Why you Should Elect Portability

Clients frequently have heard of the estate and gift tax, and have heard of the high exemption amounts.  The exemption is currently at a staggering $12.06 million, higher than it has ever been.  Many clients have also learned that for a married couple can double that exemption, so they have essentially $24 million combined. With these high exemption amounts, many clients ignore the estate tax or don’t believe it will be relevant for them.

However, it is important to recognize that a surviving spouse only gets the first spouse’s exemption by electing something called “portability.”  I’m going to talk about what portability, the process of electing it, and how it is beneficial even when your assets aren’t anywhere near the current exemption amount.  The recent article “It’s So Important to Elect ‘Portability’ For Your Farm Estate” from Ag Web Farm Journal describes it as well, specifically in the context of family farms.

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse can choose to make a portability election. This means that any unused federal gift or estate tax exemption can be transferred from the deceased spouse to the surviving spouse.  This is why the second spouse may have $24 million.  They are electing to keep the first spouse’s exemption of $12 million, and have their own $12 million exemption.   It is critical to recognize, however, that it is not automatic, and that is where most married couples make a mistake.

The process of electing portability involves filing an estate tax return with the IRS.  In most portability cases, no taxes are due, but you must file a form to obtain the exemption.  Essentially, the process involves filing the return to show the IRS what the decedent’s exemption was, and that the surviving spouse will be entitled to it in the future.  In many cases where you are only filing to elect portability, the IRS has relaxed standards for describing and valuing assets which go to a surviving spouse.  They do this because in those scenarios, they recognize you are only filing to elect portability, and that the value of assets won’t be relevant as no tax will be due.

The time frame for filing the return varies based upon the case, but you should act quickly.  The standard due date is 9 months from death, although in some cases it can be extended up to 2 years from death.  That is especially helpful where the surviving spouse didn’t speak to an accountant or lawyer after the first spouse died, and they only learn about the benefit of portability long afterwards.

Before portability was an option, spouses each owned about the same amount of assets, or the amount of assets which would use up each other’s exemptions. They would then leave as much as possible to a trust for the spouse and potentially other family members designed to use as much of the first exemption as possible, because if you didn’t use it, it was lost.  This planning made sense, but also required more complicated estate planning that got you the same result as portability does now.  Once portability arrived we were able to simplify many estate plans that no longer needed this complexity of planning.

Here’s an example. A married couple owns assets jointly and their net worth is about $14 million. When the husband dies, the wife owns everything. However, she neglects to speak with the family’s estate planning lawyer. No estate taxes are due at this time because of the unlimited marital deduction between the two spouses.

However, when she dies, she owns $14 million dollars (or more based upon growth) and dies with an exemption of $12 million.  Her estate will pay the estate tax on the difference between the exemption and her assets.  That tax bill is about $800,000.

If the wife had filed an estate tax return electing portability when her husband died, her exemption would be $24 million, and no tax would be due.

Now, I said earlier that this will apply to more than just people with $24 million dollars.  The reason is the current exemption amount is set to return to its prior level of $5 million dollar indexed to inflation in 2026.  So, let’s go through that scenario again with updated, more realistic numbers.

Husband and wife own $14 million, everything goes to the wife when husband dies and wife doesn’t elect portability.  When she dies in 2026, her exemption is $6 million (this is an estimate based upon inflation).  So, the tax will apply on the difference between her $14 million and the $6 million dollar exemption.  That is roughly $3.2 million in tax.

With the exemption as high as it is now and with the expectation of it lowering in the future, portability is critical.  If husband died when the exemption was $12 million and wife elected portability, she would get both his $12 million exemption and her own of $6 million dollars.  The combined exemption of $18 million exceeds her $14 million in assets, and no tax is due.  It saved over $3 million dollars.

Hopefully this last scenario explains how timely this is.  We raise this issue in nearly every estate administration of a married couple as electing portability now is nearly perfect insurance against future estate tax.  It is worth considering in any case where the combined assets will be close to one person’s exemption, especially where more volatile assets such as insurance, businesses and real estate are involved as the market may value them higher than expected at the time of death.

An experienced estate planning attorney can work with the family to evaluate their tax liability and see if portability will be sufficient, or if other tools are necessary.  It is also worth discussing this with an attorney if you recently lost a spouse and want to take advantage of portability.  If estate tax is a concern for you, you may also want to review this article.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/practice-areas/estate-tax-planning/  

Reference: Ag Web Farm Journal (April 18, 2022) “It’s So Important to Elect ‘Portability’ For Your Farm Estate”

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What If You Don’t have a Will?

Studies suggest that a majority of adults do not have an estate plan of any kind, even a will.  The issue of what happens when a person doesn’t have a will comes up frequently in our practice.  The answer to the question, which is what I’ll discuss here, provide lots of reasons to have one.  You can see a recent article entitled “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a bit more background, although state processes vary.

First, a will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate.” When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws.  Intestacy sets who your beneficiaries will be since you haven’t chosen them, and generally are next of kin (with some wrinkles). If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

Intestacy rules vary greatly from state to state, especially in a community property state like Texas.  In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A very common exception, which many people don’t know and are surprised to learn, is that if you have children from outside of the current marriage, not everything goes to that spouse.  I frequently encounter families who assume spouse gets everything, regardless of family makeup, and this often leads to conflicts with family.

While practicing in Pennsylvania I actually had a situation in which one spouse died young without children and with living parents.  Not everything goes to the spouse in that situation, but instead, partially to spouse and the rest would have been divided between the surviving spouse and parents.  The surviving spouse was not pleased to learn that.

This may also lead to a difficult result for the beneficiary.  If they have disabilities and are using government benefits, receiving the inheritance may cause them to lose those benefits, which may be critical for that person’s care.  Wills and other estate planning documents can prevent that outcome.

If you don’t have a will, at least in Texas, it may be necessary to have a proceeding to determine who the heirs even are.  This is called an heirship proceeding and can be quite expensive as the court appoints another attorney (who you pay) to look for unknown heirs.  This whole process also adds time and uncertainty to a process which is already difficult due to the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, a will designates a person to handle the estate, often called an executor, and typically names successors should the first named person be unable or unwilling to serve.  In the absence of these directions, the heirs will have to figure it out among themselves, hopefully amicably and without litigation.

Many states also have limited proceedings that may or may not be helpful when a person doesn’t have a will.  For example, Texas has affidavits of heirship which can address retitling of land interests, such as the residence.  However, that won’t help for bank accounts.  Pennsylvania actually has a rule permitting small bank accounts to be distributed to next of kin after the funeral is paid.  That too may help, unless the account is $10,000 and is useless for land.  Many states have small estate proceedings that can work, but in practice are often cumbersome.

A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”  See this article for further ideas:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-are-the-duties-of-an-executor/  

If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Medical Powers of Attorney and other documents appropriate for your state, you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

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What are the Duties of an Executor?

Many clients struggle with who can serve as an executor for their estate plan.  They may not have an easy option amongst their family, and are hesitant to ask others to serve as executor.  Many times clients want to know what are the duties of an executor so they can convey that to a potential candidate for the role.  It isn’t easy to explain everything an executor needs to do as they have to react to the circumstances as the time, but there are some general steps they will address.  A recent US News article entitled “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” takes a further look into what is expected of an executor.

First, keep in mind that an executor is the person who helps wrap up the finances, assets and affairs for a deceased person. An executor is a person named in a will, and that is the scenario I’ll address.  If you are using trusts, many of the steps will overlap.

As executor of an estate, you will need to get copies of the death certificate and the will, and take both to an attorney well versed in probate law.  That attorney can help you probate the will through court.

Once appointed, you will follow the instructions in the will to administer the estate.  As executor, you are acting in a fiduciary capacity, and your efforts are directed toward the interests of the beneficiaries of the decedent’s the estate.

You will identify the assets of the estate, determine their value, pay off any valid debts, close accounts like utilities and cable or phone plans and distribute money and possessions to beneficiaries.  Depending on the terms of the will and the situation, you’ll have to file tax returns, make tax elections, and potentially sell property and the like.  You may also establish trusts for beneficiaries, or make arrangements to deliver assets such as personal property, real property, vehicles and more.

The duties of an executor also include reporting what assets they found in the estate through the filing of an inventory, to notify creditors or other essential parties.  Attorneys help with this process to ensure compliance with state laws.

The time required to be an executor can be extensive.  Any court process is not a fast one, and for that reason many clients choose to avoid it through the use of trusts in their plans.  Trusts do not require a court process and can be far more immediate for the family.  As I said before, the duties of an executor overlap with the trustee, so the issues for consideration when picking a trustee are similar.   You can see this article for more detail on the differences.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-difference-between-an-executor-a-trustee-and-other-fiduciaries/ 

Finally, executors may be compensated for their work. Some states have commission schedules listed in their statutes that the executor can collect, while other states require that you keep track of your time and the judge will authorize “reasonable” compensation for your actual efforts.

Ask for help if tasks seem overwhelming or you do not understand certain instructions on accounts or the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can assist.

Reference: US News (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate”

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