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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Common Estate Planning Terms

There is a current legal trend to avoid using legal terms and to make the language of law accessible for clients.  For example, lawyers use less Latin than they used to.  However, there are some terms that are unavoidable, and it helps to be familiar with them when considering your estate planning, a sentiment echoed by the recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise.

Accordingly, I wanted to define some common estate planning terms.  If you are on the fence about creating an estate plan but found this article to get started, you may also want to review this article on the important of having a will.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/understanding-why-a-will-is-important/  

Fiduciary – the person you named to a role in your estate plan and who acts with your best interest in mind.  They owe you a fiduciary duty to act with prudence and loyalty to you.

Principal – the person who creates the fiduciary relationship, especially in a power of attorney.

Agent or Attorney-in-Fact – this is the person named to act on your behalf under a power of attorney.  They aren’t your “power of attorney,” they are your agent.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: testator or testatrix, executor, administrator, beneficiary, specific bequest, residuary beneficiary, remote contingency and even more. There are also many variations on these terms based upon location and common practice.

Testator – (Testatrix is the feminine version of it) is the person who makes a will.

Executor – the person who is appointed in a will to administer an estate.  Note, in Texas you often see “Independent Executor” or references to an independent administration.  This is because Texas has grades of executors, and independent executors largely work free of court supervision.  Most states don’t have this distinction.

Administrator- generally stated, this is the person who administers an estate just like an executor, but who wasn’t named in the will.  So, for example, if you name John Smith, and if he can’t then Kevin Horner to be your executors, and neither serves after you pass away, a third person may be granted permission to administer your estate.  They will be an administrator, and not an executor, because you didn’t name them.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate or a trust. Contingent beneficiaries are “backup” beneficiaries, in case the original beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance for whatever reason.  Sometimes you see the phrase per stirpes or by representation or something similar.  These indicate who the contingent beneficiaries if the original beneficiary is deceased.  Generally speaking, these indicate the original beneficiary’s children.

Specific Bequest – these are clauses giving specific property to a beneficiary.  So, for example, “I leave the real property known as 123 Main Street to my daughter” is a specific bequest.  In most cases, it is distributed first.

Residuary beneficiary – these are beneficiaries of the “residuary” or the “residue.”  This means all of the property in an estate or trust that isn’t already distributed.  So, using my above example, if your will says 123 Main Street to daughter, but you also own stock, another house, a car, bank accounts and items in your home and don’t otherwise address those items in your will, then everything except for the 123 Main Street goes to the beneficiaries you list as a residuary beneficiary.  These are often dealt with by percentages or shares.  So for example, “all of the rest, residue and remainder of my estate to my children, by representation.”  If you have three children, they are splitting the residuary in thirds.

In the world of trusts, you often have trustor, trustee and then beneficiaries which are very similar to the beneficiaries described above.

Trustor – Many states have different names for this, we just happen to use trustor.  This is the person who creates the trust.  Other names for it are grantor, settlor or trustmaker.  I’ve even seen founder and originator in my career.  If the trust is created by will, which is often called a testamentary trust, then the trustor is the testator.

Trustee – this is the person who administers a trust.

There are more terms than this of course, but these are some of the most common estate planning terms. Getting comfortable with the terms will make the estate planning process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

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What Is the HEMS Standard?

Many trusts for third parties reference “HEMS” language, namely health, education, maintenance and support.  The HEMS standard is used to inform trustees as to how and when funds should be released to a beneficiary, according to a recent article from Yahoo! News, “What is the HEMS Standard in Estate Planning.” Using HEMS language in a trust gives the trustee more control over how assets are distributed and spent. If a beneficiary is young and not financial savvy, this becomes extremely important to protecting both the beneficiary and the assets in the trust. Your estate planning attorney can set up a trust to include this feature, and it is commonly a feature in trusts we prepare.

When a trust includes HEMS language, the assets may only be used for specific needs. Health, education or living expenses can include college tuition, mortgage, and rent payments, medical care and health insurance premiums.

Medical treatment may include eye exams, dental care, health insurance, prescription drugs and some elective procedures.

Education may include college housing, tuition, technology needed for college, studying abroad and career training.

Maintenance and Support includes reasonable comforts, like paying for a gym membership, vacations and gifts for family members.  Many attorneys also expand upon this definition at the request of clients to expressly authorize money to be spent for business opportunities, vehicles, houses and so on.

The HEMS language provides guidance for the trustee.  However, ultimately the trustee is vested with the discretionary power to decide whether the assets are being used according to the directions of the trust.

In some cases, the HEMS standard is essential for asset protection.  For example, if I am the beneficiary of a trust and also my own trustee, it isn’t a good idea for me to have unfettered discretion on using the trust funds.  If I did, a creditor of mine could require me to use that discretion to pay them.  Instead, it would be better if the trust limited the ability to distribute to HEMS as the trust can still assist with my health, education, maintenance and support.  You’ll notice however, that HEMS does not include my creditors. See this article for a similar issue discussing creditors and divorces of beneficiaries. https://www.galliganmanning.com/protecting-inheritance-from-childs-divorce/

Sometimes beneficiary requests are straightforward, like college tuition or health insurance bills. However, maintenance and support need to be considered in the context of the family’s wealth. If the family and the beneficiary are used to a lifestyle that includes three or four luxurious vacations every year, a request for funds used for a ski trip to Spain may not be out of line. For another family and trust, this would be a ludicrous request.

Having HEMS language in the trust limits distribution. It may also, depending on the situation, be beneficial to have distribution restrictions so that the trustee can reply “no” when a beneficiary becomes too used to using trust money.

Giving the trustee HEMS language narrows their discretionary authority enough to help them do a better job of managing assets and may limit challenges by beneficiaries.

HEMS language can be as broad or narrow as the grantor wishes. Just as a trust is crafted to meet the specific directions of the grantor for beneficiaries, the HEMS language can be created to establish a trust where the assets may only be used to pay for college tuition or career training.

Reference: Yahoo! News (Jan. 7, 2022) “What is the HEMS Standard in Estate Planning”

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