How to Prepare for Higher Taxes on Death

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”

 

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Celebrity Estate Planning Mistakes

The size and scope of the mistakes made by celebrities may be enormous, but many of the mistakes are common for, well, us common people. Learning estate planning lessons from the mistakes made by celebrities and very wealthy people is a good way to prevent yourself from making those same mistakes, says the recent article “Lessons to be Learned From Failed Celebrity Estates” from Forbes.

Let’s start with James Gandolfini, famed for his role in The Sopranos and many movies and television shows. Strangely, he left only 20% of his estate to his wife. Had he left the entire estate to his wife, the family would not have gotten stuck with a huge tax bill. Instead, 55% of his total estate, including a significant art collection, had to be sold to pay estate taxes.

James Brown, the godfather of soul, left copyrights to his music to an educational foundation, tangible assets to his children and $2 million for his children’s education. That sounds like smart thinking, but his estate planning documents contained a great deal of ambiguous language. His girlfriend and her children challenged the estate. Six years and millions in estate taxes later, his estate was settled.

Michael Jackson’s estate fail is a classic error. He had a trust created but failed to fund it. The battle in the California Probate Court over control of his sizable estate could have been avoided.

Howard Hughes, famed entrepreneur, aviator and engineer wanted his $2.5 billion fortune to go towards medical research, but no valid will was found. Instead, his assets were divided among 22 cousins. Before he died, he did take the step of gifting Hughes Aircraft Co. to the Hughes Medical Institute. The company was not included in his estate, but everything else was.

Author Michael Crichton was survived by his pregnant fifth wife, and a son was born after his death. Crichton failed to update his will to include the future offspring. His daughter from a previous marriage fought to exclude his son from the estate. His will included language that specifically overrode a California statute that would have included his son in the estate. All heirs not otherwise mentioned in his will were to be excluded.

Doris Duke inherited a tobacco fortune. When she died, she left a $1.2 billion estate to her foundation, with her butler in charge of the foundation. The result was a series of lawsuits claiming that the foundation was being mismanaged, and cost millions in legal fees. Foundations of that size need a strong management team to avoid legal challenges.

Few estate failures are as graphic as that of Casey Kasem. The famed radio personality’s estate battle after his death included kidnapping and the theft of his corpse. His wife and children from a prior marriage fought over his care, his end-of-life care and the disposition of his remains.

Iconic artist Prince died without a will. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died without a will, then handwritten wills were found in her home weeks after she died. For both families, lawsuits, court proceedings and huge estate tax bills could have been avoided.

If you don’t have an estate plan, get it started. If you haven’t looked at your estate plan in a while, have it reviewed. Make provisions for your family, take a close look at potential tax liabilities and if you have been married more than once, make sure to have a rock-solid estate plan that will withstand challenges.

Reference: Forbes (June 18, 2021) “Lessons to be Learned From Failed Celebrity Estates”

 

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Can I Be Sure My Estate Plan Works?

Most estate planning attorneys will tell you that the same mistakes recur with frequency whether the estate is worth a billion dollars, several hundred thousand dollars or anywhere in-between. Of course, the biggest mistake of all, reports the article “7 Steps To Ensure A Successful Estate Plan” from Forbes, is not having an estate plan at all. Having an outdated estate plan can be just as bad.

Everyone should have a complete estate plan and it should be reviewed every few years and revised as life and laws change. The estate plan should include a will, trusts, power of attorney, advance medical directives and other planning elements. However, there’s more to an estate plan success than documents.

Education and communication. If the next generation isn’t prepared for the contents of the estate plan, it’s going to be challenging for them to carry out your wishes. They may mismanage assets, or even lose them to scammers. At any age and stage, people who are not ready for an inheritance may easily go through their entire inheritance and find themselves at a loss for what happened.

One solution is to leave the estate in trusts and limit access. A better solution is to ensure your heirs are prepared and understand how to handle money. Children benefit from their parent’s teaching them about managing, accumulating and donating money.

Prepare for family conflict. Sometimes tensions are out in the open, but other times they hide below the surface until one or both parents die, or learning the details of the estate plan leads to family conflicts. Thinking the children will work things out on their own is asking for trouble. Siblings with very different economic situations or lifestyles respond differently to their parent’s estate plan. Don’t ignore these potential problems. Talk with your estate planning attorney. It’s likely that your estate planning attorney has seen just about every situation and will have good ideas for preserving family harmony.

Plan ahead for gifting. Gifting is often a large part of an estate plan. Gifts are a good way to get the next generation comfortable with inherited wealth. However, don’t just write checks. Create and execute a strategy. Know that cash gifts are definitely spent faster, while property gifts tend to be kept and held for the future.

Make sure you understand the plan. You’d be surprised how many smart and sophisticated people don’t actually understand their own estate plans. Meet with your estate planning attorney on a regular basis and ask questions – and keep asking until you understand everything. Take notes during your meeting, so you can go back and review to see if you have any other questions.

Get organized and prepare. The best estate plan in the world is at risk, if the executor doesn’t know where documents are located. Make sure the information is written down and the person you chose to serve as executor knows where things are. We should all be simplifying our lives and records as we age, both to make our lives easier as the inevitable cognitive decline occurs and to make the settlement process faster.

Create a business succession plan. Most business owners fail to do this. It makes it all but impossible for the next generation to keep the business going. The value of a small business declines rapidly and sometimes evaporates, when there is no plan for succession. If the intent is to sell or pass the business on, a succession plan needs to be prepared, long before it is needed.

Fund trusts. The most common mistake in estate planning is creating trusts and then failing to fund them. If the trust is created but assets are not retitled, the estate plan will fail. Real estate, vehicles, boats and financial accounts that are intended to be put into the trust need to be retitled.

My office is open to set up a consultation to discuss these issues or just to review your existing plan.

Reference: Forbes (May 27, 2021) “7 Steps To Ensure A Successful Estate Plan”

 

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