Probate: Dissolving the Mystery
It is important to understand the probate process before deciding whether and how to avoid it.

Probate: Dissolving the Mystery

probate and estate planning
If you want to avoid probate, work with an experienced attorney to coordinate your plan and assets.

Probate avoidance is a common concern for our clients.  They frequently seek ways to pass their assets to their loved ones without going through probate.  Although it can be avoided with proper estate planning, probate avoidance should be done carefully and at the advice of an attorney as using piecemeal strategies usually don’t work, and sometimes create bigger problems.  For example, consider using trusts in your estate planning.  See this article for more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-trusts-work-in-your-estate-plan/

Before considering whether you want to avoid probate, it is important to understand what the process is.  The Street’s recent article on this subject asks “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?” The article looks at the probate process and tries to put it in real-life terms.

Probate is the process by which an Executor (person put in charge of the Will) goes to court to prove the validity of the Will and their authority to be in charge of the estate.  I find it helpful to remember that the word probate is essentially Latin for “prove it.”

Every state’s process is different, but in Texas, the Executor starts by filing the Will and an application to probate along with other documents necessary to that case.  Next, there is a hearing before a probate judge.  The Executor and her attorney ask the judge to admit the Will to probate as the valid Will of the decedent and ask that the Executor be empowered to handle the decedent’s affairs as directed in the Will.

Once the Will is admitted to probate and the Executor agrees to serve, there are many tasks for them to complete.  They include the following:

  • Giving notice to the beneficiaries in the Will;
  • Giving notice to potential creditors of the estate;
  • Gathering, valuing and categorizing the decedent’s assets;
  • Prepare an inventory of those assets;
  • Paying off any of the deceased’s existing valid debts or fighting invalid ones;
  • Paying final taxes or expenses of the estate; and
  • Distributing the deceased’s property to those directed by the Will

The above are just the basic responsibilities of the Executor.  The probate process becomes more complicated when a creditor appears, the family disagrees, assets are entangled or cumbersome, such as land or business interests, or the Will was written without the aid of an attorney.  Even worse, it is hard for an Executor to locate assets in the first place!  This can make estates drag on months or even years.  I recently spoke with a client whose family is still going through a probate 10 years after the decedent has passed.

With all of that uncertainty, it is worth discussing your wishes with an experienced estate planning attorney who will be able to explain what strategies are used to avoid probate, how to remove certain assets from the process, or whether it needs to be avoided at all.  The key, as with all estate plans, is to find the option that fits your goals for you and your family.

Reference: The Street (July 29, 2019) “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?”

Continue Reading

Proposed IRA Rules and Their Effect on Stretch IRAs.

New IRA rules make retirement funds better for retirees, but not necessarily for their beneficiaries.

The SECURE (Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement) Act proposes a number of changes to IRA rules and other retirement rules.  The Act passed in the House of Representatives by a 417-3 vote and is expected to be passed in some form by the Senate. Some of the changes appear to be common sense, like broadening access to IRAs and 401(k)s, changing the required minimum distribution (RMD) age from 70½ to 72 and providing different investment options for these programs. However, with these changes come potential limitations with Stretch IRAs.

Forbes asks in its recent article “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?” An IRA shelters investments from tax which leaves investors with more money for the same investment performance because usually no tax is usually paid as it grows. Your distributions can also be tax-free if you use a Roth IRA. That’s a good thing if you have an option between paying taxes on your investment income and not paying taxes on it. The SECURE act isn’t changing this fundamental process, but the issue is when you still have an IRA balance at death.

A Stretch IRA can be a great estate planning tool. Here’s how it works: you give the IRA to a young beneficiary in your family. The tax shield of the IRA is then “stretched,” for what can be decades, based on the principle that an IRA is used over the life expectancy of the beneficiary. This is important because the longer the IRA lasts, the more investment gains and income can be protected from taxes which allows the investment to grow tremendously.

Even better, current estate planning techniques allow an investor to leave an IRA to a trust and still get “stretch” treatment.  For more information, see our website.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/life-stages/planning-for-retirement/   Current Treasury Rules permit trusts to receive “stretch” treatment if the beneficiary of the trust is readily identifiable. This enables investors to leave their retirement assets to trusts for their individual beneficiaries and receive the investment advantage of the “stretch” as well as the benefit of the trust, such as tax planning and divorce or creditor protection for the beneficiaries.  One such trust is called a “conduit trust” where only RMD’s are paid out to the identifiable beneficiary based upon his or her life expectancy.

However, the SECURE Act could change that.  The proposed IRA rules and other retirement rules instead require funds to be distributed over a 10 year period instead of the beneficiary’s lifetime. That’s a big change for estate planning and the value of assets passed to the next generation.

There are some exceptions to the 10 year time period, including retirement left to a surviving spouse, minor children and some persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses.  However, aside from the spouse, these beneficiary groups are limited and will be most harmed by this change.  For example, a disabled beneficiary would likely not receive the retirement funds directly because receiving the retirement funds would affect their government benefits.  Instead, the retirement will pay to a special kind of trust, called a Supplemental Needs Trust, that will receive the retirement funds and accumulate them for the beneficiary’s use.  However, that form of a trust will presumably not qualify for the 10 year exception because remainder beneficiaries (those who survive the disabled beneficiary) will be brought into the analysis and likely won’t be minors or disabled beneficiaries to make the trust eligible for a 10 year exception.  For someone in that case, a 10 year payout will accelerate tax and greatly reduce the legacy left to the beneficiary with a disability, and he or she is the one who needs it most.

For a person who uses their own IRA in retirement and uses it up or passes it to their spouse as an inheritance—the  proposed IRA rules and retirement rules under the SECURE Act change almost nothing. For those looking to use their own IRA in retirement, IRAs are slightly improved due to the new ability to continue to contribute after age 70½ and other small improvements. Therefore, most typical IRA holders will be unaffected or benefit to some degree during their lifetimes.  However, for investors with large investment funds to pass to beneficiaries, the proposed IRA rules may greatly reduce the legacy left to their loved ones.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2019) “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?”

Continue Reading

Higher Estate Tax Exemption Means You Could Save Income Taxes by Updating Your Estate Plan

Updating your estate plan can save taxes.
Updating your estate plan could save taxes.

The estate tax exemption doubled as a result of the Federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act, raising it to historic highs. The estate tax exemption had been scheduled to increase to $5.6 million per person in 2018, but it was modified by the recent legislation to reach the current level of $11.2 million per person, or $22.4 million per couple. The inflation-adjusted exemption for 2019 is $11.4 million per person, or $22.8 million per couple.

In the article “Updating estate plan could save heirs in taxes,” the Atlanta Business Chronicle asks why this matters to an individual or couple whose net worth is nowhere near these levels.

When the most that could be transferred to a non-spouse beneficiary was under a million dollars, everyone worried about the estate tax and used trusts to minimize its effect. Since the estate tax was so much higher than the capital gains tax, it was never considered a big deal if a beneficiary paid the capital gains tax on selling trust assets, because it was less costly than paying the estate tax.

In the past, a married couple’s estate plan would often call for the deceased spouse’s assets to be placed in a trust for the surviving spouse (often called a “bypass trust”). The goal was for the trust to provide for the surviving spouse until the surviving spouse’s death, at which point the trust assets bypassed the estate of the surviving spouse and went directly to the beneficiaries, usually the spouses’ children. If the beneficiaries sold trust assets after the surviving spouse’s death, they would pay the income tax based on the value of the assets at the first spouse’s death, as oppposed to the value of the assets at the surviving spouse’s death. The higher the assets appreciated between the time of the first spouse’s death and the second spouse’s death, the higher the income tax.

For example, if a spouse owned $10,000 worth of stock which passed to a bypass trust at his or her death, and the stock increased to $100,000 at the death of the surviving spouse, the heirs would pay capital gains taxes on the amount of the appreciation ($90,000) upon the sale of the stock. If, however, instead of being in a bypass trust, the stock were included the surviving spouse’s estate, when the beneficiaries sold the stock, they would not have to pay capital gains taxes on the $90,000 of appreciation that occurred between the first spouse’s death and the surviving spouse’s death. That could be a substantial tax savings.

For those who included bypass trusts in their estate plans just to save on estate taxes, updating their estate plan to eliminate the bypass trust could bring greater simplicity as well as tax savings for the heirs.

It should be noted that the law creating the present $11.4 million estate tax exemption ends at the end of 2025, when the estate tax exemption will return to $5 million (adjusted for inflation). Because the tax laws are constantly changing, it is always a good idea to revisit your estate plan at least every three years. Learn more about what married couples should consider when updating their estate plan at https://www.galliganmanning.com/life-stages/planning-for-married-couples/

Reference: Atlanta Business Chronicle (May 31, 2019) “Updating estate plan could save heirs in taxes”

Suggested Key Terms:

Continue Reading