Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Am I a Senior Citizen?

Here are some milestones that could signal that you have become a senior citizen, according to US News and World Report’s recent article entitled “When Do You Become a Senior Citizen?”

Eligibility for Senior Benefits. There are exact ages when you qualify for a host of retirement benefits. In some ways, society makes it very clear when we become senior citizens. For example, we know that at age 65, we qualify for Medicare. Social Security benefits can begin as early as age 62 or as late as age 70. And senior discounts begin at some retailers and restaurants for those who are 55 or older.

If you’re 50 or older, you’re eligible to become an AARP member.

Spending Retirement Savings. Retirement accounts are developed to motivate workers to save for their retirement. Thus, accounts like a 401(k) plan or IRA usually impose a penalty for early withdrawals. If you take money out before age 59½, you’ll typically be hit with a 10% penalty. You may consider yourself a senior citizen when you no longer have to concern yourself with that 10% penalty for early withdrawals from your IRA or 401(k).

However, when you hit a certain age, you will need to take required minimum distributions from retirement accounts. Also called “RMDs,” these withdraws from traditional IRAs and 401(k) plans must be taken each year after age 72. Once you reach 72, you may think of yourself as a senior citizen because you have to start taking your RMDs from your retirement account.

Retirement. After you retire from working every day, your family and friends may consider you to have attained senior citizen status. The transition might bring on a feeling of meaning and purpose. Once you reach a certain age, you look back and go through self-reflection.

As you stop going to the office every day, you might feel a sense of gratitude for the years you were able to work and pursue a passion.

Health Issues. Medical conditions like arthritis, hypertension, or hearing loss may cause you to feel like you have reached senior citizen land. A person that is battling several age-related medical issues can feel olde,r just by the number and type of medications or medical devices they use.

It’s not easy to feel young when you are being fitted with a walker or hearing aid, and you’re lining up pill bottles every morning and evening. Feeling fatigued or ready for bed by 9 p.m. might be signals that you are getting older.

Reference: US News and World Report (Jan. 27, 2021) “When Do You Become a Senior Citizen?”

What States Make You Pay an Inheritance Tax?

Let’s start with defining “inheritance tax.” The answer depends on the laws of each state, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney to learn exactly how your inheritance will be taxed, says the article “States with Inheritance Tax” from yahoo! finance. There are six states that still have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, you’ll need to pay an inheritance tax within nine months after the person dies, and the amount will depend upon how you are related to the decedent.

In Kentucky, spouse, parents, children, siblings and half-siblings do not have to pay inheritance taxes. Others need to act within 18 months after death but may be eligible for a 5% discount, if they make the payment within 9 months.

Timeframes are different county-by-county in Maryland, and the Registrar of Wills of the county where the decedent lived, or owned property determines when the taxes are due.

Only a spouse is exempt from inheritance taxes in Nebraska, and it has to be paid with a year of the decedent’s passing.

New Jersey gets very complicated, with a large number of people being exempted, as well as qualified religious institutions and charitable organizations.

In Pennsylvania, rates range from 4.5% to 15%, depending upon the relationship to the decedent. There’s a 5% discount if the tax is paid within three months of the death, otherwise the tax must be paid within nine months of the death.

As you can tell, there are many variations, from who is exempt to how much is paid. Pennsylvania exempts transfers to spouses and charities, but also to children under 21 years old. If one sibling is 20 and the other is 22, the older sibling would have to pay inheritance tax, but the younger sibling does not.

There’s also a difference as to which property is subject to inheritance taxes. In Nebraska, the first $40,000 inherited is exempt. Pennsylvania exempts certain transfers of farmland and agricultural property. All six exempt life insurance proceeds when they are paid to a named beneficiary, but if the policies are paid to the estate in Iowa, the proceeds are subject to inheritance tax.

Note that an inheritance tax is different than an estate tax. Both taxes are paid upon death, but the difference is in who pays the tax. For an inheritance tax, the tax is paid by heirs and the tax rate is determined by the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.

Estate tax is paid by the estate itself before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Estate taxes are the same, regardless of who the heirs are.

There are twelve states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) that have their own estate taxes (in addition to the federal estate tax). Note that Maryland has an inheritance, state and federal estate taxes. The rest of the states with an estate tax are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The large variations on estate and inheritance taxes are another reason why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer who knows the estate laws in your state.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Jan. 6, 2021) “States with Inheritance Tax”

Should I Sell My Life Insurance Policy?

It is quite common to buy life insurance. It may have been to protect your family financially or as a vehicle to provide liquidity for estate taxes. As we grow older and laws change, it is critical to determine if your policy has outlived its intended purpose. The traditional strategy of “buy and hold” no longer applies to the ever-changing world. Today, it may be a good idea to consider selling your policy.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “What You Should Know Before Selling Your Old Life Insurance Policy” explains that a lesser-known alternative to abandoning or surrendering a policy is known as a life settlement. This gives the policy owners the chance to get a much bigger cash lump sum, than what is provided by the life insurance carrier’s cash surrender value.

Life settlements are not new. Third-party institutional buyers have now started to acquire ownership of policies, in exchange for paying the owner a lump sum of cash. As a consequence, the policy owner no longer needs to make future premium payments.

The policy buyer then owns the life insurance policy and takes on the responsibility of future premium payments. They also get the full death benefit payable from the life insurance carrier when the insured dies.

Research shows that, on average, the most successful life settlement deals are with policies where the insured is age 65 or older. Those who are younger than 65 usually require a health impairment to receive a life settlement offer.

Knowing what your life insurance policy is worth is important, and its value is based on two primary factors: (i) the future projected premiums of the policy; and (ii) the insured’s current health condition.

Many policy owners don’t have the required experience with technical life expectancies, actuarial tables and medical knowledge to properly evaluate their life settlement value policies. This knowledge gap makes for an imbalance, since inexperienced policy owners may try to negotiate against experienced and sophisticated policy buyers trying to acquire the policy at the lowest possible cost.

To address this imbalance, the policy owner should seek help from an experienced estate planning attorney to help them with the process to sell the policy for the highest possible price.

If you have an old life insurance policy that’s collecting dust, ask an experienced estate planning attorney to review the policy’s importance and purpose in your portfolio. This may be the right time to turn that unneeded life insurance policy into cash.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 26, 2021) “What You Should Know Before Selling Your Old Life Insurance Policy”

What are My Taxes on a House I Inherited?

Say your mom transferred the deed of the house over to you in November 2014 with a life estate for her. She dies in 2016. Mom paid about $18,000 for the home in 1960. This is the son’s primary and only residence. He wants to put the house on the market for $375,000. Will he have to pay capital gains tax?

The son probably won’t owe any tax on the sale of the house. Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Will sale of inherited home cause a tax liability?” explains that the profit can be calculated, by subtracting the cost basis from the sales price. That cost basis is the original purchase price plus any capital improvements.

As far as the son’s repairs, he should look at capital improvements, which is somewhat nebulous. The IRS definition is “add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life, or adapt it to new uses.” Any improvements must be evident when you sell. If you replace a few shingles on your roof, it is a repair. However, if you replace the whole roof, that’s a capital improvement. If you don’t have receipts for the capital improvements, you can use reasonable estimates. However, the IRS may not accept them, if you’re audited.

Inherited property receives a “step up” in cost basis to the fair market value as of the date of death. This means that the original purchase price of the property and any capital improvements prior to the date of death are no longer relevant.

If a property is sold after it is inherited, the profit is calculated by deducting the date of death value from the sales price with an adjustment for any capital improvements made to the property after the date of death.

As far as the mom’s life estate in the home, this is a special type of real estate ownership, where the owner retains the exclusive right to live in the property for as long as she’s alive. However, a remainder interest is given to someone else, like a child. This “remainderman” automatically becomes the owner of the property upon the death of the life tenant.

Even with the life estate, the home receives a full step-up in cost basis upon the death of the life estate owner. The first $250,000 of profit on the sale of a primary residence is also exempt from tax, as long as the seller owned the home and lived in the home for two out of the last five years.

As such, the basis of the home will be the fair market value of the home in 2016, when the son inherited it as the remainderman of the life estate deed, plus any capital improvements he made since then.

In this situation, because the son has owned and lived in the house for two out of the last five years, he can exclude up to $250,000 of profit. With estimated sale price of $375,000, he shouldn’t owe any capital gains tax.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 31, 2020) “Will sale of inherited home cause a tax liability?”

Do You Know These Social Security Surprises?

If you don’t understand how Social Security works, you may get caught off guard by some of Social Security’s rules and nuances, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “Don’t Let These 3 Social Security Surprises Ruin Your Retirement.” Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Taxes on benefits. Many assume that Social Security is not taxed, but it may be, depending on your provisional income. Your provisional income is calculated by taking your non-Social Security income plus 50% of your annual benefit payments. If that total is between $25,000 and $34,000 for a single or between $32,000 and $44,000 for a married couple filing jointly, you could be taxed on up to 50% of your benefits. Moreover, if your provisional income is more than $34,000 as a single tax filer, or $44,000 as a joint filer, you may be subject to taxes on up to 85% of your benefits. Typically, if Social Security is your sole retirement income source, you will avoid having your benefits taxed at the federal level. However, there are 13 states that tax Social Security.
  2. Withheld benefits when you still get a paycheck. When you hit your full retirement age (FRA), which is when you are entitled to collect your monthly Social Security benefit in full, you can earn as much money as you would like from a job, without having that income impact your benefit payments. However, if you work and collect benefits at the same time before reaching FRA, you may have some of your benefits withheld if you exceed the annual earnings test limit.

You can earn up to $18,960 in 2021 without losing any benefits. Above that threshold, you will have $1 in Social Security withheld for every $2 you earn. If you will be attaining FRA this year, the earnings test limit is higher, $50,520, and after that you will have $1 in Social Security withheld for every $3 you earn.

These withheld benefits are not lost permanently. They are added onto your monthly benefit once you reach FRA. However, claiming Social Security before FRA will also reduce your monthly benefit for life. Bear that in mind, if you are planning to continue working.

  1. Ultra-low cost-of-living adjustments. Social Security benefits are subject to a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which is designed to help seniors keep up with inflation. However, in recent years, it has not. From 2002 to 2011, COLAs averaged 2.43%, but between 2012 and 2021, they averaged only 1.65%. As a result, many seniors on Social Security have had trouble paying their bills. COLAs are tied to fluctuations in the cost of goods and services, but this does not necessarily relate to seniors. Because of this, some lawmakers have been advocating for a better way of calculating them.

If you are planning to depend primarily on Social Security in retirement, be certain that you know the details of the program.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 1, 2021) “Don’t Let These 3 Social Security Surprises Ruin Your Retirement”

How Do I Cancel a Loved One’s Credit Cards and Manage Their Points, After They Die?

First, you should get legal advice before you start delving into the deceased person’s estate. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney. Typically, the executor of the deceased’s estate will be in charge of these tasks.

Insider’s recent article entitled “How to cancel a loved one’s credit cards and manage their points after they die” provides some general tips on the steps to take to cancel credit cards and manage loyalty points, after a family member or close friend passes away.

Review the situation and gather documents. After a death, there’s a lot to do. Once you receive a death certificate, the executor must begin managing the deceased’s finances.

First, you want the credit bureaus to note the death in the deceased’s credit report and to get a list of all credit cards they owned. You can contact one of the three nationwide credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion) to tell them about the death and get a copy of their credit report. The Social Security Administration usually notifies the credit bureaus of the death. However, personally contacting them will make certain that a death notice is entered in their credit report. This will decrease the risk of identity theft. When noted, lenders will see that the individual is dead and won’t issue credit. You only need to contact one bureau because they will automatically notify the others.

How to close the deceased’s credit cards. After you get the credit report, identify all open credit cards and contact each one to notify them of the death. Each issuer will have a different procedure for closing the card, but most will ask you to send a copy of the death certificate. Lenders may also automatically close cards when they see the death notice on the credit bureau report.

Paying off credit card debt after death. The CARD Act of 2009 set the rules for credit card debt after death. Once the lender is notified, it will close the credit card and provide a final bill to the estate within 30 days. While the estate is being settled, they can’t impose additional late fees, annual fees, or over-limit fees. However, the interest on the debt continues to accrue. Note that if the estate pays the debt within 30 days of receiving the final bill, there’s no additional interest charged.

Credit card rewards after death. Every credit card has its own rules for managing points after death. For instance, American Express Membership Rewards has a process to take ownership of an account, and Chase Ultimate Rewards terms state that “If we’re notified of your death, your points will be automatically redeemed for cash in the form of an account statement credit.” The miles and points earned with an airline or hotel are subject to the terms of that program. Review the rules of each credit card, airline and hotel loyalty program to understand how points will be managed.

How to simplify life for your family. You can make things easier for your loved ones, if you make a plan to handle your points, miles and credit card rewards. Similar to other assets, you should explain how you want your points to be used in your will. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: Insider (Feb. 1, 2021) “How to cancel a loved one’s credit cards and manage their points after they die”

Am I Missing Retiree Tax Breaks?

Seniors frequently can miss tax-saving opportunities. In many cases, it’s simply because they just don’t know about them, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “The Most-Overlooked Tax Breaks for Retirees.” Let’s look at some these:

A Larger Standard Deduction. When you turn 65, the IRS offers you a bigger standard deduction. For 2020 returns, a single 64-year-old gets a standard deduction of $12,400 ($12,550 for 2021). A single 65-year-old gets $14,050 in 2020 ($14,250 in 2021). That $1,700 will make it more likely that you’ll take the standard deduction rather than itemizing. If you do, the additional amount will save you more than $400 if you’re in the 24% bracket. Couples in which one or both spouses are age 65+, also get larger standard deductions than younger taxpayers.

Medicare Premium Deduction. If you become self-employed when you leave your job, you can deduct the premiums you pay for Medicare Part B and Part D, plus the cost of supplemental Medicare (Medigap) policies or the cost of a Medicare Advantage plan. It isn’t subject to the 7.5%-of-AGI test that applies to itemized medical expenses. However, you can’t claim this deduction if you’re eligible to be covered under an employer-subsidized health plan offered by either your employer (if you have retiree medical coverage, for example) or your spouse’s employer (if he or she has a job that offers family medical coverage).

Spousal IRA Contribution. You must have earned income to contribute to an IRA, but if you’re married, and your spouse is still working, he or she can contribute up to $7,000 a year to an IRA that you own. Provided your spouse has enough earned income to fund the contribution to your account (and any deposits to his or her own), this is an option.

The RMD Workaround. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) weren’t required in 2020 (due to COVID), but retirees taking RMDs from their traditional IRAs in 2021 and beyond may have an extra option for meeting the pay-as-you-go demand. If you don’t need the RMD during the year, wait until December to take the money. You can ask your IRA sponsor to hold a large part of it for the IRS—enough to cover your estimated tax on both the RMD and your other taxable income as well. If your RMD is more than large enough to cover your tax bill, you can keep your cash safely in its tax shelter most of the year and still avoid the underpayment penalty.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 29, 2020) “The Most-Overlooked Tax Breaks for Retirees”

Some Veteran Caregivers Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine through VA

The move is the result of a coalition of veterans groups that lobbied for the caregivers to be sent to the top of the vaccine list, arguing that they deserved to be included in the first wave of medical professionals being protected against the deadly illness, says Military Times’ recent article entitled “Tens of thousands of veteran caregivers now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine through VA.”

Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the VA, released a memo stating that those registered with the department’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers can be given the vaccine “in a coordinated manner with the veterans for whom they provide care.”

More than 6,700 VA patients have died from COVID complications in the last 10 months. Stone’s memo states that decisions will be made “in balance with site-specific resources, needs, vaccine availability, hesitancy to accept the vaccine and status of the pandemic locally.”

In an interview with Military Times, Stone commented that he is shifting many of those vaccination decisions to local officials to give coverage to more individuals.

“We need to leave it up to people at the bedsides, to make sure they are making the best decisions for veterans,” he said. “When someone brings a veteran in to give them the vaccine, they can easily identify what the other needs are.”

Roughly 20,000 veterans are registered in the caregiver program at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This program provides monthly stipends and other support to individuals providing regular medical assistance to infirm veterans.

The data shows that the majority of this group are family members of post-9/11 veterans. The caregiver assistance program was expanded last fall to veterans who served before May 1975.

And recently, a coalition of veteran groups, including The Independence Fund, Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Non-Commissioned Officers Association sent a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials asking them to authorize the VA to administer the caregiver vaccines, under its role as the lead coordinator of federal response to the pandemic.

Dr. Stone said as of January 13, VA officials had administered the first dose of the two-part vaccine to more than 332,000 department health care employees and veterans at high-risk of contracting coronavirus. Another 45,000 individuals have already received their second dose. The vaccine has been sent to nearly 200 department facilities. However, officials have warned that it could be months before they can administer the more than 7 million vaccines they expect to be requested by veterans and staff.

Reference: Military Times (Jan. 14, 2021) “Tens of thousands of veteran caregivers now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine through VA”

Should You Gift Stocks as Part of Your Estate Plan?

There are a number of ways to gift stock to family members, during your lifetime or after you die, according to a recent article from Think Advisor titled “Gifting Stock to Family Members: What You Need to Know.” The idea is simple, but how the gifting is done and what taxes may or may not need to be paid (and by whom) requires a closer look.

A gift of stock today is made through an electronic transfer from your account to the investment account of the recipient of the shares. The rules for gifting shares of stocks also apply to gifting ETFs and mutual funds.

Lifetime gifts. Stock gifts can be made in place of giving cash. The annual gift limit of $15,000 per person or $30,000 for a joint gift with your spouse, applies, and the value of the stock on the day of the transfer constitutes the amount of the gift.

If you gift in excess of the annual gifting limits, this takes a bite out of your lifetime gift and tax exemption, which as of this writing is $11.7 million per person for federal estate taxes. That’s something to keep in mind when deciding on your gifting strategy.

Using a trust for gifting. Instead of giving cash to a family member, you could use a trust and transfer your shares into the trust, with the family member as a beneficiary of the trust. The treatment of tax and cost basis issues will depend upon the type of trust used. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you determine what type of trust to use.

Transfer on death. You can also gift stocks to others through your will, through a transfer on death designation in a brokerage account, through a beneficiary designation in a trust if the securities are held there, or through an inherited IRA. Taxes and cost basis will vary, depending upon your circumstances.

Taxes and gifting stock. There are no taxes and no tax implications at the time stocks are gifted to someone, but there are some issues to know before making the gift.

When stocks are given to a relative, there is no tax impact for the donor or the person receiving the stock, and as long as the value of the stock is within the annual gifting limits, the donor does not have to do anything. If the gift value exceeds the limit, the person has to file a gift tax return.

The recipient of the stock shares doesn’t owe capital gains taxes, until the stocks are sold. At that time, the cost basis and holding period of the person who gifted the shares will need to be known in order to determine the tax liability.

If the stock is gifted at a price below the donor’s cost basis and sold at a loss, the recipient’s cost basis and holding period is determined by the fair market value of the stock on the date of the gift. However, if the price of the shares increases above the donor’s original cost basis, their cost basis and holding period need to be known to calculate the recipient’s capital gain.

Gifting to children or grandchildren. Gifting shares of appreciated stock to children and grandchildren can make sense for the donors, since they are taking the value of the stock out of their estate and gifting it to a child or grandchild in a lower tax bracket. The recipient or their parents could sell the shares and pay a lower capital gains rate, or even no capital gains taxes. However, if the recipient is a current or future college student, or the student’s parent, the gift could reduce eligibility for need-based financial aid. The stock may need to be reported as an asset belonging to the student or the parent, increasing their income when they are received and/or when they are sold.

Speak with your estate planning attorney before gifting stock or cash to family members. There will be sensible ways to be generous without creating any issues for recipients.

Reference: Think Advisor (Jan. 25, 2021) “Gifting Stock to Family Members: What You Need to Know”