Generally, the proceeds of your life insurance policy are included in your taxable estate. You can remove them by transferring ownership of the policy, but there’s a catch: If you wait too long, your intentions may be defeated. Essentially, if ownership of the policy is transferred within three years of your death, the proceeds revert to your taxable estate.

Eliminating “incidents of ownership”

The proceeds of a life insurance policy are subject to federal estate tax if you retain any “incidents of ownership” in the policy. For example, you’re treated as having incidents of ownership if you have the right to:

  • Designate or change the policy’s beneficiary,
  • Borrow against the policy or pledge any cash reserve,
  • Surrender, convert or cancel the policy, or
  • Select a payment option for the beneficiary.

You can eliminate these incidents of ownership by transferring your policy. But first you need to determine who the new owner should be. To choose the best owner, consider why you want the insurance, such as to replace income, to provide liquidity or to transfer wealth to your heirs.

Understanding the ILIT option

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) can be one of the best ownership alternatives. Typically, if you transfer complete ownership of, and responsibility for, the policy to an ILIT, the policy will ― subject to the three years mentioned above ― be excluded from your estate. You’ll need to designate a trustee to handle the administrative duties. It might be a family member, a friend or a professional. Should you need any additional life insurance protection, it would work best if it were acquired by the ILIT from the outset.

An ILIT can also help you accomplish other estate planning objectives. It might be used to keep assets out of the clutches of creditors or to protect against spending sprees of your relatives. Also keep in mind that, as long as the policy has a named beneficiary, which in the case of an ILIT would be the ILIT itself, the proceeds of the life insurance policy won’t have to pass through probate.

The sooner, the better

If transferring ownership of your life insurance policy is right for you, the sooner you make the transfer, the better. Contact us with any questions regarding life insurance in your estate plan or ILITs.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Nearly everyone owns at least some digital assets, such as online bank and brokerage accounts, bill-paying services, cloud-based document storage, digital music collections, social media accounts, and domain names. But what happens to these assets when you die or if you become incapacitated?

The answer depends on several factors, including the terms of your service agreements with the custodians of digital assets, applicable laws and the terms of your estate plan. To reduce uncertainty, address your digital assets in your estate plan.

Pass on passwords

The simplest way to provide your family, executor or trustee with access to your digital assets is to leave a list of accounts and login credentials in a safe deposit box or other secure location. The disadvantage of this approach is that you’ll need to revise the list every time you change your password or add a new account. For this reason, consider storing this information using password management software and providing the master password to your representatives.

Or, you can use an online service designed for digital estate planning. These services store up-to-date information about your digital assets and establish procedures for releasing it to your designated beneficiary after your death or if you become incapacitated.

Know the law

Although sharing login credentials with your representatives is important, it’s no substitute for covering digital assets in your estate plan. For one thing, a third party who accesses your account without formal authorization may violate federal or state privacy laws.

In addition, many states have laws, such as the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA), that establish default rules regarding access to digital assets by executors, trustees and other fiduciaries. If those rules are inconsistent with your wishes, you’ll want to modify them in your plan.

The UFADAA allows people to provide for the disposition of digital assets using online settings offered by the account provider. For example, Facebook enables users to specify whether their accounts will be deleted or memorialized if they die and to designate a “legacy contact” to maintain their memorial pages.

The act also allows people to establish rules in their wills, trusts or powers of attorney. If users don’t have specific instructions regarding digital assets, the act allows the account provider’s service agreement to override default rules.

Take inventory

To ensure that your wishes are carried out, take inventory of your digital assets now. Then, talk to us about including these important assets in your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Some of the most effective estate planning strategies involve setting up irrevocable trusts. For a trust to be deemed irrevocable, you, the grantor, lose all incidents of ownership of the trust’s assets. In other words, you’re effectively removing those assets from your taxable estate.

But what if you’re uncomfortable placing your assets beyond your control? What happens if your financial fortunes take a turn for the worse after you’ve irrevocably transferred a sizable portion of your wealth? This may be an especially pertinent question in light of the current economic downturn resulting from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

If you’re married, and feel as though your marriage is strong, a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT) allows you to obtain the benefits of an irrevocable trust while creating a financial backup plan.

A SLAT in action

A SLAT is simply an irrevocable trust that authorizes the trustee to make distributions to your spouse if needs arise. Like other irrevocable trusts, a SLAT can be designed to benefit your children, grandchildren or future generations. You can use your lifetime gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions (currently, $11.58 million each) to shield contributions to the trust, as well as future appreciation, from transfer taxes. And the trust assets also receive some protection against claims by your beneficiaries’ creditors, including any former spouses.

The key benefit of a SLAT is that by naming your spouse as a lifetime beneficiary you retain indirect access to the trust assets. You can set up the trust to make distributions based on an “ascertainable standard” — such as your spouse’s health, education, maintenance or support — or you can give the trustee full discretion to distribute income or principal to your spouse.

To keep the trust assets out of your taxable estate, you must not act as trustee. You can appoint your spouse as trustee, but only if distributions are limited to an ascertainable standard. If you desire greater flexibility over distributions to your spouse, appoint an independent trustee. Also, the trust document must prohibit distributions in satisfaction of your legal support obligations.

Another critical requirement is to fund the trust with your separate property. If you use marital or community property, there’s a risk that the trust assets will end up in your spouse’s estate.

Understand the pitfalls

There’s a significant risk inherent in the SLAT strategy: If your spouse predeceases you, or if you and your spouse divorce, you’ll lose your indirect access to the trust assets. One way to mitigate this risk is to use dual SLATs. In other words, you and your spouse each establish an irrevocable trust using your separate property and naming each other as lifetime beneficiaries.

If you’re considering using a SLAT, or would like to learn about other estate planning strategies, contact us to learn more about the benefits and risks.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The economic fallout from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced business owners to reevaluate their operations and make difficult decisions. One place to look for the information you need to make rational, reasonable moves is your financial statements. Under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, these typically comprise a statement of cash flows, a balance sheet and an income statement.

Cash flow

A statement of cash flows should be organized into three sections: cash flows from operating, financing and investing activities. Ideally, a company generates enough cash from operations to cover its expenses.

For many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused revenue to drop precipitously without a proportionate decrease in certain (fixed) operating expenses. Keep a close eye on whether you’re reaching a danger point. To generate additional cash flow, you may need to borrow money — consider a Small Business Administration loan, if you’re eligible.

Assets and liabilities

Your balance sheet tallies your company’s assets, liabilities and net worth — creating a snapshot of its financial health on the statement date. Assets are typically listed in order of liquidity. Current assets (such as accounts receivable) are expected to be converted into cash within a year, while long-term assets (such as your plant and equipment) will be used to generate revenue beyond the next 12 months.

Similarly, liabilities are listed in order of maturity. Current liabilities (such as accounts payable) come due within a year, while long-term liabilities are payment obligations that extend beyond the current year.

As its name indicates, the balance sheet must balance — that is, assets must equal liabilities plus net worth. Net worth is the extent to which the book value of assets exceeds liabilities. In times of distress, certain assets (such as receivables, financial assets, pension funds and inventory) may need to be written off, and intangibles (such as brands and goodwill) may become impaired. These changes may cause the book value of a company’s net worth to be negative, suggesting that the business is insolvent. Other red flags include current assets growing faster than sales, and a deteriorating ratio of current assets to current liabilities.

Income and overhead

An income statement shows revenue and expenses over the accounting period. Revenue has fallen for many businesses as the result of social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, certain variable expenses — such as materials and direct labor costs — have also fallen.

Unfortunately, most fixed expenses — such as rent, equipment leasing fees, advertising, insurance premiums and manager salaries — are ongoing. Review costs that are categorized on the income statements as overhead and sales, general and administrative expenses. Consider whether you can scale back these items, renegotiate them or convert them into variable costs over the long run.

For example, you might return a leased copier that isn’t being used, decrease your insurance coverage or rely more on independent contractors, rather than employees, for certain tasks.

Sudden changes

Your existing financial statements may not account for the sudden changes inflicted upon businesses worldwide by COVID-19. We can assist you in evaluating them, gleaning insightful data using updated numbers, and generating new ones going forward.

© 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

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

If you reside in a high-tax state, you may want to consider using nongrantor trusts to soften the blow of the $10,000 federal limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions. The limit can significantly reduce itemized deductions if your state income and property taxes are well over $10,000. A potential strategy for avoiding the limit is to transfer interests in real estate to several nongrantor trusts, each of which enjoys its own $10,000 SALT deduction.

Grantor vs. nongrantor trusts

The main difference between a grantor and nongrantor trust is that a grantor trust is treated as your alter ego for tax purposes, while a nongrantor trust is treated as a separate entity. Traditionally, grantor trusts have been the vehicle of choice for estate planning purposes because the trust’s income is passed through to you, as grantor, and reported on your tax return.

That’s an advantage, because it allows the trust assets to grow tax-free, leaving more for your heirs. By paying the tax, you essentially provide an additional, tax-free gift to your loved ones that’s not limited by your gift tax exemption or annual gift tax exclusion. In addition, because the trust is an extension of you for tax purposes, you have the flexibility to sell property to the trust without triggering taxable gain.

Now that fewer families are subject to gift taxes, grantor trusts enjoy less of an advantage over nongrantor trusts. This creates an opportunity to employ nongrantor trusts to boost income tax deductions.

Nongrantor trusts in action

A nongrantor trust is a discrete legal entity, which files its own tax returns and claims its own deductions. The idea behind the strategy is to divide real estate that’s subject to more than $10,000 in property taxes among several trusts, each of which has its own SALT deduction up to $10,000. Each trust must also generate sufficient income against which to offset the deduction.

Before you attempt this strategy, beware of the multiple trust rule of Internal Revenue Code Section 643(f). That section provides that, under regulations prescribed by the U.S. Treasury Department, multiple trusts may be treated as a single trust if they have “substantially the same grantor or grantors and substantially the same primary beneficiary or beneficiaries” and a principal purpose of the arrangement is tax avoidance.

Bear in mind that to preserve the benefits of multiple trusts, it’s important to designate a different beneficiary for each trust.

Pass the SALT

If you’re losing valuable tax deductions because of the SALT limit, consider passing those deductions on to one or more nongrantor trusts. Consult with us before taking action, because these trusts must be structured carefully to ensure that they qualify as nongrantor trusts and don’t run afoul of the multiple trust rule.

© 2020 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

Planning your estate around specific assets is risky and, in most cases, should be avoided. If you leave specific assets — such as homes, cars or stock — to specific people, you may inadvertently disinherit them.

Illustrating the problem

Let’s say Debbie has three children — Abbie, Mary Kate and Lizzie — and wishes to treat them equally in her estate plan. In her will, Debbie leaves a $500,000 mutual fund to Abbie and her home valued at $500,000 to Mary Kate. She also names Lizzie as beneficiary of a $500,000 life insurance policy.

When Debbie dies years later, the mutual fund balance has grown to $750,000. In addition, she had sold the home for $750,000, invested the proceeds in the mutual fund and allowed the life insurance policy to lapse. But she neglected to revise her will. The result? Abbie receives the mutual fund, with a balance of $1.5 million, and Mary Kate and Lizzie are disinherited.

Even if Debbie continued to own the home, it could have declined in value after she drafted her will (rather than increased), leaving Mary Kate with less than her sisters.

Avoiding this outcome

It’s generally preferable to divide your estate based on dollar values or percentages rather than specific assets. Debbie, for example, could have placed the mutual fund, home and insurance policy in a trust and divided the value of the trust equally between her three children.

If it’s important to you that specific assets go to specific heirs — for example, because you want your oldest child to receive the family home or you want your family business to go to a child who works for the company — there are planning techniques you can use to avoid undesired consequences. For example, your trust might provide for your assets to be divided equally but also provide for your children to receive specific assets at fair market value as part of their shares. If you have questions regarding the division of your assets to your heirs, contact us. We can review your plan and address your concerns. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Life presents us with many choices: paper or plastic, chocolate or vanilla, regular or decaf. For businesses, a common conundrum is buy or lease. You’ve probably faced this decision when considering office space or a location for your company’s production facilities. But the buy vs. lease quandary also comes into play with equipment.

Pride of ownership

Some business owners approach buying equipment like purchasing a car: “It’s mine; I’m committed to it and I’m going to do everything I can to familiarize myself with this asset and keep it in tip-top shape.” Yes, pride of ownership is still a thing.

If this is your philosophy, work to pass along that pride to employees. When you get staff members to buy in to the idea that this is your equipment and the success of the company depends on using and maintaining each asset properly, the business can obtain a great deal of long-term value from assets that are bought and paid for.

Of course, no “buy vs. lease” discussion is complete without mentioning taxes. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically enhanced Section 179 expensing and first-year bonus depreciation for asset purchases. In fact, many businesses may be able to write off the full cost of most equipment in the year it’s purchased. On the downside, you’ll take a cash flow hit when buying an asset, and the tax benefits may be mitigated somewhat if you finance.

Fine things about flexibility

Many businesses lease their equipment for one simple reason: flexibility. From a cash flow perspective, you’re not laying down a major purchase amount or even a substantial down payment in most cases. And you’re not committed to an asset for an indefinite period — if you don’t like it, at least there’s an end date in sight.

Leasing also may be the better option if your company uses technologically advanced equipment that will get outdated relatively quickly. Think about the future of your business, too. If you’re planning to explore an expansion, merger or business transformation, you may be better off leasing equipment so you’ll have the flexibility to adapt it to your changing circumstances.

Last, leasing does have some tax breaks. Lease payments generally are tax deductible as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, though annual deduction limits may apply.

Pros and cons

On a parting note, if you do lease assets this year and your company follows Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), new accounting rules for leases take effect in 2020 for calendar-year private companies. Contact us for further information, as well as for any assistance you might need in weighing the pros and cons of buying vs. leasing business equipment. 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA