Locking in a Deceased Spouse’s Unused Federal Estate Tax Exemption

Preserving a deceased spouse’s unused federal estate tax exemption may protect the survivor’s estate from huge taxes if the exemption lowers.

Coping with the death of a spouse is one of life’s biggest challenges.  In addition to the emotional toll, there are many small details that need to be addressed with accounts, finances, taxes and other matters.  One thing that should be considered is locking in the deceased spouse’s unused federal estate tax exemption, says a recent article from Forbes titled “4 Things You Should Know About The Death Tax Exemption.”

The deceased spouse unused exemption (DSUE) is the amount of federal estate tax exemption the spouse’s estate did not use when they passed away. When a person dies, a federal estate tax, known also as the “death” tax, is imposed on any assets over a certain amount. The estate tax exemption amount covers the assets that fall below that amount.  If you properly elect to us it, the DSUE amount can be used by the surviving spouse in their own estate along with their own personal tax exemption.  If you want a longer primer on the estate tax for reading this article, see here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-exactly-is-the-estate-tax/

The threshold has changed over the years. It is at a historically high level of $11,580,000 in 2020 and is indexed to inflation, so it goes up slightly each year.  However, the current law will sunset in 2026, when it will drop to $5 million (adjusted for inflation), and as the federal government needs to pay for COVID-related costs, it is likely to drop sooner and possibly lower.

The DSUE is locked in when you file your deceased spouses’ estate tax return timely.  It is due nine (9) months after the date of death, but may be extended in some cases for up to two (2) years after death. If a spouse died in 2020 with the current exemption of $11,580,000 in place and used up $6,580,000 of the exemption amount, the surviving spouse will be able to add $5,000,000 to their exemption amount by filing the estate tax return appropriately.

The surviving spouse would then have their own $11,580,000 exemption (or whatever is appropriate in the year they pass), plus the $5,000,000 from the deceased spouse’s exemptions. As the current tax rate is 40% for amounts over the exemption, this is an exceptional tax benefit for high networth families, especially if the tax exemption plummets in future years.

I’ve said this a few times but it bears repeating: even if a spouse leaves all of their assets to their spouse and no federal estate taxes are due, an estate tax return still needs to be filed, if the surviving spouse is to lock in the DSUE. If the surviving spouse does not file an estate tax return in a timely fashion, the DSUE will be lost. The estate tax savings to the heirs could be in the millions.

If the estate tax exemption drops to prior levels, such as $3,500,000 which has been proposed in recent years, the family will still be able to claim the DSUE when the second spouse dies. This could be a big help for heirs in reducing or eliminating taxes on the second spouse’s estate. Many people may not have an estate worth $11 million, but by adding up the value of a home, retirement accounts, life insurance and other assets, a $5 million level of assets is not unheard of, and may be over the future exemption amount.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to analyze the federal estate taxes to achieve the best possible outcome for you and your spouse.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 17, 2020) “4 Things You Should Know About The Death Tax Exemption”

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That Last Step: Trust Funding

A trust only controls the assets it owns, so don’t forget the critical last step in a trust estate plan: properly funding the trust.

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

If you read our blogs routinely, you’ll know we are fans of trust planning.  Done properly with appropriate trust funding, a trust helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and streamlines the estate process.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets may go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court to appoint them as executor first. That takes time and costs money. It is much better if you do it yourself while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, it may not do very much good.  Instead, an agent under a power of attorney, or if none, a court-appointed guardian may have to be appointed.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. I cannot stress this enough, but you should speak with an attorney regarding how to fund your specific trust.  Not all plans and assets are the same, and different plans call for different trust funding.   That said, taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust either immediately during lifetime or upon death via a beneficiary designation. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as business interests.  Some assets, such as life insurance and retirement funds may designate the trust in some manner by beneficiary designation, but in light of the Secure Act changes you’ll definitely want to discuss that with your attorney.   See here for more:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-the-secure-act-impacts-your-estate-plan/

Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes. You should also consider trust funding when you review your estate plan to ensure it is updated with new assets.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

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