With the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption at $11.40 million for 2019 ($11.58 million for 2020), you may think you don’t have to worry about gift and estate taxes.

However, there are no guarantees that estate tax law won’t be revised in the future or that your accumulated assets won’t eventually exceed the available exemption (which is scheduled to drop significantly in 2026). Thus, there’s a need to investigate other tax-saving possibilities.

Beyond annual exclusion gifts

Under the annual gift tax exclusion, you can reduce your taxable estate without using up any of your lifetime exemption by giving each recipient gifts valued up to $15,000 a year. For example, if you have three children and seven grandchildren, you can give each one $15,000 tax free, for a total of $150,000 in 2019. If your spouse joins in the gifts, the tax-free total is doubled to $300,000.

But what if you want to give away more without dipping into your lifetime exemption? Then direct payments of medical expenses or tuition may be right for you.

Ins and outs of direct payments

If you pay medical expenses on behalf of someone directly to a health care provider, those payments are exempt from gift tax above and beyond any amount covered by the annual gift tax exclusion. The same is true for paying the tuition expenses of a student directly to the school.

For example, if you give your granddaughter $15,000 in 2019 and then pay her $35,000 tuition bill at an elite private college, the entire $50,000 is sheltered from gift tax. But remember that the gift must be made directly to the educational institution (or health care provider). If you give the money to your granddaughter and she uses it to pay the tuition, the amount won’t be eligible for the direct payment exemption.

On the other hand, direct payments of tuition can reduce a student’s eligibility for financial aid on a dollar-for-dollar basis, while with gifts made directly to the student, only 20% of the gifted assets would be counted as assets of the student for financial aid purposes. Accordingly, careful analysis of the trade-offs between the potential tax savings and impairment of financial aid eligibility should be considered. Contact us with any questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Don’t be afraid of probate

The word “probate” may conjure images of lengthy delays waiting for wealth to be transferred and bitter disputes among family members. Plus, probate records are open to the public, so all your “dirty linen” may be aired. The reality is that probate doesn’t have to be so terrible, and often isn’t, but both asset owners and their heirs should know what’s in store.

Defining probate

In basic terms, probate is the process of settling an estate and passing legal title of ownership of assets to heirs. If the deceased person has a valid will, probate begins when the executor named in the will presents the document in the county courthouse. If there’s no will — the deceased has died “intestate” in legal parlance — the court will appoint someone to administer the estate. Thereafter, this person becomes the estate’s legal representative.

Probate is predicated on state law, so the exact process varies from state to state. This has led to numerous misconceptions about the length of probate. On average, the process takes six to nine months, but it can run longer for complex situations in certain states.

Planning to avoid probate

Certain assets are automatically exempt from probate. But you also may be able to avoid the process with additional planning. The easiest way to do this is through the initial form of ownership or use of a living trust.

By using joint ownership with rights of survivorship, you acquire the property with another party, such as your spouse. The property then automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant on the death of the deceased joint tenant. This form of ownership typically is used when a married couple buys a home or other real estate. Similarly, with a tenancy by entirety, which is limited to married couples, the property goes to the surviving spouse without being probated.

A revocable living trust is often used to avoid probate and protect privacy. The assets transferred to the trust, managed by a trustee, pass to the designated beneficiaries on your death. Thus, you may coordinate your will with a living trust, providing a quick transfer of wealth for some assets. You can act as the trustee and retain control over these assets during your lifetime.

Achieving all estate planning goals

When it comes to probate planning, discuss your options with family members to develop the best approach for your personal situation. Also, bear in mind that avoiding probate should be only one goal of your estate plan. We can help you develop a strategy that minimizes probate while reducing taxes and achieving your other goals.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced individual income tax rates, but it left the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) in place. It’s important to address the NIIT in your estate plan, because it can erode your earnings from interest, dividends, capital gains and other investments, leaving less for your heirs.

How it works

The NIIT applies to individuals with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over $200,000. The threshold is $250,000 for joint filers and qualifying widows or widowers and $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately. The tax is equal to 3.8% of 1) your net investment income, or 2) the amount by which your MAGI exceeds the threshold, whichever is less.

Suppose, for example, that you’re married filing jointly and you have $350,000 in MAGI. Presuming $125,000 in net investment income, your NIIT is 3.8% of $100,000 (the excess of your MAGI over the threshold, which is less than your net investment income), or $3,800.

Nongrantor trusts — with limited exceptions — are also subject to the NIIT, and at a much lower threshold: For 2019, the tax applies to the lesser of 1) the trust’s undistributed net investment income or 2) the amount by which the trust’s AGI exceeds $12,751.

Reducing the tax

You can reduce or eliminate the NIIT by lowering your MAGI, lowering your net investment income, or both. Techniques for doing so include:

  • Reducing this year’s MAGI by deferring income, accelerating expenses or maxing out contributions to retirement accounts,
  • Selling poor-performing investments to offset the losses against investment gains you’ve realized during the year, or
  • Reducing net investment income by investing in tax-exempt municipal bonds or in growth stocks that generate little or no current income.

If you own an interest in a business, you may be able to reduce NIIT by increasing your level of participation. Income from a business in which you “materially participate” isn’t considered net investment income. (But keep in mind that increasing your participation may, in certain cases, trigger self-employment tax liability.)

For trusts, you can reduce or eliminate the NIIT by:

  • Structuring them as grantor trusts,
  • Distributing the trust’s income to its beneficiaries (remember, the NIIT applies only to undistributed income), or
  • Shifting the trust’s investments into tax-exempt municipal bonds, growth stocks or tax-deferred investments (such as life insurance).

Keep in mind that, if you use a grantor trust, its income will be passed through to you as grantor, potentially increasing your personal liability for NIIT.

Review your plan

The NIIT can affect the financial performance of your personal investments as well as your trusts. To maximize the amount of wealth available for your heirs, be sure to consider strategies for reducing the impact of this tax. Contact us with any questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

There are good reasons why estate planning advisors recommend you revisit and, if necessary, revise your estate plan periodically: changing circumstances, including family situations and new tax laws. While it’s relatively simple to change a beneficiary, what if an irrevocable trust no longer serves your purposes? Depending on applicable state law, you may have options to fix a “broken” trust.

Reasons why a trust can break

A trust that works just fine when it’s established may no longer achieve its original goals if your family circumstances change. If you divorce, for example, a trust for the benefit of your spouse may no longer be desirable. If your children grow up to be financially independent, they may prefer that you leave your wealth to their children. Or perhaps you prefer not to share your wealth with a beneficiary who has developed a drug or alcohol problem or has proven to be profligate.

Another reason is new tax laws. Many trusts were created when gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption amounts were relatively low. Today, however, the exemptions have risen to $11.4 million, so trusts designed to minimize gift, estate and GST taxes may no longer be necessary. And with transfer taxes out of the picture, the higher income taxes often associated with these trusts — previously overshadowed by transfer tax concerns — become a more important factor.

Here are possible remedies

If you have one or more trusts in need of repair, you may have several remedies at your disposal, depending on applicable law in the state where you live and, if different, in the state where the trust is located. Potential remedies include:

Re-formation. The Uniform Trust Code (UTC), adopted in more than half the states, provides several remedies for broken trusts. Non-UTC states may provide similar remedies. Re-formation allows you to ask a court to rewrite a trust’s terms to conform with the grantor’s intent. This remedy is available if the trust’s original terms were based on a legal or factual mistake.

Modification. This remedy may be available, also through court proceedings, if unanticipated circumstances require changes in order to achieve the trust’s purposes. Some states permit modification — even if it’s inconsistent with the trust’s purposes — with the consent of the grantor and all the beneficiaries.

Decanting. Many states have decanting laws, which allow a trustee, according to his or her distribution powers, to “pour” funds from one trust into another with different terms and even in a different location. Depending on your circumstances and applicable state law, decanting may allow a trustee to correct errors, take advantage of new tax laws or another state’s asset protection laws, add or eliminate beneficiaries, extend the trust term, and make other changes, often without court approval.

Before you make any changes, it’s critical to consult your attorney and tax advisor to discuss the potential benefits and risks.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Despite what you might think, estate planning isn’t limited to only the rich and famous. In fact, your family is likely to benefit from a comprehensive plan that divides your wealth, protects your well-being and provides a compass for your family’s future.

Dividing your wealth

Estate planning is often associated with the division of your assets, and this is certainly a key component. It’s typically accomplished, for the most part, by drafting a will, which is the foundation of an estate plan.

With a valid will, you determine who gets what. It can cover everything from the securities in your portfolio to personal property, such as cars, artwork or other family heirlooms.

In contrast, if you die without a will — referred to as dying “intestate” — state law will control the disposition of your assets. This may result in unintended consequences. For example, children from a prior marriage may be excluded if state law dictates that all assets are to go to a surviving spouse.

In addition, you’ll need to name the executor of your estate. He or she will be responsible for carrying out your wishes according to your will. Your executor may be a professional, a family member or a friend. Also, designate a successor in case your first choice is unable to handle the duties.

Understanding probate

If your estate plan includes only a will, your estate will most likely have to go through probate. Probate is a court-supervised process to protect the rights of creditors and beneficiaries and to ensure the orderly and timely transfer of assets. The complexity and duration of probate depends on the size of your estate and state law.

If you transfer assets to a living trust, those assets are exempt from the probate process. Thus, a living trust may supplement a will, giving heirs fast access to funds.

Protecting your well-being

An estate plan can help ensure that your long-term health care is handled in the way that you wish. Notably, you can create a health care power of attorney. It grants another person — for example, a family member or a friend — the right to act on your behalf in the event you’re incapacitated. A power of attorney may be coordinated with a living will specifying your wishes in end-of-life situations, along with other health care directives.

Providing a compass

Finally, an estate plan can accomplish a variety of other objectives, depending on your preferences and circumstances. If you have minor children, you can name a guardian in your will in the event of your premature death. Without such a provision, the courts will appoint a guardian, regardless of your intent.

Your estate plan can also protect against creditors, primarily through trusts designed for these purposes. Accordingly, while trusts were often seen mainly as tax-saving devices in the past, they can fulfill a multitude of other roles.

Let the planning begin

Now that the need for an estate plan is clear, don’t delay any longer. Contact us to begin the process or if you have any questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Fewer people currently are subject to transfer taxes than ever before. But gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes continue to place a burden on families with significant amounts of wealth tied up in illiquid closely held businesses, including farms.

Fortunately, Internal Revenue Code Section 6166 provides some relief, allowing the estates of family business owners to defer estate taxes and pay them in installments if certain requirements are met.

Sec. 6166 benefits

For families with substantial closely held business interests, an election to defer estate taxes under Sec. 6166 can help them avoid having to sell business assets to pay estate taxes. It allows an estate to pay interest only (at modest rates) for four years and then to stretch out estate tax payments over 10 years in equal annual installments. The goal is to enable the estate to pay the taxes out of business earnings or otherwise to buy enough time to raise the necessary funds without disrupting business operations.

Be aware that deferral isn’t available for the entire estate tax liability. Rather, it’s limited to the amount of tax attributable to qualifying closely held business interests.

Sec. 6166 requirements

Estate tax deferral is available if 1) the deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident who owned a closely held business at the time of his or her death, 2) the value of the deceased’s interest in the business exceeds 35% of his or her adjusted gross estate, and 3) the estate’s executor or other personal representative makes a Sec. 6166 election on a timely filed estate tax return.

To qualify as a “closely held business,” an entity must conduct an active trade or business at the time of the deceased’s death (and only assets used to conduct that trade or business count for purposes of the 35% threshold). Merely managing investment assets isn’t enough.

In addition, a closely held business must be structured as:

  • A sole proprietorship,
  • A partnership (including certain limited liability companies taxed as partnerships), provided either 1) 20% or more of the entity’s total capital interest is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the entity has a maximum of 45 partners, or
  • A corporation, provided either 1) 20% or more of the corporation’s voting stock is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the corporation has a maximum of 45 shareholders.

Several special rules make it easier to satisfy Sec. 6166’s requirements. For example, if an estate holds interests in multiple closely held businesses, and owns at least 20% of each business, it may combine them and treat them as a single closely held business for purposes of the 35% threshold. In addition, the section treats stock and partnership interests held by certain family members as owned by the deceased.

On the other hand, the interests owned by corporations, partnerships, estates and trusts are attributed to the underlying shareholders, partners or beneficiaries. This can make it harder to stay under the 45-partner/shareholder limit.

Contact us with questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If philanthropy is an important part of your estate planning legacy, consider taking steps to ensure that your donations are used to fulfill your intended charitable purposes. Outright gifts can be risky, especially large donations that will benefit a charity over a long period of time.

Even if a charity is financially sound when you make a gift, there are no guarantees it won’t suffer financial distress, file for bankruptcy protection or even cease operations down the road. The last thing you probably want is for a charity to use your gifts to pay off its creditors or for some other purpose unrelated to the mission that inspired you to give in the first place.

One way to help preserve your charitable legacy is to place restrictions on the use of your gifts. For example, you might limit the use of your funds to assisting a specific constituency or funding medical research. These restrictions can be documented in your will or charitable trust or in a written gift or endowment fund agreement.

Depending on applicable federal and state law and other factors, carefully designed restrictions can prevent your funds from being used to satisfy creditors in the event of the charity’s bankruptcy. If these restrictions are successful, the funds will continue to be used according to your charitable intent, either by the original charity (in the case of a Chapter 11 reorganization) or by an alternate charity (in the case of a Chapter 7 liquidation).

In addition to restricting your gifts, it’s a good idea to research the charities you’re considering, to ensure they’re financially stable and use their funds efficiently and effectively. One powerful research tool is the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organization Search (TEOS). TEOS provides access to information about charitable organizations, including newly filed information returns (Forms 990), IRS determination letters and eligibility to receive tax-deductible contributions. Access TEOS here: https://bit.ly/1RYWq2x

If you have questions regarding your charitable donations, please contact us.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

One of the primary goals of estate planning is to put in writing how you want your wealth distributed to loved ones after your death. But what if you’d like to use that wealth to help a family member in need while you’re still alive? One way to do so is through intrafamily lending. If you’re considering making an intrafamily loan to your children or other family members, it’s worth a look at establishing a “family bank.”

Loan structure is important

Lending can be an effective way to provide your family financial assistance without triggering unwanted gift taxes. So long as a loan is structured in a manner similar to an arm’s-length loan between unrelated parties, it won’t be treated as a taxable gift.

This means, among other things:

  • Documenting the loan with a promissory note,
  • Charging interest at or above the applicable federal rate,
  • Establishing a fixed repayment schedule, and
  • Ensuring that the borrower has a reasonable prospect of repaying the loan.

Even if taxes aren’t a concern, intrafamily loans offer important benefits. For example, they allow you to help your family financially without depleting your wealth or creating a sense of entitlement. Done right, these loans can promote accountability and help cultivate the younger generation’s entrepreneurial capabilities by providing financing to start a business.

Too often, however, people lend money to family members with little planning or regard for potential unintended consequences. Rash lending decisions can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, conflicts among family members and false expectations. That’s where the family bank comes into play.

Family bank professionalizes intrafamily lending

A family bank is a family-owned, family-funded entity — such as a dynasty trust, a family limited partnership or a combination of the two — designed for the sole purpose of making intrafamily loans. Often, family banks are able to make financing available to family members who might have difficulty obtaining a loan from a bank or other traditional funding sources or to lend at more favorable terms.

By “professionalizing” family lending activities, a family bank can preserve the tax-saving power of intrafamily loans while minimizing negative consequences. The key to avoiding family conflicts and resentment is to build a strong family governance structure that promotes communication, group decision making and transparency.

Establishing clear guidelines regarding the types of loans the family bank is authorized to make — and allowing all family members to participate in the decision-making process — ensures that family members are treated fairly and avoids false expectations.

Contact us to learn more about the ins and outs of intrafamily lending.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you’re putting aside money for college or other educational expenses, consider a tax-advantaged 529 savings plan. Also known as “college savings plans,” 529 plans were expanded by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) to cover elementary and secondary school expenses as well. And while these plans are best known as an educational funding vehicle, they also offer estate planning benefits.

What do 529 plans cover?

529 plans allow you to contribute a substantial amount of cash (lifetime contribution limits can reach as high as $350,000 or more, depending on the plan) to a tax-advantaged investment account. Like a Roth IRA, contributions are nondeductible, but funds grow tax-deferred and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free provided they’re used for “qualified education expenses.”

Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, room and board and, under the TCJA, up to $10,000 per year in elementary or secondary school expenses. Earnings used for other purposes are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty.

What are the estate planning benefits?

These plans are unique among estate planning vehicles. Ordinarily, to shield assets from estate taxes, you must permanently relinquish all control over them. But contributions to a 529 plan are considered “completed gifts” — which means the assets are removed from your taxable estate, together with all future earnings on those assets — even though you retain considerable control over the money. For example, unlike most other estate planning vehicles, you can control the timing of distributions, change beneficiaries, move the funds into another 529 plan, or even cancel the plan and get your money back (subject to taxes and penalties).

As a completed gift, a 529 plan contribution is eligible for the annual gift tax exclusion (currently $15,000). But unlike other vehicles, you can bunch up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions into one year. This allows you to contribute up to $75,000 in one year, without triggering gift or generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes and without using up any of your lifetime exemption. There are implications, however, if you don’t survive the five years.

Why does it matter?

You might think that these benefits are of little value now that the TCJA has temporarily doubled the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption to an inflation-adjusted $10 million ($20 million for married couples who design their estate plans properly). This year, the exemption amount is $11.4 million ($22.8 million for married couples).

After all, few families are currently affected by these taxes. But it’s still a good idea to shield wealth from potential estate taxes and to make the most of your annual exclusion. This is because the new exemptions are scheduled to return to their previous levels after 2025 and there’s nothing to stop lawmakers from reducing the exemption in the future. 529 plans and other traditional estate planning tools provide some insurance against future estate tax changes.

Contact us to learn more about how a 529 plan can help achieve your estate planning and education goals.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Federal estate tax liability is no longer an issue for many families, now that the gift and estate tax exemption stands at $11.4 million for 2019. But there are still affluent individuals whose estates may be subject to hefty estate tax bills. If you expect your estate to have significant estate tax liability at your death, it’s critical to include a tax apportionment clause in your will or revocable trust.

An apportionment clause specifies how the estate tax burden will be allocated among your beneficiaries. Omission of this clause, or failure to word it carefully, may result in unintended consequences.

How to apportion estate taxes

There are many ways to apportion estate taxes. One option is to have all of the taxes paid out of assets passing through your will. Beneficiaries receiving assets outside your will — such as IRAs, retirement plans or life insurance proceeds — won’t bear any of the tax burden.

Another option is to allocate taxes among all beneficiaries, including those who receive assets outside your will. And yet another is to provide for the tax to be paid from your residuary estate — that is, the portion of your estate that remains after all specific gifts or requests have been made and all expenses and liabilities have been paid.

Omission of an apportionment clause

What if your will doesn’t have an apportionment clause? In that case, apportionment will be governed by applicable state law (although federal law covers certain situations).

Most states have some form of an “equitable apportionment” scheme. Essentially, this approach requires each beneficiary to pay the estate tax generated by the assets he or she receives. Some states provide for equitable apportionment among all beneficiaries while others limit apportionment to assets that pass through the will or to the residuary estate.

Often, state apportionment laws produce satisfactory results, but in some cases, they may be inconsistent with your wishes.

Avoid surprises

If you ignore tax apportionment when planning your estate, your wealth may not be distributed in the manner you intend. To avoid unpleasant surprises for your beneficiaries, be sure to include an apportionment clause that clearly spells out who will bear the burden of estate taxes. Contact us with any questions regarding taxes or estate planning.

© 2019 Covenant CPA