Do You Need an Estate Planning Tune-Up?

Year-end is a good time to reflect upon your estate planning wishes, whether they are current and whether your survivors will be able to efficiently inherit.  To this end, we offer the following questions to direct you:

  • Are your appointments (executors, trustees, guardians, etc.) up to date?
  • Have there been any significant life changes, such as births, deaths, marriage, etc.?
  • Have your assets/net worth changed significantly, for better or worse?
  • Has there been a change in your marital status or the marital status of your child(ren) or other beneficiaries?
  • Have you become involved in a new business venture (which would also give rise to asset protection issues)?
  • Do you wish to make any charitable gifts when you pass away (or now)?
  • Have you moved to a new state?

Please contact us for assistance with your estate planning.

New IRS Regulations Eliminate the Ability to Discount the Value of FLP and LLC Gifts to Family Members

This month, the IRS finally issued proposed regulations that will eliminate (or severely limit) the ability to discount the value of transfers of interests in closely held entities (FLPs, LLCs, family corporations) to family members.

Such “leveraged gifting” has been an extremely important and common method used by estate planners to eliminate estate taxes.

The proposed regulations will undergo a ninety day comment period and a public hearing on December 1, 2016. Shortly after that the IRS will publish final regulations which will take effect within thirty days after publication.

These proposed regulations were expected.  We have previously written about them here and here.

While we do not venture into political discussion, we point out that Hillary Clinton has stated that she will reduce the estate tax exclusion from $5,450,000 per person ($10,900,000 for a married couple) currently in effect, to $3,500,000 per person ($7,000,000 for a married couple) and reduce the gift tax exemption from $5,450,000 per person to $1,000,000 per person.  She will also increase the gift/estate tax to 45%.  (Donald Trump has proposed to eliminate the gift/estate tax entirely.)

Readers who have not yet completed their estate planning are strongly urged to contact us to implement gifts of FLP and LLC interests to their heirs before the changes take effect.

Please see our related articles:

Family Limited Partnerships & Discounting

Historic Opportunity to Avoid Tax on Over $10 Million+ of Assets

Year-End 2015 Tax Planning: Take Advantage of Gifting to Lower Estate Tax – Before the Law Changes

LLC/FLP Discounting and Leveraged Gifting to Lower Estate Tax May Soon Be Limited

Please contact us with any questions.

Why a Trust, and What about a Will?

Most people believe that, when they die, the way to pass their assets to their beneficiaries is via a will.  That is not wrong.  But there are downsides to a will.  And there is a better way: via a trust.

In order for assets to pass on to your heirs via a will, the will has to be filed in court in a process called “probate”.  This means that your will is submitted to a court of law.  That makes your will a public document.  Anyone can read your will, see what assets you owned, make a claim to your assets, and challenge the validity of your will in court.  Since the will names your heirs, and the assets to be dispersed to your heirs, this public information now also provides a roadmap to your heirs and their new wealth.  If you leave behind property in multiple states, there may be multiple probate court proceedings.

Moreover, in order to maneuver through this probate court process, and whether or not there is a will contest or outside claims to assets, your heirs will need to hire a lawyer.  The court will make sure that your assets are distributed the way you directed in your will.  And courts work very slowly, which means that those assets may not pass on to your heirs for another year or two, or much longer if there is a court issue, will contest or other probate problem.  In short, if you rely on a will to distribute your assets, you automatically involve the state, which has monetary costs, lack of privacy and delays.

A better mechanism for passing your assets to your heirs is via a trust.  A trust is an entity created to manage assets.  The trust is controlled by a trustee, who manages the property within the trust.  Subject to the terms of the trust, a trustee can invest, sell, buy, lease, mortgage, lend, collateralize, etc., whatever has been placed in the trust, e.g., cash, securities, shares of stock or LLC interests, art, real estate, patents, trademarks, anything of value.  If you establish a trust, and contribute assets to this trust, you may be the trustee over this trust and thus continue to control the assets in the trust while you are alive.  You would also chose a successor trustee.  Because the trust continues to exist after your death, the role of the successor trustee is to control the trust after you die.  The successor trustee, who could be your surviving spouse, relative or trusted friend, would be obligated to follow the instructions you set forth in the trust document, called a trust deed of settlement.  This document will also set forth who inherits your assets upon your death, much like a will directs where your assets are to be distributed at your death.  The people who inherit your assets are called “beneficiaries”.  The trustee has a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries.

However, whereas a will has to go through the probate court process, a trust does not.  At your death, the successor trustee (who you’ve appointed when you created the trust), follows the directives of the trust (which you’ve set forth when you created the trust), including distribution of trust assets to the beneficiaries who you’ve named when you created the trust.  The beneficiaries can be your children, other family members, your alma mater, charities, etc.  Distributing your assets under the terms you’ve set forth could be accomplished by a will through the public probate process, or instead, the very same terms could be satisfied by a trust, privately, without involving the state, without a probate court, without lawyers, and with less of an opportunity for others to challenge the validity of the inheritance terms that you’ve set.

Moreover, because a trust avoids probate and the delays of probate, the successor trustee can step in immediately and administer the trust assets.  The successor trustee can communicate with banks and brokerage firms without a need for court appointment, and can begin to settle the estate and make distributions much faster than if a probate court were involved.  In addition, because banks, brokerage firms and other custodians will freeze an individual account at death, thus complicating the account and delaying distributions and payments, a trust account may continue seamlessly with the successor trustee.  Finally, illiquid assets (e.g., real estate, private investments, private equity, limited partnership interests) that may be complicated by the probate process and require re-titling of the assets after death, can instead continue smoothly in the name of the trust.

The trust is a “revocable” trust, meaning that you have the ability to revoke, or cancel it.  You also have the ability to modify it.  For instance, you can change your beneficiaries or change the trustee.  Because the trust is revocable, the IRS doesn’t consider it to be an independent taxpayer and the trust will not get its own taxpayer ID number.  However, when you die, the trust becomes irrevocable.  At that point, the successor trustee (who you’ve already chosen), steps in and is obligated to follow the terms of the trust that you’ve set forth.

It is more difficult to contest the terms of a trust than the terms of a will.  This is because whereas the will is admitted to a probate court for all to see, nowhere is the trust publicly recorded.  A probate court automatically provides a venue and a mechanism for challenging a will.  Yet, trusts are not public documents and trusts avoid the probate process.

This allows you a greater opportunity to control the terms of distribution, knowing that it will be more difficult for others to challenge those terms.  For instance, you might direct the successor trustee to pursue a certain investment at the exclusion of another.  You might also, for example, set forth pre-conditions for inheritance, such as completing college or graduate school.  If you leave behind a child who is a minor, you can create a sub-trust for that minor, funded with life insurance, IRA proceeds or other accounts payable on your death, and set the terms of that sub-trust, such as delayed distributions at certain ages or periodic support payments over the life of a beneficiary.

An additional important benefit to a trust is that the assets held in trust may be protected from lawsuits, including divorces, and the claims of creditors.  On the other hand, after distribution from a will to a beneficiary, the inheritance is vulnerable to creditors of the beneficiary, including a spouse.

Your will still does have a role in estate planning, even though distribution of your assets is controlled by a trust.  In your will, you set forth your personal representative, who is the person you empower to take care of your funeral arrangements, final personal debts and your last tax return.  This person can be the same as your successor trustee.  If you have children who are minors, the will is also the document to name their guardians in the event both parents pass away before the children reach adulthood.  Finally, the will also should include a provision that any property that you did not address in your trust should now “pour over” into the trust and be subject to the terms of your trust.

Another benefit to a trust is that, if you are married, it preserves both spouses’ exemptions from the estate tax.  Each person currently is allowed an exemption from federal estate tax for the first $5.45 million worth of assets.  In other words, if one’s estate is valued at less than $5.45 million, there is no federal estate tax.  (State estate tax may apply, however, and there is great disparity among exemptions and estate tax rates across all the states.)  That exemption of $5.45 million is now “portable”, meaning that if one spouse did not use up the exemption at death, the unused amount can be transferred to the second spouse and added on to the exemption of that second spouse.  The net effect is a combined federal exemption of $10.9 million for the couple.  On the state level, however, there may not be portability and the exemptions may be much smaller in your state.  Through the use of a revocable family trust, both spouse’s exemptions on the state level could be preserved.  Notably, portability cannot be accomplished via a will.

Thus, while a will has traditionally been thought of as the way to pass on one’s assets at death, wills have significant drawbacks including the probate court process, delays and lack of privacy.  A trust is a better way to accomplish the same inheritance planning, privately, more efficiently, without involving courts or lawyers, with greater control over inheritance terms, and with lower estate taxes.

For information about your estate planning needs, contact Rubinstein & Rubinstein today.

How to Lower Your Estate Tax Liability on the Federal and State Levels

In early 2013, Congress clarified the estate tax landscape and made permanent certain provisions of estate tax law, such as the exemption from estate tax for the first $5.45 million of one’s estate, indexed annually for inflation. There has been no such clarity on the state levels, which remain a patchwork of different estate tax laws.

On the federal level, in addition to the exemption of $5.45 million each year indexed for inflation, the 40% estate tax rate is, for now, standard.  In addition, portability between spouses of an unused exemption is also now allowed.  Congress can change these laws in the future, as it has in the past.  In addition, in this election year, estate tax rates and exemptions are campaign topics and are subject to revision by a new administration.  However, at least for now, the federal estate tax regime is clear and as a result, we as tax practitioners have a better ability to plan for clients when the law is clear.

However, estate taxes on the state level are much more variable.  In New Jersey, the threshold for estate tax is only $675,000, the lowest in the U.S., and at a huge variance from the $5.45 million federal exemption.  The threshold in Connecticut is $2 million, cut from $3.5 million in 2011.  The threshold in New York is currently $3.125 million, will rise to $4.18 million on April 1, 2016 and to $5.25 million in 2017.  Ultimately, the NYS exemption will be at parity with the federal exemption amount in 2019.  In a significant quirk, a New York tax law anomaly known as “the cliff” sets the estate threshold to zero (i.e., no exemption from estate tax at all) if one’s estate is valued at $3,281,250 or more.  In other words, in New York, there is no estate tax for estates lower than $3.125 million and complete estate tax on the entirety of the estate, with no threshold and no exemption, for any New York estate valued in excess of $3,281,120.

Thus, depending on the value of one’s estate, and one’s residence, one’s estate may owe considerable state estate tax even if it is exempt from federal estate tax.

Some states have no estate tax and no income tax.  For this and other reasons (sunshine?) such states, which include Florida and Nevada, attract migration from high-tax states such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

There are various strategies that one may utilize to lower one’s taxable estate on both federal and state levels.  Some of the strategies proven to reduce estate taxes are:

GRAT – If you contribute assets into a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, you could receive a regular payment akin to an annuity over many years, and then when the trust term ends, the appreciated assets pass to your heirs, are not considered part of your estate and will not be subject to estate taxes.

QPRT – If you contribute your personal residence into a Qualified Personal Residence Trust, you may still live in the residence for a term of years, and when the trust term ends, the home is removed from your estate while passing to your heirs and will not be subject to estate taxes.

FLP – After contributing your assets into a Family Limited Partnership in return for general and limited partnership interests, you may then, over time, gift your limited partnership interests to your heirs while retaining the general partnership interest (thereby continuing to control the FLP), and thus remove the value of the limited partnership interests from your estate.  FLPs also provide the additional bonus of excellent asset protection.

CRUT – By contributing appreciated assets to a Charitable Remainder Unitrust, you are entitled to a charitable deduction, regular payments from the trust back to you during the trust term, and at the end of the term the assets pass to the charity, are not subject to income tax and are removed from your estate.

ILIT – If you own or control life insurance policies, the IRS deems their death benefit to be in your estate and subject to estate tax, even though you will never receive the death benefit during your life.  If you contribute these life insurance policies to an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust, you may remove the insurance policies from your estate.  Your family members may receive the death benefit from the trust, free of any estate tax.

Dynasty Trust – Such a trust allows the preservation of assets for one’s immediate and remote descendants, along with offering asset protection from creditors, as well as delay of the estate tax bite for many generations.  The trust can distribute income to beneficiaries, but principal is preserved, asset-protected and grows tax-free.

These strategies are not only for the mega-wealthy.  We have successfully utilized these strategies for clients of means at various levels who are concerned with leaving as much of their hard-earned assets for their heirs with as little as possible going to the IRS and state tax authorities.  These are equally attainable goals with a $5 million estate as they are at $50 million.

Moreover, these strategies are affordable, especially considering the amount of tax savings they offer.

Of course, if you want to move to Florida or Nevada, go for it.  But if you’re considering a move for estate tax reasons, first consider these various strategies to lower your estate tax liability without having to relocate.

Federal Estate Tax Changes: New Estate Reporting Requirements, and Beneficiaries Must Use Estate Tax Value as Basis

There are significant new procedural changes that were implemented into law this summer as part of the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015.  Among the changes:

  • If an Estate is required to file an Estate Tax Return (IRS Form 706), the Estate must – – separately and in addition to the Estate Tax Return – – report to the IRS and to each estate beneficiary, the estate tax value of property to be received by the beneficiary.
  • In addition, for inherited property, estate beneficiaries must use the same value as reported on the Estate Tax Return as the basis in the property.  If not, beneficiaries face a 20% accuracy penalty.  This new provision seeks to fix a tax loophole whereby estates reported values using a valuation discount (e.g., for lack of marketability of family businesses), and then beneficiaries later sell the same assets reporting a higher book value as basis.

These changes follow other changes passed by Congress in recent years, such as “portability” of any unused exemption from the estate tax (currently $5,430,000 per person).  The tax law now allows for the portability or transfer of any unused estate tax exemption left behind at the death of the first spouse, so that the surviving spouse may add the unused amount to his/her own exemption.  However, certain formalities and paper work must be followed.  Portability is not automatic.

You should be aware of these new changes if you are an executor of an estate, if you have inherited property, or a deceased spouse has left behind an unused portion of his or her exemption from estate tax.  In general, we recommend re-examining estate planning and tax planning every few years, and certainly at each major life event (birth, death, divorce, selling valuable assets, inheritance, etc.).  Contact us for additional information.

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