Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Happens to Stock Options when Someone Dies?

Once your business grows, so does the pressure to make good financial decisions in the short and long term. When you think about the future, estate and succession planning emerge as two major concerns. You’re not just considering balance sheets, profits and losses, but your family and what will happen to them and your business when you’re not around. This thinking leads to what seems like a great idea: transferring stock or LLC membership units to one or more of your adult children.

There are benefits, especially the ability to avoid a 40% estate tax and other benefits. However, there are also lots of ways this can go sideways, fast.

Executing due diligence and creating an exit plan to minimize taxes and successfully transfer the business takes planning and, even harder, removing emotions from the plan to make a good decision.

An outright transfer of stock or ownership units can expose you and your business to risk. Even if your children are Ivy-league MBA grads, with track records of great decision making and caring for you and your spouse, this transaction offers zero protection and all risk for you. What could go wrong?

  • An in-law (one you may not have even met yet) could try to place a claim on the business and move it away from the family.
  • Creditors could seize assets from the children, entirely likely if their future holds legal or financial problems—or if they have such problems now and haven’t shared them with you.
  • Assets could go into your children’s estates, which reintroduces exposure to estate taxes.

No family is immune from any of these situations, and if you ask your estate planning attorney, you’ll hear as many horror stories as you can tolerate.

Trusts are a solution. Thoughtfully crafted for your unique situation, a trust can help avoid exposure to some estate and other taxes, allocating effective ownership to your children, in a protected manner. Your ultimate goal: keeping ownership in the family and minimizing tax exposure.

A Beneficiary Defective Inheritance Trust (BDIT) may be appropriate for you. If you’ve already executed an outright transfer of the stock, it’s not too late to fix things. The BDIT is a grantor trust serving to enable protection of stock and eliminate any “residue” in your childrens’ estates.

If you haven’t yet transferred stock to children, don’t do it. The risk is very high. If you’ve already completed the transfer, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how to reverse the transfer and create a plan to protect the business and your family.

Bottom line: business interests are better protected when they are held not by individuals, but by trusts for the benefit of individuals. Your estate planning attorney can draft trusts to achieve goals, minimize estate taxes and, in some situations, even minimize state income taxes.

Reference: The Street (June 27, 2022) “Should I Transfer Company Stock to My Kids?”

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”

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