Do Estate Planning before Golden Age Ends

Unfortunately, the changes that may be coming to estate planning are likely to be felt by not just ultra-high-net-worth families, but by upper middle-class families whose net worth is comfortable, but not in the stratosphere. Estate planning lawyers are talking with their clients now about how to plan for transferring assets to families without overly aggressive tax avoidance strategies, according to the article “Are We Leaving a ‘Golden Age’ For Estate Planning?” from Financial Advisor Magazine.

The lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person and $23.4 million for couples for 2021, which touched only the extremely wealthiest Americans. However, new tax policies are being debated in Congress, including the possible rollback of those estate tax exemptions. Tax-aware estate planning has already gotten underway for many Americans who are not in the top 1%.

There are two proposed changes that may push more families into using trusts and other planning strategies. The first is a proposed increase in the capital gains tax rate for high earners to bring it more in line with their income tax bracket. That would mean they might lose the advantage of deriving income from investments versus a salary.

The second is the possible elimination of step-up in cost basis for assets upon death. Other changes under discussion have been the elimination or decrease of valuation discounting within an estate.

The rush to change estate plans has begun. Estate plans are being revised, trusts are being created and giving strategies are being planned to remove assets from the grantor generations’ estates and take advantage of the current high tax exemption.

Congress is still figuring out what changes will be made. In addition, no one knows if these changes will be retroactive to 2021 if they are made in the third quarter of 2021, or if they will be enacted on January 1, 2022.

Without knowing what the final changes will be, any planning now should be made with a long-term framework for the family.

Estate planning can be considered in three steps:

The grantor generation needs to consider the purpose of their wealth. Do they want to continue a family business, give the majority of their wealth to a charitable organization, or pass it all to their children and grandchildren?

What does it mean to treat beneficiaries fairly? If one child is teacher, while the other has built and grown a highly successful business, do both children inherit the same amount? What if one of the children has a child with Special Needs?

The grantor generation needs to communicate with their heirs. Heirs often don’t learn about their parent’s intentions, tax planning or charitable giving, until after they have passed. It’s far better to talk about the parent’s wishes and their reasoning while they are living. Without these conversations, families suffering from loss must add sibling quarrels and sometimes, estate litigation, to an already difficult time. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney who can directly you.

Financial Advisor Magazine (May 20, 2021) “Are We Leaving a ‘Golden Age’ For Estate Planning”

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Can Estate Taxes 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 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 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. Contact your estate planning attorney to review your plan.

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”

 

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

 

Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid?

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.  Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships. It would be wise to reach out to your estate planning attorney to review your estate plan. If you have not prepared estate planning documents, contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare them for you.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some errors to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. Yes, even justices make mistakes with estate planning! He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared will could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety. Use an experienced estate planning attorney.

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions. If you are leaving more money to one child than to another, it would be a great kindness to the children’s relationship, if you explained why you are doing so. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan and a valid will in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have a HIPAA release form and Power of Attorney for Health Care, so you are able to speak with each other’s medical providers. You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare these documents.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.

Please don’t be naive about caregivers with designs on your assets or relatives, who appear after long periods of estrangement.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances. However, this must remain front and center during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

 

How Much Should We Tell the Children about the Estate Plan?

Congratulations, if you have finished your estate plan, you and your estate planning attorney created a plan that is suited for your family, you have checked on beneficiary designations, signed all of the necessary documents and named an executor to carry out your directions when you pass. However, have you talked about your estate plan with your adult children? That is the issue explored in the recent article entitled “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate” from CNBC. It can be a tricky one.

There are certain parts of estate plans that should be shared with adult children, even if money is not among them. Family conflict is common in many cases, whether the estate is worth $50,000 or $50 million. So, even if your estate plan is perfect, it might hold a number of surprises for your children, if you don’t speak with them while you are living.  The best estate plan can bequeath resentment and enduring family conflicts, if family members don’t have a head’s up about what you’ve planned and why.

If you die without a will, there can be even more problems for the family. With no will—called dying “intestate”—it is up to the courts in your state to decide who inherits what. This is a public process, so your life’s work is on display for all to see. If your heirs have a history of fighting, especially over who deserves what, dying without a will can make a bad family situation worse.

Not everything about an estate plan has to do with distribution of possessions. Much of an estate plan is concerned with protecting you, while you are alive.  For starters, your estate planning attorney can help you with a Power of Attorney. You’ll name a person who will handle your finances, if you become unable to do so because of illness or injury. A Healthcare Power of Attorney is used to empower a trusted person to make medical decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. Some estate planning attorneys recommend having a Living Will, also called an Advance Healthcare Directive, to convey end-of-life wishes, if you want to be kept alive through artificial means.

These documents do not require that you name a family member. A friend or colleague you trust and know to be responsible can carry out your wishes and can be named to any of these positions.  All of these matters should be discussed with your children. Even if you don’t want them to know about the assets in your estate, they should be told who will be responsible for making decisions on your finances and health care.

Consider if you want your children to learn about your finances during your lifetime, when you are able to discuss your choices with them, or if they will learn about them after you have passed, possibly from a stranger or from reading court documents.

Many of these decisions depend upon your family’s dynamics. Do your children work well together, or are there deep-seated hostilities that will lead to endless battles? You know your own children best, so this is a decision only you can make.

It is also important to take into consideration that an unexpected large inheritance can create emotional turbulence for many people. If heirs have never handled any sizable finances before, or if they have a marriage on shaky ground, an unexpected inheritance could create very real problems—and a divorce could put their inheritance at risk.

Talk with your children, if at all possible. Erring on the side of over-communicating might be a better mistake than leaving them in the dark. You may want to schedule an appointment with your estate planning attorney and have the family in for a meeting.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 11, 2020) “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate”

 

How Can Estate Planning Address the Troubled Child?

Every family has unique challenges when planning for the future, and every family needs to consider its individual beneficiaries in an honest light, even when the view isn’t pretty. Concerns may range from adults with substance abuse problems, an inability to make good decisions, or siblings with worrisome marriages. These situations can be addressed through estate planning documents, says the article “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries” from Kiplinger.

How can you prepare your estate, when a problem child has grown into an adult with problems?

You have the option of not dividing your estate equally to beneficiaries.

Disinheriting a beneficiary occurs for a variety of reasons and is more common than you might think. If you have already given one child a down payment on a home, while another has gone through two divorces, you may want to make plans for one child to receive their share of the inheritance through a trust to protect them.

A family member who is disabled may benefit from a more generous inheritance than a successful sibling—although that inheritance must be structured properly, if the disabled person is to continue receiving support from government programs.

No matter the reason for unequal distributions, discuss the reasons for the difference in your estate plan with your family, or if your estate planning attorney advises it, include a discussion of your reasons in a document. This buttresses your plan against any claims against the estate and may prevent hard feelings between siblings.

You can change your mind about your estate plan if your ‘wild child’ gets his life together.

A regular evaluation of your estate plan—every three or four years, or whenever big life events occur—is always recommended. If your wayward child finds his footing and you want to change how he is treated in your estate plan, you can do that.

Your estate plan can include incentives, even after you are gone.

Specific provisions in a trust can be used to reward behavior. An incentive trust sets certain goals that must be met before funds are distributed, from completing college to maintaining employment or even to going through rehabilitation. Many estate plans stagger the distribution of funds, so heirs receive distributions over time, rather than all at once. An example: 1/3 at age 25, 1/2 at age 30 and the balance at age 40. This prevents the beneficiary from squandering all of his inheritance at once. Ideally, his financial skills grow, so he is better equipped to preserve a large sum at age 40.

Trusts are not that complicated, and their administration is not overly difficult.

People think trusts are for the wealthy only or are complicated and expensive. None of that is true. Trusts are excellent tools, considered the “Swiss Army Knife” of estate planning. Your estate planning attorney can craft trusts that will help you control how money flows to heirs, protect a special needs individual, minimize taxes and create a legacy. For families who have one or more “black sheep,” the trust is a perfect tool to protect your loved ones from themselves and their life choices.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 8, 2020) “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries”

 

How Do You Stop Family Fights Over an Inheritance?

More than two-thirds of all advisors surveyed by Key Private Bank said the hardest part of estate planning is navigating family dynamics, according to a 2019 survey. The sensitivities of simply talking about estate planning often present emotional challenges to putting a plan in place, especially when the family includes multiple marriages and blended families.

Advice is offered in a recent news article from CNBC, “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth.”

Much of the problem, experts say, stems from poor communication. A dialogue needs to be open between generations that is a two-way conversation. In most instances, the older generation needs to invite the younger generation to get the ball rolling.

A lack of clarity and transparency can lead to problems. One example is a father leaving the family farm to his children, with a plan that also included money to help run the farm and legal documents to help the transition go smoothly. However, the children didn’t want the farm. They wanted to sell. Disagreements broke out between siblings, and the family was bogged down in a big fight.

Clearly Dad needed to talk with the children, while his estate plan was being created. The children needed to be upfront and honest about their plans for the future, and the issue could have been solved before the father’s death. The lesson: talk about your wishes and your children’s wishes while you are living.

After someone dies, they may leave behind an entire estate, with a lifetime of personal items that they want to gift to family members. However, if these items are not listed in the will, the heirs have to decide amongst themselves who gets what. This is asking for trouble, whether the items have sentimental or financial value. In fact, sentimental items often generate the most controversy.

When conflicts arise, the presence of a third party who doesn’t have emotional attachments and is not embroiled in the family dynamics can be helpful.

If the issue is not addressed before death, there are a few ways to move forward. An estate planning attorney who has seen many families go through this process can offer suggestions while the will is being prepared. There are facilitators or mediators who can help, if things get really rocky.

Heirs may wish to create a list of items that they would like to be reviewed by the executor. This option works best, if the executor is not a sibling, otherwise charges of favoritism and “Mom always liked you best” can spiral into family spats.

Some families group items into buckets of equal value, others set up a lottery to determine who picks first, second, etc., and some families literally roll the dice to make decisions.

Contact a local experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 12, 2020) “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth”