We have written previously stressing the need to have an estate plan, so you do not leave a mess, and why you may need life insurance to protect others. Few people will disagree with the need to have a current plan and to provide for survivors, but not everyone acts.
Avoidance. Feelings of self-doubt, fear of pain or anxiety around the task, depression, fear of asking for help, lack of trust.
Perfectionism. Fear of failure, fear of being criticized (both externally by others and – often more powerfully – internally by parts of yourself).
Ambiguity. Lack of clarity about the task, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty prioritizing in the absence of a crises, being focused on immediate tasks.
Narcissism. Over-confidence in getting it done at the last minute. Needing chaos or pressure to provide adrenaline, the ability to focus to the exclusion of everything else, and a feeling of being fully alive.
Physical Issues. Fatigue, illness.
Lack of knowledge. Not knowing what you don’t know, unsure how to get needed help and information.
Financial. Not having the funds to take the necessary action.
Do any of these apply to you? If so, we can help so please contact us.
Why you should:
One reason to review your estate plan is that the Biden administration may seek changes to the estate and income tax laws; you want to make sure your documents have the flexibility to address these changes. The current federal gift and estate tax credit is close to $12 million. However, it is scheduled to drop to between $5.5 and $6 million in 2025 and the administration may push for a lower credit to be imposed sooner. Also, the administration may try to eliminate the step-up in basis at death. We will continue to monitor any proposed law changes and post updates.
There are other tax law changes to address, such as the elimination of the “stretch IRA.” You may need to revise your beneficiaries. Also, you will want your executor or personal representative to elect portability of your federal credit to minimize taxes and may want your documents to address the generation skipping transfer tax credit.
Another reason to act is to provide for your digital assets, something old documents may not address. For example, you can give your attorney-in-fact under your durable power of attorney access to your digital assets and you can assign your digital assets to your revocable trust so your trustee has access. Digital assets include e-mail and text messages, photographs, videos and other files on your computer, on-line accounts such as your investments and social media, or even intellectual property and patent rights. You may also have collectibles that need to be addressed,
Another reason to act is to ensure that someone knows how to access all your passwords if something happens to you. Create your own “Rosetta Stone,” a document telling them how to access your digital life, with IDs and passwords, and then make sure an immediate family member or close friend knows where to find it. This way, they can locate all your important documents, find assets and insurance, and handle your social media if something happens. You may also want to provide a memorandum to your personal representatives and trustees detailing your wishes, including thoughts on when to distribute to children, protecting from creditors, and even burial or cremation.
If you to take the time now to review and update your plan, be sure:
that you have documents that are in order,
that the documents are correctly executed,
that you provided adequate resources for survivors, including life insurance, and
that your beneficiary designations and asset ownership all coordinate with your documents.
When you do, you will have improved matters for you and your family!
Contact our office if you have any questions or comments. And be well!
We face a challenging time for planning: The election resulted in a new President while the rate of Covid-19 infections (and deaths) continues to rise. This has affected the economy, resulted in some tax law changes and may yield more stimulus to restore the economy. Also, there may be more changes in 2021. This post is intended to help you make the best tax-efficient moves before 2021 begins.
2020 year-end tax planning – update on using the tax laws to save you money
In 2018, we provided a three-part series explaining the impact of the new tax law. In our first part, we discussed the impact of the new law on personal taxes and in our second part, we discussed planning for small businesses. This update replaces the third part from December 2018, as updated December in 2019 – it is our guide for year-end moves to reduce total taxes between 2020 and 2021. But, before getting to the planning steps, we address the uncertainty caused by possible tax changes in 2021 and review some recent changes from earlier this year.
Possible Tax Law Changes under Biden
President-Elect Biden campaigned on raising taxes for corporations and for individuals making over $400,000 of income. However, even if the Senate seats in Georgia go to Democrats in January, the lack of a “Blue Wave,” a sweeping Democratic mandate, means that the tax hikes are unlikely to pass. Furthermore, the President-Elect has made clear that controlling Covid-19 and economic recovery are the top priorities of his new administration.
What did President-Elect Biden propose? He would restore the 39.6% bracket for couples making $622,050 or more ($518,400 for singles), add a 12.4% social security tax for income over $400,000, place a 28% limit on itemized deductions for high income taxpayers, restore the 20% long-term capital gains rate for high income returns (and even apply ordinary rates on gains of taxpayers over $1 million), and limit the Qualified Business Income Deduction and opportunity zone credits. For estate taxes, he would reduce the current $11.58 million exemption to a lower amount, perhaps $5 million or even $3.5 million, and eliminate the step-up in basis at death.
While none of these changes are likely, there may be narrow tax hikes to fund infrastructure building and small tax breaks for lower earners (child/dependent care and elderly long-term care credits). There may also be more stimulus action, such as more Paycheck Protection Program loans and business tax breaks for worker safety measures, as well as retirement savings incentives, tax extenders for items expiring this year, and tax breaks to encourage US manufacturing. We will monitor activity on these matters for comment in future posts.
Changes from the SECURE and CARES Acts for 2020
We wrote about the CARES act earlier this year, which waived the 10% penalty for coronavirus-related distributions from qualified plans of up to $100,000, with three years to pay the taxes due or redeposit as a roll-over, and suspension of required minimum distributions (“RMDs”). The act also allows larger plan loans.
The Secure Act delayed RMDs to age 72 and allowed individuals to contribute to IRAs after age 70 ½ if still working. But the Act also limited the distribution of IRAs to a 10-year maximum for beneficiaries other than spouses and certain others, thus eliminating the “stretch IRA.”
The Families First Act created credits for people unable to work due to Covid-19 illness and due to caring for others. If you are affected, check to see if you are eligible for any of these tax credits.
A reminder on the mortgage interest deductions
As you may recall, mortgage interest on new home purchases is deductible only for loans of up to $750,000 used to purchase your primary and secondary residences. Interest on home equity loans is not deductible, except when the home equity indebtedness is used to purchase or improve your primary or secondary residence.
Check taxes already paid
Make sure your total paid to the IRS and state via withholdings and estimates meets the safe harbor rules. If not, you could owe interest for under-withholding.
Now to the planning: Can you act at all?
Each year, we advise that you be practical, focusing on where you can actually make moves. For many, the $24,800 standard deduction for married couples (more for over 65 taxpayers, and $12,400 for single taxpayers) means you will not itemize (i.e., your total for itemized deductions is less than the standard amount so you take the higher standard deduction). And, if you are not itemizing, you have fewer ways in which to affect change in the taxes due in either year (but you can also stop collecting receipts for those deductions).
There is one exception from the CARES Act, which provides a $300 above the line charitable deduction for cash contributions. You get this regardless of itemizing.
Some possible deduction strategies
One technique for getting around the limit on deductions is to bunch certain deductions from two or more years into one year. However, the only deduction that you can easily move is for charitable donations, because your state, local and real estate taxes are limited to a $10,000 maximum and you cannot accelerate, or delay, significant amounts of mortgage interest.
If you do not want any one charity to receive the full amount in one year, you can still use this bunching strategy to donate to a donor advised fund, from which you may be able to designate donations to particular charities in future years.
The tax planning steps
What can you move? If you are able to itemize, determine what income and deductions you can move from 2020 to 2021 or vice versa. You want to minimize total taxes for both years. Make sure your planning includes the 3.8% Medicare tax on high income and a review Roth conversion. Roth distributions are not taxed, so converting a traditional or roll-over IRA to a Roth could be beneficial, as long as the tax cost now is not too great – see more at Roth or not to Roth? With the waiver of the 10% penalty for early withdrawals, a Roth conversion may be more attractive. Business owners will want to review our post on planning under 199A for QBID.
What is the effect of moving? Next, review the impact of moving income and expense to see what happens if you shift any of these amounts from one year to the other year.
The AMT – Finally, watch for the Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”). The AMT affects fewer people, but it is still wise to review so you avoid it.
If you have not maxed-out your 401(k) plan, IRA, Health Savings Account or flex plan account, consider doing so before the end of the year. The contributions reduce your tax able income while adding to savings. But check out our post on paying debts vs. investing.
If you are 70½ or older, you have the option of distributing up to $100,000 from your IRA or other qualified plan to an IRS-approved charity and having none of the distribution taxed. The provision was great when you had an RMD to satisfy, but that was suspended for 2020. That should not stop you if you still have the charitable intent.
The deduction of unreimbursed business expenses was terminated by the new tax law. That hurts many who are working from home this year, as they cannot deduct associated costs.
We wrote about forming an LLC or S Corp. to report business expenses or taking expenses on Schedule C in our 2018 Part III post, but that applies to expenses for that business and we stressed that you will need a valid business purpose to form the LLC or S Corp. or use Schedule C for self-employment and take expenses. Be sure to consult with an attorney before trying any of these ideas.
Review your unrealized losses to see if you can “harvest” those losses to offset or “shelter” realized gains, reducing your total taxable income. If you have more losses than gains, you can take up to $3,000 of capital losses against other income.
If you sell an asset that you would prefer to retain, in order to shelter gains in 2020, make sure you do not run afoul of the wash-sale rule (any loss on an asset that you repurchase in 30 days will be disallowed, so you have to either wait 30 days or purchase a similar asset that fits your portfolio while not counting against the wash sale rule). N.B. – when buying mutual funds late in the year, check for distribution dates so you do not purchase just before dividend and capital gains distributions, as you will owe taxes on those distributions.
If you have significant unrealized gains, consider using appreciated stock for charitable donations – that way you avoid the tax on the gain while still getting the full fair market value for your charitable donation. That is very effective tax leverage!
Estate plan review
While you review your taxes, review your estate plan as well. The federal exemption is over $11 million in 2020, so fewer people will owe any federal estate tax. However, that may change in 2021; also, many states still impose estate taxes on smaller estates.
The individual gift and estate tax exemption is due to return to $5 million, adjusted for inflation, in 2026 and could be lowered sooner, as noted above. That tax rate could also go up.
If you have “excess wealth” and want to reduce your taxable estate by gifting assets to children or others, you can give $15,000 per person, per year now. If your spouse joins you, that is $30,000 per person. This includes funding a 529 plan for education cost – expanded to provide for more than just college – or an ABLE account for disabled dependents. Note, however, that holding appreciated assets for the step up in basis at death may be better than gifting, but this could be eliminated as noted above.
If you do review your estate plan documents, also review beneficiary designations to make sure everything is current. And review your medical directive and durable power of attorney.
Carefully review any income and deductions that you can still shift to see if moving will lessen the total taxes you pay for 2020 and 2021.
Good luck and best wishes for happy and healthy holidays!
President Trump made tax reform a key issue in his campaign. He is now president and Republicans are in charge of the House and Senate, so the likelihood of overhauling the federal tax system is better than they have been for decades.
However, President Trump and Congress are trying to enact changes to the Affordable Care Act as well as addressing budget issues and foreign relations. Also, dealing with all the recent hearings involving the FBI have diverted attention. Finally, there are many details that need to be worked out, making it unlikely that major changes will happen until 2018.
Change in IRS Regulations
President Trump has already made changes in IRS regulations. On his first day in office, he temporarily froze tax regulations and then shortly thereafter, ordered that two existing regulations had to be removed for each one that was added. What is the impact?
The Trump administration has stated that the two-for-one exchange rule only applies to significant regulatory actions. The rule may not affect the many IRS regulations that are procedural in nature or are needed by taxpayers.
One new regulation that has been threatened is the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rules for retirement advisers. This updated regulation requires retirement advisers to act in their clients’ best interests, which is a stricter standard than was previously required.
Also affected are the new partnership audit procedure. A 2015 law streamlined the exam process of large partnerships. The IRS released proposed regulations which implemented the regime on January 18. However, it later pulled the regulations in response to the freeze.
Possible Tax Law Changes – Lower Corporate Tax Rate
Currently, the corporate tax rate tops out at 35%. House Republicans want to lower it to 20% with 25% for businesses that pass income through their owners and for those that are self-employed. President Trump is calling for a 15% corporate tax. In 2014, nearly 25 million Americans filed taxes as sole proprietors (Schedule C), so the change affects many taxpayers.
Tax strategy: Under this change, individuals who are high-earning could become independent contractors or set up LLCs to shift income and advantage of the lower corporate tax rate. Additionally, those who own pass-through businesses could reduce their salaries and take higher profits.
This is how residents of Kansas responded to a similar state law. The state is now working to repeal a law passed in 2012 that exempted pass-through firms from state income tax. The result was that many individuals and businesses in the state restructured their business as pass-through entities or created new businesses to take advantage of the tax break. In just a few years, the number of pass-throughs in the state almost doubled. The state is now facing a large budget deficit as a result because the pass-through exemption is estimated to have cost the state $472 million in 2014 alone. The cost for 2015 was even higher.
The impact of this tax strategy on the 15% tax at the federal level would be expensive. It is estimated to cost up to $1.95 trillion in lost tax revenues over the next ten years. The Trump administration is considering ways to prevent abuse of this low tax rate but any attempt to prevent gaming the system will likely add more complexity to the tax code. Tax-savvy practitioners will likely still be able to find loopholes.
Tax only on Income Earned inside the US
Worldwide income is taxed presently, with credits for foreign taxes paid. The proposed law would generally tax only income that is earned within U.S.
Multinational Tax: A new, low tax on multinationals is part of the proposed tax, added to raise revenue to fund other rate reductions.
Estate Tax Repeal
Republicans would like to repeal the estate tax. President Trump would impose a tax on pre-death appreciation of assets, with a $10 million per couple exemption. There would be no step up in basis at death. And it is likely that gift tax rules would be retained.
Even if the federal estate tax law is repealed, many states will continue to impost a tax. Massachusetts only exempts $1 million of assets passing to someone other than a spouse, such as a trust. New York and other states have higher exemptions. Thus, planning is still important for most people.
With the uncertainty of any change being enacted, this is not an easy year for planning. For example, this may not be the year for a Roth conversion, if tax rates will go down next year. It may not be the time for complex estate planning techniques involving irrevocable transfers, if the estate tax is eliminated in 2018.
We will keep monitoring this to assess any moves that do make sense and update this post when the likelihood of real changes becomes clear.
Purchasing adequate life insurance and doing your estate plan, meaning signing a will and creating a trust, are probably low on your list.
If you help support others, I hope you will rethink your priories. I will give you two good reasons that you should:
I saw the confusion and pain a wife had to address when she lost her husband, before he bought the life insurance he had promised to obtain, and had to help her kids adjust to the massive change of lifestyle as they sold their home and downsized because they could no longer afford what their dad, the chief income earner of their family, had provided them. If they had proceeds from his life insurance, they would have only been dealing with the grief of losing him.
I saw adult children deal with the probate process so they could be appointed administrators of their mom’s estate just to be able to access bank accounts, pay funeral expenses and then sell and distribute the remainder of her assets, making their own decisions in place of knowing what she would have wanted.
If you have not obtained life insurance to replace your earning power, which helps support your family, and if you have not executed a will, along with a trust, medical directive and other documents that may be appropriate, you are not just avoiding an inconvenient imposition on your time and the payment of premiums and fees, you are failing to properly think of the consequences of not acting and the impact that could have on your loved ones.
Whether you’re updating an existing plan or starting from scratch, this overview presents the key issues to consider when designing and executing the best estate plan. The work does not stop at signing your estate plan documents; you must also complete the follow up work of beneficiary designations, memorandum to fiduciaries, etc. The goal is to avoid the pitfall of having no plan and the disaster when wills and trusts are in place but the asset ownership and beneficiary designations frustrate the plan by having assets pass to the spouse and not the trust.
If you do nothing else after reading this, write and deliver a “Memorandum to Survivors” and review asset ownership, all as described at the end of this post. A comprehensive estate plan can accomplish many goals, such as providing for survivors, ensuring your children are cared for, determining the flow of your assets upon your death, and reducing the amount of taxes your estate will pay while administering your estate. The most important goal is that you have peace of mind knowing that your estate will be administered in accordance with your wishes.
Updating an Existing Plan
If you have a plan already in place, be sure to review it every couple of years. As you grow older, your life circumstances change and these changes may affect your wishes and plans for your estate. Events such as the emancipation of your children, divorce, lapsed relationships with fiduciaries will likely affect your estate plan. Keep these matters in mind when reviewing the remainder of this post. Your change of circumstances could change your pyramid level.
Estate Planning Pyramid
Constructing a pyramid can be helpful for understanding all that goes into an estate plan, much like nutrition and investments. Each level of the pyramid addresses a new level of complexity in your family and financial situation – that is, everyone needs level one, but not all need the later, more complex levels.
Pyramid: Level One
The first level of estate planning provides the most basic protections so it is most suitable to single individuals with no children and few assets. This level of estate plan typically includes the following forms:
Health Care Proxy: This document allows you to appoint people to make decisions about your health care and treatment when you are not capable of doing so. You typically select the surviving spouse and then have a first and second alternate if you wish. Some states call such documents “medical directives” or “medical powers of attorney.”
Living Will: This makes your wishes clear as to whether or not you want to have heroic means used to prolong your life.
Anatomical Gift Instrument: This allows you to have a hospital use organs and other body parts for others in need of a transplant.
Pyramid: Level Two
The second level is most appropriate for individuals in committed relationships. This level includes all the forms listed in the first level, but adds a durable power of attorney. This document grants a power of attorney to the other to manage your financial affairs if you are absent or you become incapacitated.
Pyramid: Level Three
When you have children, you want to ensure that they will be both cared for and provided for in the manner you wish. To achieve this, you need a will to appoint a guardian, for the “care,” and create a trust to manage assets, for the “providing.”
A will is a formal document that designates your personal representative or executor, any alternates, plus a guardian and any alternates for children under age 18, then instructs your personal representative to pay off your debts, and distribute your estate per your wishes.
A trust is an entity that you create and can be used for many purposes. The trustee acts as the owner of what the trust holds, while the beneficiaries get all the benefits from what the trust holds. For estate planning, trusts are used to reduce estate taxes in various ways. Trust vehicles can also describe how and when assets are distributed. For example, the grantor of a trust could insist that assets not go to children until they are age thirty-five. The trust vehicle could also provide where assets flow if all family members die without issue. For example, assets could flow to a charity or educational institution.
Providing for Survivors: You need to address how your assets and any life insurance flow after your death in order to ensure that your resources allow those who survive you to maintain the same standard of living, during their life expectancies, that you all had during your life. If your investments are not sufficient, even after making liquid certain kinds of personal property (e.g., a second home), then there is a need for life insurance.
Life Insurance: Term insurance, providing only a death benefit, funds the shortfall between assets required to maintain the lifestyle of the survivors and actual assets available. Whole life, variable or other types of insurance should only be used when permanent insurance is required, as in the case of maintaining estate liquidity throughout your lifetime.
Flow of Assets: After you determine the assets required to support the lifestyle of the survivor, you determine to whom the assets flow. For example, at Levels One and Two, you can leave everything directly to survivors, while at Levels Three to Six, you use a trust, and at Level Six you may even separate some portion of the assets by gift now.
Control Over Assets: In Levels One and Two, the survivors have complete control over the assets. At higher Levels, trust vehicles are used for the estate tax savings. However, you also gain a heightened level of attention on the assets: you have engaged a trustee to focus on providing for the surviving spouse, maintaining his or her lifestyle, while still attending to the interests of other beneficiaries, such as children. In this way, the trustee will try to preserve the trust assets in the best way possible for the longest duration. Finally, the trustee must distribute the assets per your instructions; if assets went to a survivor, they are not bound in any way to follow your wishes, so you may not achieve your estate planning goals.
Fiduciaries: In designing the estate plan, many choices revolve around the fiduciary that you select for a particular role.
Personal Representative or Executor: This is the person who “marshals” all assets of the estate together, pays death expenses and transfers ownership of property to the surviving spouse or trust. This is approximately a nine-month task.
Guardian: This is the person whom you select to love and care for your children in your absence. The spouse selects the surviving spouse and then a second or third choice beyond that. This job lasts until each child has reached majority (age eighteen).
Trustee: This person has potentially the longest-term job because he or she must manage the trust assets and make distributions of income and sometimes principal to the surviving spouse, children and even grandchildren. Depending on the terms of the trust, this job could last until the children are young adults.
Beneficiary Designations and Ownership: ownership and how life insurance proceeds and retirement plan assets flow is described below.
Pyramid: Level Four
This level of planning addresses state taxes. When the potential combined estate of a husband and wife exceeds $1 million, and they have other beneficiaries for whom they want to maximize the estate after taxes, then trusts are typically used. States such as Massachusetts impose an estate tax over $1 million. Other states have similar amounts, but many are increasing, such as New York which will match the federal credit in 2019. Therefore, additional planning is required if you reside in a state with an estate tax.
Pyramid: Level Five
The fifth level contains trusts that address federal estate taxes, as well as state. Congress has retained the unified gift and estate tax credit, now at approximately $11.4 million (inflation adjusted) with a 40% estate tax rate. In addition, the unused portion of the estate tax credit of a deceased spouse is “portable”, allowing it to pass to the estate of surviving spouse.
With the trust structure, sub-trusts can be created so that both the credit and the marital deduction are used. This structure takes advantage of the credit at the first and second deaths. In contrast, wills that pass all assets outright to the surviving spouse would only take advantage of the credit at the second death. The total tax savings for an estate of $10 million or more is excess of $1.75 million for the combined estates.
Life Insurance Trust: You can also make an irrevocable trust the owner of any insurance on your life to exclude all proceeds at death from both estates, avoiding estate taxes. That is, the proceeds are completely estate tax free. However, this requires an irrevocable transfer to the trust; you cannot get the insurance back out. You can use this trust to receive insurance proceeds that can pay for estate taxes, thereby preserving more of your estate after taxes without increasing the taxable estate.
Pyramid: Level Six
The final level is for complex estate planning that minimizes federal and state estate taxes through multiple generations. An example of this is a generation-skipping trust. These trusts transfer assets from the grantor’s estate to his or her grandchildren. This is what allows the grantor’s estate to avoid taxes that would apply if the assets were transferred directly to his or her children. The grantor’s children can still enjoy financial benefits of the trust by accessing any income that is generated by the trust while leaving the assets in trust for grantor’s grandchildren.
Other entities: Separating assets by gift now would be important if you wanted to ensure some minimum funding for children, such as guaranteeing coverage for their college expenses.
529 Plans: you can use 529 plans or trusts for gifting to cover college costs of a child.
After the Plan has been Executed – Ownership and Beneficiary Designations
Once the documents and insurance are in place, make sure to review and complete the following:
Qualified Plans (IRA’s, 401k plans, etc.):
Primary Beneficiary – to the surviving spouse (so he or she can roll over the proceeds to an IRA and thereby defer income taxes); and
Secondary Beneficiary – to your children (or your own revocable, depending on whether you want the assets controlled or available to children).
Life Insurance and Annuities:
Primary Beneficiary – when not owned by an irrevocable trust, such as group term, to your own revocable trust (for estate tax benefits, e.g., using credit at first death); and
Secondary Beneficiary – to the surviving spouse (in case of trust has been terminated for some reason).
Consider changing ownership of any jointly held assets to ownership by one of you. Any assets held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship will go to the survivor by operation of law and never get to your revocable trust. (You want to be sure that you have sufficient assets going to the trust to realize the full tax reduction effect.)
You may even want to fund your trusts, moving investment accounts over to your own revocable trust. This has no impact on your income taxes. You can also choose to fund your revocable trust now. This will save a significant amount of time for the executor, and the attorney he or she hires, as this will need to be done after your death otherwise.
Memorandum to Survivors
Compile a reference book or add to your financial plan book photocopies of important papers, identifying where the originals are, then adding a list of important contacts, instructions to your executor and trustee and other important notes for family and friends. You would update this at least annually with new asset statements (consider this as you gather information for preparing your taxes). To be more specific, the list (and copies) should include:
Location of original will, trust, etc.;
Location of health care proxy and durable power of attorney;
List of professionals with contact information: doctor, attorney, CPA, etc.;
List of fiduciaries with contact information: health care proxy, guardians, executors and trustees, attorney-in-fact for durable power of attorney, etc.;
Location of insurance policies and valuables such as original titles, etc.;
Location of safe deposit box for valuables and items in #5 or 7;
List of all bank and investment accounts and location of any stock certificates or other documentation for investments;
List of all mortgages, loans and credit card accounts;
Any appraisals or other listing of items by value;
All automatic debits that need to be addressed (stopped, changed); and
List of all password protected accounts (e-mail, on line banking and credit cards, etc.) and where to locate the passwords… and the password to access the password.