If your family owns a vacation home, you know what a relaxing refuge it can be. This is especially true these days due to the limited travel options you may have because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. However, without a solid plan and ground rules that all family members agree to, conflict and tension may result in a ruined vacation — or worse yet, selling the home.

Determining ownership

From an estate planning standpoint, it’s important for all family members to understand who actually owns the home. Family members sharing the home will more readily accept decisions about its usage or disposition knowing that they come from those holding legal title.

If the home has multiple owners — several siblings, for example — consider the form of ownership carefully. There may be advantages to holding title to the home in a family limited partnership (FLP) and using FLP interests to allocate ownership interests among family members. You can even design the partnership — or a separate buy-sell agreement — to help keep the home in the family.

Laying down the rules

Typically, disputes between family members arise because of conflicting assumptions about how and when the home may be used, who’s responsible for cleaning and upkeep, and how the property will ultimately be sold or transferred. To avoid these disputes, it’s important to agree on a clear set of rules that cover using the home (when, by whom); and responsibilities for cleaning, maintenance and repairs.

If you plan to rent out the home as a source of income, it’s critical to establish rules for such activities. The tax implications of renting out a vacation home depend on several factors, including the number of rental days and the amount of personal use during the year.

Planning for the future

What happens if an owner dies, divorces or decides to sell his or her interest in the home? It depends on who owns the home and how the legal title is held. If the home is owned by a married couple or an individual, the disposition of the home upon death or divorce will be dictated by the relevant estate plan or divorce settlement.

If family members own the home as tenants-in-common, they’re generally free to sell their interests to whomever they choose, to bequeath their interests to their heirs or even to force a sale of the entire property under certain circumstances. If they hold the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, an owner’s interest automatically passes to the surviving owners at death. If the home is held in an FLP, family members have a great deal of flexibility to determine what happens to an owner’s interest in the event of death, divorce or sale.

Handle with care

A vacation home that has been in your family for generations needs to be handled carefully. You likely want to do everything possible to hold on to it for future generations. We can assist you in developing a plan to help you achieve this.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

For many people, an important goal of estate planning is to leave a legacy for their children, grandchildren and future generations. And what better way to do that than to help provide for their educational needs? A 529 plan can be a highly effective tool for funding tuition and other educational expenses on a tax-advantaged basis. But when the plan’s owner (typically a parent or grandparent) dies, there’s no guarantee that subsequent owners will continue to use it to fulfill the original owner’s vision.

To create a family education fund that lives on for generations, a carefully designed trust may be the best solution. But trusts have a significant drawback: Unlike 529 plans, the earnings of which are tax-exempt if used for qualified education expenses, trusts are subject to some of the highest federal income tax rates in the tax code.

One strategy for gaining the best of both worlds is to establish a family education trust that invests in one or more 529 plans.

Plan basics

529 plans are state-sponsored investment accounts that permit parents, grandparents and other family members to make substantial cash contributions. Contributions are nondeductible, but the funds grow tax-free and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free for federal income tax purposes provided they’re used for qualified education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and some room and board at most accredited colleges and universities and certain vocational schools. Contributions to 529 plans are removed from your taxable estate and shielded from gift taxes by your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption or annual exclusions.

In addition to the risk that a subsequent owner will use the funds for noneducational purposes, disadvantages of 529 plans include relatively limited investment choices and an inability to invest assets other than cash.

Holding a 529 plan in a trust

Establishing a trust to hold one or more 529 plans provides several significant benefits:

  • It allows you to maintain tax-advantaged education funds indefinitely (depending on applicable state law) to benefit future generations and keeps the funds out of the hands of those who would use them for other purposes.
  • It allows you to establish guidelines on which family members are eligible for educational assistance, direct how the funds will be used or distributed in the event they’re no longer needed for educational purposes, and appoint trustees and successor trustees to oversee the trust.
  • It can accept noncash contributions and hold a variety of investments and assets outside 529 plans.

A trust may also use funds held outside of 529 plans for purposes other than education, such as paying medical expenses or nonqualified living expenses.

Plan carefully

If you’re interested in setting up a family education trust to hold 529 plans and other investments, contact us. We can help you design a trust that maximizes educational benefits, minimizes taxes and offers the flexibility you need to shape your educational legacy.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

What does a trustee do?

Your estate plan may include several different trusts. The reason is that various types of trusts can accomplish a myriad of estate planning goals. Thus, it’s critical to understand the role of a trustee.

The trustee’s duties 

The trustee is the person who has legal responsibility for administering the trust on behalf of the interested parties. Depending on the trust terms, this authority may be broad or limited.

Generally, a trustee must meet fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries of the trust. He or she must manage the trust prudently and treat all beneficiaries fairly and impartially.

This can be more difficult than it sounds because beneficiaries may have competing interests. For example, under a trust’s terms, a spouse in a second marriage may be entitled to annual income while the children of the deceased’s first marriage are entitled to the remainder. The trustee must balance out their needs when making investment decisions.

In some instances, the trustee is granted the discretion to distribute or withhold the distribution of trust funds. For example, this discretionary power may be intended to protect assets from the beneficiary’s creditors or safeguard funds until the beneficiary reaches a certain age. The trustee in such a discretionary trust should be sympathetic to the intent of the trust and legitimate needs of the beneficiary.

The decision about naming a trustee is similar to the dilemma of choosing an executor. The responsibilities require great attention to detail, financial acumen and dedication. Because of the heavy reliance on investment expertise, choosing a professional over a family member or friend is generally recommended. At the very least, make it clear to the trustee that he or she may — and should — rely on professionals as appropriate.

Reasons for choosing an alternate

It’s not enough to designate someone as trustee. It’s absolutely essential to also designate a “successor” (or an “alternate”) in the event that your top choice is unable or unwilling to fulfill the responsibilities. For instance, what happens if your trustee predeceases you? Or what if your designated trustee declines to accept the position or subsequently resigns if permission is allowed by the trust or permitted by a court? This further accentuates the need to name backups for this important position.

Without a named successor, the probate court will appoint one for the estate. For a trustee, the trust will often outline procedures to follow. As a last resort, a court will appoint someone else to do the job.

Practical suggestion: Choose the “next best” person to step in. Make sure that he or she is on board with your decision. Similar to the discussion about naming a power of attorney, consider whether you should name a professional as a backup. Contact us with questions.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

You may view your will as the centerpiece of your estate plan. But other documents can complement it. For example, if you haven’t already done so, consider writing a letter of instruction.

Elements of the letter

A letter of instruction is an informal document providing your loved ones with vital information about personal and financial matters to be addressed after your death. Bear in mind that the letter, unlike a valid will, isn’t legally binding. But its informal nature allows you to easily revise it whenever you see fit.

What should be included in the letter? It will vary, depending on your personal circumstances, but here are some common elements:

Documents and financial assetsStart by stating the location of your will. Then list the location of other important documents, such as powers of attorney, trusts, living wills and health care directives. Also, provide information on birth certificates, Social Security benefits, marriage licenses and, if any, divorce documents.

Next, create an inventory of all your assets, their location, account numbers and relevant contact information. This may include, but isn’t necessarily limited to, items such as bank accounts; investment accounts; retirement plans and IRAs; health insurance plans; business insurance; life and disability income insurance; and records of Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

And don’t forget about liabilities as well. Provide information on mortgages, debts and other obligations your family should be aware of.

Funeral and burial arrangementsA letter of instruction typically includes details regarding your funeral and burial arrangements. If you prefer to be cremated rather than buried, make that clear. In addition, details can include whom you’d like to preside over the service, the setting and even music selections.

List the people you want to be notified when you pass away and include their contact information. Finally, write down your wishes for specific charities where loved ones and others can make donations in your memory.

Digital informationAs many of your accounts likely have been transitioned to digital formats, including bank accounts, securities and retirement plans, it’s important that you recognize this change in your letter of instruction or update a previously written letter.

Personal itemsIt’s not unusual for family members to quarrel over personal effects that you don’t specifically designate in your will. Your letter can spell out who will receive items that may have little or no monetary value, but plenty of sentimental value.

Final thoughts

A letter of instruction can offer peace of mind to your family members during a time of emotional turmoil. It can be difficult to think about writing such a letter — no one likes to contemplate his or her own death. But once you get started, you may find that most of the letter “writes itself.”

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You’ve probably seen it in the movies or on TV: A close-knit family gathers to find out what’s contained in the will of a wealthy patriarch or matriarch. When the terms are revealed, a niece, for example, benefits at the expense her uncle, causing a ruckus. This “bad blood” continues to boil between estranged family members, who won’t even speak to one another.

Unfortunately, a comparable scenario can play out in real life if you don’t make proper provisions. With some planning, you can avoid family disputes or at least minimize the chances of your will being contested by your loved ones.

Start at the beginning

Before you (and your spouse, if married) set the table for your will, which is the centerpiece of any comprehensive estate plan, discuss estate matters with close family members who’ll likely be affected. This may include children, siblings, adult grandchildren and possibly others. Present an outline regarding the disposition of your assets and other important aspects.

This doesn’t mean you should be specific about everything in the will, but it’s a good idea to provide a basic overview of your estate. Consider the input of other family members; don’t just pay lip service to their feedback. In fact, they may raise issues that you hadn’t taken into account.

This meeting — which may require several sessions — may head off potential problems and better prepare your heirs. It certainly avoids the kind of “shockers” often depicted on screen.

Means of protection

Although there are no absolute guarantees, consider the following methods for bulletproofing your will from a legal challenge:

Draft a no-contest clause. Also called an “in terrorem clause,” this language provides that, if any person in your will challenges it, he or she is excluded from your estate. It’s often used to thwart contests to a will.

This puts the onus squarely on the beneficiary. If he or she asserts that the estate isn’t divided equitably, the beneficiary risks receiving nothing. Be aware that, in some states, this clause may not be enforceable or may be subject to certain exceptions.

Choose witnesses wisely. You may want to use witnesses who know you well, such as close friends or business associates. They can convincingly state that you were of sound mind when you made out the will. You also may want to choose witnesses who are in good health, preferably younger than you and easily traceable.

Obtain a physician’s note. A note from a physician about your health status is recommended. For instance, it can state that you have the requisite mental capacity to make estate planning decisions and thus will be useful in avoiding legal challenges.

Last but not least

After your will is drafted, don’t make the mistake of putting it in a safe where you may forget about it. Review it periodically with your attorney. By fine-tuning the will, you improve the likelihood that it’ll deter a legal challenge and, if necessary, prevail in court. Contact us with any questions regarding your will.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has refocused people’s thoughts on the health and safety of their families. In addition to taking the necessary steps today to protect your loved ones, it’s equally important to consider their financial security in the future.

If you don’t have a will, drafting one should be your first step in developing a comprehensive estate plan. Because of stay-at-home orders in many states, it may be tempting to turn to online do-it-yourself (DIY) tools that promise to help you create a will (and other estate planning documents). Even though this may be a relatively cheap option, using these online tools is risky except in the simplest cases.

A will that isn’t executed properly under state law isn’t legally binding. Therefore, your assets may be divided according to state intestacy laws, regardless of your intentions. And, if you have young children, a court may appoint their legal guardian.

No “one-size-fits-all” solution

Despite what you might have read online, there’s no single prototype for wills. It’s complicated because the laws can vary widely from state to state. For instance, some states recognize oral wills, while others don’t. Or a state may require two or even three attesting witnesses.

One common mistake of DIY wills is leaving out important provisions that can lead to challenges in the future. Case in point: If the will doesn’t include a residuary clause addressing amounts that are “left over” after estate debts and tax payments have been settled, an unspecified party could walk away with a large sum of money. It might even be a family member you had wanted to “disinherit.”

Turn to a professional

The bottom line is that there is too much risk by taking shortcuts when it comes to drafting your will. Have your will drafted and executed by a reputable attorney. Questions? Contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you have outstanding loans to your children, grandchildren or other family members, consider forgiving those loans to take advantage of the current, record-high $11.58 million gift and estate tax exemption. Bear in mind that in 2026, the exemption amount will revert to $5 million ($10 million for married couples), indexed for inflation.

Under the right circumstances, an intrafamily loan can be a powerful estate planning tool because it allows you to transfer wealth to your loved ones free of gift taxes — to the extent the loan proceeds achieve a certain level of returns. But an outright gift is a far more effective way to transfer wealth, provided you don’t need the interest income and have enough unused exemption to shield it from transfer taxes.

Do intrafamily loans save taxes?

Generally, to ensure the desired tax outcome, an intrafamily loan must have an interest rate that equals or exceeds the applicable federal rate (AFR) at the time the loan is made. The principal and interest are included in the lender’s estate, so the key to transferring wealth tax-free is for the borrower to invest the loan proceeds in a business, real estate or other opportunity whose returns outperform the AFR.

The excess of these investment returns over the interest expense is essentially a tax-free gift to the borrower. Intrafamily loans work best in a low-interest-rate environment, when it’s easier to outperform the AFR.

Why forgive a loan?

An intrafamily loan is an attractive estate planning tool if you’ve already used up your exemption or if you wish to save it for future transfers. But if you have exemption to spare, forgiving an intrafamily loan allows you to transfer the entire loan principal plus any accrued interest tax-free, not just the excess of the borrower’s returns over the AFR.

It can be a strategy for taking advantage of the increased exemption amount before it disappears at the end of 2025. Of course, if you need the funds for your own living expenses, loan forgiveness may not be an option.

What about income taxes?

Before you forgive an intrafamily loan, consider any potential income tax issues for you and the borrower. In most cases, forgiving a loan to a loved one is considered a gift, which generally has no income tax consequences for either party.

Although forgiveness of a loan sometimes results in cancellation of debt (COD) income to the borrower, the tax code recognizes an exception for debts canceled as a “gift, bequest, devise or inheritance.” There’s also an exception for a borrower who’s insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven. But be careful: If there’s evidence that forgiving a loan isn’t intended as a gift — for example, if the borrower doesn’t have the cash needed to make the loan payments but isn’t technically insolvent — the IRS may argue that the borrower has COD income.

We can assist you in determining whether forgiving loans is a good strategy and, if it is, help implement that strategy without triggering unwanted tax consequences.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You may have several different types of trusts in your estate plan. In general, to achieve the greatest tax savings, these trusts must be irrevocable, thus requiring you to give up control over the trust assets.

Even though you appoint a trustee to oversee distribution of the trust’s assets, you can go a step further by appointing a trust protector. This person will serve as an overseer of the trustee’s actions. Taking this step can also provide you peace of mind because the trust protector has the power to alter the trust in light of changing family situations or tax laws.

Powers available

Essentially, a trust protector is to a trustee what a corporate board of directors is to a CEO. A trustee manages the trust on a day-to-day basis. The protector oversees the trustee and weighs in on critical decisions, such as the sale of closely held business interests or investment transactions involving large dollar amounts.

You can confer broad powers on a trust protector. Examples include the power to:

  • Remove or replace a trustee,
  • Appoint a successor trustee or successor trust protector,
  • Amend the trust terms to correct administrative provisions, clarify ambiguous language or alter beneficiaries’ interests to comply with new laws or reflect changed circumstances, and
  • Terminate the trust.

While it may be tempting to provide a protector with a broad range of powers, it’s important to note that this can hamper the trustee’s ability to manage the trust efficiently.

Trust protector in action

Trust protectors offer many benefits. For example, a protector with the power to remove and replace the trustee can do so if the trustee develops a conflict of interest or fails to manage the trust assets in the beneficiaries’ best interests.

A protector with the power to modify the trust’s terms can correct mistakes in the trust document or clarify ambiguous language.

Choosing the right person

Appointing the right trust protector is critical. Given the power he or she has over your family’s wealth, you’ll want to choose someone whom you trust and who’s qualified to make investment and other financial decisions.

Many people appoint a trusted advisor — such as an accountant, attorney or investment advisor — who may not be able or willing to serve as trustee but who can provide an extra layer of protection by monitoring the trustee’s performance.

Choosing a family member as protector is possible, but it can be risky. If the protector is a beneficiary or has the power to direct the trust assets to him- or herself (or for his or her benefit), this power could be treated as a general power of appointment, exposing the protector to gift and estate tax liability and potentially triggering other negative tax consequences.

Due diligence is a must

Before deciding on appointing a trust protector, contact us. It’s important to review the trusts in your estate plan to ensure they’re drafted in such a way that there are no misunderstandings regarding the protector’s role and the authority you grant him or her.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Don’t worry! A broken trust can be fixed

There are good reasons why estate planning advisors recommend you revisit and, if necessary, revise your estate plan periodically: changing circumstances, including family situations and new tax laws. While it’s relatively simple to change a beneficiary, what if an irrevocable trust no longer serves your purposes? Depending on applicable state law, you may have options to fix a “broken” trust.

