Have you made substantial gifts of wealth to family members? Or are you the executor of the estate of a loved one who died recently? If so, you need to know whether you must file a gift or estate tax return.

Filing a gift tax return

Generally, a federal gift tax return (Form 709) 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 2018 and 2019); there’s a separate exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse ($152,000 for 2018 and $155,000 for 2019).

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.

The return is due by April 15 of the year after you make the gift, so the deadline for 2018 gifts is coming up soon. But the deadline can be extended to October 15.

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 ($11.18 million for 2018 and $11.40 million for 2019).

Filing an estate tax return

If required, a federal estate tax return (Form 706) is due nine months after the date of death. Executors can seek an extension of the filing deadline, an extension of the time to pay, or both, by filing Form 4768. Keep in mind that the form provides for an automatic six-month extension of the filing deadline, but that extending the time to pay (up to one year at a time) is at the IRS’s discretion. Executors can file additional requests to extend the filing deadline “for cause” or to obtain additional one-year extensions of time to pay.

Generally, Form 706 is required only if the deceased’s gross estate plus adjusted taxable gifts exceeds the exemption. But a return is required even if there’s no estate tax liability after taking all applicable deductions and credits.

Even if an estate tax return isn’t required, executors may need to file one to preserve a surviving spouse’s portability election. Portability allows a surviving spouse to take advantage of a deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exemption amount, but it’s not automatic. To take advantage of portability, the deceased’s executor must make an election on a timely filed estate tax return that computes the unused exemption amount.

Preparing an estate tax return can be a time consuming, costly undertaking, so executors should analyze the relative costs and benefits of a portability election. Generally, filing an estate tax return is advisable only if there’s a reasonable probability that the surviving spouse will exhaust his or her own exemption amount.

Seek professional help

Estate tax rules and regulations can be complicated. If you need help determining whether a gift or estate tax return needs to be filed, contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) offer closely held business owners an exit strategy and a tax-efficient technique for sharing equity with employees. But did you know that an ESOP can be a powerful estate planning tool? It can help you address several planning challenges, including lack of liquidity and the need to provide for children outside the business.

An ESOP in action

An ESOP is a qualified retirement plan, similar to a 401(k) plan. But instead of investing in a selection of stocks, bonds and mutual funds, an ESOP invests primarily in the company’s own stock. ESOPs are subject to the same rules and restrictions as qualified plans, including contribution limits and minimum coverage requirements.

Typically, companies make tax-deductible cash contributions to the ESOP, which uses the funds to acquire stock from the current owners. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up control, though. The owners’ shares are held in a trust, and the trustees vote the shares.

An ESOP’s earnings are tax-deferred: Participants don’t recognize taxable income until they receive benefits — in the form of stock or cash — when they leave the company, die or become disabled.

Retirement and estate planning benefits

If a large portion of your wealth is tied up in a closely held business, lack of liquidity can create challenges as you approach retirement. Short of selling the business, how do you fund your retirement and provide for your family?

An ESOP may provide a solution. By selling some or all of your shares to an ESOP, you convert your shares into liquid assets. Plus, if the ESOP owns 30% or more of the company’s outstanding common stock immediately after the sale, and certain other requirements are met, you can defer or even eliminate capital gains taxes. How? By reinvesting the proceeds in qualified replacement property (QRP) — which includes most securities issued by U.S. public companies — within one year.

QRP provides a source of retirement income and allows you to defer your gain until you sell or otherwise dispose of the QRP. From an estate planning perspective, a simple but effective strategy is to hold the QRP for life. Your heirs receive a stepped-up basis in the assets, eliminating capital gains permanently.

If you want more investment flexibility, you can pay the capital gains tax upfront and invest the proceeds as you see fit. Or you can invest the proceeds in qualifying floating-rate long-term bonds as QRP. You avoid capital gains, but can borrow against the bonds and invest the loan proceeds in other assets.

If estate taxes are a concern, you can remove QRP from your estate, without triggering capital gains, by giving it to your children or other family members. These gifts may be subject to gift and generation-skipping transfer taxes, but you can minimize those taxes using traditional estate planning tools.

Weigh the pros and cons

ESOPs offer significant benefits, but they aren’t without their disadvantages. Contact us to help determine if an ESOP is right for you at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Estate planning aims to help individuals achieve several important goals — primary among them, transferring wealth to loved ones at the lowest possible tax cost. However, if you have creditors, you need to be aware of how fraudulent transfer laws can affect your estate plan. Creditors could potentially challenge your gifts, trusts or other estate planning strategies as fraudulent transfers.

Creditor challenges

Most states have adopted the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (UFTA). The act allows creditors to challenge transfers involving two types of fraud.

The first is actual fraud. This means making a transfer or incurring an obligation “with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor,” including current creditors and probable future creditors.

The second type is constructive fraud. This is a more significant risk for most people because it doesn’t involve intent to defraud. Under UFTA, a transfer or obligation is constructively fraudulent if you made it without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer or obligation and you either were insolvent at the time or became insolvent as a result of the transfer or obligation.

“Insolvent” means that the sum of your debts is greater than all of your assets, at a fair valuation. You’re presumed to be insolvent if you’re not paying your debts as they become due. Generally, constructive fraud rules protect only present creditors — those whose claims arose before the transfer was made or obligation incurred.

Avoid mistakes

When it comes to actual fraud, just because you weren’t purposefully trying to defraud creditors doesn’t mean you’re safe. A court can’t read your mind, and it will consider the surrounding facts and circumstances to determine whether a transfer involves fraudulent intent. So before you make gifts or place assets in a trust, consider how a court might view the transfer.

Constructive fraud is risky because of the definition of insolvency and the nature of making gifts. When you make a gift, either outright or in trust, you don’t receive reasonably equivalent value in exchange. So if you’re insolvent at the time, or the gift you make renders you insolvent, you’ve made a constructively fraudulent transfer. This means a creditor could potentially undo the transfer.

To avoid this risk, calculate your net worth carefully before making substantial gifts. We can help you do this. Even if you’re not having trouble paying your debts, it’s possible you might meet the technical definition of insolvency.

Finally, remember that fraudulent transfer laws vary from state to state. So you should consult an attorney about the law where you live. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Portability allows a surviving spouse to apply a deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exemption amount toward his or her own transfers during life or at death. To secure these benefits, however, the deceased spouse’s executor must have made a portability election on a timely filed estate tax return. The return is due nine months after death, with a six-month extension option.

Unfortunately, estates that aren’t otherwise required to file a return (because they don’t meet the filing threshold) often miss the deadline. Several years ago, the IRS offered a simplified procedure for obtaining an extension, but it was available only through the end of 2014. After that, the only option was to request a private letter ruling from the IRS, a time-consuming, expensive process with no guarantee of success.

In 2017, however, the IRS made it easier (and cheaper) for estates to obtain an extension of time to file a portability election. For all deaths after 2010, IRS Revenue Procedure 2017-34 grants an automatic extension, provided:

  • The deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident,
  • The executor wasn’t otherwise required to file an estate tax return and didn’t file one by the deadline,
  • The executor files a complete and properly prepared estate tax return on Form 706 within two years of the date of death, and
  • The following language appears at the top of the return: “FILED PURSUANT TO REV. PROC. 2017-34 TO ELECT PORTABILITY UNDER §2010(c)(5)(A).”

If your spouse predeceases you and you’d benefit from portability, be sure that your spouse’s estate files a portability election by the applicable deadline. Contact us with any questions you have regarding portability at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Sometimes estates that are large enough for estate taxes to be a concern are asset rich but cash poor, without the liquidity needed to pay those taxes. An intrafamily loan is one option. While a life insurance policy can be used to cover taxes and other estate expenses, a benefit of using an intrafamily loan is that, if it’s properly structured, the estate can deduct the full amount of interest upfront. Doing so reduces the estate’s size and, thus, its estate tax liability.

Deducting the interest

An estate can deduct interest if it’s a permitted expense under local probate law, actually and necessarily incurred in the administration of the estate, ascertainable with reasonable certainty, and will be paid. Under probate law in most jurisdictions, interest is a permitted expense. And, generally, interest on a loan used to avoid a forced sale or liquidation is considered “actually and necessarily incurred.”

To ensure that interest is “ascertainable with reasonable certainty,” the loan terms shouldn’t allow prepayment and should provide that, in the event of default, all interest for the remainder of the loan’s term will be accelerated. Without these provisions, the IRS or a court would likely conclude that future interest isn’t ascertainable with reasonable certainty and would disallow the upfront deduction. Instead, the estate would deduct interest as it’s accrued and recalculate its estate tax liability in future years.

The requirement that interest “will be paid” generally isn’t an issue, unless there’s some reason to believe that the estate won’t be able to generate sufficient income to cover the interest payments.

Ensuring the loan is bona fide

For the interest to be deductible, the loan also must be bona fide. A loan from a bank or other financial institution shouldn’t have any trouble meeting this standard.

But if the loan is from a related party, such as a family-controlled trust or corporation, the IRS may question whether the transaction is bona fide. So the parties should take steps to demonstrate that the transaction is a true loan.

Among other things, they should:

  • Set a reasonable interest rate (based on current IRS rates),
  • Execute a promissory note,
  • Provide for collateral or other security to ensure the loan is repaid,
  • Pay the interest payments in a timely manner, and
  • Otherwise treat the loan as an arm’s-length transaction.

It’s critical that the loan’s terms be reasonable and that the parties be able to demonstrate a “genuine intention to create a debt with a reasonable expectation of repayment.”

If you’re considering making an intrafamily loan, contact us at 205-345-9898. We’d be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Many people choose to pass assets to the next generation during life, whether to reduce the size of their taxable estate, to help out family members or simply to see their loved ones enjoy the gifts. If you’re considering lifetime gifts, be aware that which assets you give can produce substantially different tax consequences.

Multiple types of taxes

Federal gift and estate taxes generally apply at a rate of 40% to transfers in excess of your available gift and estate tax exemption. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the exemption has approximately doubled through 2025. For 2018, it’s $11.18 million (twice that for married couples with proper estate planning strategies in place).

Even if your estate isn’t large enough for gift and estate taxes to currently be a concern, there are income tax consequences to consider. Plus, the gift and estate tax exemption is scheduled to drop back to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.

Minimizing estate tax

If your estate is large enough that estate tax is a concern, consider gifting property with the greatest future appreciation potential. You’ll remove that future appreciation from your taxable estate.

If estate tax isn’t a concern, your family may be better off tax-wise if you hold on to the property and let it appreciate in your hands. At your death, the property’s value for income tax purposes will be “stepped up” to fair market value. This means that, if your heirs sell the property, they won’t have to pay any income tax on the appreciation that occurred during your life.

Even if estate tax is a concern, you should compare the potential estate tax savings from gifting the property now to the potential income tax savings for your heirs if you hold on to the property.

Minimizing your beneficiary’s income tax

You can save income tax for your heirs by gifting property that hasn’t appreciated significantly while you’ve owned it. The beneficiary can sell the property at a minimal income tax cost.

On the other hand, hold on to property that has already appreciated significantly so that your heirs can enjoy the step-up in basis at your death. If they sell the property shortly after your death, before it’s had time to appreciate much more, they’ll owe no or minimal income tax on the sale.

Minimizing your own income tax

Don’t gift property that’s declined in value. A better option is generally to sell the property so you can take the tax loss. You can then gift the sale proceeds.

Capital losses can offset capital gains, and up to $3,000 of losses can offset other types of income, such as from salary, bonuses or retirement plan distributions. Excess losses can be carried forward until death.

Choose gifts wisely

No matter your current net worth, it’s important to choose gifts wisely. Please contact us at 205-345-9898 to discuss the gift, estate and income tax consequences of any gifts you’d like to make.

© 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

When married couples neglect to prepare an estate plan, state intestacy laws step in to help provide financial security for the surviving spouse. It may not be the plan they would have designed, but at least it offers some measure of financial security. Unmarried couples, however, have no such backup plan. Unless they carefully spell out how they wish to distribute their wealth, a surviving life partner may end up with nothing.

Marriage has its advantages

Because intestacy laws offer no protection to an unmarried person who wishes to provide for his or her partner, it’s essential for unmarried couples at minimum to employ a will or living trust. But marriage offers several additional estate planning advantages that unmarried couples must plan around, such as:

The marital deduction. Estate planning for wealthy married couples often centers around taxes and the marital deduction, which allows one spouse to make unlimited gifts to the other spouse free of gift or estate taxes. Unmarried couples don’t enjoy this advantage. Thus, lifetime gift planning is critical so they can make the most of the lifetime gift tax exemption and the $15,000 per recipient annual gift tax exclusion.

Tenancy by the entirety. Married and unmarried couples alike often hold real estate or other assets as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. When one owner dies, title automatically passes to the survivor. In many states, a special form of joint ownership — tenancy by the entirety — is available only to married couples.

Will contests. Married or not, anyone’s will is subject to challenge as improperly executed, or on grounds of lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence or fraud. For some unmarried couples, however, family members may be more likely to challenge a will simply because they disapprove of the relationship.

Here are steps unmarried couples should consider to reduce the risk of such challenges:

  • Be sure that a will is carefully worded and properly executed.
  • Use separate attorneys, which can help refute charges of undue influence or fraud.
  • Include a “no contest” clause, which disinherits anyone who challenges the will and loses.

Health care decisions. A married person generally can make health care decisions on behalf of a spouse who becomes incapacitated by illness or injury. Unmarried partners cannot do so without written authorization, such as a medical directive or health care power of attorney. A durable power of attorney for property may also be desirable, allowing a partner to manage the other’s assets during a period of incapacity.

Careful planning required

If you’re unmarried and wish to provide for a life partner, contact us to discuss potential strategies. You can achieve many of the same estate planning objectives as married couples, but only with careful planning and thorough documentation. Contact us at 205-345-9898 for details.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

There’s no law that says you can’t prepare your own estate plan. And with an abundance of online services that automate the creation of wills and other documents, it’s easy to do. But unless your estate is small and your plan is exceedingly simple, the pitfalls of do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning can be many.

Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s

A common mistake people make with DIY estate planning is to neglect the formalities associated with the execution of wills and other documents. Rules vary from state to state regarding the number and type of witnesses who must attest to a will and what, specifically, they must attest to.

Also, states have different rules about interested parties (that is, beneficiaries) serving as witnesses to a will or trust. In many states, interested parties are ineligible to serve as witnesses. In others, an interested-party witness triggers an increase in the required number of witnesses (from two to three, for example).

Keeping abreast of tax law changes

Legislative developments during the last several years demonstrate how changes in the tax laws from one year to the next can have a dramatic impact on your estate planning strategies. DIY service providers don’t offer legal or tax advice — and provide lengthy disclaimers to prove it. Thus, they cannot be expected to warn users that tax law changes may adversely affect their plans.

Consider this example: A decade ago, in 2008, George used an online service to generate estate planning documents. At the time, his estate was worth $4 million and the federal estate tax exemption was $2 million.

George’s plan provided for the creation of a trust for the benefit of his children, funded with the maximum amount that could be transferred free of federal estate tax, with the remainder going to his wife, Ann. If George died in 2008, for example, $2 million would have gone into the trust and the remaining $2 million would have gone to Ann.

Suppose, however, that George dies in 2018, when the federal estate tax exemption has increased to $11.18 million and his estate has grown to $10 million. Under the terms of his plan, the entire $10 million — all of which can be transferred free of federal estate tax — will pass to the trust, leaving nothing for Ann.

While even a qualified professional couldn’t have predicted in 2008 what the estate tax exemption would be at George’s death, he or she could have structured a plan that would provide the flexibility needed to respond to tax law changes.

Don’t try this at home

These are just a few examples of the many pitfalls associated with DIY estate planning. To help ensure that you achieve your estate planning objectives, contact us to review your existing plan at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA