Generally, it’s recommended that you review your estate plan at year’s end. It’s a good time to check whether any life events have taken place in the past 12 months or so that affect your plan.

However, with a life shock as monumental as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, now is a good time to review your estate planning documents to ensure that they’re up to date — especially if you haven’t reviewed them in a number of years.

When revisions might be needed

The following list isn’t all-inclusive by any means, but it can give you a good idea of when estate plan revisions may be needed:

  • Your marriage, divorce or remarriage,
  • The birth or adoption of a child, grandchild or great-grandchild,
  • The death of a spouse or another family member,
  • The illness or disability of you, your spouse or another family member,
  • A child or grandchild reaching the age of majority,
  • Sizable changes in the value of assets you own,
  • The sale or purchase of a principal residence or second home,
  • Your retirement or retirement of your spouse,
  • Receipt of a large gift or inheritance, and
  • Sizable changes in the value of assets you own.

It’s also important to review your estate plan when there’ve been changes in federal or state income tax or estate tax laws.

Will and powers of attorney

As part of your estate plan review, closely examine your will, powers of attorney and health care directives.

If you have minor children, your will should designate a guardian to care for them should you die prematurely, as well as make certain other provisions, such as creating trusts to benefit your children until they reach the age of majority, or perhaps even longer.

A durable power of attorney authorizes someone to handle your financial affairs if you’re disabled or otherwise unable to act. Likewise, a medical durable power of attorney authorizes someone to handle your medical decision making if you’re disabled or unable to act. The powers of attorney expire upon your death.

Typically, these powers of attorney are coordinated with a living will and other health care directives. A living will spells out your wishes concerning life-sustaining measures in the event of a terminal illness. It says what measures should be used, withheld or withdrawn.

Changes in your family or your personal circumstances might cause you to want to change beneficiaries, guardians or power-of-attorney agents you’ve previously named.

Find calm in the middle of a storm

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many people’s thoughts are turning to their families. Updating and revising your estate plan today can provide you peace of mind that your loved ones will be taken care of in the future. We can help you determine if any revisions are needed.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You may have heard that the federal income tax filing and payment deadline has been extended from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020, to provide relief for taxpayers adversely affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

What you may have missed is that the U.S. Treasury Department also extended the April 15, 2020, federal gift tax filing and payment deadline to July 15, 2020.

Filing gift tax returns

Generally, filing Form 709 — “United States Gift (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return” is required if you make gifts to or for someone during the year (with certain exceptions, such as gifts to U.S. citizen spouses) that exceed the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 for 2019 and 2020). There’s a separate exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse ($155,000 for 2019 and $157,000 for 2020).

Also, if you make gifts of future interests, even if they’re less than the annual exclusion amount, a gift tax return is required. Finally, if you split gifts with your spouse, regardless of amount, you must file a gift tax return.

As mentioned above, the deadline for filing a gift tax return has been extended to July 15, 2020. Being required to file a form doesn’t necessarily mean you owe gift tax. You’ll owe tax only if you’ve already exhausted your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($11.40 million for 2019 and $11.58 million for 2020). And you’re still allowed to request a filing and payment deadline extension to October 15, 2020.

Penalties and interest

Be aware that no interest, penalty or additions to tax for failure to file a Form 709 or to pay federal gift tax will be calculated on the postponed taxes for the period from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020. However, interest, penalties and additions to tax will begin to accrue on July 16, 2020.

Seek professional help

Estate tax rules and regulations can be complicated. If you need help determining whether a gift tax return needs to be filed, contact us. We’d be pleased to help.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you’ve invented something during your lifetime and had it patented, your estate includes intellectual property (IP). The same goes for any copyrighted works. These assets can hold substantial value, and, thus, must be addressed by your estate plan. However, bear in mind that these assets are generally treated differently than other types of property.

4 categories of IP

IP generally falls into one of four categories: patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. Let’s focus on only patents and copyrights, which are protected by federal law in order to promote scientific and creative endeavors by providing inventors and artists with exclusive rights to benefit economically from their work for a certain period.

In a nutshell, patents protect inventions, and the two most common are utility and design patents. Under current law, utility patents protect an invention for 20 years from the patent application filing date. Design patents last 15 years from the patent issue date. For utility patents, it typically takes at least a year to a year and a half from the date of filing to the date of issue.

When it comes to copyrights, they protect the original expression of ideas that are fixed in a “tangible medium of expression,” typically in the form of written works, music, paintings, film and photographs. Unlike patents, which must be approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, copyright protection kicks in as soon as a work is fixed in a tangible medium.

Valuing and transferring IP

Valuing IP is a complex process. So, it’s best to obtain an appraisal from a professional with experience valuing this commodity.

After you know the IP’s value, it’s time to decide whether to transfer the IP to family members, colleagues, charities or others through lifetime gifts or through bequests after your death. The gift and estate tax consequences will affect your decision. But you also should consider your income needs, as well as who’s in the best position to monitor your IP rights and take advantage of their benefits.

If you’ll continue to depend on the IP for your livelihood, for example, hold on to it at least until you’re ready to retire or you no longer need the income. You also might want to retain ownership of the IP if you feel that your children or other transferees lack the desire or wherewithal to take advantage of its economic potential and monitor and protect it against infringers.

Whichever strategy you choose, it’s important to plan the transaction carefully to ensure your objectives are achieved. There’s a common misconception that, when you transfer ownership of the tangible medium on which IP is recorded, you also transfer the IP rights. But IP rights are separate from the work itself and are retained by the creator.

Revise your plan accordingly

If you own patents or copyrights, you probably have great interest in who’ll take possession of your work after you’re gone. Contact us with any questions on how to incorporate IP in your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You may have several different types of trusts in your estate plan. In general, to achieve the greatest tax savings, these trusts must be irrevocable, thus requiring you to give up control over the trust assets.

Even though you appoint a trustee to oversee distribution of the trust’s assets, you can go a step further by appointing a trust protector. This person will serve as an overseer of the trustee’s actions. Taking this step can also provide you peace of mind because the trust protector has the power to alter the trust in light of changing family situations or tax laws.

Powers available

Essentially, a trust protector is to a trustee what a corporate board of directors is to a CEO. A trustee manages the trust on a day-to-day basis. The protector oversees the trustee and weighs in on critical decisions, such as the sale of closely held business interests or investment transactions involving large dollar amounts.

You can confer broad powers on a trust protector. Examples include the power to:

  • Remove or replace a trustee,
  • Appoint a successor trustee or successor trust protector,
  • Amend the trust terms to correct administrative provisions, clarify ambiguous language or alter beneficiaries’ interests to comply with new laws or reflect changed circumstances, and
  • Terminate the trust.

While it may be tempting to provide a protector with a broad range of powers, it’s important to note that this can hamper the trustee’s ability to manage the trust efficiently.

Trust protector in action

Trust protectors offer many benefits. For example, a protector with the power to remove and replace the trustee can do so if the trustee develops a conflict of interest or fails to manage the trust assets in the beneficiaries’ best interests.

A protector with the power to modify the trust’s terms can correct mistakes in the trust document or clarify ambiguous language.

Choosing the right person

Appointing the right trust protector is critical. Given the power he or she has over your family’s wealth, you’ll want to choose someone whom you trust and who’s qualified to make investment and other financial decisions.

Many people appoint a trusted advisor — such as an accountant, attorney or investment advisor — who may not be able or willing to serve as trustee but who can provide an extra layer of protection by monitoring the trustee’s performance.

Choosing a family member as protector is possible, but it can be risky. If the protector is a beneficiary or has the power to direct the trust assets to him- or herself (or for his or her benefit), this power could be treated as a general power of appointment, exposing the protector to gift and estate tax liability and potentially triggering other negative tax consequences.

Due diligence is a must

Before deciding on appointing a trust protector, contact us. It’s important to review the trusts in your estate plan to ensure they’re drafted in such a way that there are no misunderstandings regarding the protector’s role and the authority you grant him or her.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you have a life insurance policy, you probably want to make sure that the life insurance benefits your family will receive after your death won’t be included in your estate. That way, the benefits won’t be subject to the federal estate tax.

Under the estate tax rules, life insurance will be included in your taxable estate if either:

  • Your estate is the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds, or
  • You possessed certain economic ownership rights (called “incidents of ownership”) in the policy at your death (or within three years of your death).

The first situation is easy to avoid. You can just make sure your estate isn’t designated as beneficiary of the policy.

The second situation is more complicated. It’s clear that if you’re the owner of the policy, the proceeds will be included in your estate regardless of the beneficiary. However, simply having someone else possess legal title to the policy won’t prevent this result if you keep so-called “incidents of ownership” in the policy. If held by you, the rights that will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate include:

  • The right to change beneficiaries,
  • The right to assign the policy (or revoke an assignment),
  • The right to borrow against the policy’s cash surrender value,
  • The right to pledge the policy as security for a loan, and
  • The right to surrender or cancel the policy.

Keep in mind that merely having any of the above powers will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate even if you never exercise the power.

Buy-sell agreements

If life insurance is obtained to fund a buy-sell agreement for a business interest under a “cross-purchase” arrangement, it won’t be taxed in your estate (unless the estate is named as beneficiary). For example, say Andrew and Bob are partners who agree that the partnership interest of the first of them to die will be bought by the surviving partner. To fund these obligations, Andrew buys a life insurance policy on Bob’s life. Andrew pays all the premiums, retains all incidents of ownership, and names himself as beneficiary. Bob does the same regarding Andrew. When the first partner dies, the insurance proceeds aren’t taxed in the first partner’s estate.

Life insurance trusts

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is an effective vehicle that can be set up to keep life insurance proceeds from being taxed in the insured’s estate. Typically, the policy is transferred to the trust along with assets that can be used to pay future premiums. Alternatively, the trust buys the insurance with funds contributed by the insured person. So long as the trust agreement gives the insured person none of the ownership rights described above, the proceeds won’t be included in his or her estate.

The three-year rule

If you’re considering setting up a life insurance trust with a policy you own now or you just want to assign away your ownership rights in a policy, contact us to help you make these moves. Unless you live for at least three years after these steps are taken, the proceeds will be taxed in your estate. For policies in which you never held incidents of ownership, the three-year rule doesn’t apply. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions about your situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Payable-on-death (POD) accounts provide a quick, simple and inexpensive way to transfer assets outside of probate. They can be used for bank accounts, certificates of deposit or even brokerage accounts. Setting one up is as easy as providing the bank with a signed POD beneficiary designation form. When you die, your beneficiaries just need to present a certified copy of the death certificate and their identification to the bank, and the money or securities are theirs.

Beware of pitfalls

POD accounts can backfire if they’re not coordinated carefully with the rest of your estate plan. Too often, people designate an account as POD as an afterthought without considering whether it may conflict with their wills, trusts or other estate planning documents.

Suppose, for example, that Sam dies with a will that divides his property equally among his three children. He also has a $50,000 bank account that’s payable on death to his oldest child. If the other two children want to fight over it, the conflict between the will and POD designation must be resolved in court, which delays the distribution of Sam’s estate and can generate substantial attorneys’ fees.

Another potential problem with POD accounts is that if you use them for most of your assets, the assets left in your estate may be insufficient to pay debts, taxes or other expenses. Your executor would then have to initiate a proceeding to bring assets back into the estate.

POD best practices

Generally, POD accounts are best used to hold a modest amount of funds that are available immediately to your executor or other representative to pay funeral expenses or other pressing cash needs while your estate is being administered. Using these accounts for more substantial assets could lead to intrafamily disputes or costly litigation.

If you use POD accounts as part of your estate plan, be sure to review the rest of your plan carefully to avoid potential conflicts. Contact us with any questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Whether you’re moving to another country for work-related reasons, retirement or simply want an opportunity to experience a new culture, it’s important to understand the potential tax and estate planning implications. If you don’t, you could be hit with some unpleasant surprises. Here are three possible pitfalls:

Double taxation. If you’re a citizen of the United States, U.S. taxes will apply even after you move to another country. So if your estate is large, you might be subject to gift and estate taxes in your new country and in the United States (possibly including state taxes if you maintain a residence in a U.S. state). You also could be subject to estate taxes abroad even if your estate isn’t large enough to be subject to U.S. estate taxes. In some cases, you can claim a credit against U.S. taxes for taxes you pay to another country, but these credits aren’t always available.

One option for avoiding U.S. taxes is to relinquish your U.S. citizenship. But this strategy raises a host of legal and tax issues of its own, including potential liability for a one-time “expatriation tax.”

Real estate issues. If you wish to purchase a home in a foreign country, you may discover that your ability to acquire property is restricted. Some countries, for example, prohibit foreigners from owning real estate that’s within a certain distance from the coast or even throughout the country. It may be possible to bypass these restrictions by using a corporation or trust to hold property, but this can create burdensome tax issues for U.S. citizens.

Unfamiliar inheritance rules. If you own real estate or other property in a foreign country, your heirs may run up against unusual inheritance rules. In some countries, for example, your children have priority over your spouse, regardless of the terms of your will.

Review before you relocate

If you’re considering a move overseas, discuss your plans with us before making a move. We can review your estate plan and finances and make recommendations to help avoid tax pitfalls after you relocate.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

A financial power of attorney can be a valuable planning tool. The most common type is the durable power of attorney, which allows someone (the agent) to act on the behalf of another person (the principal) even if the person becomes mentally incompetent or otherwise incapacitated. It authorizes the agent to manage the principal’s investments, pay bills, file tax returns and handle other financial matters if the principal is unable to do so as a result of illness, injury, advancing age or other circumstances.

However, a disadvantage of a power of attorney is that it may be susceptible to abuse by scam artists, dishonest caretakers or greedy relatives.

Watch out for your loved ones

A broadly written power of attorney gives an agent unfettered access to the principal’s bank and brokerage accounts, real estate, and other assets. In the right hands, this can be a huge help in managing a person’s financial affairs when the person isn’t able to do so him- or herself. But in the wrong hands, it provides an ample opportunity for financial harm.

Many people believe that, once an agent has been given a power of attorney, there’s little that can be done to stop the agent from misappropriating money or property. Fortunately, that’s not the case.

If you suspect that an elderly family member is a victim of financial abuse by the holder of a power of attorney, contact an attorney as soon as possible. An agent has a fiduciary duty to the principal, requiring him or her to act with the utmost good faith and loyalty when acting on the principal’s behalf. So your relative may be able to sue the agent for breach of fiduciary duty and obtain injunctive relief, damages (including punitive damages) and attorneys’ fees.

Take steps to prevent abuse

If you or a family member plans to execute a power of attorney, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of abuse:

  • Make sure the agent is someone you know and trust.
  • Consider using a “springing” power of attorney, which doesn’t take effect until certain conditions are met, such as a physician’s certification that the principal has become incapacitated.
  • Use a “special” or “limited” power of attorney that details the agent’s specific powers. (The drawback of this approach is that it limits the agent’s ability to deal with unanticipated circumstances.)
  • Appoint a “monitor” or other third party to review transactions executed by the agent and require the monitor’s approval of transactions over a certain dollar amount.
  • Provide that the appointment of a guardian automatically revokes the power of attorney.

Some state laws contain special requirements, such as a separate rider, to authorize an agent to make large gifts or conduct other major transactions.

Act now

If you’re pursuing legal remedies against an agent, the sooner you proceed, the greater your chances of recovery. And if you wish to execute or revoke a power of attorney for yourself, you need to do so while you’re mentally competent. Contact us with questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you’re in line to inherit property from a parent or other loved one, it’s critical to understand the basis consistency rules. Current tax law, passed in 2015, provides that the income tax basis of property received from a deceased person can’t exceed the property’s fair market value (FMV) as finally determined for estate tax purposes.

Prior law

Before the 2015 tax law change, estates and their beneficiaries had conflicting incentives when it came to the valuation of a deceased person’s property. Executors had an incentive to value property as low as possible to minimize estate taxes, while beneficiaries had an incentive to value property as high as possible to minimize capital gains, if they decided to sell the property.

Current law

The 2015 law requires consistency between a property’s basis reflected on an estate tax return and the basis used to calculate gain when it’s sold by the person who inherits it. It provides that the basis of property in the hands of a beneficiary may not exceed its value as finally determined for estate tax purposes.

Generally, a property’s value is finally determined when:

  • Its value is reported on a federal estate tax return and the IRS doesn’t challenge it before the limitations period expires,
  • The IRS determines its value and the executor doesn’t challenge it before the limitations period expires, or
  • Its value is determined according to a court order or agreement.

But the basis consistency rule isn’t a factor in all situations. The rule doesn’t apply to property unless its inclusion in the deceased’s estate increased the liability for estate taxes. So, for example, the rule doesn’t apply if the value of the deceased’s estate is less than his or her unused exemption amount.

Beware of failure-to-file penalties

Current law also requires estates to furnish information about the value of inherited property to the IRS and the person who inherits it. Estates that fail to comply with these reporting requirements are subject to failure-to-file penalties.

An accurate valuation is key

The basis consistency rules can be complex. The bottom line is that if you inherit property from a person whose estate is liable for estate tax, it’s important that the property’s value be accurately reported on the deceased’s estate tax return. Contact us with any questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Virtually everyone needs an estate plan, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Even though each person’s situation is unique, general guidelines can be drawn depending on your current stage of life.

The early years

If you’ve recently embarked on a career, gotten married or both, now is the time to build the foundation for your estate plan. And, if you’ve recently started a family, estate planning is even more critical.

Your will is at the forefront. Essentially, this document divides up your accumulated wealth upon death by deciding who gets what, where, when and how. With a basic will, you may, for instance, leave all your possessions to your spouse. If you have children, you might bequeath some assets to them through a trust managed by a designated party.

A will also designates the guardian of your children if you and your spouse should die prematurely. Make sure to include a successor in case your first choice is unable to meet the responsibilities.

During your early years, your will may be supplemented by other documents, including trusts, if it makes sense personally. In addition, you may have a durable power of attorney that authorizes someone to manage your financial affairs if you’re incapacitated. Frequently, the agent will be your spouse. Also, obtain insurance protection appropriate for your lifestyle.

The middle years

If you’re a middle-aged parent, your main financial goals might be to acquire a home, or perhaps a larger home, and to set aside enough money to cover retirement goals and put your children through college. So you should modify your existing estate planning documents to meet your changing needs.

For instance, if you have a will in place, you should periodically review and revise it to reflect your current circumstances. Typically, minor revisions to a will can be achieved through a codicil. If significant changes are required, your attorney can rewrite the will entirely.

If you and your spouse decide to divorce, it’s critical to review and revise your estate plan to avoid unwanted outcomes.

The later years

Once you’ve reached retirement, you can usually relax somewhat, assuming you’re in good financial shape. But that doesn’t mean estate planning ends. It’s just time for the next chapter.

If you haven’t already done so, have your attorney draft a living will to complement a health care power of attorney. This document provides guidance in life-ending situations and can ease the stress for loved ones.

Finally, create or fine-tune, if you already have one written, a letter of instructions. Although not legally binding, it can provide an inventory of assets and offer directions concerning your financial affairs.

Revisit your plan periodically

Regardless of the stage of life you’re currently in, it’s important to bear in mind that your estate plan isn’t a static document. We can help review and revise your plan as needed.

© 2020 Covenant CPA