Reasons why a trust can break

A trust that works just fine when it’s established may no longer achieve its original goals if your family circumstances change. If you divorce, for example, a trust for the benefit of your spouse may no longer be desirable. If your children grow up to be financially independent, they may prefer that you leave your wealth to their children. Or perhaps you prefer not to share your wealth with a beneficiary who has developed a drug or alcohol problem or has proven to be profligate.

Another reason is new tax laws. Many trusts were created when gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption amounts were relatively low. Today, however, the exemptions have risen to $11.4 million, so trusts designed to minimize gift, estate and GST taxes may no longer be necessary. And with transfer taxes out of the picture, the higher income taxes often associated with these trusts — previously overshadowed by transfer tax concerns — become a more important factor.

Here are possible remedies

If you have one or more trusts in need of repair, you may have several remedies at your disposal, depending on applicable law in the state where you live and, if different, in the state where the trust is located. Potential remedies include:

Re-formation. The Uniform Trust Code (UTC), adopted in more than half the states, provides several remedies for broken trusts. Non-UTC states may provide similar remedies. Re-formation allows you to ask a court to rewrite a trust’s terms to conform with the grantor’s intent. This remedy is available if the trust’s original terms were based on a legal or factual mistake.

Modification. This remedy may be available, also through court proceedings, if unanticipated circumstances require changes in order to achieve the trust’s purposes. Some states permit modification — even if it’s inconsistent with the trust’s purposes — with the consent of the grantor and all the beneficiaries.

Decanting. Many states have decanting laws, which allow a trustee, according to his or her distribution powers, to “pour” funds from one trust into another with different terms and even in a different location. Depending on your circumstances and applicable state law, decanting may allow a trustee to correct errors, take advantage of new tax laws or another state’s asset protection laws, add or eliminate beneficiaries, extend the trust term, and make other changes, often without court approval.

Before you make any changes, it’s critical to consult your attorney and tax advisor to discuss the potential benefits and risks.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

One of the primary goals of estate planning is to put in writing how you want your wealth distributed to loved ones after your death. But what if you’d like to use that wealth to help a family member in need while you’re still alive? One way to do so is through intrafamily lending. If you’re considering making an intrafamily loan to your children or other family members, it’s worth a look at establishing a “family bank.”

Loan structure is important

Lending can be an effective way to provide your family financial assistance without triggering unwanted gift taxes. So long as a loan is structured in a manner similar to an arm’s-length loan between unrelated parties, it won’t be treated as a taxable gift.

This means, among other things:

  • Documenting the loan with a promissory note,
  • Charging interest at or above the applicable federal rate,
  • Establishing a fixed repayment schedule, and
  • Ensuring that the borrower has a reasonable prospect of repaying the loan.

Even if taxes aren’t a concern, intrafamily loans offer important benefits. For example, they allow you to help your family financially without depleting your wealth or creating a sense of entitlement. Done right, these loans can promote accountability and help cultivate the younger generation’s entrepreneurial capabilities by providing financing to start a business.

Too often, however, people lend money to family members with little planning or regard for potential unintended consequences. Rash lending decisions can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, conflicts among family members and false expectations. That’s where the family bank comes into play.

Family bank professionalizes intrafamily lending

A family bank is a family-owned, family-funded entity — such as a dynasty trust, a family limited partnership or a combination of the two — designed for the sole purpose of making intrafamily loans. Often, family banks are able to make financing available to family members who might have difficulty obtaining a loan from a bank or other traditional funding sources or to lend at more favorable terms.

By “professionalizing” family lending activities, a family bank can preserve the tax-saving power of intrafamily loans while minimizing negative consequences. The key to avoiding family conflicts and resentment is to build a strong family governance structure that promotes communication, group decision making and transparency.

Establishing clear guidelines regarding the types of loans the family bank is authorized to make — and allowing all family members to participate in the decision-making process — ensures that family members are treated fairly and avoids false expectations.

Contact us to learn more about the ins and outs of intrafamily lending.

© 2019 Covenant CPA