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in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.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?”

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning is a crucial process for everyone, no matter what assets you have now. If you want your family to be able to deal with your affairs, debts included, drafting an estate plan is critical, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for those 40 and under.”

If you have young children, or other dependents, planning is vitally important. The less you have, the more important your plan is, so it can provide as long as possible and in the best way for those most important to you. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

Talk to your family about various “what if” situations. It is important that you’ve discussed your wishes with your family and that you’ve considered the many contingencies that can happen, like a serious illness or injury, incapacity, or death. This also gives you the chance to explain your rationale for making a larger gift to someone, rather than another or an equal division. This can be especially significant, if there’s a second marriage with children from different relationships and a wide range of ages. An open conversation can help avoid hard feelings later.

You should have the basic estate plan components, which include a will, a living will, advance directive, powers of attorney, and a designation of agent to control disposition of remains. These are all important components of an estate plan that should be created at the beginning of the planning process. A guardian should also be named for any minor children.

In addition, a life insurance policy can give your family the needed funds in the event of an untimely death and loss of income—especially for young parents. The loss of one or both spouses’ income can have a drastic impact.

Remember that your estate plan shouldn’t be a “one and done thing.” You need to review your estate plan every few years. This gives you the opportunity to make changes based on significant life events, tax law changes, the addition of more children, or their changing needs. You should also monitor your insurance policies and investments, because they dovetail into your estate plan and can fluctuate based on the economic environment.

When you draft these documents, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 21, 2020) “Estate planning for those 40 and under”

Can I Add an Adult Daughter to the Title of a Home?

It’s surprising that the lender wouldn’t allow this 77-year-old widowed woman to add her daughter to the title of her your home, says The Ledger’s recent article “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options.” Typically, the mortgage lender likes to make sure that the borrower on the loan is the same as the owners on the title to the property. However, if a senior wanted to add her daughter, it’s not uncommon for a lender to allow a non-borrower spouse or child to be on the title but not on the loan. When the lender permits this, all the loan documents are signed by the borrower and a few documents would also be signed by the non-borrowing owner of the home.

In this situation where the mother closed on the loan, and the lender refused to put the daughter on the title to the home, there are a few options. One option is to do nothing but be certain sure that there’s a valid will in place with instructions that the home is to go to the daughter. When the mother passes away, the daughter would have to wait while the will is probated, then transfer the title to her name or sell the place. The probate process will increase some costs and can be a little stressful, especially if someone is grieving the loss of a family member.

A second option is for the mother to create a living trust and transfer the title of the home to the trust—she would be the owner and trustee. The mother would name her daughter as the successor beneficiary and trustee of the trust. Upon the mother’s death, the daughter would assume the role of trustee.

The next option is a transfer on death (or “TOD”) instrument. Some real estate professionals don’t like to use this document. It may not be acceptable depending on state law, but the TOD would allow the mother to record a document now that would state that upon her death the home would go to her daughter.

Finally, the mother could transfer ownership of the home to her daughter and herself with a quitclaim deed to hold the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Upon mother’s death, the home would automatically become the daughter’s home. However, this type of transfer of the home might trigger the lender’s “due on sale” requirement in the mortgage. Thus, if the lender wanted to be a stickler, they could argue that the mother violated the terms of that loan and is in default.

It is also worth mentioning that there may be tax consequences for the daughter. If the mother goes with the last option and puts her daughter on the title to the property, she’s in effect gifting her half of the value of the home. This may cause tax issues in the future, because the daughter will forfeit her ability to get a stepped-up basis. However, if the daughter gets title to the home through a will, the living trust or the transfer on death instrument, she’ll inherit the home at the home’s value at or around the time of the mother’s death (the stepped-up basis). You should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to get the best advice.

Reference: The Ledger (Jan. 11, 2020) “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options”

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So, do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen, but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults, which they are, and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust, or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct, less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter, but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor, when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Click here If you are interested in learning more about estate planning, elder law, or long-term care planning.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

The Many Responsibilities of Inheriting a Home

When you inherit a home, there are three key factors to consider: the financial and legal responsibilities of the home, the tax liabilities of the home and what you’ll eventually do with the home. All of these different things relate to each other, explains Million Acres in “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House.”

Let’s look at taxes first. There’s no federal tax associated with inheriting a house, but some states have inheritance taxes. For most situations, this inheritance does not lead to an immediate tax liability. When a property is inherited, the IRS establishes a fair market value for the property, which is the new basis for the property. This is a step-up basis. It is the valuation that is used to set future taxes, when the property is sold.

Capital gains are a tax relating to the profits generated from selling an asset, in this case, a house. The step up in basis means the heir only has to pay capital gains taxes, if the home is sold. The taxes will be the difference between the fair market value set at the time of the inheritance and the selling price.

If the property has a mortgage, heirs will need to know what type of mortgage it is and if it is assumable or due on sale. Most mortgage companies allow heirs to take over the payments, according to the original loan terms. However, if there is a reverse mortgage on the home, the unpaid balance is due when the person who took out the reverse mortgage dies. This usually requires the heirs to sell the home to settle the debt.

The condition of the inherited home often determines what heirs decide to do with the house. If it hasn’t been maintained and needs major work, it may be easier to sell it as-is, rather than undertake renovations. Heirs are responsible for taxes, insurance and maintenance. However, if the house is in good shape, it may make sense to keep it.

What happens when siblings inherit a house together? That can get complicated, if each person has a different idea about what to do with the house. One may want to sell now for cash, while another may want to rent it out for income. What ultimately happens to the property, may depend on how well the siblings communicate and make decisions together.

Often the best option is to simply sell the home, especially if multiple heirs are involved. Note that there are costs associated with the sale of the house. This includes any outstanding debts, like a mortgage, the cost of fixing up the home to prepare it for sale, closing costs and fees and real estate agent commissions. If there is a profit on the sale of the home from the tax basis at the time of inheritance, the heirs may need to pay short-term or long-term capital gains tax, depending on how long they held the property.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about managing the sale of the family home. They will be able to guide you, advise you about taxes and keep the family moving through the process of settling the estate.

Reference: Million Acres (December 4, 2019) “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House”

When are You Done with Estate Planning?

A family has set up their estate plan. Two sons are already in the farming business and are thriving. Their daughter will receive the proceeds from a second-to-die life insurance policy and their considerable savings. The amounts are not equal in amount, but they are an equitable inheritance, and it seems like the couple has done its homework.

However, asks an article in The Courier, “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”

Estate planning is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Like farming, it gets put together over time, piece by piece. Each piece represents something that needs to be done. For instance, a key part of the puzzle is having a last will and testament. That functions like building the outside frame of the puzzle, for those who start their puzzles by building the perimeter first. It frames the rest of your estate plan.

Other pieces are included within the will, like naming a personal representative, or executor. This is the person who is in charge of distributing your assets and making sure that the directions in your will are followed, when you pass away.

Do you have a plan for what happens when you die? For instance, if a husband dies, is there a plan for the wife to maintain the farm, or will she sell machinery and other transitory assets?

For the couple mentioned above who has the will, a transition spelled out in the will and a second-to-die policy in place to supplement the daughter’s inheritance, congratulations: they have many pieces of the puzzle in place. However, that’s not everything.

The other parts of the puzzle have to do with issues while the couple is still living. What happens if one or both are injured, or become ill? Who should take over the farming in the short or long term? Who will care for the spouse or spouses? Will they depend on each other for caretaking, or their daughter?

The number one worry for seniors is whether they have enough money to last until they die. However, by taking a portion of their savings and investing in a long-term care insurance policy, they can rest assured that they or their spouse will get the care they need—in a nursing home or at home—without burning through the family’s savings.

This piece of the estate planning puzzle—preparing for illness or disability—is often missing, and it can turn the rest of the estate plan into a pile of unattached pieces.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to make sure your estate plan does not have any missing pieces. If you have not recently reviewed your estate plan in the last three or four years, schedule a review. Changes in the law and changes in your own life may make your old estate plan out of date and may no longer achieve the goals you had in mind.

Reference: The Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”

How Can I Upgrade My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article, “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan,” suggests that since most people want to plan for a good life and a good retirement, why not plan for a good end of life, too? Here are four ways you can refine your estate plan, protect your assets and create a degree of control and certainty for your family.

  1. Beneficiary Designations. Many types of accounts go directly to heirs, without going through the probate process. This includes life insurance contracts, 401(k)s and IRAs. These accounts can be transferred through beneficiary designations. You should update and review these forms and designations every few years, especially after major life events like divorce, marriage or the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren.
  2. Life Insurance. A main objective of life insurance is to protect against the loss of income, in the event of an individual’s untimely death. The most important time to have life insurance is while you’re working and supporting a family with your income. Life insurance can provide much needed cash flow and liquidity for estates that might be subject to estate taxes or that have lots of illiquid assets, like family businesses, farms, artwork or collectibles.
  3. Consider a Trust. In some situations, creating a trust to shelter or control assets is a good idea. There are two main types of trusts: revocable and irrevocable. You can fund revocable trusts with assets and still use the assets now, without changing their income tax nature. This can be an effective way to pass on assets outside of probate and allow a trustee to manage assets for their beneficiaries. An irrevocable trust can be a way to provide protection from creditors, separate assets from the annual tax liability of the original owner and even help reduce estate taxes in some situations.
  4. Charitable Giving. With charitable giving as part of an estate plan, you can make outright gifts to charities or set up a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) to provide income to a surviving spouse, with the remainder going to the charity.

Your attorney will tell you that your estate plan is unique to your situation. A big part of an estate plan is about protecting your family, making sure assets pass smoothly to your designated heirs and eliminating stress for your loved ones.

Reference: Forbes (November 6, 2019) “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan”

It’s Like Going to the Dentist: You Need to Get Your Estate Plan Ready

This is one of those things that you know you should do, but you keep finding reasons not to. After all, says the article Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your willfrom The Orange County Register, none of us likes to think about dying or what might occur that would require someone else to raise our children.

What do you need to get motivated and stop procrastinating?

Remember who you are creating a will for. Think of it as a love letter to those you leave behind. You want to provide specific instructions for the people you love about what you want to happen to your minor children, beloved pets and possessions. You are saving them the worries of trying to guess what you would have wanted, and the cost of having to pay attorneys to clean up a mess after you have died.

Legal visualization. Think about what will happen in the absence of a will. Without an estate plan, a court will decide who will raise your children. State law determines who inherits your possessions, and maybe the laws won’t follow your wishes. Every estate planning attorney has stories of people who die without planning. A spendthrift heir can easily spend a lifetime’s work in less than two years. A trust can be used to control how and when money is distributed.

Simple works. Don’t let the term “estate plan” throw you. A basic estate plan is not as complicated or as expensive as you might think. An experienced estate planning attorney will guide you through the process. You should also think about the short-term: what do you want to happen, if you die sometime in the next five years? You can always update the plan, if things change.

Give yourself a realistic timeline. Setting specific dates for tasks to be done and breaking the project out into smaller parts, can make this easier to address. Start by getting an appointment with an attorney on your calendar. Then, set a date to have a conversation with your family members about guardians, charities and other intentions for your legacy. That might take place around Thanksgiving, when families have extended time together. By December 1, clarify and confirm your documents, and get them signed before the holidays. You should also make sure to retitle any assets that are being moved into trusts.

If you were to start today, you could be done by New Year’s Day, 2020. Wouldn’t that feel great?

Reference: The Orange County Register (October 1, 2019) Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your will

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”