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Do It Yourself Wills Go Wrong–Fast

What happens when a well-meaning person decides to create a will, after reading information from various sources on the internet? There’s no end of problems, as described in the Glen Rose Reporter’s article “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry.”

The woman started her plan by deeding her home to her three children, retaining a life estate for herself.

By doing so, she has eliminated the possibility of either selling the house or taking out a reverse mortgage on the home, if she ever needs to tap its equity.

Since she is neither an estate planning attorney nor an accountant, she missed the tax issue completely.

By deeding the house, the transfer has caused a taxable transaction. Therefore, she needs to file a gift tax return because of it. At the same time, her life estate diminishes the value of the gift, and her estate is not large enough to require her to actually pay any tax.

She was puzzled to learn this, since there wasn’t any tax when her husband died and left his share of the house to her. That’s because the transfer of community property between spouses is not a taxable event.

However, that wasn’t the only tax issue to consider. When the house passed to her from her husband, she got a stepped-up basis, meaning that since the house had appreciated in value since she bought it, she only had to pay taxes on the difference in the increased value at the time of her husband’s death and what she sold the property for.

By transferring the house to the children, they don’t get a stepped-up basis. This doesn’t apply to a gift made during one’s lifetime. When the children get ready to sell the home, the basis will be the value that was established at the time of her husband’s death, even if the property increased in value by the time of the mother’s death. The children will have to pay tax on the difference between that value, which is likely to be quite lower, and the sale price of the house.

There are many overlapping issues that go into creating an estate plan. The average person who doesn’t handle estate planning on a regular basis (and even an attorney who does not handle estate planning on a regular basis), doesn’t know how one fact can impact another.

Sitting down with an estate planning attorney, who understands the tax issues surrounding estate planning, gifting, real estate, and inheritances, will protect the value of the assets being passed to the next generation and protect the family. It’s money well spent.

Read here about the importance of having a last will and testament.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (September 17, 2019) “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry”

Joint Tenancy With Children Creates Problems for Parents

Parents putting children or other family members as joint owners of their assets. is another example of a simple solution for a complex problem. Joint tenancy doesn’t work, even though it seems as if it should.

As explained in the article “Beware the joint tenancy trap” from Monterey Herald, putting another person on an account, even a trusted child or life-long friend, can create serious problems for the individual, their estate and their heirs. Before going down that path, there are several issues to consider.

When another individual is placed as an owner on an account or on the title to real property, they have a legal ownership in that property equal to that of the original owner. This is called joint tenancy. If a child is made a joint tenant on a parent’s accounts, they would be entirely within their rights to withdraw every single asset from those accounts and do whatever they wanted with them. They would not need the original owner’s consent, counsel, or knowledge.

Giving anyone that power is a serious decision.

Making a child a joint owner of assets also exposes those assets to claims by the child’s creditors. If they file for bankruptcy, the original asset owner may have to buy back one-half of the asset at its current market value. Another example: if the child is in an accident and a judgment is recorded against the child, you may have to buy back one-half of your joint tenant property at its current market value to settle the claims.

There are other complications. If one joint owner of the asset dies, joint tenancy provides for the right of survivorship. The property transfers to the surviving joint tenant without going through probate and with no reference to a will. That’s what people focus on when they try this method as an end-run around estate planning. What they don’t realize, is that if the parent dies and the asset transfers directly to the joint tenant—let’s say a daughter—but the will says the assets are to be split between all of the children, her claim on the asset is “senior” to the rest of the children. That means she gets the assets and the four siblings split the remaining assets.

If there is any friction between siblings, not having equal inheritances could create a fracture in the family that can’t easily be resolved.

Tax exposure is another risk of joint tenancy. When someone is named a joint owner, they have an equal ownership interest in those assets, as the original owner’s cost basis. When one owner dies, the remaining owner gets a step up in basis on the proportion of the assets the deceased person owned at death.

Let’s say a son and father are joint owners on an account. When the father dies, the son gets a step up in basis on one-half of the assets—the assets that the father owned. His half of the assets retains the original basis. But if that account was owned solely by the father, all the heirs will get the full step up in basis on the father’s death.

Given the complexities that joint tenancy creates, parents need to think very carefully before putting children’s names on their assets and real property. A better plan is to make an appointment to speak with an estate planning attorney and find out how to protect the parent’s assets through other means, which may include trusts and other estate planning tools.

See how joint tenancy creates problems.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Sep. 11, 2019) “Beware the joint tenancy trap”

Making Gifts Has Estate Planning Advantages

Gifts During Lifetime Has Advantages

There are several non-tax advantages of making lifetime gifts. One is that you’re able to see the recipient or “donee” enjoy your gift. It might give you satisfaction to help your children achieve financial independence or have fewer financial concerns.

WMUR’s recent article, Money Matters: Lifetime non-charitable giving,” explains that lifetime giving means you dictate who gets your property. Remember, if you die without a will, the intestacy laws of the state will dictate who gets what. With a will, you can decide how you want your property distributed after your death. However, it’s true that even with a will, you won’t really know how the property is distributed, because a beneficiary could disclaim an inheritance. With lifetime giving, you have more control over how your assets are distributed.

At your death, your property may go through probate. Lifetime giving will help reduce probate and administration costs, since lifetime gifts are typically not included in your probate estate at death.  Unlike probate, lifetime gifts are private.

Let’s discuss some of the tax advantages. First, a properly structured gifting program can save income and estate taxes. A gift isn’t taxable income to the donee, but any income earned by the gift property or capital gain subsequent to the gift usually is taxable. The donor must pay state and/or federal transfer taxes on the gift. There may be state gift tax, state generation-skipping transfer tax, federal gift and estate taxes, as well as federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax.

A big reason for lifetime giving is to remove appreciating assets from your estate (i.e., one that’s expected to increase in value over time). If you give the asset away, any future appreciation in value is removed from your estate. The taxes today may be significantly less than what they would be in the future, after the asset’s value has increased. Note that lifetime giving results in the carryover of your basis in the property to the donee. If the asset is left to the donee at your death, it will usually receive a step-up in value to a new basis (usually the fair market value at the date of your death). Therefore, if the donee plans to sell the asset, she may have a smaller gain by inheriting it at your death, rather than as a gift during your life.

You can also give by paying tuition to an education institution or medical expenses to a medical care provider directly on behalf of the donee. These transfers are exempt from any federal gift and estate tax.

Remember that the federal annual gift tax exclusion lets you to give $15,000 (for the 2019 year) per donee to an unlimited number of donees, without any federal gift and estate tax or federal GST tax (it applies only to gifts of present interest).

Prior to making a gift, discuss your strategy with an estate planning attorney to be sure that it matches your estate plan goals.

Learn how to make a gift of the family vacation home.

Reference: WMUR (April 18, 2019) “Money Matters: Lifetime non-charitable giving”

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?

If you haven’t had a talk with your estate planning attorney since before the TCJA act went into effect, now would be a good time to do so, says The Kansas City Star in the article “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” While most of the news about the act centered on the increased exemptions for estate taxes, there are a number of other changes that may have a direct impact on your taxes.

Start by looking at any wills or trusts that were created before the tax act went into effect. If any of the trusts use formulas that are tied to the federal estate tax exemption, there could be unintended consequences because of the higher exemption amounts.

The federal estate tax exemption doubled from $5.49 million per person in 2017 to $11.18 million per person in 2018 (or $22.36 million per couple). It is now $11.2 million per person in 2019 (or $22.4 million per couple).

Let’s say that your trust was created in 2001, when the estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Your trust may have stipulated that your children receive the amount of assets that could be passed free from federal estate tax, and the remainder, which exceeded the federal estate tax exemption, goes to your spouse. At the time, this was a perfectly good strategy. However, if it hasn’t been updated since then, your children will receive $11.4 million and your spouse could be disinherited.

Trusts drafted prior to 2011, when portability was introduced, require particular attention.

Two other important factors to consider are portability and step-up of cost basis. In the past, many couples relied on the use of bypass or credit shelter trusts that pay income to the surviving spouse and then eventually pass trust assets on to the children, upon the death of the surviving spouse. This scenario made sure to use the first deceased spouse’s estate exemption.

However, new legislation passed in 2011 allowed for portability of the deceased spouse’s unused estate exemption. The surviving spouse’s estate can now use any exemption that wasn’t used by the first spouse to die.

A step-up in basis was not changed by the TCJA law, but this has more significance now. When a person dies, their heir’s cost basis of many assets becomes the value of the asset on the date that the person died. Highly appreciated assets that avoided income taxes to the decedent, could avoid or minimize income taxes to the heirs. Maintaining the ability for assets to receive a step-up in basis is more important now, because of the size of the federal estate tax exemption.

Beneficiaries who inherit assets from a bypass or credit shelter trust upon the surviving spouse’s death, no longer benefit from a “second” step-up in basis. The basis of the inheritance is the original basis from the first spouse’s death. Therefore, bypass trusts are less useful than in the past, and could actually have negative income tax consequences for heirs.

If your current estate plan has not been amended for these or other changes, make an appointment soon to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney. It may not take a huge overhaul of the entire estate plan, but these changes could have a negative impact on your family and their future.

Reference: The Kansas City Star (Feb. 7, 2019) “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”

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