a living will.

The Living Will outlines your wishes, if you are unable to communicate. It describes your preferences for end-of-life requests, medications, resuscitation, surgeries, or other invasive procedures.

Power of Attorney is a document to give someone else the power to act on your behalf regarding financial and legal affairs. The scope of power can be as broad as managing everything or limited to selling your classic car collection. Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify what responsibilities you wish to give in a POA.

Funeral Wishes. If you want to save your family a lot of stress during a very difficult time, outline what you would want to happen. Do you want a cremation or embalming and burial? Should it be a full-on faith-based memorial service, or a few poems read at graveside? Make sure that your wishes are communicated and shared with loved ones, so everyone knows what you want.

Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney. Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put all of this information in the appropriate legal documents. They may have recommendations for options that you may not know about.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (April 2, 2022) “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order”

How Does a Trust Fund Work?

To maximize the benefits of a trust fund, you’ll need to understand how trusts funds work and how to create a trust fund the right way, advises this recent article from Yahoo! Money titled “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way.” You don’t have to be a millionaire to start a trust fund, by the way. “Regular” people benefit just as much as millionaires from using trusts to protect assets and minimize taxes.

A trust fund is an independent legal entity created to own assets and ensure money and property are used to benefit loved ones. They are commonly used to transfer assets to family members.

Trust funds are created by grantors, the person who sets up the trust and transfers money or assets into it. An experienced estate planning attorney will be essential, since creating a trust is not like going to the bank and opening an account. You need the assistance of a professional who can create a trust to reflect your wishes and comply with your state’s laws.

When assets are moved into a trust, the trust becomes the legal owner of the property. Part of creating the trust is naming a trustee, who manages the trust and is legally bound to follow the wishes of the trust following the grantor’s wishes. A successor trustee should always be named, in case the primary trustee becomes unwilling to serve or dies.

Subject to compliance with specific requirements, assets owned by an irrevocable trust are not countable towards Medicaid, if someone in the family needs long-term care and is concerned about qualifying. Any transfer must be done at least five years in advance of applying for Medicaid. An elder law attorney can help in preparation for this application and to ensure eligibility. This is a very complex area of law. Do not attempt it alone without the assistance of an elder law attorney.

Trusts can have a long or short life. Some trusts are held for a child until the child reaches age 25, while others are structured to distribute a portion of the assets throughout the beneficiary’s lifetime or when the beneficiary reaches certain milestones, such as finishing college, starting a family, etc.

A revocable trust allows the grantor to have the most control over the assets in the trust, but at a cost. The revocable trust may be changed at any time, and property can be moved in and out of it. However, the assets are available to creditors and are countable towards long-term care because they are in the control of the grantor.

The irrevocable trust requires the grantor to give up control, in exchange for the benefits the trust provides.

There are as many types of trusts as there are situations for trusts. Charitable Remainder Trusts reduce estate taxes and allow beneficiaries to receive an income stream for a designated period of time, at the end of which the remainder of the trust’s assets go to the charity. Special Needs Trusts are created for disabled persons who are receiving means-tested government benefits. There are strict rules about SNTs, so speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that your loved one continues to be eligible, if you want them to receive assets from you.

Trusts are often used so assets will pass through the trust and not through the probate process. Assets owned by a trust pass directly to beneficiaries and information about the assets does not become part of the public record, which is part of what occurs during the probate process.

Your estate planning attorney will help ensure your trusts are appropriate for your situation, achieve your specific wishes and are in compliance with your state’s laws. A boilerplate template could present more problems than it solves. For trusts, the experienced professional is the best option.

Reference: Yahoo! Money (March 18, 2022) “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way”

What Legal Terms in Estate Planning do Non-Lawyers Need to Know?

Having a working knowledge of the legal terms used in estate planning is the first step in working successfully with an estate planning attorney, says a recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise. Two of those key words:

Principal—the individual on whose behalf documents are prepared, and

Fiduciary—the person who signs some of these documents and who is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the principal and the estate.

In estate planning and in business, the fiduciary is the person or business who must act responsibly and in good faith towards the person and their property. You’ll see this term in almost every estate planning or financial document.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: beneficiary, conservator, executor, grantor, guardian, testator, and trustee are some of the more commonly used terms for the roles people take.

The testator is the principal, the person who signs the will and on whose behalf the will was drafted.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate after death. Contingent beneficiaries are “back-up” beneficiaries, in case the beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance. In most wills, the beneficiaries are listed “or to descendants, per stirpes.” This means if the beneficiary dies before the testator, the beneficiary’s children receive the original beneficiary’s share.

In most cases, specific distributions are made first, where a specific asset or amount of money goes to a specific person. This includes charitable donations. After all specific distributions are made, the rest of the estate, referred to as the “residuary estate,” is distributed. This includes everything else in the probate estate.

The administrator or executor is the fiduciary charged with gathering assets, paying bills and making the distribution to beneficiaries. The executor is the term used when there is a will. If there is no will, the person in the role is referred to as the administrator and may be appointed by the court.

If a beneficiary is unable to take the inheritance because they are a minor or incapacitated, the court will appoint a conservator to act as fiduciary on behalf of the beneficiary.

A guardian is the person who takes care of the beneficiary, or minor children, and is named in the will. If there is no guardian named in the will, or if there is no will, a court will appoint a person to be the guardian. Judges do not always select family members to serve as guardians, so there should always be a secondary guardian, in case the first cannot serve. If the first guardian does not wish to serve or is unable to, naming a secondary guardian is better than a child being sent to foster care.

Finally, the trustee is the person in charge of a trust. The person who creates the trust is the grantor or settlor. It’s important to note the executor has no control or input over the trust. Only the trustee or successor trustee may make distributions and they are the trust’s fiduciary.

Getting comfortable with the terms of estate planning will make the process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

Why Should I Name a Beneficiary?
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Why Should I Name a Beneficiary?

For five years, Lewis, who was also trustee of the trust, distributed funds to Vivian, his daughter in law. However, shortly after Lewis passed away, Clark and Vivian divorced. Clark married Sophia, and the problems began, according to the article “Which spouse gets the benefit?” from Glen Rose Reporter.

As a successor trustee, Clark started making the annual distributions from the trust to his new spouse, Sophia, who was his beneficiary. Vivian filed suit, claiming these funds were intended for her. However, the trust directions only said, “his son’s spouse.” Did the phrase mean a particular person or the person who was Clark’s spouse? What did Lewis want to happen to the funds? For obvious reasons, his wishes could not be determined.

This fact pattern is from a real case, Ochse v. Ochse, filed in San Antonio, Texas. The trial court determined that Lewis’ wish was to benefit his son’s ex-spouse, who was his daughter-in-law when the trust was confirmed. An appellate court affirmed the decision.

Was the length of the first marriage part of the court’s decision? Clark had been married to Vivian for thirty years, which is likely to have been a part of the father’s decision. Clark had only been married to his second wife for seven years.

What if the father was alive and able to declare his intentions? It might not have made a difference. The court in this case found the term “son’s spouse” to unambiguously mean the spouse at the time the trust was created.

When a term is found to be unambiguous, there’s no evidence to question its meaning. So even if Lewis were alive and well, the court would not have let his intention be heard.

This kind of situation is seen often when a life insurance policy is left to a first spouse, the couple divorces and the beneficiary on the policy was never updated. Most of the time, the ex-spouse receives the proceeds from the life insurance.

In the case of Ochse v. Ochse, the matter would have been simplified if Lewis had named his daughter-in-law by name as the beneficiary of the trust. Clark might still have tried to change the terms, but it would have been clear who the intended beneficiary was.

No one likes to imagine their children divorcing, especially when the parents have a good relationship with the daughter or son-in-law. However, this needs to be taken into consideration when naming beneficiaries. If you adore your daughter-in-law and want her to receive an inheritance from you, then make sure to name her as a beneficiary. If you are concerned the marriage may not last, talk with an estate planning attorney about creating a trust to protect inheritances from being lost in a divorce.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Dec. 17, 2021) “Which spouse gets the benefit?”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

Checklist for Estate Plan’s Success

We know why estate planning for your assets, family and legacy falls through the cracks. It’s not the thing a new parent wants to think about while cuddling a newborn, or a grandparent wants to think about as they prepare for a family get-together. However, this is an important thing to take care of, advises a recent article from Kiplinger titled “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every four years, or every time a trigger event occurs—birth, death, marriage, divorce, relocation—the estate plan needs to be reviewed. Reviewing an estate plan is a relatively straightforward matter and neglecting it could lead to undoing strategic tax plans and unnecessary costs.

Moving to a new state? Estate laws are different from state to state, so what works in one state may not be considered valid in another. You’ll also want to update your address, and make sure that family and advisors know where your last will can be found in your new home.

Changes in the law. The last five years have seen an inordinate number of changes to laws that impact retirement accounts and taxes. One big example is the SECURE Act, which eliminated the Stretch IRA, requiring heirs to empty inherited IRA accounts in ten years, instead of over their lifetimes. A strategy that worked great a few years ago no longer works. However, there are other means of protecting your heirs and retirement accounts.

Do you have a Power of Attorney? A POA gives a person you authorize the ability to manage your financial, business, personal and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. If the POA is old, a bank or investment company may balk at allowing your representative to act on your behalf. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date and the person you named is still the person you want. If you need to make a change, it’s very important that you put it in writing and notify the proper parties.

Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be updated as well. Marriage does not automatically authorize your spouse to speak with doctors, obtain medical records or make medical decisions on your behalf. If you have strong opinions about what procedures you do and do not want, the Health Care POA can document your wishes.

Last Will and Testament is Essential. Your last will needs regular review throughout your lifetime. Has the person you named as an executor four years ago remained in your life, or moved to another state? A last will also names an executor for your property and a guardian for minor children. It also needs to have trust provisions to pay for your children’s upbringing and to protect their inheritance.

Speaking of Trusts. If your estate plan includes trusts, review trustee and successor appointments to be sure they are still appropriate. You should also check on estate and inheritance taxes to ensure that the estate will be able to cover these costs. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee is still ready and able to carry out the duties, including administration, management and tax returns.

Gifting in the Estate Plan. Laws concerning charitable giving also change, so be sure your gifting strategies are still appropriate for your estate. An estate plan review is also a good time to review the organizations you wish to support.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

Are 529 Plans Part of Your Estate?

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. They’re also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here’s how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax fre,e as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you don’t hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you’re blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it’s needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”