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”

That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

Handing Kids Keys to Your Home Is Never Good Estate Planning

Transferring ownership of the family home to an adult child may seem like a simple approach for avoiding having the house go through probate, or even qualifying easily for Medicaid. However, this seemingly simple solution comes with many problems, including taxes and the potential for years of delay for qualifying for Medicaid. That’s the advice from the article “Don’t Give Your Adult Kids Your House” from Nerd Wallet.

There are many other ways to transfer a house to family members. Estate planning lawyers will be able to help you accomplish this, without creating extra problems for your family.

First, if you leave the house to your children in your will, which means they don’t get it until you die, they receive something called a “step-up in basis.” This means that all of the appreciation of the house that occurred during the time that you owned the house until your death is not taxed.

Here’s an example. A financial planner advises his client not to let his mother gift him the family home. She paid $16,000 for it back in 1976, and the current market value of the house was close to $200,000. None of that increase in value would be taxable if the son inherited the house. However, she signed a quitclaim to give her son the house while she was living and died shortly afterwards. The estimated tax bill was about $32,000.

Some families who realize the impact of this when it’s almost too late, scramble to give the house back to the parents. They do a last-minute deed change, before it’s too late. There isn’t always time for this.

When it comes to transferring the house, so a parent can qualify for Medicaid, there’s a five-year look back that prohibits any transfer of assets, especially of a house. That can lead to a penalty period, so the senior who needs long-term care will not be eligible for Medicaid.

Transferring a home to an adult child with financial or marital problems is asking for trouble. If the house becomes the child’s asset, then it can be attached by creditors. If a divorce occurs, the home will be an asset to be divided by the couple—or lost completely.

As for the family in the example above, the man was almost stuck paying taxes on a $184,000 gain. A tax research firm he engaged learned of a workaround, Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code. If the mother retained a life interest in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, then the home would remain in her estate, rather than be treated as a completed gift. The son, as executor of the estate, filed a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest” or the right to inherit, when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are less stressful and less costly ways to avoid the family home being part of the probated estate. Let an experienced estate planning attorney help your family before costly, time-consuming and stressful mistakes are made.

Reference: Nerd Wallet (April 3, 2020) “Don’t Give Your Adult Kids Your House”

Sometimes, Estate Tax Planning Can be a Challenge, Even for a Judge

Five and a half years into the case, the question of whether six life insurance policies at their cash surrender value should be included in the deceased woman’s taxable estate is one question, and the second is whether the estate is liable for the tax underpayment penalties. The policies were purchased for $30 million, reports Bloomberg Tax in the article “$30 Million Estate Tax Going To Be ‘Hard,’ Judge Says.”

The final ruling may also have an impact on the overall attractiveness of using this type of arrangement in estate planning. Known as a ‘split-dollar’ arrangement, this is an agreement between parties to split the cost and benefits of a life insurance policy, where a party paying premiums gets an interest in the payout.

The estate in this case is connected to a set of family businesses, described as the “Interstate Group,” accumulated over the decades after Arthur Morrissette began a moving company in 1943. Arthur’s surviving spouse Clara used her revocable trust to transfer $29.9 million to three trusts for the benefit of each of her three sons. That happened in 2006. The trusts then used the funds to make lump-sum payments for six permanent life insurance policies. Each son’s trust held a policy that insured the lives of the two other brothers.

The transactions were governed by split-dollar arrangements between Clara’s revocable trust and her son’s trusts. When an insured son died or an arrangement was terminated, Clara’s trust received either a policy’s cash surrender value or all of the premium payments on it, whichever was greater. If the policy remained in place until an insured son died, Clara’s payout would be taken out of the death benefit, and the son’s trusts would receive any remaining death benefit.

The first issue at trial was the motivation for setting up this type of split-dollar arrangement in the first place. In order to exclude the cash-surrender value of the life insurance policies from the taxable estate, tax rules require demonstration of a bona fide sale or business transactions. In other words, there needs to have been a significant non-tax reason for the arrangement to be put into place.

Attorneys representing the IRS said that the primary reason for the arrangements was to lower estate taxes, where having to wait to be repaid until the sons passed, lowered the present value of the rights Clara’s trust received in exchange for the $30 million.

One of the sons said that the family entered into the arrangement, so that money from a policy’s death benefit would help the surviving son buy each other’s shares at the time of their deaths, while also repaying their mother. He said that the policies paid a better return than the family was getting by putting the $40 million in investment accounts.

If the Morrissette’s argument about motivation prevails, the tax code also requires proof that Clara’s trust received something that was worth the $30 million that she put in. Experts debate what was the best real-world exchange with which to compare the split trust arrangements.

At the end of the trial, U.S. Tax Court Senior Judge Joseph Goeke said, “I look forward to your briefs, because for me this is going to be a hard case.”

This is a complex case, and estate planning attorneys will be watching it to learn if the split-dollar arrangement has a future.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (October 14, 2019) “$30 Million Estate Tax Going To Be ‘Hard,’ Judge Says”