What Happens to Stock Options when Someone Dies?

Once your business grows, so does the pressure to make good financial decisions in the short and long term. When you think about the future, estate and succession planning emerge as two major concerns. You’re not just considering balance sheets, profits and losses, but your family and what will happen to them and your business when you’re not around. This thinking leads to what seems like a great idea: transferring stock or LLC membership units to one or more of your adult children.

There are benefits, especially the ability to avoid a 40% estate tax and other benefits. However, there are also lots of ways this can go sideways, fast.

Executing due diligence and creating an exit plan to minimize taxes and successfully transfer the business takes planning and, even harder, removing emotions from the plan to make a good decision.

An outright transfer of stock or ownership units can expose you and your business to risk. Even if your children are Ivy-league MBA grads, with track records of great decision making and caring for you and your spouse, this transaction offers zero protection and all risk for you. What could go wrong?

  • An in-law (one you may not have even met yet) could try to place a claim on the business and move it away from the family.
  • Creditors could seize assets from the children, entirely likely if their future holds legal or financial problems—or if they have such problems now and haven’t shared them with you.
  • Assets could go into your children’s estates, which reintroduces exposure to estate taxes.

No family is immune from any of these situations, and if you ask your estate planning attorney, you’ll hear as many horror stories as you can tolerate.

Trusts are a solution. Thoughtfully crafted for your unique situation, a trust can help avoid exposure to some estate and other taxes, allocating effective ownership to your children, in a protected manner. Your ultimate goal: keeping ownership in the family and minimizing tax exposure.

A Beneficiary Defective Inheritance Trust (BDIT) may be appropriate for you. If you’ve already executed an outright transfer of the stock, it’s not too late to fix things. The BDIT is a grantor trust serving to enable protection of stock and eliminate any “residue” in your childrens’ estates.

If you haven’t yet transferred stock to children, don’t do it. The risk is very high. If you’ve already completed the transfer, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how to reverse the transfer and create a plan to protect the business and your family.

Bottom line: business interests are better protected when they are held not by individuals, but by trusts for the benefit of individuals. Your estate planning attorney can draft trusts to achieve goals, minimize estate taxes and, in some situations, even minimize state income taxes.

Reference: The Street (June 27, 2022) “Should I Transfer Company Stock to My Kids?”

What Should Not Be Included in Trust?

Whether you have a will or not, assets may go through the probate process when you die. People use trusts to take assets out of their probate estate, but they don’t always understand the relationship between wills and trusts. This is explored in a recent article “What Assets Should be Included in Your Trust?” from Kiplinger.

Probate can be a long and expensive process for heirs, taking from a few months to a few years, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. Many people ask their estate planning attorney about using trusts to protect and preserve assets, while minimizing the amount of assets going through probate.

Revocable trusts are used to pass assets directly to beneficiaries, under the directions you determine as the “grantor,” or person making the trust. You can set certain parameters for assets to be distributed, like achieving goals or milestones. A trust provides privacy: the trust documents do not become part of the public record, as wills do, so the information about assets in the trust is known only to the trustees. If you become incapacitated, the trust is already in place, protecting assets and fulfilling your wishes.

Estate planning attorneys know there’s no way to completely avoid probate. Some assets cannot go into trusts. However, removing as many assets as possible (i.e., permitted by law) can minimize probate.

Once trust documents are signed and the trusts are created, the work of moving assets begins. If this is overlooked, the assets remain in the probate estate and the trust is useless. Assets are transferred to the trust by retitling or renaming the trust as the owner.

Assets placed in a trust include real estate, investment accounts, life insurance, annuity certificates, business interests, shareholders stock from privately owned businesses, money market accounts and safe deposit boxes.

Funding the trust with accounts held by financial institutions is a time-consuming process. However, it is necessary for the estate plan to achieve its goals. It often requires new account paperwork and signed authorizations to retitle or transfer the assets. Bond and stock certificates require a change of ownership, done through a stock transfer agent or bond issuer.

Annuities already have preferential tax treatment, so placing them in a trust may not be necessary. Read the fine print, since it’s possible that placing an annuity in a trust may void tax benefits.

Certificates of Deposit (CDs) are usually transferred to a trust by opening a new CD but be mindful of any early termination penalties.

Life insurance is protected if it is placed in a trust. However, there are risks to naming the living trust as a beneficiary of the insurance policy. If you are the trustee of your revocable trust, all assets in the trust are considered to be your property. Life insurance proceeds are included in the estate’s worth and could create a taxable situation, if you reach the IRS threshold. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best strategy for your trust and your insurance policy.

Should you put a business into a trust? Transferring a small business during probate presents many challenges, including having your executor run the business under court supervision. For a sole proprietor, transfers to a trust behave the same as transferring any other personal asset. With partnerships, shares may be transferred to a living trust. However, if you hold an ownership certificate, it will need to be modified to show the trust as the shareowner instead of yourself.  Some partnership agreements also prohibit transferring assets to living trusts.

Retirement accounts may not be placed in a trust. Doing so would require a withdrawal, which would trigger income taxes and possibly, extreme penalties. It is better to name the trust as a primary or secondary beneficiary of the account. Funds will transfer upon your death. Health or medical savings accounts cannot be transferred to a living trust, but they can be named as a primary or secondary beneficiary.

Careful consideration needs to be made when determining which assets to place within a trust and which should remain as part of your probate estate. Your estate planning attorney will know what is permitted in your state and what best suits your situation.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 16, 2022) “What Assets Should be Included in Your Trust?”

How Do You Gift Your House to Your Children during Your Lifetime?

Whether you have a split level or a log cabin, your estate plan should be considered when passing property along to the next generation. How you structure the transaction has legal and tax implications, explains the article “How estate planning can help you pass down a house to your kids and give them a financial leg up” from USA Today.

For one family, which had been rental property landlords for more than two decades, parents set up a revocable trust and directed the trustee to be responsible for liquidating houses only when they became vacant, otherwise maintaining them as rental properties as long as tenants were in good standing. They did this when the wife was pregnant with their first child, with the goal to maximize the value to their children as beneficiaries. This was a long-term strategy.

Taxes must always be considered. When a home or any capital asset is given to children while the parents are alive, there may be a capital gains tax issue. It’s possible for the carryover cost basis to lead to a big cost. However, using a revocable trust avoids probate and gives them a step-up in basis to avoid capital gains taxes.

Many families use a traditional method: gifting the house to the children. The parents retain the ownership and benefit of the property during their lifetimes. When the last parent dies, the children get the home and the benefit of the stepped-up basis. However, many estate planning attorneys prefer to have a house pass to the next generation through a revocable trust. It not only avoids probate but having a trust allows the parents to dictate exactly what is to be done with the house. For example, the trust can be used to direct what happens if only one child wants the house. The one who wants the house can have it, but not without buying out the other children’s’ shares.

If the children are added onto the deed of the house, keep in mind whoever is added to the deed has all the rights and liabilities of an owner. If one child wants to live in the home and the others don’t, the others won’t be able to sell the house. The revocable trust mentioned above provides more control.

Selling the family home to an adult child may work, especially if the parents cannot afford to maintain the home and the child can. However, there are pitfalls here, since the parents lose control of the home. An alternative might be to deed the property to the children, have the children refinance the property and cash the parents out.

If parents sell the home below fair market value, they are giving up proceeds to finance their retirement. If they don’t need the money, great, but if not, this is a bad financial move. There are also taxable gains consequences, if the home is sold for more than they paid. A home’s sale might result in a dramatic increase in property taxes to the buyer.

However you decide to pass the family home or other real estate property to children, the transfer needs to be aligned with the rest of your estate plan to avoid any unexpected costs or complications. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help determine the best way to do this, for now and for the future.

Reference: USA Today (Dec. 3, 2021) “How estate planning can help you pass down a house to your kids and give them a financial leg up”

Do Unrecorded Deeds Help or Hurt Estate Planning?

Using an unrecorded deed to transfer property without probate sounds like an easy way to transfer ownership of the family home, but is it asking for trouble? That’s the topic of an article from NWI Times entitled, “Estate Planning: Are unrecorded deeds a good idea?” The fact that the idea came from a family’s attorney makes the question even more important. The attorney told the parents the children could record the deed after their deaths and transfer the property without probate.

Most estate planning attorneys haven’t seen this technique used in a long time, and some may never have heard of it. There’s probably a good reason for this—it’s an estate mess waiting to happen.

First of all, what if the deed itself goes missing? One of the most common questions estate planning attorneys hear is “What do I do because Mom lost the_____?” Fill in the blanks—the deed, the title to the car, the bank statement, etc. Important documents often get lost. If a deed is missing and can’t be recorded, title can’t be transferred. Hoping an important piece of paper doesn’t get lost is not an estate plan.

Until the deed is recorded, and title transferred, the holders of the title still own the property. They can mortgage the property or sell it. The plan for the children to receive and record the deed may not have legal authority.

Laws about how deeds must be created change. Indiana made a change to the law in 2020 that required signatures on deeds to be witnessed. Without the witness, the deeds can’t be recorded. If the adult child is holding a deed for the recording and it’s not witnessed because the parents have died, it can’t be recorded.

There are better ways to transfer ownership of the family home that adhere to the general principles of estate planning.

There are also different types of deeds that are more commonly used in estate planning to transfer home ownership without going through probate. One is a Transfer on Death Deed (TOD Deeds). A TOD deed allows a person to name beneficiaries on their real estate property without giving up any rights of ownership. The TOD deed is recorded, so there’s no worry about mom or pop losing the paperwork.  The TOD deed can also be changed by recording another deed or using an affidavit.

Trusts can also be used to transfer home ownership and keep the transaction out of probate. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain the different types of trusts used to transfer a home. State laws vary, and allowable trusts vary, so talking with a local estate planning attorney is the best option.

Reference: NWI Times (May23, 2021) “Estate Planning: Are unrecorded deeds a good idea?”

Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?
Writing note shows the text irrevocable life insurance trust ILIT

Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?

An irrevocable trust is mainly used for tax planning, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts.” Its key purpose is to take assets out of an estate, reducing the chances of having to pay estate taxes. For estate planning purposes, placing assets inside the irrevocable trust is the same as giving it to an heir. If the estate exceeds the current limit of $11.7 million, then an irrevocable trust would be a smart move. Remember the $11.7 million includes life insurance policy proceeds. Many states with estate taxes also have far lower exemptions than the federal estate tax, so high income families still have to be concerned with paying estate taxes.

However, let’s not forget that beneficiaries must pay taxes on the income they receive from an irrevocable trust, usually at ordinary income tax rates. On the plus side, trusts are not subject to gift tax, so the trust can pay out more than the current gift tax limit of $15,000 every year.

If the trust itself generates income that remains inside the trust, then the trust will have to pay income taxes on the income.

Asset protection is another benefit from an irrevocable trust. If you are sued, any assets in the irrevocable trust are beyond the reach of a legal judgment, a worthwhile strategy for people who have a greater likelihood of being sued because of their profession. However, the irrevocable trust must be created long before lawsuits are filed.

A physician who transfers a million-dollar home into the trust on the eve of a malpractice lawsuit, for instance, may be challenged with having made a fraudulent transfer to the trust.

There is a cost to an irrevocable trust’s protection. You have to give up control of the assets and have no control over the trust. Legally you could be a trustee, but that means you have control over the trust, which means you will lose all tax benefits and asset protections.

Most people name a trusted family member or business associate to serve as the trustee. Consider naming a successor trustee, in case the original trustee is unable to fulfill their duties.

If you don’t want to give someone else control of your assets, you may wish to use a revocable trust and give up some of the protections of an irrevocable trust.

Despite the name, changes can be made to an irrevocable trust by the trustee. Trust documents can designate a “trust protector,” who is empowered to make certain changes to the trust. Many states have regulations concerning changes to the administrative aspects of a trust, and a court has the power to make changes to a trust.

An irrevocable trust can buy and sell property. If a house is placed into the irrevocable trust, the house can be sold, as long as the proceeds go into the trust. The trust is responsible for paying taxes on any profits from the sale. However, you can request that the trustee use the proceeds from selling a house to buy a different house. Be sure the new house is titled correctly: owned by the trust, and not you.

Asset swaps may be used to change irrevocable trusts. Let’s say you want to buy back an asset from the trust, but don’t want that asset to go back into your estate when you die. There are tax advantages for doing this. If the trust holds an asset that has become highly appreciated, swap cash for the asset and the basis on which the asset’s capital gains is calculated gets reset to its fair value, eliminating any capital gains on a later sale of the asset.

Loss of control is part of the irrevocable trust downside. Make sure that you have enough assets to live on before putting everything into the trust. You can’t sell assets in the trust to produce personal income.

Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust helps maintain eligibility for means-tested government programs, like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Assets and income sheltered within an irrevocable trust are not counted as personal assets for these kinds of program limits. However, Medicaid has a look-back period of five years, so the transfer of a substantial asset to an irrevocable trust must have taken place five years before applying for Medicaid.

Talk with your estate planning attorney first. Not every irrevocable trust satisfies each of these goals. It is also possible that an irrevocable trust may not fit your needs. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that suits your needs best for tax planning, asset protection and legacy building.

Reference: Think Advisor (Dec. 16, 2020) “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts”