When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

What Is a Marital Trust?

Marital trusts have multiple benefits for beneficiaries, including asset allocation and tax benefits.  They are worth looking at in your estate plan.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Guide To Marital Trusts” says that a marital trust is an irrevocable trust that allows you to transfer a deceased spouse’s assets to the surviving spouse without paying any taxes. The trust also protects assets from creditors and future spouses that the surviving spouse may encounter.

When the surviving spouse dies, the assets in the trust aren’t included as part of their estate. That will keep the taxes on their estate lower.

There are three parties involved in setting up, maintaining and ultimately passing along the trust, including a grantor, who is the person who establishes the trust; the trustee, who’s the person or organization that manages the trust and its assets; and the beneficiary. That’s the person who will eventually receive the assets in the trust, once the grantor dies.

A marital trust also involves the principal, which are assets initially put into the trust.

A marital trust doubles the couple’s estate tax exemption limit, especially when almost all assets are owned by one spouse. Estate tax refers to the federal tax that must be paid on someone’s estate after they die. The estate tax limit is how much of an estate will be tax-free. In 2022, the estate tax limit is $12.06 million, which means utilizing a marital trust would essentially double that amount to $24.12 million. Therefore, about $24 million of a couple’s net worth would be shielded from estate taxes by taking advantage of a marital trust.

A marital trust is also beneficial because it can provide income to the surviving spouse, tax-free.

Only a surviving spouse can be a beneficiary of a marital trust. When the surviving spouse dies, the trust will then be passed on to whomever the first spouse’s will or trust governs.

If keeping wealth within your family after you die is important, then a marital trust is an estate planning tool that will make certain that individuals outside of your family don’t have access to the wealth. You can put a variety of assets into a marital trust, including property, retirement accounts and investment accounts.

A marital trust is one legal tool to consider using when planning for a blended family.

Reference: Forbes (June 30, 2022) “Guide To Marital Trusts”

Will Moving to a New State Impact My Estate Planning?

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., baby boomers have been speeding up their retirement plans. Many Americans have also been moving to new states. For retirees, the non-financial considerations often revolve around weather, proximity to grandchildren and access to quality healthcare and other services.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First” provides some considerations for retirees who may set off on a move.

  1. Income tax rates. Before moving to a new state, you should know how much income you’re likely to be generating in retirement. It’s equally essential to understand what type of income you’re going to generate. Your income as well as the type of income you receive could significantly influence your economic health as a retiree, after you make your move. Before moving to a new state, look into the tax code of your prospective new state. Many states have flat income tax rates, such as Massachusetts at 5%. The states that have no income tax include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, Texas, Washington, South Dakota and Wyoming. Other states that don’t have flat income tax rates may be attractive or unattractive, based on your level of income. Another important consideration is the tax treatment of Social Security income, pension income and retirement plan income. Some states treat this income just like any other source of income, while others offer preferential treatment to the income that retirees typically enjoy.
  2. Housing costs. The cost of housing varies dramatically from state to state and from city to city, so understand how your housing costs are likely to change. You should also consider the cost of buying a home, maintenance costs, insurance and property taxes. Property taxes may vary by state and also by county. Insurance costs can also vary.
  3. Sales taxes. Some states (New Hampshire, Oregon, Montana, Delaware and Alaska) have no sales taxes. However, most states have a sales tax of some kind, which generally adds to the cost of living. California has the highest sales tax, currently at 7.5%, then comes Tennessee, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Indiana, each with a sales tax of 7%. Many other places also have a county sales tax and a city sales tax. You should also research those taxes.
  4. The state’s financial health. Examine the health of the state pension systems where you are thinking about moving. The states with the highest level of unfunded pension debts include Connecticut, Illinois, Alaska, New Jersey and Hawaii. They each have unfunded state pensions at a level of more than 20% of their state GDP. If you’re thinking about moving to one of those states, you’re more apt to see tax increases in the future because of the huge financial obligations of these states.
  5. The overall cost of living. Examine your budget to see the extent to which your annual living expenses might increase or decrease in your new location because food, healthcare and transportation costs can vary by location. If your costs are going to go up, that should be all right, provided you have the financial resources to fund a larger expense budget. Be sure that you’ve accounted for the differences before you move.
  6. Estate planning considerations. If this is going to be your last move, it’s likely that the laws of your new state will apply to your estate after you die. Many states don’t have an estate or gift tax, which means your estate and gifts will only be subject to federal tax laws. However, a number of states, such as Maryland and Iowa, have a state estate tax.

You should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate and gift tax implications of your move.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 30, 2021) “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First”

Do I Need a 529 Education Savings Plan?

Statecollege.com’s recent article entitled “Did You Know 529s Are Powerful Estate Planning Tools?” explains that specialized savings accounts, informally referred to as 529s, could be at the top of your list. These accounts have a number of advantages for beneficiaries. There are also benefits for the donors in the high maximum contribution limits and tax advantages.

Special tax rules governing these accounts let you decrease your taxable estate. That might minimize future federal gift and estate taxes. In 2021, the lifetime exclusion is now $11.7 million per person, so most of us don’t have to concern ourselves with our estates exceeding that limit. However, remember that the threshold will revert back to just over $5 million per person in 2026.

Under the rules that govern 529s, you can make a lump-sum contribution to a 529 plan up to five times the annual limit of $15,000. As a result, you can give $75,000 per recipient ($150,000 for married couples), provided you document your five-year gift on your federal gift tax return and don’t make any more gifts to the same recipient during that five-year period. You can, however, go ahead and give another lump sum after those five years are through. The $150,000 gift per beneficiary won’t have a gift tax, as long as you and your spouse follow the rules.

Many people think that gifting a big chunk of money in a 529 means they’ll irrevocably give up control of those assets. However, 529 plans let you have considerable control—especially if you title the account in your name. At any time, you can get your money back, but it will be part of your taxable estate again subject to your nominal federal tax rate. There’s also a 10% penalty on the earnings portion of the withdrawal, if you don’t use the money for your designated beneficiary’s qualified education expenses.

If your chosen beneficiary doesn’t need some or all of the money you’ve put in a 529, you can earmark the money for other types of education, like graduate school. You can also change the beneficiary to another member of the family as many times as you like. This is nice if your original beneficiary chooses not to go to college at all.

In addition, you can take the money and pay the taxes on any gains. Normally, you’d also expect to pay a penalty on the earnings but not for scholarships. The penalty is waived on amounts equal to the scholarship, provided they’re withdrawn the same year the scholarship is received, effectively turning your tax-free 529 into a tax-deferred investment. You can always use the money to pay for other qualified education expenses, like room and board, books and supplies.

Reference: statecollege.com (Aug. 29, 2021) “Did You Know 529s Are Powerful Estate Planning Tools?”

How Do I Sell a Home in an Irrevocable Trust?
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How Do I Sell a Home in an Irrevocable Trust?

A trustee who sells a home in irrevocable trust for a parent who died should know that generally, assets transferred to an irrevocable trust will be deemed a completed gift and will not be included in an estate for estate tax purposes.

Lehigh Valley Live’s recent article entitled “What happens to tax on a home sold from a trust?” explains that this means there wouldn’t be a step-up in basis to the fair market value upon the decedent’s death.

Remember that an irrevocable trust is a type of trust in which its terms can’t be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the grantor’s named beneficiary or beneficiaries.

Irrevocable trusts have tax-shelter benefits that revocable trusts to don’t.

However, an irrevocable trust can be created so that the settlor (the creator) of the trust keeps certain rights and powers, so that gifts to the trust are incomplete.

In that instance, the assets are included in the settlor’s estate upon death and obtain a step-up in basis upon the decedent’s death.

If the trust sells the asset in the trust, the trust may need to file Form 1041, U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts, and the trust may be required to pay a tax.

If the trust distributes any income to the beneficiaries in the same tax year it receives that income, the income is passed through to the beneficiaries, and the beneficiaries must report it on the beneficiaries’ individual tax returns (Form 1040) and pay any tax due.

It’s generally a good idea to report and pay tax at the individual rate instead of at the trust or estate level.

That’s because the trust or estate will begin to pay tax at the highest rate at only $13,150. In comparison, an individual doesn’t pay tax at the highest rate until his or her income exceeds over $440,000.

Note that an irrevocable trust is a more complex legal arrangement than a revocable trust. As a result, there might be current income tax and future estate tax implications when using this type of trust. It’s wise to seek the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Lehigh Valley Live (Aug. 16, 2021) “What happens to tax on a home sold from a trust?”

What Does Tax Proposal Mean for Estate Planning?

The president’s tax plan proposes to nearly double the top tax rate on capital gains and eliminate a tax benefit on appreciated assets, known as the “step-up in basis.”

CNBC’s recent article entitled “Wealthy may face up to 61% tax rate on inherited wealth under Biden plan” reports that the combined tax rate would be the highest in nearly a century.

Some more well-off families could face combined tax rates of as much as 61% on inherited wealth under President Biden’s tax plan.

It is not known if President Biden’s plan can get through Congress, even with changes. Many moderate Democrats are likely to resist his proposal to raise the capital gains rate to 39.6%, as well as the plan to eliminate the step-up. Moreover, just a small number of the wealthiest taxpayers would ever see a rate of 61%. Most of us others would try to avoid this hike with tax and estate planning.

According to analysis by the Tax Foundation, families who own a business or a large amount of stock and want to transfer the assets to heirs could see a dramatic tax change.

For instance, you are an entrepreneur who started a business decades ago, that is now worth $100 million. Under the current tax law, the business would pass to the family without a capital gains tax—the value of the business would be “stepped-up,” or adjusted to its current value and the heirs would only pay a capital gain, if they later sold at a higher valuation. However, under President Biden’s plan, the family would immediately owe a capital gains tax of $42.96 million upon death (capital gains rate of 39.6%, plus the net investment income tax of 3.8%, minus the $1 million exemption).

If the estate tax remains unchanged, the family would also have an estate tax of 40% on the $57.04 million of remaining value of the assets. Including exemptions, the estate tax would amount to $18.13 million.

The combined estate tax and capital gains tax liability would total $61.10 million, reflecting a combined effective tax rate of just over 61% on the original $100 million asset. The rate rises, when including potential state capital gains and estate taxes.

However, experts say that if the step-up is eliminated, Congress would likely eliminate or overhaul the estate tax.

Reference: CNBC (May 3, 2021) “Wealthy may face up to 61% tax rate on inherited wealth under Biden plan”

What Is the Tax-Law Exception for 529 College Plans in 2021?

Grandparents might use this tactic to dramatically reduce their estate, without using any of their lifetime exemption if they meet some conditions, explains Financial Advisor’s recent article entitled “Tax Break Adds Perk To 529 College Plans.” That’s five years’ worth of the standard $15,000 annual exclusion that normally applies to 2021 gifts. Your spouse can also make the same gift.

You could give a five-year gift of $150,000 per couple and report it on a gift tax return. This uses none of your exemption. You should fund the educations of grandchildren or children, while they are young. If they end up being academic stars or athletes, scholarships can be adjusted against the 529 plan. If they choose not to go to college, you can select a new beneficiary. It is a smart way to frontload the 529 and take advantage of the tax-free growth.

Income earned in any qualified distributions from a 529 are typically not taxed, except under some states’ special rules. Non-qualified distributions are taxed and subject to a 10% penalty. Note that a 529 withdrawal to pay for health insurance or other medical expenses is a non-qualified distribution.

Many people get befuddled by filing a gift tax return. They think a tax is due. However, in fact, it is just a letter to the IRS informing them that you are using some of your lifetime exemption now.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 also permitted 529 money to be used for tuition for grades K-12. Therefore, frontloading the contribution makes for potentially faster accumulation of assets in the plan, which could be helpful due to the shorter timeframe between funding and use.

There are some conditions to note in the current political climate. If a donor funds a plan with $75,000 for the benefit of an individual, that donor could not give that person any additional gifts over the five years without using their lifetime exemption (now $11.7 million per person). If that exemption amount were to be reduced, it is possible that a person will have used up their lifetime exemption and would not be able to give additional gifts above the annual exclusion without paying gift tax.

This tax break comes with another catch: if the donor dies within the five years, the balance reverts back to the deceased donor’s estate.

You should know that the downside is limited investment options. Plans are generally conservative, so you do not lose your principal. There also may be high fees and costs. The plans often impede students who apply for financial aid, though not as much as some other investment holdings.

Reference: Financial Advisor (May 3, 2021) “Tax Break Adds Perk To 529 College Plans”

How to Avoid Probate

Avoiding probate and minimizing estate taxes are sound estate planning goals, but they shouldn’t be the only focus of an estate plan.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we avoid probate and avoid taxes for our children?” says that proper estate planning is a much broader discussion you should have with a qualified estate attorney. However, the article offers some topics to discuss with an attorney, who can review all the specifics of your situation.

Probate is the legal process for settling the debts, taxes and last expenses of a deceased person and distributing the remaining assets to his or her heirs. The costs and time needed to settle an estate can be burdensome in some states. However, steps can be taken to significantly limit probate.

Without any special planning, there are a few types of assets that can be transferred outside of probate. Items owned jointly with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) automatically become the sole property of the survivor at the first joint owner’s death. This property doesn’t go through probate.

Accounts with beneficiary designations, like retirement accounts, annuities, and life insurance policies also pass outside probate. There is a payable on death (POD) feature that provides for a beneficiary designation on non-retirement accounts (like a bank account), so POD accounts can also be transferred outside of probate.

You can also create a living trust and transfer assets into the trust during your lifetime to avoid probate. Since the trust document dictates the way in which assets are distributed upon the death of the grantor rather than the will, probate is not needed here either.

In addition, ancillary probate is a second, simultaneous process that is needed when real estate is owned in a state outside the decedent’s state of residence.

Placing out-of-state real estate in a living trust is a useful way to avoid ancillary probate. You can also place the out-of-state real estate in a Limited Liability Company (LLC), so the estate owns an interest in an LLC rather than real property. That way, the entire probate process can be handled in the decedent’s state of residence. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to review which of these options — or perhaps another option — would be best for your unique situation and goals.

Other types of trusts, whether created during your lifetime or at your death, can provide creditor protection and ensure that an inheritance stays in the family, as well as help minimize estate taxes.

Under current law, federal estate tax is only due if your estate is worth more than $11.7 million (double that if you are married). A few states also have an estate tax. Other states also have an inheritance tax, but in many instances it does not apply to amounts left to the decedent’s closest relatives, including their children.

Reference: nj.com (March 24, 2021) “How can we avoid probate and avoid taxes for our children?”

Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?

Did you know that Hawaii and the State of Washington have the highest estate tax rates in the nation at 20%? There are 8 states and DC that are next with a top rate of 16%. Massachusetts and Oregon have the lowest exemption levels at $1 million, and Connecticut has the highest exemption level at $7.1 million.

The Tax Foundation’s recent article entitled “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?” says that of the six states with inheritance taxes, Nebraska has the highest top rate at 18%, and Maryland has the lowest top rate at 10%. All six of these states exempt spouses, and some fully or partially exempt immediate relatives.

Estate taxes are paid by the decedent’s estate, prior to asset distribution to the heirs. The tax is imposed on the overall value of the estate. Inheritance taxes are due from the recipient of a bequest and are based on the amount distributed to each beneficiary.

Most states have been steering away from estate or inheritance taxes or have upped their exemption levels because estate taxes without the federal exemption hurt a state’s competitiveness. Delaware repealed its estate tax at the start of 2018, and New Jersey finished its phase out of its estate tax at the same time. The Garden State now only imposes an inheritance tax.

Connecticut still is phasing in an increase to its estate exemption. They plan to mirror the federal exemption by 2023. However, as the exemption increases, the minimum tax rate also increases. In 2020, rates started at 10%, while the lowest rate in 2021 is 10.8%. Connecticut’s estate tax will have a flat rate of 12% by 2023.

In Vermont, they’re still phasing in an estate exemption increase. They are upping the exemption to $5 million on January 1, compared to $4.5 million in 2020.

DC has gone in the opposite direction. The District has dropped its estate tax exemption from $5.8 million to $4 million in 2021, but at the same time decreased its bottom rate from 12% to 11.2%.

Remember that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 raised the estate tax exclusion from $5.49 million to $11.2 million per person. This expires December 31, 2025, unless reduced sooner!

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about estate and inheritance taxes, and see if you need to know about either, in your state.

Reference: The Tax Foundation (Feb. 24, 2021) “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”

How Does the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax Work in Estate Planning?

The generation-skipping transfer tax, also called the generation-skipping tax, can apply when a grandparent leaves assets to a grandchild—skipping over their parents in the line of inheritance. It can also be triggered, when leaving assets to someone who’s at least 37½ years younger than you. If you are thinking about “skipping” any of your heirs when passing on assets, it is important to know what that may mean tax-wise and how to fill out the requisite form. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you and counsel you on the best way to pass along your estate to your beneficiaries.

KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “What Is the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?” says the tax code imposes both gift and estate taxes on transfers of assets above certain limits. For 2020, you can exclude gifts of up to $15,000 per person from the gift tax, with the limit twice as much for married couples who file a joint return. Estate tax applies to estates larger than $11,580,000 for 2020, increased to $11,700,000 in 2021.

The gift tax rate can be as high as 40%, and the estate tax is also 40% at the top end. The IRS uses the generation-skipping transfer tax to collect its portion of any wealth that is transferred across families, when not passed directly from parent to child. Assets subject to the generation-skipping tax are taxed at a flat 40% rate.

Note that the GSTT can apply to both direct transfers of assets to your beneficiaries and to assets passing through a trust. A trust can be subject to the GSTT, if all trust beneficiaries are considered to be skip persons who have a direct interest in the trust.

The generation-skipping tax is a separate tax from the estate tax, but it applies alongside it. Similar to the estate tax, this tax begins when an estate’s value exceeds the annual exemption limits. The 40% GSTT would be applied to any transfers of assets above the exempt amount, in addition to the regular 40% estate tax.

That is the way the IRS gets its money on wealth, as it moves from one person to another. If you passed your estate to your child, who then passes it to their child then no GSTT would apply. The IRS would just collect estate taxes from each successive generation. However, if you skip your child and leave assets to your grandchild, it eliminates a link from the taxation chain, and the GSTT lets the IRS replace that link.

You can use your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption limits, which can help to offset how much is owed for the generation-skipping tax. However, any unused portion of the exemption counted toward the generation-skipping tax is lost when you pass away.

If you’d like to minimize estate and gift taxes as much as possible, there are several options. Your experienced estate planning attorney might suggest giving assets to your grandchildren or another generation-skipping person annually, rather than at the end of your life. That’s because you can give up to $15,000 per person each year without incurring gift tax, or up to $30,000 per person if you’re married and file a joint return. Just keep the lifetime exemption limits in mind when planning gifts.

You could also make payments on behalf of a beneficiary to avoid tax. For instance, to help your granddaughter with college costs, any direct payments you make to the school to cover tuition would generally be tax-free. The same is true for direct payments made to healthcare providers, if you’re paying medical expenses on behalf of another.

Another option may be a generation-skipping trust that lets you transfer assets to the trust and pay estate taxes at the time of the transfer. The assets you put into the trust must stay there during the skipped generation’s lifetime. Once they die, the trust assets can be passed on tax-free to the next generation.

There’s also a dynasty trust. This trust can let you pass assets to future generations without triggering estate, gift, or generation-skipping taxes. However, they are meant to be long-term trusts. You can name your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and subsequent generations as beneficiaries and the transfer of assets to the trust is irrevocable. Therefore, when you place the assets in the trust, you will not be able to take them back out again. You can see why it’s so important to understand the implications, before creating this type of trust.

The generation-skipping tax can make a big impact on the assets you’re able to leave to heirs. If you’re considering using this type of trust to pass on assets or you’re interested in exploring other ways to transfer assets while minimizing taxes, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: KAKE.com (Feb. 6, 2021) “What Is the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?”