The right estate planning strategy for you likely is the one that will produce the greatest tax savings for your family. Unfortunately, there can be tension between strategies that save estate tax and ones that save income tax. This is especially true now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the gift and estate tax exemption — but only temporarily. Through 2025, income tax might be a greater concern, but, after that, estate taxes might be a bigger issue.

Fortunately, it’s possible to build an “on-off switch” into your estate plan.

Why the conflict?

Generally, the best way to minimize estate taxes is to remove assets from your estate as early as possible (through outright gifts or gifts in trust) so that all future appreciation in value escapes estate tax. But these lifetime gifts can increase income taxes for the recipients of appreciated assets. That’s because assets you transfer by gift retain your tax basis, potentially resulting in a significant capital gains tax bill should your beneficiaries sell them.

Assets held for life, on the other hand, receive a stepped-up basis equal to their fair market value on the date of death. This provides an income tax advantage: Your beneficiaries can turn around and sell the assets with little or no capital gains tax liability.

Until relatively recently, estate planning strategies focused on minimizing estate taxes, with little regard for income taxes. Why? Historically, the highest marginal estate tax rate was significantly higher than the highest marginal income tax rate, and the estate tax exemption amount was relatively small. So, in most cases, the potential estate tax savings far outweighed any potential income tax liability.

Today, the stakes have changed. The highest marginal estate and income tax rates aren’t too different (40% and 37%, respectively). And, the gift and estate tax exemption has climbed to $11.40 million for 2019, meaning fewer taxpayers need to be concerned about estate taxes, at least for now.

Flipping the switch

With a carefully designed trust, you can remove assets from your taxable estate while giving the trustee the ability to direct the assets back into your estate should that prove to be the better tax strategy in the future. There are different techniques for accomplishing this, but typically it involves establishing an irrevocable trust over which you retain no control (including the right to replace the trustee) and giving the trustee complete discretion over distributions. This removes the assets from your taxable estate.

If it becomes desirable to include the trust assets in your estate because income taxes are a bigger concern, the trustee can accomplish this by, for example, naming you as successor trustee or granting you a power of appointment over the trust assets.

Of course, irrevocable trusts also have their downsides. Contact us to discuss what estate planning strategies make the most sense for you. Call us at 205-345-9898 or email us at info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

With the federal gift and estate tax exemption at $11.40 million for 2019, people whose estates are below the exemption amount are shifting their focus to income tax reduction. High-income taxpayers — particularly those who live in high-income-tax states — may want to consider incomplete nongrantor trusts, which make it possible to eliminate state taxes on trust income.

Defining an incomplete nongrantor trust

Generally, trusts are classified as either grantor trusts or nongrantor trusts. In a grantor trust, you, as “grantor,” establish the trust and retain certain powers over it. You’re treated as the trust’s owner for income tax purposes and pay taxes on income generated by the trust assets.

In a nongrantor trust, you relinquish certain controls over the trust so that you aren’t considered the owner for income tax purposes. Instead, the trust becomes a separate legal entity, with income tax responsibility shifting to the trust itself. By setting up the trust in a no-income-tax state (typically by having it administered by a trust company located in that state), it’s possible to avoid state income taxes.

Ordinarily, when you contribute assets to a nongrantor trust you make a taxable gift to the trust beneficiaries. By structuring the trust as an incomplete nongrantor trust, you can avoid triggering gift taxes, or tapping your gift and estate tax exemption. This requires relinquishing just enough control to ensure nongrantor status, while retaining enough control so that transfers to the trust aren’t considered completed gifts for gift-tax purposes.

Analyzing the benefits

Although the trust will allow you to receive distributions, assets you place in the trust should produce income that you don’t need. If you take money out, trust taxable income could follow to you and be taxed in your state of residence.

Incomplete nongrantor trusts aren’t right for everyone. It depends on your particular circumstances and the tax laws in your home state.

While this strategy can produce significant state income tax savings, it may increase federal income taxes, depending on your individual tax bracket. Nongrantor trusts pay federal income taxes at the highest marginal rate (currently, 37%) once income reaches $12,700 for 2019, while the 37% rate threshold is $612,350 for married couples filing jointly and $510,300 for singles and heads of households. If you’re not in the 37% bracket, the increased federal income taxes the incomplete nongrantor trust would pay might outweigh the state income tax savings.

Also, if federal estate taxes aren’t a concern now but could be in the future — such as if your estate could exceed the estate tax exemption when it drops to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026, as currently scheduled — be sure to consider the potential estate tax consequences. Incomplete gifts remain in your estate for estate tax purposes.

Is it right for you?

To determine whether an incomplete nongrantor trust is right for you, weigh the potential state income tax savings against the potential federal estate and income tax costs. Contact us with any questions at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA