How Bad Will Your Estate’s Taxes Be?

The federal estate tax has been a small but steady source of federal revenue for nearly 100 years. The tax was first imposed on wealthy families in America in 1916. They were paid by families whose assets were previously passed down through multiple generations completely and utterly untaxed, says the article “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?” from The Orange County Register.

The words “Death Tax” don’t actually appear anywhere in the federal tax code, but was the expression used to create a sympathetic image of the grieving families of farmers and small business owners who were burdened by big tax bills at a time of personal loss, i.e., the death of a parent. The term was made popular in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.

Fast forward to today—2020. Will the federal government tax your estate when you die, seize your home and everything you had hoped to hand down to your children? Not likely. Most Americans don’t have to worry about estate or death taxes. With the new federal exemptions at a record high of $11,580,000 for singles and twice that much for married couples, only very big estates are subject to a federal estate tax. Add to that, the 100% marital deduction means that a surviving spouse can inherit from a deceased spouse and is not required to pay any estate tax, no matter how big the estate.

However, what about state estate taxes? To date, thirteen states still impose an estate tax, and many of these have exemptions that are considerably lower than the federal tax levels. Six states add to that with an inheritance tax. That’s a tax that is levied on the beneficiaries of the estate, usually based upon their relationship to the deceased.

Many estates will still be subject to state estate taxes and income taxes.

The personal representative or executor is responsible and legally authorized to file returns on a deceased person’s behalf. They are usually identified in a person’s will as the executor of the estate. If a family trust holds the assets, the trust document will name a trustee. If there was no will or trust, the probate court will appoint an administrator. This person may be a professional administrator and likely someone who never knew the person whose estate they are now in charge of. This can be very difficult for family members.

If the executor fails to file a return or files an inaccurate or incomplete return, the IRS may assess penalties and interest payments.

The final individual income tax return is filed in just the same way as it would be when the deceased was living. All income up to the date of death must be reported, and all credits and deductions that the person is entitled to can be claimed. The final 1040 should only include income earned from the start of the calendar year to the date of their death. The filing for the final 1040 is the same as for living taxpayers: April 15.

Even if taxes are not due on the 1040, a tax return must be filed for the deceased if a refund is due. To do so, use the Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due to a Deceased Taxpayer. Anyone who files the final tax return on a decedent’s behalf must complete IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship, and attach it to the final Form 1040.

If the decedent was married, the widow or widower can file a joint return for the year of death, claiming the full standard deduction and using joint-return rates, as long as they did not remarry in that same year.

An estate planning attorney can help with these and the many other details that must be taken care of, before the estate can be finalized.

Reference: The Orange County Register (March 1, 2020) “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?”

C19 UPDATE: Bookmark this Page from the IRS for Ongoing Coronavirus Updates

The IRS has established a special section focused on steps to help taxpayers, businesses and others affected by the coronavirus. This page will be updated as new information is available. https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus

For health information about the COVID-19 virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) https://www.coronavirus.gov

Other information about actions being taken by the U.S. government visit https://www.usa.gov/coronavirus and in Spanish at https://gobierno.usa.gov/coronavirus.

The Department of Treasury also has information available at Coronavirus: Resources, Updates, and What You Should Know https://home.treasury.gov/coronavirus

We will be posting updates on our blog and social media as more information is made available. You can visit our website here or Facebook page here.

Should I Buy a Vacation Home When I Retire?

Taxes, maintenance costs, insurance and potential rental-management expenses are some of the factors that can make the significant difference between a nice passive investment and a real money pit. Depending on where the home is located, the cost of ownership may need to account for property taxes, utilities, homeowners’ fees and other items.

Baron’s recent article entitled “What Retirees Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home” says that there can be monetary benefits because a vacation home can appreciate in price over time, making it a potentially valuable asset. It also could be an income-generating enterprise, if you rent out the home.  However, you shouldn’t view a vacation home just as an investment. Remember that it’s not as liquid, so it’s not a replacement for stocks and bonds. Don’t rely on selling a vacation home for a top price, when you need the money.

First, before making a purchase, determine if you can afford a vacation home in retirement. Most retirees are living on a fixed income and may forget that the expense of a vacation home can go up faster than their income. You need to have a sufficient nest egg on which to live, so that you don’t need to make an emergency sale of the property.

Remember taxes. If you sell your second home, you can’t claim the capital-gains tax exemption that’s available when selling a primary residence. It’s only available for people who have lived in the home as a primary residence for at least two of the previous five years.

In addition to the tangible costs, if you want to keep the vacation home for the rest of your life, it will become part of your estate and subject to inheritance issues (depending on where you live). If you have children, some may want to keep the house, and others may want to sell. If there’s a split, you must find a way to give the house to those who want it and find another legacy for the others.

You could place the home into a limited liability corporation (LLC) with an operating agreement that defines it. This would allow each child to have a stake in the entity that owns the home rather than the home itself.

Whether you buy a second home for pleasure, profit, or both, think carefully before making a purchase. Ask your estate planning attorney about how to do this with your family situation.

Reference: Baron’s (Jan. 18, 2020) “What Retirees Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home”

Should Retirees Buy Vacation Homes?

It sounds like a great idea. After all, it’s an investment in real estate and it could be passed along to the next generation. It might be a rental property, too, generating income when the owners aren’t able to enjoy it. However, there are some things to be careful of, warns Barron’s in the article “What Retirees Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home.”

Taxes, maintenance, insurance and possibly the cost of hiring a rental-management company are just a few things to consider. Above all, don’t think of it as an investment This is because with real estate, there are no guarantees. For one thing, it’s not liquid. You can’t count on selling it for a good price, when you need some ready cash.

The first and most important question: can you afford it? Retirees are usually living on a fixed income. The cost of a vacation home can be loaded with surprises, just like any other property. If there’s enough of a nest egg to live on and there won’t ever be a need to sell fast, then it may be a good move.

If there’s enough money to purchase the home, then investing in someone to manage the property is a good idea. Empty homes are targets for thieves, and if there’s a maintenance issue, an uninhabited home is vulnerable to damages.

Where taxes are concerned, the sale of a second home does not give the seller the same capital gains tax exemption as the sale of a primary residence. That exemption is only available for people who have lived in the home as a primary residence for at least two of the previous five years. The exemption is up to $500,000 for married couples.

There is one way around it, if it makes sense for owners. Let’s say that they plan on downsizing from their primary residence. They sell it and use the tax exemption. They then move to the vacation home, for at least two years, using that as their primary residence. At that point, they can sell the home that has now become a primary residence, enjoy the generous tax exemption and then move to a new primary residence.

As a rental property, owners are permitted to rent for up to 14 days without owing any taxes on the rental income. After the 14-day period, taxes must be paid, but some of the rental expenses are tax deductible.

If the intent is to keep the house for as long as the owners are living, it becomes part of the estate and must be included in an estate plan. Leaving it to the next generation may be feasible, if all of the children want to keep the house and can afford its upkeep. Have the conversation with the children first. Giving the house to children can be accomplished by putting it into a limited liability corporation with an operating agreement that defines it. Each child will have a stake in the entity that owns the home, rather than the house itself.

Talk with your estate planning lawyer about how the purchase and inheritance of a vacation home may impact your overall estate plan before making a purchase.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 18, 2020) “What Retirees Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home”

Good News About Gifts

It’s worthwhile to understand the rules about taxes that might be triggered by your generosity, says Forbes in the article “How To Avoid Taxes When Giving Big-Dollar Gifts.” Did you know that you can give any one person as much as $15,000 every year, without having to pay any gift taxes? You can give any number of people up to $15,000 and they don’t even need to be relatives.

Note that if and when any gift taxes are due, it’s the giver who pays any gift taxes, and not the recipient.

Therefore, if you think the world of your next-door neighbor and give him a gift of $20,000, you only owe taxes on the $5,000 above the $15,000 limit, and that’s also if your total gift exceeds your lifetime exclusion. You don’t have to be generous with cash only. Gifts can come in the form of stock, a boat or jewelry. Just remember to keep it under $15,000, so as not to incur any gift taxes.

The $15,000 limit is per person, not per couple, so if you want to give someone $15,000 and your spouse also wants to give them a $15,000 gift, that works. You can double the gift, while still staying under the annual limit.

If your gift is going to a charitable organization—a registered 501(c)(3), you won’t owe anything in gift taxes.

In addition to this $15,000 annual cap, wealthy gift givers should just keep in mind a $11.4 million maximum that is known as the lifetime exclusion. That’s the limit in 2019, and it will rise next year. This governs all the gifting you do during your lifetime. That’s outside of the annual exclusion of $15,000.

Anything more than that in the way of gifts, and you or your estate will have to pay estate tax. The top rate for the overage is high-40%. However, you’ll have to be mighty generous to get near that limit.

Here’s what’s nice: you won’t have to pay gift taxes every single time you go over that $15,000 limit. Let’s say you give your son $50,000 in 2019. Your gift is $35,000 above the ceiling, which is taxable.  However, rather than write a check for taxes to the IRS now, you count it against the $11.4 million lifetime exclusion. You now have $11.365 remaining.

The best way to go about gifting, is to make sure that your desired gifts are working in concert with your estate plan. One reason for gifting “with warm hands” is to reduce the taxable size of the estate, but there are many other ways to do this. There are also instances when gifts need to be reported to the IRS, even if no taxes are owed on them.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your gifting strategy, how it works with your estate plan and what gift tax forms you do, or do not, need to file.

Reference: Forbes (October 14, 2019) “How To Avoid Taxes When Giving Big-Dollar Gifts”

What are the Details of the New SECURE Act?

The SECURE Act proposes a number of changes to retirement savings. These include changes to parts of IRAs and 401(k)s. The Act is expected to be passed in some form. Some of the changes look to be common sense, like broadening access to IRAs and 401(k)s, as well as including updating the rules to reflect that retirement is now a longer period of life. However, with these changes come potential limitations with stretch IRAs.

Forbes asks in its recent article “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?” You should know that an IRA is a tax-wrapper for your investment that is sheltered from tax. Your distributions can also be tax-free, if you use a Roth IRA. That’s a good thing if you have an option between paying taxes on your investment income and not paying taxes on it. The IRA, which is essentially a tax-shield, then leaves with more money for the same investment performance, because no tax is usually paid. The SECURE act isn’t changing this fundamental process, but the issue is when you still have an IRA balance at death.

A Stretch IRA can be a great estate planning tool. Here’s how it works: you give the IRA to a young beneficiary in your family. The tax shield of the IRA is then “stretched,” for what can be decades, based on the principle that an IRA is used over your life expectancy. This is important because the longer the IRA lasts, the more investment gains and income can be protected from taxes.

Today, the longer the lifetime of the beneficiary, the bigger the stretch and the bigger the tax shelter. However, the SECURE Act could change that: instead of IRA funds being spread over the lifetime of the beneficiary, they’d be spread over a much shorter period, maybe 10 years. That’s a big change for estate planning.

For a person who uses their own IRA in retirement and uses it up or passes it to their spouse as an inheritance—the SECURE Act changes almost nothing. For those looking to use their own IRA in retirement, IRAs are slightly improved due to the new ability to continue to contribute after age 70½ and other small improvements. Therefore, most typical IRA holders will be unaffected or benefit to some degree.

For many people, the bulk of IRA funds will be used in retirement and the Stretch IRA is less relevant.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2019) “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?”

Could You Lose Your Social Security Benefits to Creditors?

What if you are retired and the only income you have is your Social Security benefit? “Can Creditors Come After Your Social Security Benefits” is the question posed by Yahoo! Finance. While for the most part, you don’t have to worry about creditors coming after your Social Security benefits, there are others who can get them, if you haven’t paid certain debts.

Personal loan payments, credit card payments, or medical bills are usually not able to take your Social Security benefits. But there are some exceptions you’ll need to know about:

  • The IRS will not blink at taking up to 15% of your benefits, if your taxes are not paid.
  • If you owe on student loans, the loan companies can come after your Social Security benefits, even if the debt is decades old.
  • The same is true if you are behind on either child support or alimony payments.

As long as your outstanding debt is not tax-related, the first $750 of your benefits is protected from being garnished. However, if you’re behind on child support or alimony, you could lose more than 50% of those benefits.

There are steps to take if debt is an issue. First, if you owe money to the IRS, contact the local IRS office to work out a payment plan. They will almost always work with people to reach an agreement on an installment payment agreement. This will avoid having your benefits garnished.

If you’re behind on student loan payments, reach out to the lender and work out an arrangement. If you can prove that your financial situation is dire, you might be able to come up with a deferred payment plan or change the repayment schedule.

If things are really bad, consider filing for bankruptcy. If you do, realize that not all your debt will be dischargeable. For the most part, the same debts that can cause Social Security benefits to be garnished, like overdue taxes and student loans, are not forgivable by a bankruptcy. If those are your key issues, bankruptcy is not your best option.

This might be a situation where a bankruptcy attorney or a debt settlement firm is needed. Be very cautious about working with a debt settlement firm, to be sure that they are credible and trustworthy. The firm or the attorney will be able to help negotiate the debts. Remember that the ultimate goal of any creditor is to get paid, and sometimes getting paid half of the amount is better than not being paid at all.

Your best bet is to approach this problem and tackle it before you file for Social Security. If your sole source of retirement income is compromised, you want to contact the local county Office for Aging services to find out what kind of help is available in your community. Don’t leave this hanging and hope that it will be resolved by itself.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (April 27, 2019) “Can Creditors Come After Your Social Security Benefits”

How Big or Small Will Your Retirement Paycheck Be?

You’ve spent years saving for retirement, and maybe you’ve gotten that down to a science. That’s called the “accumulation” side of retirement. However, what happens when you actually, finally, retire? That’s known as the “deaccumulation” phase, when you start taking withdrawals from the accounts which you so carefully managed all these years. However, says CNBC, here’s what comes next: “You probably don’t know how much your retirement paycheck will be. New technology is working to change that.”

Unless you are a trained professional, like a financial advisor or a CPA, chances are good that you have no idea how to transform a lifetime of savings into a steady, tax-efficient income stream. A study for the Alliance for Lifetime Income asked pre-retirees, if they have done the math to figure out how much money they’ll need for retirement. About 66% say they haven’t done the calculations. Just 38% of households can count on having a pension or an annuity to provide a steady stream of cash.

In response to this common question, one company has launched a feature that was created to help you create a steady paycheck in retirement. The company, Kindur, was founded by a woman whose career included nearly two-decades in asset management at J.P. Morgan. She was inspired by her own experience helping her father decide how to draw down his assets. After devoting hours to Social Security books, she realized that technology could solve this problem. Throughout her career, she saw how financial institutions used technology to present and manage complex information. The goal of her company was to take this complexity out of retirement income planning.

Kindur, however, is not alone in this space. The founder of Social Security Solutions and Income Strategy found himself wishing there was a way to coordinate retirement income some ten years ago. He teamed up with the investment strategy chair at Baylor University, for what he thought would be a short project. In the end, it took years to sort through all the rules of Social Security. However, a platform was created to help people figure out claiming strategies. His second company analyzes   the accounts from which they should withdraw and when.

Another company, Income Strategy, provides users with help to figure out how to withdraw money and provides the option of how that transaction will be executed.

The future will likely hold more of these kinds of platforms, as the next generation becomes more comfortable with allowing AI (Artificial Intelligence) to manage their money and their withdrawals. For now, most people are still more comfortable with a person providing financial guidance, although that guidance is often helped by AI. Together, AI and an experienced professional make the best advisors.

As you plan for the future, remember to include the estate planning component. There have are many online legal drafting platforms, but so far, they have fallen short.

Reference: CNBC (April 7, 2019) “You probably don’t know how much your retirement paycheck will be. New technology is working to change that.”

Having a Generous Spirit is a Good Thing for Many Reasons

Many people give generously throughout the year, for birthdays, to help children or grandchildren with college costs or just because they want to help family or friends. However, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader’s article “Lifetime (noncharitable) giving has many advantages—and not just for tax purposes.”

Lifetime giving means that you are more involved with giving, than if your giving occurs after you have died. Perhaps the best part of gifting with warm hands, is that you are able to enjoy seeing the recipient (donee) benefit from your gift. It’s a good feeling to see a person have his life enriched by your generosity.

It should also be noted that sometimes, giving away something can be a way of liberating yourself. With less property, there’s less for you to manage, insure or provide upkeep.

If you die with no will, the intestacy laws of your state will determine who gets what. With a will, you have the opportunity to make your intentions known clearly. However, since you will not be alive, you won’t be able to see the actual transfer of property. A beneficiary might decide that they don’t want an asset. It is also possible that someone who always told you that he loved the painting in the foyer of your home, may decide to sell it, instead of keeping it.

Lifetime giving lets you react to changing circumstances and provides some control over how your assets are distributed.

After your death, your property and your estate may go through probate, which in some states can be a lengthy process. Lifetime giving also reduces the costs associated with probate and estate administration, because they won’t be included in your estate at the time of death. Assets that come out of the probate estate, reduces the likelihood of estate creditors or dissatisfied heirs. Lifetime gifts are private, while probate is public.

However, there are also tax advantages. If your gifting program is structured correctly by an experienced estate planning attorney, income and estate taxes can be decreased. Generally, a gift is not taxable income to the donee. However, any income earned by the gift property or capital gain subsequent to the gift, is usually taxable. The donor holds the responsibility of paying state or federal transfer taxes imposed on the gift. There are four taxes to be aware of: the state gift tax, the state generation-skipping transfer tax, federal gift and estate taxes and the federal generation-skipping transfer tax.

Many people give, because they want to support charitable causes or help friends and family enjoy a higher quality of life. The need to reduce the size of an estate to lower estate taxes is now less prominent, since the federal estate tax exemption is so high. It should be kept in mind that the new tax laws regarding federal estate taxes end in 2025. That may seem far away, but it will be here soon enough.

Another way to give, is to help with college expenses. Any gift must be made directly to a qualified institution. Similarly, if you’d like to help a friend or family member with medical expenses, a gift needs to be made directly to the healthcare provider. Not only are these types of transfers exempt from federal gift and estate taxes, but they are outside of the $15,000 annual gift exclusion gift you can make to an individual in any given calendar year.

This is a simple overview of gifting. An estate planning attorney should be consulted to create a plan for giving, that aligns with your overall estate plan and tax management plan.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (April 7, 2019) “Lifetime (noncharitable) giving has many advantages—and not just for tax purposes”

What You Need to Know, If the Next Generation Is Inheriting the Family Farm

Understanding the tax liabilities for inheriting, buying or being gifted the family farm, is critical to avoid a costly financial misstep, says Capital Press in the article “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?” You’ll need to work closely with your estate planning attorney and CPA to make sure you understand the basis in the real estate, especially if the property is sold and taxes will need to be paid. How you inherit the property, makes a big difference in the tax bill.

If you receive the property as a gift from parents while they are alive, then you retain their income tax basis in the property. If they inherited it also, they likely have a low tax basis. Farms with a basis of $50,000 that are now worth $2 million are not unusual. If the farm is sold, there will be a capital gains tax on the difference between the basis and the present value, which could be more than $600,000.

If you inherit the farm from a parent and then sell it for $2 million, its value at the time of their death, you would not have to pay a capital gains tax. That saves $600,000.

The estate tax may not be so bad, depending upon your state’s estate tax, which is probably lower than the highest capital gains rate. If you live in Oregon, you may be eligible for the Oregon National Resource Credit, which was created to reduce Oregon estate taxes on family farms. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for and manage these taxes.

If you bought the farm from a parent’s trust or estate for $2 million, then you have a $2 million basis in the property and will probably not owe any property gains tax, if you eventually sell it for $2 million.

Just be sure that you comply with all reporting requirements. If you are in Oregon and took the Oregon National Resource Credit, then for five out of eight years after the death, the recipient of the inherited property is required to file an annual certification to keep the credit that was used to lower the estate tax. Failure to comply, means that a portion of the estate tax will have to be repaid.

If you own the farm without other family members, you should start planning your next steps. To whom do you want to pass the farm? If you want to keep the farm in the family, work with an attorney who is familiar with farm families, so that you can keep working the land and reduce any disputes.

Farmers often separate business operations from the land, with the operations held by one business and the land held by another entity. This allows the estate planning attorney to plan for succession in how operations and land are transferred to the next generation. It also provides asset protection, while you are alive.

Make sure that your farm succession plan and your estate plan are aligned. A common issue is finding that buy-sell documents don’t align with the will or trust. Some farmers use a revocable living trust as a will, so they can incorporate estate tax planning and transition the farm privately upon death.

Reference: Capital Press (March 24, 2019) “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?”