There are several tools you can use to build flexibility into your estate plan. Flexibility is especially important now because of an uncertain estate planning environment.

The federal gift and estate tax exemption currently is an inflation-adjusted $11.58 million (the highest it’s ever been) but it’s scheduled to drop to its pre-2018 level of $5 million (indexed for inflation) on January 1, 2026. This window of opportunity could close sooner, however, depending on the results of this fall’s election. One of the most versatile tools available to add flexibility to your estate plan is the power of appointment.

How does it work?

A power of appointment is simply a provision in your estate plan that permits another person — a beneficiary, family member or trusted advisor, for example — to determine how, when and to whom certain assets in your estate or trust will be distributed. The person who receives a power of appointment is called the “holder.”

These powers come in several forms. A testamentary power of appointment allows the holder to direct the distribution of assets at death through his or her will or trust. An inter vivos power of appointment allows the holder to determine the disposition of assets during his or her lifetime.

Powers may be general or limited. A general power of appointment allows the holder to distribute assets to anyone, including him- or herself. A limited power has one or more restrictions. In most cases, limited powers don’t allow holders to distribute assets for their own benefit (unless distributions are strictly based on “ascertainable standards” related to the holder’s health, education or support). Typically, limited powers authorize the holder to distribute assets among a specific class of people. For example, you might give your daughter a limited power of appointment to distribute assets among her children.

The distinction between general and limited powers has significant tax implications. Assets subject to a general power are included in the holder’s taxable estate, even if the holder doesn’t execute the power. Limited powers generally don’t expose the holder to gift or estate tax liability.

Dealing with uncertainty

Powers of appointment provide flexibility and enhance the chances that you’ll achieve your estate planning goals. They allow you to postpone the determination of how your wealth will be distributed until the holder has all the relevant facts. If you’d like to build more certainty into your estate plan, please contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued final regulations that should provide comfort to taxpayers interested in making large gifts under the current gift and estate tax regime. The final regs generally adopt, with some revisions, proposed regs that the IRS released in November 2018.

The need for clarification

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) temporarily doubled the gift and estate tax exemption from $5 million to $10 million for gifts made or estates of decedents dying after Dec. 31, 2017, and before Jan. 1, 2026. The exemption is adjusted annually for inflation ($11.40 million for 2019 and $11.58 million for 2020). After 2025, though, the exemption is scheduled to drop back to pre-2018 levels.

With the estate tax a flat 40%, the higher threshold for tax-free transfers of wealth would seem to be great news, but some taxpayers became worried about a so-called “clawback” if they die after 2025. Specifically, they wondered if they would lose the tax benefit of the higher exemption amount if they didn’t die before the exemption returned to the lower amount.

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.

Examples

Let’s say that you made $9 million in taxable gifts in 2019, while the exemption amount of $11.40 million is in effect. But you die after 2025, when the exemption drops to $6.8 million ($5 million adjusted for inflation).

Under the new regs, the credit applied to compute the estate tax is based on the $9 million of the $11.4 million exemption used to compute the gift tax credit. In other words, your estate won’t have to pay tax on the $2.2 million in gifts that exceeds the exemption amount at death ($9 million less $6.8 million), and the credit to the estate tax will reflect the $2.4 million of the amount remaining after the gifts were made ($11.4 million less $9 million).

If, however, you made taxable gifts of only $4 million, the new regs won’t apply. The total amounts allowable as a credit when calculating the gift tax ($4 million) is less than the credit based on the $6.8 million exemption amount at death. So, the estate tax credit is based on the exemption amount at death, rather than the amount under the TCJA.

Act now

Even though the TCJA and the final regs provide a strong tax incentive to transfer assets, it’s important to remember that the offer is “use it or lose it.” The new regs apply only to gifts made during the 2018-2025 period, so contact us now to formalize your gifting strategies.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The gift and estate tax exemption is higher than it’s ever been, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which temporarily doubled the exemption to an inflation-adjusted $10 million ($20 million for married couples who design their estate plans properly). This year, the exemption amount is $11.4 million ($22.8 million for married couples).

If you’re married and you executed your estate planning documents years ago, when the exemption was substantially lower, review your plan to ensure that the increased exemption doesn’t trigger unintended results. It’s not unusual for older estate planning documents to include a “formula funding clause,” which splits assets between a credit shelter trust and the surviving spouse — either outright or in a marital trust.

Formula funding clause in action

Although the precise language may vary, a typical clause funds the credit shelter trust with “the greatest amount of property that may pass to others free of federal estate tax,” with the balance going to the surviving spouse or marital trust. Generally, credit shelter trusts are designed to preserve wealth for one’s children (from an existing or previous marriage), with limited benefits for the surviving spouse.

A formula clause works well when an estate is substantially larger than the exemption amount — but, if that’s no longer the case, it can lead to undesirable results, including inadvertent disinheritance of one’s spouse.

For example, Ciara and Mike, a married couple, each own $10 million in assets, and their estate plan contains a formula funding clause. If Ciara died in 2017, when the estate tax exemption was $5.49 million, that amount would have gone into a credit shelter trust and the remaining $4.51 million would have gone to a marital trust for Mike’s benefit. But if Ciara dies in 2019, when the exemption has increased to $11.4 million, her entire estate will pass to the credit shelter trust, leaving nothing for the marital trust.

Exemption amount heading up and then down

With the TCJA temporarily doubling the gift and estate tax exemption amount, unexpected results may occur if you don’t review and revise your plan accordingly. This is especially true if your plan includes a formula funding clause.

Also, be aware that, even though the exemption amount will continue to be adjusted annually for inflation, it expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026. We’d be pleased to help review your plan and determine if changes are needed. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

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