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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The Perils of Online Estate Planning

The rise of online estate planning has lead to a rise in problems attorneys discover after the fact, many of which an estate planning attorney could avoid.

While the attraction of simplicity and low cost is appealing, the results are all too often disastrous, affirms Insurance News in the article “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories.” The increasing number of glitches that estate planning attorneys are seeing in online estate planning after the fact has increased, as much as the number of people using online estate planning forms. For estate planning attorneys who are concerned about their clients and their families, the disasters are troubling, and very difficult to fix in estate administrations.

A few clumsy mouse clicks can derail an online estate plan and adversely affect the family. Here are five real life examples.

Details matter. One of the biggest and most routinely made mistakes in DIY estate planning goes hand-in-hand with simple wills, where both spouses want to leave everything to each other. Except this typical couple neglected something. See if you can figure out what they did wrong:

John’s will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Phyllis’ will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Unless John dies and Phyllis marries someone named Phyllis, this will is not going to work. It seems like a simple enough error, but the courts are not forgiving of errors.

Life insurance mistakes. Jeff owns a life insurance policy and has been using its cash value as a “rainy day” fund. He had intended to swap the life insurance into his irrevocable grantor trust in exchange for low-basis stock held in the trust. The swap would remove the life insurance from Jeff’s estate without exposure to the estate tax three-year rule, and the stock would receive a stepped-up basis at death, leading to tax savings on both sides of the swap.

However, Jeff had a stroke recently, and he’s incapacitated. He planned ahead though, or so he thought. He downloaded a free durable power of attorney form from a nonprofit that helps the elderly. The POA specifically included the power to change ownership of his life insurance.

Jeff put his name in the space designated for the POA. As a result, the insurance company won’t accept the form, and the swap isn’t going to happen.

Incomplete documents. Ellen created an online will leaving her entire probate estate to her husband. It was fast, cheap and she was delighted. However, she forgot to click on the space where the executor is named. The website address for the website company is the default information in the form, which is what was created when she completed the will. The court is not likely to appoint the website as her executor. Her heirs are stuck, unless she corrects this, hoping the court will understand. Hope is a terrible estate plan.

Letting the form define the estate plan. Single parent Joan has a 6-year-old son. Her will includes a standard trust for minors, providing income and principal for her son until he turns 21, at which point he inherits everything. Joan met with a life insurance advisor and applied for a $1 million convertible 20–year term life insurance policy. It will be payable to the trust. However, her son has autism, and receives government benefits. There are no special needs provisions in her will, so her son is at risk of losing any benefits, if and when he inherits the policy proceeds.

Don’t set it and forget it. One couple created online wills, when the estate tax exclusion was $2 million. They created a credit shelter, or bypass, trust to reduce their estate taxes, by allowing each of them to use their estate tax exclusion amount. However, the federal estate tax exclusion today is $11.4 million per person. With $4 million in separate assets and a $2 million life insurance policy payable to children from a previous marriage, the husband’s separate assets will go into the bypass trust. None of it will go to his wife.

Online estate planning is dangerous because there is no opportunity to receive legal advice on how to meet your goals in your estate plan.  An experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state is the best source for creating and updating estate plans, preparing for incapacity and ensuring that tax planning is done efficiently.  This post will help you get started.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-begin-the-estate-planning-process/

Reference: Insurance News Net (Sep. 9, 2019) “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories”

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