Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

It’s a bit of a strange thought, but occasionally there are reasons for people not to want their inheritance.  They may have expected the money to go to someone else and want to facilitate that, they may feel they have enough money and want it to pass to someone else, or perhaps they are concerned about taxes.  Whatever, the reason, no one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid for at least most tax purposes, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.  Basically, you can’t receive the assets, and then decide to give them back as though you didn’t want them in the first place.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. Instead, the property will go to whomever would have received had you predeceased the decedent.  That might be many individuals, so it is important to understand to whom the property will go if you disclaim.  It might be based upon the trust or will that named you originally, a beneficiary designation on a financial asset or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

Persons with disabilities who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.  Now, some states will consider a disclaimer a transfer for government benefits, meaning you may lose the benefits anyway.  So, the best solution is to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible how to handle such an inheritance.

A supplemental needs trusts may be a good solution so the beneficiary with a disability can receive the inheritance without loss of benefits.  You can see more on SNTs here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-special-needs-trusts-work/  

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.  So, if you want to consider a disclaimer, definitely speak to a qualified attorney who can assist you with the process.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

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Gifting for Estate Taxes

In honor of this festive season, I wanted to talk about gifting.  If you’ve read my blogs in the past you probably aware that there may be tax consequences to gifts, and that there have been many discussed changes to the estate and gift tax in this past year.  However, clients frequently ask questions about it, especially at the end of the year, so I wanted to address gifting and potential estate planning considerations.  You can also see the recent article “Gift money now, before estate tax laws sunset in 2025” from The Press-Enterprise for a bit more detail and some additional considerations.

Gifts may be used to decrease the taxes due on an estate, but require thoughtful planning with an eye to avoiding any unintended consequences.

The first gift tax exemption is the annual exemption. Basically, anyone can give anyone else a gift of up to $15,000 every year. If giving together, spouses may gift $30,000 a year.  Couples often make gifts to children and include their child’s spouse as a recipient, which effectively means you can gift $60,000 (two donors giving $15,000 a piece to two people) within the annual gift tax exemption.  After these amounts, the gift is subject to gift tax. However, there’s another exemption: the lifetime exemption.

For now, the estate and gift tax exemption is $11.7 million per person.  Many legislative proposals this year considered reducing that exemption substantially, but currently anyone can gift up to that amount during life or at death, or some combination, tax-free. The exemption amount is adjusted every year. If no changes to the law are made, this will increase to roughly $12,060,000 in 2022.

However, the current estate and gift tax exemption law sunsets in 2025, if not earlier as many are predicting.  This will bring the exemption down from historically high levels to the prior level of $5 million. Even with an adjustment for inflation, this would make the exemption about $6.2 million in 2025.

For households with net worth below $6 million for an individual and $12 million for a married couple, federal estate taxes may be less of a worry. However, there are state estate taxes, and some are tied to federal estate tax rates. Planning is necessary, especially as some in Congress would like to see those levels set even lower.

Let’s look at a fictional couple with a combined net worth of $30 million. Without any estate planning or gifting, if they live past 2025, they may have a taxable estate of $18 million: $30 million minus $12 million. At a taxable rate of 40%, their tax bill will be $7.2 million.

If the couple had gifted the maximum $23.4 million now under the current exemption, their taxable estate would be reduced to $6.6 million, with a tax bill of $2,520,000. Even if they were to die in a year when the exemption is lower than it was at the time of their gift, they’d save nearly $5 million in taxes.

Now, I want to stress because gifting is often abused, that this analysis affects individuals who may become estate taxable.  If you are a married couple with $2,000,000 in total assets, gifting doesn’t make tax sense, and may have adverse consequences elsewhere.

For example, gifting affects Medicaid eligibility, which is relevant to far more people than federal gift and estate tax.  Medicaid penalizes transfers made for less than full value (so gifts as well as transfers made at a discount such as sales for a $1, sales at cost and so on), so gifting the $15,000 isn’t prudent.  Beside that point, sometimes clients simply need the money later in life for their own use to enjoy retirement, which is the best plan of all.

There are also other taxes to consider in making gifts where estate taxes aren’t concerning, such as capital gains tax.  See this article for more information on those topics.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/is-it-better-to-give-or-let-kids-inherit/ 

That said, there are a number of estate planning gifting techniques used to leverage giving, including some which provide income streams to the donor, while allowing the donor to maintain control of assets. These include:

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts. The donor transfers assets to the trust and retains right to a payment over a period of time. At the end of that period, beneficiaries receive the assets and all of the appreciation. The donor pays income tax on the earnings of the assets in the trust, permitting another tax-free transfer of assets.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts. A donor sets up a trust, makes a gift of assets and then sells other assets to the trust in exchange for a promissory note. If this is done correctly, there is a minimal gift, no gain on the sale for tax purposes, the donor pays the income tax and appreciation is moved to the next generation.  Congress has definitely considered shutting this down, but hasn’t to date.

These strategies may continue to be scrutinized as Congress searches for funding sources so they may not be perfect strategies or available in the future, but in the meantime, they are still available and may be appropriate for your estate. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to see if these or other strategies should be put into place.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Nov. 7, 2021) “Gift money now, before estate tax laws sunset in 2025”

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Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trust – What’s the Difference?

Sometimes you need to look past the trust's name to see if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.
Sometimes you need to look past a trust’s name to see if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.

At first, the difference between a revocable trust and an irrevocable trust may appear very simple. One would think that, as the names imply, a revocable trust is one that can be terminated or amended, while an irrevocable trust is one that cannot be changed.  However, as often happens with the law, things aren’t always what they seem as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch. 

Sometimes you have to look beyond the name of the trust to determine if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.

A revocable trust, often referred to as a revocable living trust, is one that can be changed or terminated by the person who created the trust, whom we shall refer to as a trust maker. A revocable living trust is often used as a substitute for a Will because, like a Will, it can be amended by the trust maker depending on the circumstances, and it can help avoid probate if the trust maker’s property is titled in the name of the trust (or the trust is named as a beneficiary on the trust maker’s accounts and other assets).

But, a revocable trust becomes an irrevocable trust on the trust maker’s death. Also, the trust maker’s incapacity during life may result in a revocable trust becoming irrevocable. This can be confusing because the trust may keep the same name (for example, the John Doe Revocable Living Trust), but, if John Doe is deceased, the revocable living trust is really an irrevocable trust.

A revocable trust is considered almost an alter ego of the trust maker. As a result, a revocable trust does not provide creditor protection. From a tax standpoint, a revocable trust belongs to the trust maker and is included in the trust maker’s estate when calculating the estate tax.

As for an irrevocable trust, one would generally think that it is a trust that cannot be changed. But this impression, too, may be deceptive. A trust maker, beneficiary, or an independent person may be given powers to make certain changes to an irrevocable trust. Those changes may include the removal and replacement of a trustee and the ability to change or add beneficiaries.

An irrevocable trust is considered to be totally separate from the trust maker. It is usually constructed to avoid having the assets of the trust included the trust maker’s estate for estate tax purposes. An irrevocable trust can offer the beneficiary creditor and divorce protection, as well as prudent management of trust assets if the beneficiary is not good with financial matters. That’s why many parents create irrevocable trusts for their children when making gifts instead of making gifts to their children directly.

In addition to the trust maker giving the power in limited circumstances to change certain provisions of an irrevocable trust, an irrevocable trust may be “reformed” by a court, if it can be shown that the trust’s purposes can no longer be carried out.

And many states have passed laws allowing an irrevocable trust to be “decanted” – meaning that the assets of the original trust may be poured like wine into a new trust that includes provisions that are better suited to the current situation. These laws for the most part include safeguards to make sure that this is not a unilateral decision on the part of the trustee or the trust maker and the decanting is permitted only if it is in the best interests of the beneficiaries.

Of course, a trust maker may always prohibit reformation or decanting when creating an irrevocable trust, but, if the trust is to last for generations, it may make sense to allow limited ways for the irrevocable trust to adapt to changing circumstances.

So the next time you come across a reference to a revocable or irrevocable trust, look beyond the name to determine whether the trust is really revocable or irrevocable.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

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