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 assets. Start 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 arrangements. A 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 information. As 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 items. It’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.
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.
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
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
Years ago, Congress enacted the “kiddie tax” rules to prevent parents and grandparents in high tax brackets from shifting income (especially from investments) to children in lower tax brackets. And while the tax caused some families pain in the past, it has gotten worse today. That’s because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made changes to the kiddie tax by revising the tax rate structure.
History of the tax
The kiddie tax used to apply only to children under age 14 — which provided families with plenty of opportunity to enjoy significant tax savings from income shifting. In 2006, the tax was expanded to children under age 18. And since 2008, the kiddie tax has generally applied to children under age 19 and to full-time students under age 24 (unless the students provide more than half of their own support from earned income).
What about the kiddie tax rate? Before the TCJA, for children subject to the kiddie tax, any unearned income beyond a certain amount was taxed at their parents’ marginal rate (assuming it was higher), rather than their own rate, which was likely lower.
Rate is increased
The TCJA doesn’t further expand who’s subject to the kiddie tax. But it has effectively increased the kiddie tax rate in many cases.
For 2018–2025, a child’s unearned income beyond the threshold ($2,200 for 2019) will be taxed according to the tax brackets used for trusts and estates. For ordinary income (such as interest and short-term capital gains), trusts and estates are taxed at the highest marginal rate of 37% once 2019 taxable income exceeds $12,750. In contrast, for a married couple filing jointly, the highest rate doesn’t kick in until their 2019 taxable income tops $612,350.
Similarly, the 15% long-term capital gains rate begins to take effect at $78,750 for joint filers in 2019 but at only $2,650 for trusts and estates. And the 20% rate kicks in at $488,850 and $12,950, respectively.
That means that, in many cases, children’s unearned income will be taxed at higher rates than their parents’ income. As a result, income shifting to children subject to the kiddie tax won’t save tax, but it could actually increase a family’s overall tax liability.
Note: For purposes of the kiddie tax, the term “unearned income” refers to income other than wages, salaries and similar amounts. Examples of unearned income include capital gains, dividends and interest. Earned income from a job or self-employment isn’t subject to kiddie tax.
Gold Star families hurt
One unfortunate consequence of the TCJA kiddie tax change is that some children in Gold Star military families, whose parents were killed in the line of duty, are being assessed the kiddie tax on certain survivor benefits from the Defense Department. In some cases, this has more than tripled their tax bills because the law treats their benefits as unearned income. The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that would treat survivor benefits as earned income but a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is currently stalled.
To avoid inadvertently increasing your family’s taxes, be sure to consider the kiddie tax before transferring income-producing or highly appreciated assets to a child or grandchild who’s a minor or college student. If you’d like to shift income and you have adult children or grandchildren no longer subject to the kiddie tax but in a lower tax bracket, consider transferring assets to them. If your child or grandchild has significant unearned income, contact us to identify possible strategies that will help reduce the kiddie tax for 2019 and later years
© 2019 Covenant CPA
Those who run family-owned businesses often underestimate the need for a succession plan. After all, they say, we’re a family business — there will always be a family member here to keep the company going and no one will stand in the way.
Not necessarily. In one all-too-common scenario, two of the owner’s children inherit the business and, while one wants to keep the business in the family, the other is eager to sell. Such conflicts can erupt into open combat between heirs and even destroy the company. So, it’s important for you, as a family business owner, to create a formal succession plan — and to communicate it well before it’s needed.
Talk it out
A good succession plan addresses the death, incapacity or retirement of an owner. It answers questions now about future ownership and any potential sale so that successors don’t have to scramble during what can be an emotionally traumatic time.
The key to making any plan work is to clearly communicate it with all stakeholders. Allow your children to voice their intentions. If there’s an obvious difference between siblings, resolving that conflict needs to be central to your succession plan.
Perhaps the simplest option, if you have sufficient assets outside your business, is to leave your business only to those heirs who want to be actively involved in running it. You can leave assets such as investment securities, real estate or insurance policies to your other heirs.
Another option is for the heirs who’d like to run the business to buy out the other heirs. But they’ll need capital to do that. You might buy an insurance policy with proceeds that will be paid to the successor on your death. Or, as you near retirement, it may be possible to arrange buyout financing with your company’s current lenders.
If those solutions aren’t viable, hammer out a temporary compromise between your heirs. In a scenario where they are split about selling, the heirs who want to sell might compromise by agreeing to hold off for a specified period. That would give the other heirs time to amass capital to buy their relatives out or find a new co-owner, such as a private equity investor.
Family comes first
For a family-owned business, family should indeed come first. To ensure that your children or other relatives won’t squabble over the company after your death, make a succession plan that will accommodate all your heirs’ wishes. We can provide assistance, including helping you divide your assets fairly and anticipating the applicable income tax and estate tax issues. Call us at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA
For many people, a family-owned business is their primary source of wealth, so it’s critical to plan carefully for the transition of ownership from one generation to the next.
The best approach depends on your particular circumstances. If your net worth is well within the estate tax exemption ($11.18 million for 2018), for example, you might focus on reducing income taxes. But if you expect your estate to be significantly larger than the exemption amount, estate tax reduction may be a bigger concern.
Here are two techniques to transfer a family business — one if gift and estate taxes are a concern, and one if they aren’t:
1. IDGT. An intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT) is an income defective trust. As such, it can be a highly effective tool for transferring business interests to the younger generation at a minimal gift and estate tax cost if your estate exceeds the gift and estate tax exemption.
An IDGT is designed so that contributions are completed gifts, removing the trust assets and all future appreciation in their value from your taxable estate. At the same time, it’s “defective” for income tax purposes; that is, it’s treated as a “grantor trust” whose income is taxable to you. This allows trust assets to grow without being eroded by income taxes, thus leaving a greater amount of wealth for your children or other beneficiaries.
The downside of an IDGT is that, when your beneficiaries inherit the business, they’ll also inherit yourtax basis, which may trigger a substantial capital gains tax liability if they sell the business. This result may be acceptable if the estate tax savings outweigh the income tax cost.
2. Estate defective trust. If the value of your business and other assets is less than the current estate tax exemption amount, so that estate taxes aren’t an issue, you might consider an estate defective trust. Essentially the opposite of an IDGT, an estate defective trust is designed so that beneficiaries are the owners for income tax purposes, while the assets remain in the estate for estate tax purposes.
This technique provides two significant income tax benefits. First, assuming your beneficiaries are in a lower tax bracket, this strategy will result in lower “familywide” taxes. Second, because the trust assets remain in your estate, the beneficiaries’ basis in the assets is “stepped up” to fair market value at your death, reducing or eliminating their potential capital gains tax liability.
Determining the right strategy to implement when transferring ownership of the business to heirs depends on the value of your business and other assets and the relative impact of estate and income taxes. Also keep in mind that the gift and estate tax exemption is scheduled to drop to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026. Contact us with any questions at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA