Estate planning checkup: why you don’t, why you should

Why you don’t:

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.  

So, why is it that people fail to take action?  Rick Kahler wrote recently about Overcoming Client Procrastination with Financial Planning.  In his post, he lists factors that cause people to put off action that agree is important to address: 

  1. Avoidance.  Feelings of self-doubt, fear of pain or anxiety around the task, depression, fear of asking for help, lack of trust.
  2. Perfectionism.  Fear of failure, fear of being criticized (both externally by others and – often more powerfully – internally by parts of yourself).
  3. Ambiguity.  Lack of clarity about the task, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty prioritizing in the absence of a crises, being focused on immediate tasks.
  4. 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.
  5. Physical Issues.  Fatigue, illness.
  6. Lack of knowledge.  Not knowing what you don’t know, unsure how to get needed help and information.
  7. 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!

Year-end Tax Planning and the Pandemic

Tax Planning and the Pandemic

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. 

Retirement contributions

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. 

Business expenses

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. 

Capital gains

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.  

Summary

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!

Will you leave a mess or a legacy? Don’t die without a plan

“where did they leave it?”

Estate planning is not fun.  You have to face what the world will be like after you leave it.  You want to leave a legacy so your survivors are happy.  However, less than one in five of you have taken the steps needed. 

If you completely ignore creating a post-death plan, then you will leave a chaos and confusion for others to sort out at a time when they will be grieving from your loss.  They will have to find where you put everything and sort out where you wanted everything to go. 

If people depend on you financially, not providing enough on which they can survive will mean major lifestyle changes for them.  Not something you want. 

You want survivors to focus on cherished memories, not on probate courts.  Take action! 

Now, what do you do?

First, leave enough so survivors can survive

Make sure you have provided for those who depend on you.  Usually, that means purchasing some form of life insurance.  You want to replace your earning power from now until the time that they are independent, either when a spouse or partner retires or when your children become gainfully employed. 

If you have been saving for retirement, those accounts may be enough so you don’t need to purchase life insurance.  Reviewing your potential estate with an advisor is wise to make sure survivors have enough. 

Second, sign the documents

Execute documents that ensure that your estate goes to the people who you want to benefit.  This usually means signing beneficiary designations for retirement plan accounts and executing a will.  You may even need a trust for young survivors.  We wrote this post detailing the steps a few years back.  If that’s too technical, ask me questions. 

You may want to consult an advisor to get all the proper documents in place.  Here is a good checklist to review.

Third, have the conversations

Talk to your spouse, to your adult children and to the people you name in your documents.  Make sure they understand your wishes.  Do you want to be buried or do you want to be cremated?  Do you want donations made to charities? 

What if you have a catastrophe the doesn’t kill you, but leaves you hooked up to machines forever?  Have a conversation so your loved ones know your wishes.  And, make sure you sign a health care proxy or medical directive, living will and even a “do not resuscitate” or DNR order. 

Fourth, leave a trail

Make sure the key people know how to find everything.  One way is to write a memorandum listing your passwords, where to find the safe deposit box key, and where you stored the life insurance policies.  Give copes to key people, such as the personal representative named in you will or the trustee of your trust. 

Finally, leave a legacy

When you take care of all you can, in advance, your survivors don’t have to suppress feelings while they clean up a mess:

“WE WERE WORRIED ABOUT MY MOM after my dad died, but he had everything in order. It allowed us to focus on our grief instead of being bogged down in financial paperwork and family bickering.” That’s one of the candid responses Merrill Lynch and Age Wave received when they interviewed more than 3,000 Americans 55 and older for a comprehensive look at attitudes and practices surrounding legacy planning.  From How do you want to be remembered…

planning and taking action

You will need to review and update your plan over time.  But, just knowing you took all these steps should improve matters for you and your family now!  Contact our office if you have questions so you can “don’t worry, be happy!”

Tax Law change under the new Trump Administration? Maybe, but too soon for planning

Enacting Major Changes Will Take Time

(as also appeared online in IRIS.xyz)

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.

Planning Opportunities

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.

If you help support others, you need life insurance and an estate plan – really

Purchasing adequate life insurance and doing your estate plan, meaning signing a will and creating a trust, are probably low on your list.

firefighters-115800_1280

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.

So please think again.