Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Can Estate Planning Reduce Taxes?

The estate tax exemption won’t always be so high. The runup in housing prices may mean capital gains taxes become a serious issue for many people. There are solutions to be found in estate planning, including one known as an “Upstream Power of Appointment” Trust, as explained in the article “How to Use Your Estate Plan to Save on Taxes While You’re Still Alive!” from Kiplinger.

The strategy isn’t for everyone. It requires a completely trustworthy, elderly and less wealthy relative, such as a parent, aunt, or uncle, to serve as an additional trust beneficiary. First, here is some background information:

Basis: This is the amount by which a price is reduced to determine the taxable gain. This is often the historical cost of an asset, which may be adjusted for depreciation or other items. Estate planning attorneys are familiar with these terms.

Step-up (in-basis): If you bought a house for $100,000 and sold it for $400,000, your taxable gain would be $300,000. However, if the house had belonged to your father and was being sold to distribute assets between you and your siblings, the basis (cost) would be increased to the fair market value at the date of your father’s passing. This increase is known as the “step-up in basis” and here’s the benefit: there would be no capital gain on the sale and no taxes owed.

Lifetime estate tax exemption: This is currently at $12.06 million per person or $24.12 for married couples. This is the amount of assets which can be passed to children or others free of any federal estate tax. However, the number will take a deep dive on January 1, 2026, when it reverts back to just under $6 million, adjusted for inflation. Plan for the change now, because 2026 will be here before you know it!

Upstream planning involves transferring certain appreciated assets to older or other family members with shorter life expectancies. Since the person is expected to die sooner, the basis step-up is triggered sooner. When the named person dies, you obtain a basis step-up on the asset, saving income taxes on depreciation and saving capital gains on a future sale of the property.

Most Americans aren’t worried about paying estate taxes now, but no one wants to pay too much in income taxes or capital gains taxes.

To make this happen, your estate planning attorney will need to give an elderly person (let’s say Aunt Rose) the general power of appointment over the asset. Section 2041 of the Internal Revenue Code says you may give your Aunt Rose a power to appoint the asset to her estate, creditors, or the creditors of her estate. Providing the power will include the value of the property in her estate, not yours, ensuring the basis step-up and income tax savings.

Don’t do this lightly, as a general power of appointment also gives Aunt Rose ownership and the right to give the property to herself or anyone she wishes. Can you protect yourself, if Aunt Rose goes rogue?

While the IRC rule doesn’t require Aunt Rose to get your permission to control or change distribution of the property, a trust can be crafted with a provision to effectuate the desired result. The IRC doesn’t require Aunt Rose to know about this provision. This is why the best person for this role is someone who you know and trust without question and who understands your wishes and the desired outcome.

Proper planning with an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for this kind of transaction. All the provisions need to be right: the beneficiary need not survive for any stated period of time, you should not lose access to the assets receiving the basis increase, you want a formula clause to prevent a basis step down if the property or asset values fall and you want to be sure that assets are not exposed to creditor claims or any other liabilities of the person holding this broad power.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 3, 2022) “How to Use Your Estate Plan to Save on Taxes While You’re Still Alive!”

Is It Better to Inherit Stock or Cash?

To make an inheritance even more advantageous for heirs, it’s a good idea to streamline accounts and simplify what you own before you die, eliminating some complications during a very emotional time. The next three decades will see a massive transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, says a recent article “6 of the Best Assets to Inherit” from Kiplinger. If you might be among those leaving inheritances to loved ones, there are steps you can take to prevent emotional and even family-destroying fights resulting from problematic assets.

Cash is king of inheritance assets. It’s simplest to deal with and the value is crystal clear. If you have accounts in multiple financial institutions, consolidate cash into one account. Each bank may have different rules for distributing assets, so reducing the number of banks involved will make it easier. Just remember to stay within FDIC limits, which insures only $250,000 per bank per ownership category. Tell your children if they are going to receive a significant cash inheritance and discuss what they may want to do with it.

Cash substitutes. Proceeds from a life insurance policy are usually very cut and dried. When you pass away, the life insurance company pays beneficiaries the death benefit in cash, according to the beneficiaries named on the policy. Be sure to tell your heirs where the original policy is located. They’ll need to provide the insurance company with a death certificate and there may be a form or two involved. The proceeds are income tax free, although the death benefit itself is added to the value of your estate and might be charged estate taxes.

Bank products, like CDs and Money Market Accounts. You can set up these accounts to be Payable on Death (POD), so the person named can access the assets quickly after your death. Don’t put one person’s name on the account and hope they share with their siblings. That’s a recipe for family disaster. If your will has one set of instructions and the bank product names another owner, the bank will pay according to the titling of the account. The same goes for life insurance proceeds—the beneficiary designation supersedes instructions in a will.

Brokerage Accounts. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other assets held in a taxable brokerage account are easy to divide and value. They are also easy to sell and convert to cash. What’s more, they could give heirs a significant tax benefit. If you bought shares of Apple or IBM years ago and sold the stocks while you were living, you’d owe capital gains taxes. However, if the investments are inherited, the heir receives a step-up-in-basis, which means the investment basis goes to the market value on the day you die. It’s entirely possible for heirs to sell appreciated assets with no or little taxes due.

Assets that decrease in value fast: this is not for everyone. Let’s say you know your heir is going to take their inheritance and buy an over-the-top luxury item, like a new sports car or a yacht. You know the asset will lose value the minute it’s driven out of the showroom or launched for the first time. Rather than leave them cash to make a purchase, buy the car or boat yourself and leave it to them as an inherited asset. They lose value immediately, while reducing your taxable estate. You’ve always wanted a Lamborghini anyway.

Roth IRA—Best of All IRA Worlds. The Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars, and in exchange, retirement withdrawals and investment gains are income tax-free. If you leave a 401(k) or traditional IRA, heirs will owe taxes on withdrawals and unless they meet certain requirements, they have to empty the account within ten years.

Trust Fund Assets. This may be the best way to protect an inheritance from heirs. If you leave property outright to heirs, it’s subject to creditors and predators. Funds in a trust are carefully protected, according to the terms of the trust, which you determine. Your estate planning attorney can create the trust to achieve whatever you want. Inheritances in trusts are less likely to evaporate quickly and you get the final say in how assets are distributed.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 9, 2021) “6 of the Best Assets to Inherit”

How Much can You Inherit and Not Pay Taxes?

Even with the new proposed rules from Biden’s lowered exception, estates under $6 million won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes for a few years—although state estate tax exemptions may be lower. However, what about inheritances and what about inherited IRAs? This is explored in a recent article titled “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money” from Kiplinger.

If you inherit an IRA from a parent, taxes on required withdrawals could leave you with a far smaller legacy than you anticipated. For many couples, IRAs are the largest assets passed to the next generation. In some cases they may be worth more than the family home. Americans held more than $13 trillion in IRAs in the second quarter of 2021. Many of you reading this are likely to inherit an IRA.

Before the SECURE Act changed how IRAs are distributed, people who inherited IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts transferred their assets into a beneficiary IRA account and took withdrawals over their life expectancy. This allowed money to continue to grow tax free for decades. Withdrawals were taxed as ordinary income.

The SECURE Act made it mandatory for anyone who inherited an IRA (with some exceptions) to decide between two options: take the money in a lump sum and lose a huge part of it to taxes or transfer the money to an inherited or beneficiary IRA and deplete it within ten years of the date of death of the original owner.

The exceptions are a surviving spouse, who may roll the money into their own IRA and allow it to grow, tax deferred, until they reach age 72, when they need to start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). If the IRA was a Roth, there are no RMDs, and any withdrawals are tax free. The surviving spouse can also transfer money into an inherited IRA and take distributions on their life expectancy.

If you’re not eligible for the exceptions, any IRA you inherit will come with a big tax bill. If the inherited IRA is a Roth, you still have to empty it out in ten years. However, there are no taxes due as long as the Roth was funded at least five years before the original owner died.

Rushing to cash out an inherited IRA will slash the value of the IRA significantly because of the taxes due on the IRA. You might find yourself bumped up into a higher tax bracket. It’s generally better to transfer the money to an inherited IRA to spread distributions out over a ten-year period.

The rules don’t require you to empty the account in any particular order. Therefore, you could conceivably wait ten years and then empty the account. However, you will then have a huge tax bill.

Other assets are less constrained, at least as far as taxes go. Real estate and investment accounts benefit from the step-up in cost basis. Let’s say your mother paid $50 for a share of stock and it was worth $250 on the day she died. Your “basis” would be $250. If you sell the stock immediately, you won’t owe any taxes. If you hold onto to it, you’ll only owe taxes (or claim a loss) on the difference between $250 and the sale price. Proposals to curb the step-up have been bandied about for years. However, to date they have not succeeded.

The step-up in basis also applies to the family home and other inherited property. If you keep inherited investments or property, you’ll owe taxes on the difference between the value of the assets on the day of the original owner’s death and the day you sell.

Estate planning and tax planning should go hand-in-hand. If you are expecting a significant inheritance, a conversation with aging parents may be helpful to protect the family’s assets and preclude any expensive surprises.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money”

How to Prepare for Higher Taxes

Taxing the appreciation of property on gifting or at death as capital gains or ordinary income is under scrutiny as a means of raising significant revenue for the federal government. The Biden administration has proposed this but proposing and passing into law are two very different things, observes Financial Advisor in the article “How Rich Clients Should Prepare For A Biden Estate Tax Regime.”

The tax hikes are being considered as a means of paying for the American Jobs Act and the American Families Act. Paired with the COVID-19 relief bill, the government will need a total of $6.4 trillion over the course of a decade to cover those costs. Reportedly, both Republicans and Democrats are pushing back on this proposal.

A step-up in basis recalculates the value of appreciated assets for tax purposes when they are inherited, which is when the asset’s value usually is higher than when it was originally purchased. For the beneficiary, the step-up in basis at the death of the original owner reduces the capital gains tax on the asset. Taxes are reduced significantly, or in some cases, completely eliminated.

For now, taxpayers pay an estate tax on the value of the assets and the basis of appreciated assets is stepped up to fair market value. The plan under consideration would treat appreciated assets owned at the time of death as sold, which would trigger income tax and subject those assets to estate tax.

Biden’s proposal would also subject many families to the estate tax, which they would not otherwise face, since the federal estate tax exclusion is still historically high—$11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 million for married couples. Let’s say a widowed mother dies with a $3 million estate. Most of the value of the estate is the home she lived in with her spouse for the last four decades. Her estate would not owe any federal tax, but the deemed sale of a highly appreciated home would generate income tax liability.

The proposal allows a $1 million per individual and $2 million per married couple exclusion from gain recognition on property transferred by gift or owned at death. The $1 million per person exclusion is in addition to exclusions for property transfers of tangible personal property, transfers to a spouse, transfers to charity, capital gains on certain business stock and the current exclusion of $250,000 for capital gain on a personal residence.

How should people prepare for what sounds like an unsettling proposal but may end up at a completely different place?

For some, the right move is transferring properties now, if it makes sense with their overall estate plan. Regardless of what Congress does with this proposal, the estate tax exemption will sunset to just north of $5 million (due to inflation adjustments) from the current $11.7 million. However, the likelihood of the proposal passing in its present state is low. The best option may be to make any revisions focused on the change to the estate tax exemption levels.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 28, 2021) “How Rich Clients Should Prepare For A Biden Estate Tax Regime”

How Do You Divide Inheritance among Children?

A father who owns a home and has a healthy $300,000 IRA has two adult children. The youngest, who is disabled, takes care of his father and needs money to live on. The second son is successful and has five children. The younger son has no pension plan and no IRA. The father wants help deciding how to distribute 300 shares of Microsoft, worth about $72,000. The question from a recent article in nj.com is “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?” The answer is more complicated than simply how to transfer the stock.

Before the father makes any kind of gift or bequest to his son, he needs to consider whether the son will be eligible for governmental assistance based on his disability and assets. If so, or if the son is already receiving government benefits, any kind of gift or inheritance could make him ineligible. A Third-Party Special Needs Trust may be the best way to maintain the son’s eligibility, while allowing assets to be given to him.

Inherited assets and gifts—but not an IRA or annuities—receive a step-up in basis. The gain on the stock from the time it was purchased and the value at the time of the father’s death will not be taxed. If, however, the stock is gifted to a grandchild, the grandchild will take the grandfather’s basis and upon the sale of the stock, they’ll have to pay the tax on the difference between the sales price and the original price.

You should also consider the impact on Medicaid. If funds are gifted to the son, Medicaid will have a gift-year lookback period and the gifting could make the father ineligible for Medicaid coverage for five years.

An IRA must be initially funded with cash. Once funded, stocks held in one IRA may be transferred to another IRA owned by the same person, and upon death they can go to an inherited IRA for a beneficiary. However, in this case, if the son doesn’t have any earned income and doesn’t have an IRA, the stock can’t be moved into an IRA.

Gifting may be an option. A person may give up to $15,000 per year, per person, without having to file a gift tax return with the IRS. Larger amounts may also be given but a gift tax return must be filed. Each taxpayer has a $11.7 million total over the course of their lifetime to gift with no tax or to leave at death. (Either way, it is a total of $11.7 million, whether given with warm hands or left at death.) When you reach that point, which most don’t, then you’ll need to pay gift taxes.

Medical expenses and educational expenses may be paid for another person, as long as they are paid directly to the educational institution or health care provider. This is not considered a taxable gift.

This person would benefit from sitting down with an estate planning attorney and exploring how to best prepare for his youngest son’s future after the father passes, rather than worrying about the Microsoft stock. There are bigger issues to deal with here.

Reference: nj.com (June 24, 2021) “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?”

What to Leave In, What to Leave Out with Retirement Assets

Depending on your intentions for retirement accounts, they may need to be managed and used in distinctly different ways to reach the dual goals of enjoying retirement and leaving a legacy. It’s all explained in a helpful article from Kiplinger, “Planning for Retirement Assets in Your Estate Plan”.

Start by identifying goals and dig into the details. Do you want to leave most assets to your children or grandchildren? Has philanthropy always been important for you, and do you plan to leave large contributions to organizations or causes?

This is not a one-and-done matter. If your intentions, beneficiaries, or tax rules change, you’ll need to review everything to make sure your plan still works.

How accounts are titled and how assets will be passed can create efficient tax results or create tax liabilities. This needs to be aligned with your estate plan. Check on beneficiary designations, asset titles and other documents to make sure they all work together.

Review investments and income. If you’ve retired, pensions, annuities, Social Security and other steady sources of income may be supplemented from your taxable investments. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) from tax deferred accounts are also part of the mix. Make sure you have enough income to cover regular and unanticipated medical, long term care or other expenses.

Once your core income has been determined, it may be wise to segregate any excess capital you intend to use for wealth transfer or charitable giving. Without being set apart from other accounts, these assets may not be managed as effectively for taxes and long-term goals.

Establish a plan for taxable assets. Children or individuals can be better off inheriting highly appreciable taxable investment accounts, rather than traditional IRAs. These types of accounts currently qualify for a step-up in cost basis. This step-up allows the beneficiary to sell the appreciated assets they receive as inheritance, without incurring capital gains.

Here’s an example: an heir receives 1,000 shares of a stock with a $20 per share cost basis valued at $120 per share at the time of the owner’s death. They will pay no capital gains taxes on the gain of $100 per share. However, if the same stock was sold while the retiree owner was living, the $100,000 gain in total would have been taxed. The post-death appreciation, if any, on such inherited assets, would be subject to capital gains taxes.

Retirees often try to preserve traditional IRAs and qualified accounts, while spending taxable accounts to take advantage of lower capital gains taxes as they take distributions. However, this sets heirs up for a big tax bill. Another strategy is to convert a portion of those assets to a Roth IRA and pay taxes now, allowing the assets to grow tax free for you and your heirs.

Segregate assets earmarked for charitable donations. If a charity is named as a beneficiary for a traditional IRA, the charity receives the assets tax free and the estate may be eligible for an estate deduction for federal and state estate taxes.

Your estate planning attorney can help you understand how to structure your assets to meet goals for retirement and to create a legacy. Saving your heirs from estate tax bills that could have been avoided with prior planning will add to their memories of you as someone who took care of the family.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 21, 2021) “Planning for Retirement Assets in Your Estate Plan”

Can a Daughter Help Parents by Buying Home?

A daughter who has free cash from selling her own home and wants to protect her parents from the worry of dying with mortgage debt, asks if buying the family home outright, before the parents die, is the best solution. It’s a common situation, reports The Washington Post in the article “Daughter seeks to help parents with mortgage, credit card debt by buying their house.” Is there a right answer?

Lenders generally don’t demand the repayment of a residential mortgage loan immediately after the death of the owner. They will, however, call the loan if the borrower’s heirs fail to make mortgage payments. As long as the mortgage payments are made in a timely manner, the loan remains in good standing. If the daughter and her siblings are making these payments, this won’t be a problem.

Depending on how the home is owned, when one of the parents dies, the surviving parent will become the sole owner of the home, if they hold title as joint tenants with right of survivorship. The surviving parent also does not have to worry about the lender, as long as they continue to make the mortgage payments. When the surviving parent dies, then the three daughters inherit the home.

In 1982, the federal government passed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act to protect spouses and children, when the owner of a home adds them to the property’s title. This law also prevents a lender from calling the loan due, when the owner puts the title into a living trust.

As long as the mortgage can continue to be paid, there’s no need to pay it off in full or to purchase the home so parents are debt-free. When they die, the daughter can pay off the remaining loan, if she can and wishes to do so.

The daughter also notes that her parents have credit card debt. If they die and cannot pay the debt, it will die with them. However, if they own a home when they die and there is equity in the property, the creditor will expect the estate to liquidate the asset and pay off the debt.

If one of the siblings wants to stay in the home, she could take over the property, making the monthly mortgage payments and find a way to pay off the credit card debt separately. Or, if the daughter who is asking about buying the home wants to, she can pay off the credit card debts.

From a tax perspective, buying the property from the parents while they are living doesn’t afford any advantages. Extra cash could be used to pay off the mortgage and the credit card debt, but again, there are no advantages to doing so, except for giving the parent’s some peace of mind. The cost of doing so, however, will be the daughter losing the ability to use the money for anything else.

One estate planning attorney recommends that the daughters inherit the home. When they die, tax law allows them to pass down a large amount of wealth—$11.7 million for an individual and $23.4 million for a married couple. The home would also get a stepped-up basis. The siblings would inherit the home with its value at the time of death of the surviving parent resetting the basis.

If the parents bought the home for $25,000 years ago and it’s now worth $250,000, the siblings would inherit the home at the increased value. The parents’ estate would not pay tax on the home, and if the sisters sold the house for $250,000 around the time of their death, there would be no capital gains tax due.

As the law currently stands, it’s a win-win for the siblings. When the parents die, they can decide how to divide the estate, if there are no clear instructions in a last will from the parents. They can use any extra cash, if there is any, to pay the mortgage and credit card debt, and split what’s leftover. If one sibling wants to own the home, the other two could get cash instead of the home.

The sibling who wants to keep the home should refinance the loan and use those proceeds to buy out the other two sisters. The siblings should sit down with their parents and discuss what the parents have in mind for the property. An estate planning attorney will help the family determine what is best from a tax advantage. Planning is essential when it comes to death, taxes and real estate.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 10, 2021) “Daughter seeks to help parents with mortgage, credit card debt by buying their house”