What Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

Most people ignore the estate tax due to its high exemptions, but as some candidates may lower the exemption, it is good to familiarize yourself with it.

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people.  Plus, the estate tax exemption is currently as high as it’s ever been, so many people ignore it assuming it doesn’t and never will apply to them.

However, the estate and gift tax has always been a political football, so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with it in an election year.  The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.  As an overriding point, this blog covers federal estate and gift tax.  Some states have their own estate, gift and/or inheritance tax (tax on all transfers to beneficiaries at a lower rate) which may work differently then the federal tax.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion might be an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

It is also worth noting that a lot of clients want to give away assets during their life time through annual gift exclusions because they are worried about the estate tax.  However, with such a high exemption, it is often better to keep assets in your estate.  This is because generally appreciable assets in your estate receive a “step-up” in basis at your death.  This point is outside the scope of this blog, but see here for why keeping assets in your estate is probably a good thing.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/higher-estate-tax-exemption-means-you-could-save-income-taxes-by-updating-your-estate-plan/

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Some candidates seeks to greatly lower the estate and gift tax exemption, which may lead to many more taxable estates.  If you are concerned about this tax, or are after the election, please contact our office to discuss how the estate and gift tax impacts you.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

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Business Succession Planning in your Estate Plan

Business succession planning is critical in your estate plan to ensure your business succeeds when you’re gone and to preserve value for your beneficiaries.

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about how it will continue after you retire or pass away.  Business succession planning is critical because the value and success of the business will be greatly effected when you pass away.  Planning now will help prevent interruptions to the business and preserve the value for your beneficiaries, and for your employees.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that business succession planning, estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen next or what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.  Having been a business owner myself, I understand that the demands of the day seem so important, it’s hard to think about next week, let alone when you’re gone.

Business continuity is the biggest concern for entrepreneurs and one of the key components to address in business succession planning. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge.  One option is to create a living trust and will to put in place parameters that a trustee can carry out. With these names and decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.  You may do this as a trust solely for the business, such as a management trust, or as part of your regular estate planning.

They may be upset with you, but it’s better than the other or future owners and key employees being mad at each other.  This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names successor trustees to be in charge of operating the business, if you become incapacitated or die.

Business succession planning may include several other aspects.  For example, many owners complete buy sell agreements or similar documents that require a deceased owners estate to sell their interest to the other owners, or address what happens if an owner divorces, or becomes disabled.  Some even address buy outs for retiring owners.  It is also a good idea to consider employment agreements that entice key employees to stay with the company if you should retire or pass away.  These documents can be complex as they touch many issues, but are worth discussing with your estate planning or business attorney as part of your business succession plan.

A power of attorney document will nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning will also preserve your business assets, as advanced tax planning strategies might be implemented to establish specific trusts to minimize the estate tax.  See here for more details.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-trusts-work-in-your-estate-plan/

Business succession planning and estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring, and is critical to prevent disruptions to the business you created.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

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The Blended Family and Issues with Finances and Estate Planning

Blended families present unique issues in finances and estate planning, but an open conversation about money, your goals and your estate plan can help.

The blended family is a family dynamic that is increasingly common, which can make addressing financial issues much more of a challenge. In a blended family, one or both spouses have at least one child from a previous marriage or relationship, and together they create what’s known as a new combined family.

CNBC’s recent article, “4 ways to help blended families navigate finances,” reports that a staggering 63% of women who remarry come into blended families, with 50% of those involving stepchildren who live with the new couple, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

The issues in a blended family can be demanding, so couples often delay having the “money talk.” This is an important piece of the family financial puzzle. We’ll look at some of the ways you can work on that puzzle, and see our website for more https://www.galliganmanning.com/estate-planning-life-stages/estate-planning-for-blended-families/:

  1. Get expert advice from your Estate Planning Attorney. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specifics of your blended family situation.  It is important that both spouses discuss how their separate and joint money will be used, both while they are alive and after they pass away.  This includes whether the spouses want to leave their assets for the children from their prior relationships.  It is also important to discuss the role the children will have in your estate plans so that you can avoid disputes between them.
  2. Create a plan for merging relationship and money. Understanding the role money plays in combining two families is critical to the success of a healthy blended household. A basic step may be to draft a detailed plan of how the couple is going to care for one another in their marriage and in their family, in addition to how they will care for one another’s children. Try to determine the ways in which money plays a role in coming together. The more you can communicate and the more that you can exhibit a united front, even from a financial perspective, the stronger a couple will be.  This may include considering either a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement detailing how your assets will come together in the combined family.
  3. Collect documentation and monitor your money. It’s good to understand the work involved with the preparation and paperwork after divorce and remarriage. You’ll have a divorce decree or a domestic partner agreement, as well as instructions on child support and alimony. You also need to keep track of all the different financial accounts.
  4. Discuss your financial issues regularly. Ask about the financial obligations to the ex-spouses. Make sure both spouses understand if there’s child support and/or alimony, as well as responsibility for paying for housing or their utility bills.

Although these issues may be demanding, they can be successfully navigated with frank, open discussion and the advice of trusted advisers.  If you are in a blended family, please contact our office for a consultation on how these issues may be addressed in your estate plan.

Reference: CNBC (November 23, 2019) “4 ways to help blended families navigate finances”

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