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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Social Security Survivor Benefits for Spouses

Clients often think of Social Security for retirement planning, but Social Security survivor benefits, especially for spouses, should be considered as well.

Social Security is the main retirement income source for more than 60% of Americans, which is why it is usually the focus of news about retirement income. However, there’s more to Social Security survivor benefits, including how it helps surviving spouses. Social Security survivor benefits can be a critical part of retirement securities when families lose a loved one, says the article “Understanding the Basics Of Social Security Benefits for Surviving Spouses” from Forbes.

The rules about Social Security survivor benefits for spouses can be complicated. There are four basic categories of survivor benefits. Here’s a closer look:

Survivor benefits at age 60. At their full retirement age, the surviving spouse can receive full survivor benefits based on the deceased individual retirement benefit. The amount from the survivor benefit is based on the deceased spouse’s earnings. At full retirement age, the survivor receives 100% of the deceased individuals’ benefit or their projected benefit at full retirement age. If they collect benefits before full retirement age, you’ll get between 70% to 99% of the deceased spouse’s benefit.

You cannot receive both your benefit and your deceased spouse’s benefit. In most cases, it makes sense to defer whichever is the higher benefit, taking the lower benefit first while the larger benefit continues to increase.

Lump sum payment. This was originally intended to help survivors with certain funeral and end-of-life costs. However, the amount has never been indexed for inflation. Therefore, it won’t cover much. To get the payment, the surviving spouse must apply for it within the first two years of the deceased individual’s date of death.

Disabled benefit. If you qualify as disabled, you can receive survivor benefits as early as age 50. Divorced spouses can also receive survivor benefits, if the marriage lasted for at least ten years. If you remarry, you cannot receive survivor benefits. However, if you remarry after age 60, or age 50 if disabled, you can continue to receive survivor benefits based on your deceased spouse’s benefit, if you were married for at least ten years. You can even switch over to a spousal benefit based on the new spouses’ work history at age 62, if the new benefit would be higher.

Caring for children under age 16. A surviving spouse of any age caring for a child who is under age 16 may receive 75% of the worker’s benefit amount. The child is also eligible for a survivor benefit of 75% of the deceased parent’s benefits. A divorced spouse taking care of the deceased ex’s child younger than 16 is also entitled to 75% of the deceased spouse’s benefit. In this case, the ex does not need to meet the ten-year marriage rule, and they can be any age to collect benefits.

You can also see this article from Mary Galligan that discusses the timing of these benefits.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/social-security-benefits-what-happens-when-a-spouse-dies/

One thing to consider: the rules surrounding Social Security benefits are complex, especially when it comes to coordinating benefits with an overall financial plan. Contact our office and your financial planner to learn how these rules may help protect your family and children.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Understanding the Basics Of Social Security Benefits for Surviving Spouses”

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