As a result of the current estate tax exemption amount ($11.58 million in 2020), many estates no longer need to be concerned with federal estate tax. Before 2011, a much smaller amount resulted in estate plans attempting to avoid it. Now, because many estates won’t be subject to estate tax, more planning can be devoted to saving income taxes for your heirs.

While saving both income and transfer taxes has always been a goal of estate planning, it was more difficult to succeed at both when the estate and gift tax exemption level was much lower. Here are some strategies to consider.

Plan gifts that use the annual gift tax exclusion. One of the benefits of using the gift tax annual exclusion to make transfers during life is to save estate tax. This is because both the transferred assets and any post-transfer appreciation generated by those assets are removed from the donor’s estate.

As mentioned, estate tax savings may not be an issue because of the large estate exemption amount. Further, making an annual exclusion transfer of appreciated property carries a potential income tax cost because the recipient receives the donor’s basis upon transfer. Thus, the recipient could face income tax, in the form of capital gains tax, on the sale of the gifted property in the future. If there’s no concern that an estate will be subject to estate tax, even if the gifted property grows in value, then the decision to make a gift should be based on other factors.

For example, gifts may be made to help a relative buy a home or start a business. But a donor shouldn’t gift appreciated property because of the capital gain that could be realized on a future sale by the recipient. If the appreciated property is held until the donor’s death, under current law, the heir will get a step-up in basis that will wipe out the capital gain tax on any pre-death appreciation in the property’s value.

Take spouses’ estates into account. In the past, spouses often undertook complicated strategies to equalize their estates so that each could take advantage of the estate tax exemption amount. Generally, a two-trust plan was established to minimize estate tax. “Portability,” or the ability to apply the decedent’s unused exclusion amount to the surviving spouse’s transfers during life and at death, became effective for estates of decedents dying after 2010. As long as the election is made, portability allows the surviving spouse to apply the unused portion of a decedent’s applicable exclusion amount (the deceased spousal unused exclusion amount) as calculated in the year of the decedent’s death. The portability election gives married couples more flexibility in deciding how to use their exclusion amounts.

Be aware that some estate exclusion or valuation discount strategies to avoid inclusion of property in an estate may no longer be worth pursuing. It may be better to have the property included in the estate or not qualify for valuation discounts so that the property receives a step-up in basis. For example, the special use valuation — the valuation of qualified real property used for farming or in a business on the basis of the property’s actual use, rather than on its highest and best use — may not save enough, or any, estate tax to justify giving up the step-up in basis that would otherwise occur for the property.

Contact us if you want to discuss these strategies and how they relate to your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

With the federal gift and estate tax exemption now at a record high $11.58 million for 2020, most estates aren’t taxable. But that doesn’t mean making lifetime gifts isn’t without significant benefits — even if your estate isn’t taxable under the current rules. Let’s examine reasons why gifting remains an important part of estate planning.

Lifetime gifts reduce estate taxes

If your estate exceeds the exemption amount — or you believe it will in the future — regular lifetime gifts can substantially reduce your estate tax bill. The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per recipient annually tax-free without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. In addition, direct payments of tuition or medical expenses on behalf of your loved ones are excluded from gift tax.

Taxable gifts — meaning gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount and not eligible for the tuition and medical expense exclusion — can also reduce estate tax liability by removing future appreciation from your taxable estate. You may be better off paying gift tax on an asset’s current value rather than estate tax on its appreciated value down the road.

When gifting appreciable assets, however, be sure to consider the potential income tax implications. Property transferred at death receives a “stepped-up basis” equal to its date-of-death fair market value, which means the recipient can turn around and sell the property free of capital gains taxes. Property transferred during life retains your tax basis, so it’s important to weigh the estate tax savings against the potential income tax costs.

Tax laws aren’t permanent

Even if your estate is within the exemption amount now, it pays to make regular gifts. Why? Because even though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the exemption amount, and that amount will be adjusted annually for inflation, the doubling expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.

The good news is that the IRS issued final regulations in late 2019 that should provide comfort to taxpayers interested in making large gifts under the current gift and estate tax regime. The concern was that a taxpayer would make gifts during his or her lifetime based on the higher exemption, only to have their credit calculated based on the amount in effect at the time of death.

To address this fear, the final regs provide a special rule for such circumstances that allows the estate to compute its estate tax credit using the higher of the exemption amount applicable to gifts made during life or the amount applicable on the date of death.

Gifts provide nontax benefits

Tax planning aside, there are other reasons to make lifetime gifts. For example, perhaps you wish to use gifting to shape your family members’ behavior — for example, by providing gifts to those who attend college.

Regardless of the amount of your wealth, consider a program of regular lifetime giving. We can help you devise and incorporate a gifting program as part of your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Oh, no, your original will is missing!

In a world that’s increasingly paperless, you’re likely becoming accustomed to conducting a variety of transactions digitally. But when it comes to your last will and testament, only an original, signed document will do.

The original vs. a photocopy

Many people mistakenly believe that a photocopy of a signed will is sufficient. In fact, most states require that a deceased’s original will be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is necessary, presented to the probate court.

