Can the Estate Tax Be Avoided with a Trust?

If the federal estate tax exemption is lowered, as is expected, it could go as low as $3 million, reports the article “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes” from Financial Advisor. For Americans who own a home and robust retirement accounts, this change presents an estate planning challenge—but one with several solutions. Trusts, giving and updating estate plans or creating wholly new estate plans should be addressed in the near future.

Not that these topics aren’t challenging for most people. Confronting the future, including death and incapacity, is difficult. Adult children and their parents may find it hard to talk about these matters; emotions, death and money are tough to talk about on their own, but estate planning includes conversations around all three.

Once those hurdles are overcome, an unemotional approach to the business of estate planning can accomplish a great deal, especially when guided by an experienced estate planning attorney. Here are a few suggestions for families to consider.

Estate tax and gift planning techniques include Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) and Spousal Limited Access Trusts (SLATs). A SLAT is an irrevocable trust created when one spouse (the donor spouse) makes a gift into a trust to benefit their spouse (the beneficiary spouse), while retaining limited access to the assets at the same time they remove the asset from their combined estate. One spouse is permitted to indirectly benefit, as long as the couple remains married.

The indirect access disappears, if the spouses divorce or if the beneficiary spouse dies before the donor spouse. Be careful about creating SLATs for both spouses; the IRS does not like to see SLATs with the same date of origin and the same amount for both spouses.

The GRAT and sales to an Intentionally Defective Trust (IDGT) are useful tools in a low-interest rate environment. For a GRAT, property is transferred to a trust in exchange for an annual fixed payment. A sale to an IDGT is where property is sold to a trust in exchange for a balloon note.

Gifting is an important part of estate tax planning at any asset level. For 2020 and 2021, the annual gift-tax exclusion is $15,000 per donor, per recipient. The simple strategy of aggressive lifetime gifting using that $15,000 exclusion is a good way to get money out of a taxable estate.

Protect the estate plan by reviewing it every four or five years, and sooner if there are large changes to the tax law—which is coming soon—and changes in the family’s circumstances.

Thoughtful use of trusts and gifting strategies can avoid the probate of the will and ensure that assets go directly to heirs. Reviewing the estate plan regularly with an eye to changes in tax law will protect the legacy.

Reference: Financial Advisor (April 19, 2021) “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes”

 

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What Do I Need to Know about Gift-Giving with the Biden Administration?

Gift-Giving – After the election, many people are wondering what will happen to the federal gift and estate tax exemption. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Making a Gift This Year? Some Key Questions to Consider,” explains that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically upped the lifetime gift, estate and generation-skipping tax exemption to $11.58 million per individual ($23.16 million per couple). This exemption, however, is set to expire at the end of 2025. Some observers say that Democrats could significantly shorten the time frame, ending it as early as 2021.

Some families may face the possibility of losing an opportunity to transfer wealth out of their estate and save on future estate taxes sooner than anticipated. No matter when the gift is made, here are some important issues to consider.

Can I afford to give? For couples who have a significant taxable estate, Gift-Giving assets and removing future appreciation could result in some substantial tax savings for their heirs. However, just because someone has the means to make a large gift, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right move. Some are so eager to take advantage of the tax benefits that they underestimate their own cost of living down the road. Look at whether the grantor has enough assets to maintain their desired lifestyle. Then, think about what can be transferred without negatively impacting goals and lifestyle choices.

How Do I Structure a Gift? There are many ways of distributing assets. Remember that any transfer is gift tax-free up to the annual exclusion amount ($15,000 per person per donor for 2020). Any gift over this will count against the donor’s lifetime exemption amount. Once that’s exhausted, the gift will be subject to gift tax.

Outright Cash Gifts. This may be the most uncomplicated way of gifting, but for families with significant wealth, this could have some drawbacks. Some recipients may not be prepared to manage money, and it may demotivate them to live off their inheritance rather than becoming productive on their own.

Trusts. These are frequently used for bigger Gift-Giving to provide for beneficiaries, while using some restrictions by the grantor to protect the assets from being squandered. One plan is to distribute the trust assets in stages, when the beneficiary reaches a certain age or achieves a specific goal. Another option is to leave assets in a discretionary lifetime trust, which would maintain the assets in a trust for the beneficiary’s entire lifetime. Drafted properly by an experienced estate planning attorney, this offers a high level of protection from divorcing spouses, lawsuits, bad decisions and outside influences. It also lets grantors create a lasting family legacy for many generations.

Gifts for Education Expenses. You can also make direct payments for education or for medical expenses with no gift tax consequences.

Uniform Trust to Minors Act (UTMA) and Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA). These custodial accounts are usually less restrictive than trusts and allow minor beneficiaries access to funds at age a specific age, depending on state law.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 30, 2020) “Making a Gift This Year? Some Key Questions to Consider”

 

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Do I Have to Pay Taxes during Retirement ?

Paying taxes when you aren’t working but are instead receiving income from a lifetime of working and Social Security is a harsh reality of retirement for many people. Figuring out how much of your income will be consumed by taxes is a tricky task, according to the article “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement” from Next Avenue. Ignore it, and your finances will suffer.

Most households will pay about six percent of their retirement income in federal income tax, but that number varies greatly, depending upon the size of their retirement income. The lowest income groups may pay next to nothing, but as income rises, so do the taxes. Married couples with an average combined Social Security benefit of about $33,000, 401(k)/IRA balances of $180,790, and personal financial wealth of $87,000 could find themselves paying 10.5% to 20.9%.

Income taxes and health costs are most people’s biggest expenses in retirement. Income taxes are due on pensions and withdrawals from tax-deferred accounts, including traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and similar retirement accounts. The same goes for tax-deferred annuities. Required minimum distributions must be taken starting at age 72.

Roth IRA and 401(k) distributions are tax free, since taxes are paid when the funds go into the accounts, not when they are withdrawn.

If you have investments in addition to your tax-deferred funds, like stocks or bond funds, you also pay taxes on the dividends and interest paid to you. If you sell them, you’ll likely need to pay any capital gains taxes.

Learning that a portion of your Social Security benefits are subject to federal income tax is a shocker to many retirees, but about 40% of recipients do pay taxes on their benefits. The higher your income, the more taxes you’ll need to pay.

There may also be state taxes on your Social Security benefits, depending on where you live.

However, here’s the biggest shocker–if you work part time, you may forfeit benefits, temporarily, if you claim before your Full Retirement Age, while you are working. Claiming before FRA means that your benefits are subject to earnings limits—the most you can make from work before triggering a benefit reduction.

Social Security withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 earned above the annual earnings limitation cap. If you reach your FRA after 2020, that’s $18,240. If you reach your FRA in 2020, the annual exemption amount is $48,600.

Pension, investment income and any government benefits, like unemployment compensation, don’t count towards earned income.

Benefits that are withheld will be returned to you once you hit FRA when Social Security bumps up your monthly benefit to make up for the withholding, but this takes place over time.

Reference: Next Avenue (Sep. 17, 2020) “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement”

 

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Protecting Inheritance from the Taxes

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “4 Ways to Protect Your Inheritance from Taxes” explains that inheritances aren’t considered income for federal tax purposes—whether it’s cash, investments or property. However, any subsequent earnings on the inherited assets are taxable, unless it comes from a tax-free source. You must report the interest income on your taxes. Any gains when you sell inherited investments or property are also taxable (but you can usually also claim losses on these sales). Remember that state taxes on inheritances vary, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney for details. Let’s look at fours steps you can take to protect your inheritance:

Look at the alternate valuation date. The basis of property in a decedent’s estate is the fair market value (FMV) of the property on the date of death, but the executor might use the alternate valuation date, which is six months after the date of death. This is only available, if it will decrease both the gross amount of the estate and the estate tax liability, typically resulting in a larger inheritance to the beneficiaries. If the estate isn’t subject to estate tax, then the valuation date is the date of death.

Use a trust. If you know you’re getting an inheritance, ask that they create a trust for the assets. A trust lets you to pass assets to beneficiaries after your death without probate.

Minimize retirement account distributions. Inherited retirement assets aren’t taxable, until they’re distributed. There are rules as to when the distributions must happen. If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse usually can take over the IRA as his or her own. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) would begin at age 72, just as they would for the surviving spouse’s own IRA. However, if you inherit a retirement account from someone not your spouse, you can transfer the funds to an inherited IRA in your name. You have to start taking minimum distributions the year of or the year after the inheritance, even if you’re not yet 72.

Make some gifts. It may be wise to give some of your inheritance to others. It will be a benefit to them, but it could also potentially offset the taxable gains on your inheritance with the tax deduction you get for donating to a charitable organization. If want to leave money to people when you die, you can give annual gifts to your beneficiaries while you’re still living up to a certain amount—$15,000 for to each person without being subject to gift taxes. Gifting also reduces the size of your estate, which can be important if you’re close to the taxable amount. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that you’re staying current with the frequent changes to estate tax laws.

Wealth Advisor (Sep. 15, 2020) “4 Ways to Protect Your Inheritance from Taxes”

 

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Social Security and Medicare and the Impact on Retiree Taxes

Retiree Taxes – A 70% increase in Medicare premiums to $559 was a complete surprise to a woman who became a single taxpayer when her husband died. She felt like she was being punished for being a widow, she said in a recent article titled “Retirees, Beware These Tax Torpedoes” from Barron’s. With a 2018 modified adjusted gross income of $163,414, a combination of required minimum distributions, Social Security and her husband’s pensions, she went from being in the third-highest Medicare bracket into the second highest Medicare bracket. All it took was $414 dollars to exceed the $163,000 limit.

This is not the only Retiree taxes trap awaiting unwary retirees. Lower- and middle-income taxpayers get hit by what’s commonly referred to as “tax torpedoes,” as rising income during retirement triggers new taxes. That includes Social Security income, which is taxed after reaching a certain limit. The resulting marginal tax rate—as high as 40.8%—is made worse by a Medicare surtax of 0.9% on couples with taxable income exceeding $250,000. Capital gains taxes also increase, as income rises.

It may be too late to make changes for this tax-filing year, even with a three-month extension to July 15. However, there are a few steps that retirees can take to avoid or minimize these taxes for next year. The simplest one: delay spending from one year to the next and be extra careful about taking funds from after-tax accounts.

What hurts most is if you’re on the borderline of a bracket. Just one wrong move, like selling a stock or taking a distribution, puts you into the next bracket. You need to plan carefully for retiree taxes.

One thing that won’t be a concern for 2020 taxes: required minimum distributions. While many retirees get pushed into tax traps because of taking large RMDs, the emergency legislation passed in response to the coronavirus crisis (the CARES Act) eliminated RMDs for this year.

However, the RMDs will be back in 2021, so now is a good time to start thinking about how to avoid any of the typical tax torpedoes. RMDs used to start at age 70½; the SECURE Act changed that to 72.

If you don’t need the money from an RMD in 2021, one workaround is to take it as a qualified charitable distribution. That avoids triggering higher taxes or higher future Medicare premiums. The administrator of the tax-deferred account needs to be instructed to make a donation directly to a charity.

An even better strategy: take steps long before Medicare income limits or tax torpedoes hit. If you can, live on after-tax savings, Roth IRA accounts or inherited money. Spend that money first, before tapping into tax-deferred accounts. You can then take advantage of being in a lower tax bracket to convert money from tax-deferred money to convert to Roth IRAs.

Another story of a tax hit that was avoided: a man with an income of about $80,000 prepared to take $4,000 from a tax-deferred account for a vacation. The couple’s normal top tax bracket was 12%, but they hit the income limit on Social Security taxes. The $4,000 in additional income would have caused $3,400 in Social Security income to be taxed, making his marginal tax rate 22.2% instead of 12%. With the help of a good advisor, the couple instead took $3,000 from a Roth IRA and sold a stock position for $1,000, where there were practically no capital gains generated.

Incomes at all levels can be hit by these tax and Medicare torpedoes. A skilled advisor can help protect your retirement and Social Security funds.

Reference: Barron’s (July 6, 2020) “Retirees, Beware These Tax Torpedoes”

 

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How Is the Inheritance Tax on My Estate Paid?

If your state has an inheritance tax, you should have an idea how it will be paid when you pass away.

Financial institutions may not withhold the tax before the inheritances are paid, and if there won’t be enough in the residue of your estate to pay the tax, you need some options.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled, “How can I be sure the inheritance tax is paid when I die?” says that, while it’s admirable to try to avoid trouble for your executors, there’s a simple solution.

The article suggests that you can remove all beneficiary designations from your financial accounts. When you add beneficiary designations to your financial accounts, you create non-probate assets, or assets that aren’t distributed pursuant to your will.

If you do this, those assets will become probate assets, or assets that pass through your will. As a result, you can then state in your will how these assets should be distributed.

For instance, it can be based on percentages of your estate or based on which financial institution holds the assets, or another method.

With these assets now being probate assets, the executor of your will is now able to withhold the inheritance tax on each of the distributions, before distributing the rest.

The amount of inheritance tax paid by the beneficiary is the same whether the distribution is made as a probate asset or a non-probate asset, except for life insurance.

However, if the financial account is a retirement account, by having it paid to the estate instead of directly to a beneficiary, the payout period may be lessened. Therefore, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: nj.com (May 5, 2020) “How can I be sure the inheritance tax is paid when I die?”

 

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What’s the Difference Between an Inter Vivos Trust and a Testamentary Trust ?

Trusts can be part of your estate planning to transfer assets to your heirs. A trust created while an individual is still alive is an inter vivos trust, while one established upon the death of the individual is a testamentary trust.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?” explains that an inter vivos or living trust is drafted as either a revocable or irrevocable living trust and allows the individual for whom the document was established to access assets like money, investments and real estate property named in the title of the trust. Living trusts that are revocable have more flexibility than those that are irrevocable. However, assets titled in or made payable to both types of living trusts bypass the probate process, once the trust owner dies.

With an inter vivos trust, the assets are titled in the name of the trust by the owner and are used or spent down by him or her, while they’re alive. When the trust owner passes away, the remainder beneficiaries are granted access to the assets, which are then managed by a successor trustee.

A testamentary trust (or will trust) is created when a person dies, and the trust is set out in their last will and testament. Because the creation of a testamentary trust doesn’t occur until death, it’s irrevocable. The trust is a created by provisions in the will that instruct the executor of the estate to create the trust. After death, the will must go through probate to determine its authenticity before the testamentary trust can be created. After the trust is created, the executor follows the directions in the will to transfer property into the trust.

This type of trust doesn’t protect a person’s assets from the probate process. As a result, distribution of cash, investments, real estate, or other property may not conform to the trust owner’s specific desires. A testamentary trust is designed to accomplish specific planning goals like the following:

  • Preserving property for children from a previous marriage
  • Protecting a spouse’s financial future by giving them lifetime income
  • Leaving funds for a special needs beneficiary
  • Keeping minors from inheriting property outright at age 18 or 21
  • Skipping your surviving spouse as a beneficiary and
  • Making gifts to charities.

Through trust planning, married couples may use of their opportunity for estate tax reduction through the Unified Federal Estate and Gift Tax Exemption. That’s the maximum amount of assets the IRS allows you to transfer tax-free during life or at death. It can be a substantial part of the estate, making this a very good choice for financial planning.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 30, 2019) “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Trustee, Revocable Living Trust, Irrevocable Trust, Beneficiary Designations, Charitable Donation, Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption

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Extended Deadlines – Massive Changes to RMDs from Stimulus Plan

Extended Deadlines – Several of the provisions that were signed into law in the relief bill can taken advantage of immediately, reports Financial Planning in the article “Major changes in RMDs and retirement contributions in $2T stimulus plan.” Here are some highlights.

Extended deadline for 2019 IRA contributions. With the tax return filing date extended to July 15, 2020 from April 16, the date for making 2019 contributions to IRA and Roth IRA contributions has also been extended to the same date. Those contributions normally must be made by April 15 of the following year, but this is no normal year. There have never been extensions to the April 15 deadline, even when taxpayers filed for extensions.

When this tax return deadline was extended, most financial professionals doubted the extension would only apply to IRA contributions, but the IRS responded in a timely manner, issuing guidance titled “Filing and Payment Deadlines Questions and Answers.” These changes give taxpayers more time to decide if they still want to contribute, and how much. Job losses and market downturns that accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak have changed the retirement savings priorities for many Americans. Just be sure when you do make a contribution to your account, note that it is for 2019 because financial custodians may just automatically consider it for 2020. A phone call to confirm will likely be in order.

RMDs are waived for 2020. As a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARE Act), Required Minimum Distributions from IRAs are waived. Prior to the law’s passage, 2020 RMDs would be very high, as they would be based on the substantially higher account values of December 31, 2019. If not for this relief, IRA owners would have to withdraw and pay tax on a much larger percentage of their IRA balances. By eliminating the RMD for 2020, tax bills will be lower for those who don’t need to take the money from their accounts. For 2019 RMDs not yet taken, the waiver still applies. It also applies to IRA owners who turned 70 ½ in 2019. This was a surprise, as the SECURE Act just increased the RMD age to 72 for those who turn 70 ½ in 2020 or later.

IRA beneficiaries subject to the five- year rule. Another group benefitting from these the rules are beneficiaries who inherited in 2015 or later and are subject to the 5-year payout rule. Those beneficiaries may have inherited through a will or were beneficiaries of a trust that didn’t qualify as a designated beneficiary. They now have one more year—until December 31, 2021—to withdraw the entire amount in the account. Beneficiaries who inherited from 2015-2020 now have six years, instead of five.

Additional relief for retirement accounts. The new act also waives the early 10% early distribution penalty on up to $100,000 of 2020 distributions from IRAs and company plans for ‘affected individuals.’ The tax will still be due, but it can be spread over three years and the funds may be repaid over the three-year period.

Many changes have been implemented from the new legislation. Speak with your estate planning attorney to be sure that you are taking full advantage of the changes and not running afoul of any new or old laws regarding retirement accounts.

Reference: Financial Planning (March 27, 2020) “Major changes in RMDs and retirement contributions in $2T stimulus plan”

Suggested Key Terms: RMDs, Required Minimum Distribution, IRAs, Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, CARE Act, Extended Deadlines

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C19 UPDATE: Tax Filing Deadline Extended to July 15

Tax Filing Deadline Extended to July 15 – There has been some confusion about the tax filing / tax payment deadline extensions. On Friday, March 20 we got clarity that both the filing and the payment deadlines have been extended from April 15 to July 15 giving all taxpayers and businesses additional time to file and make payments without interest or penalties.

If you are expecting a refund, however, the Treasury Department encourages you go ahead and file as soon as possible – the sooner you file, the sooner you will get your refund.

Resource: Tax filing deadline moved to July 15, the latest measure to battle coronavirus downturn, The Washington Post, March 30, 2020

 

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A 2020 Checklist for an Estate Plan – Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption

Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption – The beginning of a new year is a perfect time for those who haven’t started the process of getting an estate plan started. For those who already have a plan in place, now is a great time to review these documents to make changes that will reflect the changes in one’s life or family dynamics, as well as changes to state and federal law.

Houston Business Journal’s recent article entitled “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution” says that by partnering with a trusted estate planning attorney, you can check off these four boxes on your list to be certain your current estate plan is optimized for the future.

  1. Compute your financial situation. No matter what your net worth is, nearly everyone has an estate that’s worth protecting. An estate plan formalizes an individual’s wishes and decreases the chances of family fighting and stress.
  2. Get your affairs in order. A will is the heart of the estate plan, and the document that designates beneficiaries beyond the property and accounts that already name them, like life insurance. A will details who gets what and can help simplify the probate process, when the will is administered after your death. Medical questions, provisions for incapacity and end-of-life decisions can also be memorialized in a living will and a medical power of attorney. A financial power of attorney also gives a trusted person the legal authority to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.
  3. Know the 2020 Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption. The Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption for 2020 is $11.58 million, an increase from $11.4 million in 2019. The exemption eliminates federal estate taxes on amounts under that limit gifted to family members during a person’s lifetime or left to them upon a person’s passing. New York has additional rules.
  4. Understand when the exemption may decrease. The Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption amount will go up each year until 2025. There was a bit of uncertainty about what would happen to someone who uses the $11.58 million exemption in 2020 and then dies in 2026—when the exemption reverts to the $5 million range. However, the IRS has issued final regulations that will protect individuals who take advantage of the exemption limits through 2025. Gifts will be sheltered by the increased exemption limits, when the gifts are actually made.

It’s a great idea to have a resolution every January to check in with your estate planning attorney to be certain that your plan is set for the year ahead.

Reference: Houston Business Journal (Jan. 1, 2020) “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution”

 

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