The right estate planning strategy for you likely is the one that will produce the greatest tax savings for your family. Unfortunately, there can be tension between strategies that save estate tax and ones that save income tax. This is especially true now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the gift and estate tax exemption — but only temporarily. Through 2025, income tax might be a greater concern, but, after that, estate taxes might be a bigger issue.

Fortunately, it’s possible to build an “on-off switch” into your estate plan.

Why the conflict?

Generally, the best way to minimize estate taxes is to remove assets from your estate as early as possible (through outright gifts or gifts in trust) so that all future appreciation in value escapes estate tax. But these lifetime gifts can increase income taxes for the recipients of appreciated assets. That’s because assets you transfer by gift retain your tax basis, potentially resulting in a significant capital gains tax bill should your beneficiaries sell them.

Assets held for life, on the other hand, receive a stepped-up basis equal to their fair market value on the date of death. This provides an income tax advantage: Your beneficiaries can turn around and sell the assets with little or no capital gains tax liability.

Until relatively recently, estate planning strategies focused on minimizing estate taxes, with little regard for income taxes. Why? Historically, the highest marginal estate tax rate was significantly higher than the highest marginal income tax rate, and the estate tax exemption amount was relatively small. So, in most cases, the potential estate tax savings far outweighed any potential income tax liability.

Today, the stakes have changed. The highest marginal estate and income tax rates aren’t too different (40% and 37%, respectively). And, the gift and estate tax exemption has climbed to $11.40 million for 2019, meaning fewer taxpayers need to be concerned about estate taxes, at least for now.

Flipping the switch

With a carefully designed trust, you can remove assets from your taxable estate while giving the trustee the ability to direct the assets back into your estate should that prove to be the better tax strategy in the future. There are different techniques for accomplishing this, but typically it involves establishing an irrevocable trust over which you retain no control (including the right to replace the trustee) and giving the trustee complete discretion over distributions. This removes the assets from your taxable estate.

If it becomes desirable to include the trust assets in your estate because income taxes are a bigger concern, the trustee can accomplish this by, for example, naming you as successor trustee or granting you a power of appointment over the trust assets.

Of course, irrevocable trusts also have their downsides. Contact us to discuss what estate planning strategies make the most sense for you. Call us at 205-345-9898 or email us at info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

What if the unthinkable happens and your spouse dies unexpectedly? Would you be prepared to cope emotionally and financially? As the surviving spouse, you’ll face several tasks and challenges.

First steps first

By no means complete, the following are areas that will need to be addressed:

Death certificates. One of the first things to do is obtain death certificates, which you’ll need to provide for various dealings with financial institutions and others. While it may be difficult to estimate how many death certificates will ultimately be requested of you, you’ll probably want to start with at least a dozen.

Notifications. You must get the word out to other interested parties, including your spouse’s employer, if applicable; credit card companies; life insurance companies; retirement plan and IRA administrators; the state motor vehicle agency; the state office for inheritance tax, if applicable; and your attorney.

Social Security benefits. If your spouse was receiving benefits, consult with the Social Security Administration as to the benefits available to a surviving spouse. Frequently, modifications are required if the survivor was the lower-earning spouse. Even if your spouse wasn’t receiving benefits yet, you may be eligible for survivor benefits, depending on your age and other factors.

Insurance. Don’t assume that everything about your insurance will stay the same. Review your various policies to ensure that you’ll have the optimal coverage going forward. Make whatever beneficiary changes are required.

Retirement plans and IRAs. You may face important decisions regarding employer retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, as well as traditional and Roth IRAs. For example, if your spouse had a traditional IRA, you can complete a timely rollover to an IRA of your own without owing any tax. Conversely, you might opt for a lump-sum payout from a 401(k) or IRA should you need the funds.

Investments. Review the investments that were owned solely by your spouse, as well as those you owned jointly. When you have time, sit down with your financial advisor to chart out a path for the future, focusing on changes in personal objectives, time horizon and risk tolerance.

Estate tax filing. Although federal estate tax returns generally are required for only the wealthiest individuals, you may choose to file a return to establish the value of inherited assets. Generally, the return is due within nine months of the date of the death.

Finally, review your estate plan

Once you’re over the initial shock of the death, sit down with your attorney and review your estate plan. You’ll likely need to make several revisions in areas where you named your spouse as beneficiary. If you need help during this difficult time, please turn to us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

An annual estate plan checkup is critical to the health of your estate plan. Because various exclusion, exemption and deduction amounts are adjusted for inflation, they can change from year to year, impacting your plan.

2019 vs. 2018 amounts

Here are a few key figures for 2018 and 2019:

Lifetime gift and estate tax exemption

  • 2018: $11.18 million
  • 2019: $11.40 million

Generation-skipping transfer tax exemption

  • 2018: $11.18 million
  • 2019: $11.40 million

Annual gift tax exclusion

  • 2018: $15,000
  • 2019: $15,000

Marital deduction for gifts to a noncitizen spouse

  • 2018: $152,000
  • 2019: $155,000

You may need to update your estate plan based on these changes. But the beginning of the year isn’t the only time for an estate plan checkup. Whenever there are significant changes in your family, such as births, deaths, marriages or divorces, it’s a good idea to revisit your estate plan. Your plan also merits a look any time your financial situation changes significantly.

Turn to us for help

If you haven’t yet had your annual estate plan checkup, please contact us at 205-345-9898. Or, if you don’t yet have an estate plan, we can help you create one.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Your estate plan shouldn’t be a static document. It needs to change as your life changes. Year end is the perfect time to check whether any life events have taken place in the past 12 months or so that affect your estate plan.

And the plan should be reviewed periodically anyway to ensure that it still meets your main objectives and is up to date.

When revisions might be needed

What life events might require you to update or modify estate planning documents? The following list isn’t all-inclusive by any means, but it can give you a good idea of when 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, such as under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was signed into law last December.

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.

Your 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 means 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.

Revise as needed

The end of the year is a natural time to reflect on the past year and to review and revise your estate plan — especially if you’ve experienced major life changes. We can help determine if any revisions are needed. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If your estate includes forms of intellectual property (IP), such as patents and copyrights, it’s important to know how to address them in your estate plan. Although these intangible assets can have great value, in many ways they’re treated differently from other property types.

2 estate planning questions

For estate planning purposes, IP raises two important questions: 1) What’s it worth? and 2) How should it be transferred? Valuing IP is a complex process, so it’s best to obtain an appraisal from an experienced professional.

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 also 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 if you feel that your children or other transferees lack the desire or wherewithal to exploit its economic potential and protect it against infringers.

Achieving your objectives

Whichever strategy you choose, it’s important to plan the transaction carefully to ensure that 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 — even if the work is sold or given away.

Suppose, for example, that you leave to your child a film, painting or written manuscript. Unless your estate plan specifically transfers the copyright to your child as well, the copyright may pass as part of your residuary estate and end up in the hands of someone else.

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. Addressing IP in your estate plan can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out, but the law surrounding such property can be complex. Discuss your options with us by calling 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you’re the owner of a small business, you may think of your tight-knit group of employees as a family. If you wish to include them as beneficiaries in your estate plan, it’s critical to be aware of possible unintended tax consequences.

Unraveling the (tax) code

Generally, money or other property received by gift or inheritance is excluded from the recipient’s income for federal tax purposes. But there’s an exception for gifts or bequests to employees: Under Internal Revenue Code Section 102(c), the exclusion doesn’t apply to “any amount transferred by or for an employer to, or for the benefit of, an employee.”

Certain gifts to employees aren’t taxable, including “de minimis” fringe benefits, employee achievement awards and qualified disaster relief payments. Otherwise, the IRS generally views transfers to employees as “supplemental wages” subject to income and payroll taxes.

U.S. Supreme Court weighs in

Despite Sec. 102(c), it may be possible to make a gift to an employee that avoids income taxes. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, such a gift must be made under “detached and disinterested generosity” or “out of affection, respect, admiration, charity or like impulses.” In contrast, if a gift is intended to reward an employee for past performance or serve as an incentive for future performance, it’s considered compensation and is subject to income and payroll taxes. Unfortunately, the intent behind a gift can be difficult to prove.

Keep in mind that treating a gift or bequest as compensation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, the income and payroll taxes may be less severe than the gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes that otherwise would apply. And you can always “gross up” the transferred amount to ensure that the recipient has enough cash to pay the taxes.

Contact us at 205-345-9898 if you’re considering including employees in your estate plan.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

No matter how much effort you’ve invested in designing your estate plan, your will, trusts and other official documents aren’t enough. You should also create a “road map” — an informal letter or other document that guides your family in understanding and executing your plan and ensuring that your wishes are carried out. Your road map should include, among other things:

  • A list of important contacts, including your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisors,
  • The location of your will, living and other trusts, tax returns and records, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, automobile titles, and other important documents,
  • A personal financial statement that lists stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, vehicles and other assets, as well as information about mortgages, credit cards, and other debts,
  • An inventory of digital assets — such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, and social media accounts — including login credentials or a description of arrangements made to provide your representative with access,
  • Computer passwords and home security system codes,
  • Safe combinations and the location of any safety deposit boxes and keys,
  • The location of family heirlooms or other valuable personal property, and
  • Information about funeral arrangements or burial wishes.

The road map can also be a good place to explain to your loved ones the reasoning behind certain estate planning decisions. Perhaps you’re distributing your assets unequally, distributing specific assets to specific heirs or placing certain restrictions on an heir’s entitlement to trust distributions. There are many good reasons for these strategies, but it’s important for your family to understand your motives to avoid hurt feelings or disputes.

Finally, like other estate planning documents, your road map won’t be effective unless your family knows where to find it, so it’s a good idea to leave it with a trusted advisor. Contact us at 205-345-9898 to start your road map.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you dream of spending your golden years in a tropical paradise, a culture-rich European city or another foreign locale, it’s important to understand the potential tax and estate planning implications. If you don’t, you could be hit with some unpleasant surprises.

Avoiding the pitfalls

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.”

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.

Finally, if you own real estate or other property in a foreign country, you 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.

We’re here to help

If you’re considering a move overseas after you retire, discuss your plans with us before making a move. We can review your estate plan and make recommendations to help avoid tax pitfalls after you relocate. Call us at 205-345-9898 for more information.

© 2018 Covenant CPA