If your family or executor can’t find your original will, there’s a presumption in most states that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. That means the court will generally administer your estate as if you died without a will.

It’s possible to overcome this presumption. For example, if all interested parties agree that a signed copy reflects your wishes, they may be able to convince a court to admit it. But to avoid costly, time-consuming legal headaches, it’s best to ensure that your family can locate your original will when they need it.

Storage solutions

There isn’t one right place to keep your will — it depends on your circumstances and your comfort level with the storage arrangements. Wherever you decide to keep your will, it’s critical that 1) it be stored safely, and 2) your family knows how to find it.

Options include:

  • Having your accountant, attorney or another trusted advisor hold your will and making sure your family knows how to contact him or her.
  • Storing your will at your home or office in a fireproof lockbox or safe and ensuring that someone you trust knows where it is and how to retrieve it.

Storing your original will and other estate planning documents safely — and communicating their location to your loved ones — will help ensure that your wishes are carried out. Contact us if you have questions regarding your will or other estate planning documents.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You may use a qualified disclaimer to refuse a bequest from a loved one. Doing so will cause an asset to bypass your estate and go to the next beneficiary in line. What are the reasons you’d take this action? Here are five reasons:

1. Gift and estate tax savings. This is often cited as the main incentive for using a qualified disclaimer. For starters, the unlimited marital deduction shelters all transfers between spouses from gift and estate tax. In addition, transfers to nonspouse beneficiaries, such as your children and grandchildren, may be covered by the gift and estate tax exemption.

Currently, the exemption can shelter a generous $11.58 million in assets for 2020. By maximizing portability of any unused exemption amount, a married couple can effectively pass up to $23.16 million in 2020 to their heirs free of gift and estate taxes.

However, despite these lofty amounts, wealthier individuals, including those who aren’t married and can’t benefit from the unlimited marital deduction or portability, still might have estate tax liability concerns. By using a disclaimer, you ensure that the exemption won’t be further eroded by the inherited amount. Assuming you don’t need the money, shifting the funds to the younger generation without it ever touching your hands can save gift and estate tax for the family as a whole.

2. Generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax. Disclaimers may also be useful in planning for the GST tax. This tax applies to most transfers that skip a generation, such as bequests and gifts from a grandparent to a grandchild or comparable transfers through trusts. Like the gift and estate tax exemption, the GST tax exemption is $11.58 million for 2020.

If GST tax liability is a concern, you may wish to disclaim an inheritance. For instance, if you disclaim a parent’s assets, the parent’s exemption can shelter the transfer from the GST tax when the inheritance goes directly to your children. The GST tax exemption for your own assets won’t be affected.

3. Family businesses. A disclaimer may also be used as a means for passing a family-owned business to the younger generation. By disclaiming an interest in the business, you may be able to position stock ownership to your family’s benefit.

4. Creditor protection. Any inheritance you receive would immediately be subject to creditors’ claims. It might be possible to avoid dire results by using a disclaimer to protect these assets. However, state laws and federal bankruptcy laws may defeat or hinder this goal. Consult with your estate planning advisor about your specific situation.

5. Charitable deductions. In some cases, a charitable contribution may be structured to provide a life estate, with the remainder going to a charitable organization. Without the benefit of a charitable remainder trust, an estate won’t qualify for a charitable deduction in this instance, but using a disclaimer can provide a deduction because the assets will pass directly to the charity.   

Before you make a final decision on whether to accept a bequest or use a qualified disclaimer to refuse it, contact us for guidance.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Transferring a family business to the next generation requires a delicate balancing act. Estate and succession planning strategies aren’t always compatible, and family members often have conflicting interests. By starting early and planning carefully, however, it’s possible to resolve these conflicts and transfer the business in a tax-efficient manner.

Ownership vs. management succession

One reason transferring a family business is such a challenge is the distinction between ownership and management succession. From an estate planning perspective, transferring assets to the younger generation as early as possible allows you to remove future appreciation from your estate, minimizing estate taxes. However, you may not be ready to hand over the reins of your business or you may feel that your children aren’t yet ready to take over.

There are several ways owners can transfer ownership without immediately giving up control, including:

  • Using a family limited partnership (FLP),
  • Transferring nonvoting stock, or
  • Establishing an employee stock ownership plan.

Another reason to separate ownership and management succession is to deal with family members who aren’t involved in the business. It’s not unusual for a family business owner to have substantially all of his or her wealth tied up in the business.

Providing heirs outside the business with nonvoting stock or other equity interests that don’t confer control can be an effective way to share the wealth with them while allowing those who work in the business to take over management.

Conflicting financial needs

Another challenge presented by family businesses is that the older and younger generations may have conflicting financial needs. Fortunately, strategies are available to generate cash flow for the owner while minimizing the burden on the next generation. They include:

An installment sale. This provides liquidity for the owner while improving the chances that the younger generation’s purchase can be funded by cash flows from the business. Plus, so long as the price and terms are comparable to arm’s-length transactions between unrelated parties, the sale shouldn’t trigger gift or estate taxes.

A grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). By transferring business interests to a GRAT, the owner obtains a variety of gift and estate tax benefits (provided he or she survives the trust term) while enjoying a fixed income stream for a period of years. At the end of the term, the business is transferred to the owner’s children or other beneficiaries. GRATs are typically designed to be gift-tax-free.

An installment sale to an intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT). Essentially a properly structured IDGT allows an owner to sell the business on a tax-advantaged basis while enjoying an income stream and retaining control during the trust term. Once the installment payments are complete, the business passes to the owner’s beneficiaries free of gift taxes.

Each family business is different, so it’s important to identify appropriate strategies in light of your objectives and resources. We’d be pleased to help.

© 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Covenant CPA

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

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

How to apportion estate taxes

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

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

Omission of an apportionment clause

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

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

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

Avoid surprises

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

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When it comes to estate planning, trusts are appealing for many reasons. They can enable you to hold and transfer assets for beneficiaries, avoid probate and reduce estate tax exposure. But they can be complicated to set up. One of the major decisions you’ll need to make when establishing a trust is who will act as your trustee. As the name implies, this individual or financial institution must be above reproach. But that’s just one quality of many that your trustee requires.

Both mundane and significant duties

Trustees have significant legal responsibilities, primarily related to administering the trust for the benefit of beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust document. But the role can require many different types of tasks. For example, even if a tax expert is engaged to prepare tax returns, the trustee is responsible for ensuring that they’re completed and filed correctly and on time.

One of the more challenging trustee duties is to accurately account for investments and distributions. When funds are distributed to cover a beneficiary’s education expenses, for example, the trustee should record both the distribution and the expenses covered by it. Beneficiaries are allowed to request an accounting of the transactions at any time.

The trustee needs to invest assets within the trust reasonably, prudently and for the long-term benefit of beneficiaries. And trustees must avoid conflicts of interest — that is, they can’t act for personal gain when managing the trust.

Finally, trustees must be impartial. They may need to decide between competing interests, while still acting within the terms of the trust document.

A tall order

Several qualities help make someone an effective trustee, including:

  • A solid understanding of tax and trust law,
  • Investment management experience,
  • Bookkeeping skills,
  • Integrity and honesty, and
  • The ability to work with all beneficiaries objectively and impartially.

And because some trusts continue for generations, trustees may need to be available for an extended period. For this reason, many people name a financial institution or professional advisor, rather than a friend or family member, as trustee.

Naming a friend or family member as a trustee may seem appealing because it appears to be a way to reduce or avoid the fees associated with an institutional trustee. But it’s important to recognize that taking on the responsibilities of a trustee requires an investment of time, energy and expertise, and that trustees deserve compensation. Even if trust documents don’t provide a fee for the trustee, many states allow for a “reasonable fee.” Before engaging a trustee, make sure you understand what services are included in the fee. But it’s generally not a good idea to try to avoid paying a trustee fee.

Consider all options

Naming a trustee is an important decision, as this person or institution will be responsible for carrying out the terms outlined in the trust documents. We can help you weigh the options available to you.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If a prime objective of your estate plan is to leave a lasting legacy, a dynasty trust may be the right estate planning vehicle for you. And, thanks to the substantially increased generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption amount established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a dynasty trust is more appealing than ever.

GST tax and dynasty trusts

A dynasty trust allows substantial amounts of wealth to grow and compound free of federal gift, estate and GST taxes, providing tax-free benefits for your grandchildren and future generations. The longevity of a dynasty trust varies from state to state, but it’s becoming more common for states to allow these trusts to last for hundreds of years or even in perpetuity.

Avoiding GST tax liability is critical to a dynasty trust’s success. An additional 40% tax on transfers to grandchildren or others that skip a generation, the GST tax can quickly consume substantial amounts of wealth. The key to avoiding the tax is to leverage your $11.40 million GST tax exemption.

For example, let’s say you haven’t used any of your $11.40 million combined gift and estate tax exemption. In 2019, you transfer $10 million to a properly structured dynasty trust. There’s no gift tax on the transaction because it’s within your unused exemption amount. And the funds, together with all future appreciation, are removed from your taxable estate.

Most important, by allocating your GST tax exemption to your trust contributions, you ensure that any future distributions or other transfers of trust assets to your grandchildren or subsequent generations will avoid GST taxes. This is true even if the value of the assets grows well beyond the exemption amount or the exemption is reduced in the future.

Setting up a dynasty trust

A dynasty trust can be established during your lifetime, as an inter vivos trust or part of your will as a testamentary trust. An inter vivos transfer to a dynasty trust may have additional benefits associated with transferring assets that have greater appreciation potential out of your taxable estate.

After creating the trust, you must determine which assets to transfer to it. Because the emphasis is on protecting appreciated property, consider funding the trust with securities, real estate, life insurance policies and business interests.

Finally, you must appoint a trustee. Your choices may include a succession of family members or estate planning professionals. For most people, however, a safer approach is to use a reputable trust company with a proven track record, as opposed to assigning this duty to family members who might not be born yet.

If you think a dynasty trust might be right for your family, talk with us before taking action. A currently effective dynasty trust is irrevocable — meaning that, once you create it, you may be unable to modify the arrangement if your family dynamic changes. Contact us with questions at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA