With most tax planning, there are certain strategies that are generally effective and shouldn’t be ignored. The same holds true for estate planning. Here are three essential estate planning strategies to consider that may help you achieve your goals.

1. Use an ILIT to hold life insurance 

Do you own an insurance policy on your life? Then be aware that a substantial portion of the proceeds could be lost to estate taxes if your estate is large enough to be liable for them. The exact amount will depend on the estate tax exemption available at your death as well as the estate tax rates that apply.

However, if you don’t own the policy, the proceeds won’t be included in your taxable estate. One effective strategy for keeping life insurance out of your estate is to set up an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) to buy and hold the policy.

If you already own your life insurance policy, you can transfer the policy to an ILIT. But watch out for the “three-year rule,” which provides that certain assets, including life insurance, transferred within three years of your death are pulled back into your estate and potentially taxed.

2. Place assets in a credit shelter trust

Designating your spouse as your sole beneficiary may seem like a good strategy. But doing so can waste your estate tax exemption.

Suppose you leave everything to your spouse. There will be no current estate tax at your death because of the unlimited marital deduction (assuming your spouse is a U.S. citizen). When your spouse dies, however, the assets transferred to him or her at your death will be included in his or her taxable estate (assuming the assets remain intact). A portion of your spouse’s estate could be subject to estate tax, depending on a variety of factors such as the size of your spouse’s total estate and the estate tax exemption available at his or her death.

You can preserve your exemption and reduce or even eliminate estate taxes by placing assets in a credit shelter trust. If properly structured, the trust provides your spouse with income for life — and access to the principal as needed — but the assets aren’t included in his or her estate. Plus, your own exemption shields the trust assets from estate tax.

3. Take advantage of a gifting strategy

Don’t underestimate the tax-saving power of making gifts. Currently, the annual exclusion is $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 if you split gifts with your spouse).

Annual exclusion gifts can be more effective because, unlike lifetime exemption gifts, they don’t reduce the amount of wealth you can transfer tax-free at death under your estate tax exemption. Gifting, whether under the annual exclusion or lifetime exemption, also removes future appreciation from your taxable estate.

Work with a pro

There’s much you need to consider when developing or reviewing your estate plan. Contact us so you can keep your plan on the right track.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

As many states continue to struggle with the current surge in COVID-19 cases, the “new normal” demands continued social distancing in many areas of life. What does this mean for estate planning? Clearly, estate planning is as important today — or arguably more important — than ever. But how do you plan your estate and execute critical documents if you’re uncomfortable with face-to-face meetings or are required to self-quarantine?

Fortunately, many estate planning activities may be able to be done from the safety of your own home. Here are some options to consider, but keep in mind that requirements vary significantly from state to state, so it’s important to discuss your plans with your estate planning advisor.

Most planning can be done remotely

There are definite advantages to meeting with your advisor in person to talk about creating or updating your estate plan. But these discussions can be conducted in video conferences or phone calls, and document drafts can be transmitted and reviewed via email, secure online portals or even “snail mail.”

Traditionally, estate planning documents are executed in an attorney’s office in the presence of witnesses and a notary public. In-office document signings may still be possible with appropriate precautions, but there are other options that may allow you to avoid traveling to an attorney’s office.

The options available depend in part on the type of document being signed:

Wills. In most states, a typewritten will (as well as a modification or codicil to an existing will) must be signed in the physical presence of at least two witnesses. Typically, those witnesses must be disinterested — that is, they don’t stand to inherit or otherwise benefit under the will. But some states permit family members or other interested parties to serve as witnesses. In those states, it may be possible to conduct a will signing at home (with instructions from your attorney) and have members of your household witness it.

What about notarization? Wills are usually notarized as a best practice, but in most states it’s not required. However, wills are often accompanied by a self-proving affidavit, which must be notarized.

Another option in some states is a “holographic,” or handwritten, will, which generally doesn’t require witnesses or notarization.

Trusts. In many states, you can sign a trust document without witnesses or notarization, and it may even be possible to sign it electronically. One potential strategy for avoiding traditional will-signing requirements is to sign a holographic “pour over” will that transfers all assets to a revocable trust, which can accomplish many of the same objectives as a traditional will.

Monitor legal developments

Requirements for signing estate planning documents have been evolving in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate the process more. A few states permit electronic wills (e-wills) and online notarization, which makes it possible to execute these documents without the need for physical interaction with anyone. These technologies are still in their infancy, but they’re being considered by lawmakers in many states. Contact us with any questions regarding your estate planning documents.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Some people make video recordings of their will signings in an effort to create evidence that they possess the requisite testamentary capacity. For some, this strategy may help stave off a will contest. But in most cases, the risk that the recording will provide ammunition to someone who wishes to challenge the will outweighs the potential benefits.

Video will be closely scrutinized

Unless the person signing the will delivers a flawless, natural performance, a challenger could pounce on the slightest hesitation, apparent discomfort or momentary confusion as “proof” that the person lacked testamentary capacity. Even the sharpest among us occasionally forgets facts or mixes up our children’s or grandchildren’s names. And discomfort with the recording process can easily be mistaken for confusion or duress.

You’re probably thinking, “Why can’t we just re-record portions of the video that don’t look good?” The problem with this approach is that a challenger’s attorney will likely ask how much editing was done and how many “takes” were used in the video and cite that number as further evidence of a lack of testamentary capacity.

Employ alternative strategies

For most people, other strategies for avoiding a will contest are preferable to recording the will signing. These include having a medical practitioner examine you and attest to your capacity immediately before the signing. It can also involve choosing reliable witnesses and including a “no contest clause” in your will. In addition, you might consider using a funded revocable trust, which avoids probate and, therefore, is more difficult and expensive to challenge.

Before pressing “record” and signing your will, talk with us about how to proceed.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Although probate can be time consuming and expensive, one of its biggest downsides is that it’s public — anyone who’s interested can find out what assets you owned and how they’re being distributed after your death. The public nature of probate may also draw unwanted attention from disgruntled family members who may challenge the disposition of your assets, as well as from other unscrupulous parties.

The good news is that by implementing the right estate planning strategies, you can keep much or even all of your estate out of probate.

Probate, defined

Probate is a legal procedure in which a court establishes the validity of your will, determines the value of your estate, resolves creditors’ claims, provides for the payment of taxes and other debts, and transfers assets to your heirs.

Is probate ever desirable? Sometimes. Under certain circumstances, you might feel more comfortable having a court resolve issues involving your heirs and creditors. Another possible advantage is that probate places strict time limits on creditor claims and settles claims quickly.

Choose the right strategies

There are several tools you can use to avoid (or minimize) probate. (You’ll still need a will — and probate — to deal with guardianship of minor children, disposition of personal property and certain other matters.)

The simplest ways to avoid probate involve designating beneficiaries or titling assets in a manner that allows them to be transferred directly to your beneficiaries outside your will. So, for example, be sure that you have appropriate, valid beneficiary designations for assets such as life insurance policies, annuities and retirement plans.

For assets such as bank and brokerage accounts, look into the availability of “payable on death” (POD) or “transfer on death” (TOD) designations, which allow these assets to avoid probate and pass directly to your designated beneficiaries. However, keep in mind that while the POD or TOD designation is permitted in most states, not all financial institutions and firms make this option available.

For homes or other real estate — as well as bank and brokerage accounts and other assets — some people avoid probate by holding title with a spouse or child as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or as “tenants by the entirety.” But this has three significant drawbacks: 1) Once you retitle property, you can’t change your mind, 2) holding title jointly gives the joint owner some control over the asset and exposes it to his or her creditors, and 3) there may be undesirable tax consequences.

A handful of states permit TOD deeds, which allow you to designate a beneficiary who’ll succeed to ownership of real estate after you die. TOD deeds allow you to avoid probate without making an irrevocable gift or exposing the property to your beneficiary’s creditors.

Discuss your options

Because of probate’s public nature, avoiding the process to the extent possible is a goal of many estate plans. Implementing the proper strategies in your plan can protect your privacy and save your family time and money. Contact us with questions or to discuss your options.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

One advantage of inheriting an IRA from your spouse is that you’re entitled to transfer the funds to a spousal rollover IRA. The rollover IRA is treated as your own IRA for tax purposes, which means you need not begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) until you reach age 72. This differs from an IRA inherited from someone other than a spouse, when the entire IRA balance must be withdrawn within 10 years of the original owner’s death. (Note that different rules apply to IRAs inherited before January 1, 2020.)

But what happens if your spouse mistakenly named a trust as beneficiary of his or her IRA, or failed to name a beneficiary at all?

Correcting the mistake

According to IRS guidance, there may be strategies you can use to ensure that you receive the benefits of a spousal rollover. Typically, this guidance comes in the form of private letter rulings (PLRs), which cannot be cited as precedent but indicate how the IRS is likely to rule in similar cases.

In one example, as described in a 2019 PLR, a deceased person named a trust as beneficiary of his IRA and failed to name a contingent beneficiary. The trustee executed a qualified disclaimer of the trust’s interest in the IRA, as did the deceased’s son and two grandchildren. The IRS ruled that the deceased’s wife was entitled to complete a spousal rollover.

Other rulings have permitted similar strategies when deceased individuals have failed to designate a beneficiary, causing an IRA or qualified retirement plan account to be included in their estates.

Consulting a professional

Be aware that PLRs depend on the specific facts presented in each case, so consult with us before taking any action. However, these rulings indicate that, when loved ones make beneficiary designation mistakes, there may be strategies you can use to correct them.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Now that the federal gift and estate tax exemption has reached an inflation-adjusted $11.7 million for 2021, fewer estates are subject to the federal tax. And even though President Biden has proposed reducing the exemption to $3.5 million, it’s uncertain whether that proposal will pass Congress. If nothing happens, the exemption is scheduled to revert to an inflation-adjusted $5 million on January 1, 2026. Nonetheless, estate planning will continue to be essential for most families. That’s because tax planning is only a small component of estate planning — and usually not even the most important one.

The primary goal of estate planning is to protect your family, and saving taxes is just one of many strategies you can use to provide for your family’s financial security. Another equally important strategy is asset protection. And a spendthrift trust can be an invaluable tool for preserving wealth for your heirs.

“Spendthrift” is a misnomer

Despite its name, the purpose of a spendthrift trust isn’t just to protect profligate heirs from themselves. Although that’s one use for this trust type, even the most financially responsible heirs can be exposed to frivolous lawsuits, dishonest business partners or unscrupulous creditors.

A properly designed spendthrift trust can protect your family’s assets against such attacks. It can also protect your loved ones in the event of relationship changes. If one of your children divorces, your child’s spouse generally can’t claim a share of the spendthrift trust property in the divorce settlement.

Also, if your child predeceases his or her spouse, the spouse generally is entitled by law to a significant portion of your child’s estate. In some cases, that may be a desirable outcome. But in others, such as second marriages when there are children from a prior marriage, a spendthrift trust can prevent your child’s inheritance from ending up in the hands of his or her spouse rather than in those of your grandchildren.

Safeguarding your wealth

A variety of trusts can be spendthrift trusts. It’s just a matter of including a spendthrift clause, which restricts a beneficiary’s ability to assign or transfer his or her interest in the trust and restricts the rights of creditors to reach the trust assets.

It’s important to recognize that the protection offered by a spendthrift trust isn’t absolute. Depending on applicable law, it may be possible for government agencies to reach the trust assets — to satisfy a tax obligation, for example.

Generally, the more discretion you give the trustee over distributions from the trust, the greater the protection against creditors’ claims. If the trust requires the trustee to make distributions for a beneficiary’s support, for example, a court may rule that a creditor can reach the trust assets to satisfy support-related debts. For increased protection, it’s preferable to give the trustee full discretion over whether and when to make distributions.

If you have further questions regarding spendthrift trusts, please contact us. We’d be happy to help you determine if one is right for your estate plan.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If your family owns a vacation home, you know what a relaxing refuge it can be. This is especially true these days due to the limited travel options you may have because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. However, without a solid plan and ground rules that all family members agree to, conflict and tension may result in a ruined vacation — or worse yet, selling the home.

Determining ownership

From an estate planning standpoint, it’s important for all family members to understand who actually owns the home. Family members sharing the home will more readily accept decisions about its usage or disposition knowing that they come from those holding legal title.

If the home has multiple owners — several siblings, for example — consider the form of ownership carefully. There may be advantages to holding title to the home in a family limited partnership (FLP) and using FLP interests to allocate ownership interests among family members. You can even design the partnership — or a separate buy-sell agreement — to help keep the home in the family.

Laying down the rules

Typically, disputes between family members arise because of conflicting assumptions about how and when the home may be used, who’s responsible for cleaning and upkeep, and how the property will ultimately be sold or transferred. To avoid these disputes, it’s important to agree on a clear set of rules that cover using the home (when, by whom); and responsibilities for cleaning, maintenance and repairs.

If you plan to rent out the home as a source of income, it’s critical to establish rules for such activities. The tax implications of renting out a vacation home depend on several factors, including the number of rental days and the amount of personal use during the year.

Planning for the future

What happens if an owner dies, divorces or decides to sell his or her interest in the home? It depends on who owns the home and how the legal title is held. If the home is owned by a married couple or an individual, the disposition of the home upon death or divorce will be dictated by the relevant estate plan or divorce settlement.

If family members own the home as tenants-in-common, they’re generally free to sell their interests to whomever they choose, to bequeath their interests to their heirs or even to force a sale of the entire property under certain circumstances. If they hold the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, an owner’s interest automatically passes to the surviving owners at death. If the home is held in an FLP, family members have a great deal of flexibility to determine what happens to an owner’s interest in the event of death, divorce or sale.

Handle with care

A vacation home that has been in your family for generations needs to be handled carefully. You likely want to do everything possible to hold on to it for future generations. We can assist you in developing a plan to help you achieve this.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Do you need to file a gift tax return?

It’s tax-filing season and you’re likely focused on your income or business tax returns. But don’t forget about another type of return. In 2020, if you made substantial gifts of wealth to family members you may have to file a gift tax return.

Filing a gift tax return

Generally, a federal gift tax return (Form 709) is required if you make gifts to or for someone during the year (with certain exceptions, such as gifts to U.S. citizen spouses) that exceed the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person for 2020 and 2021). While an unlimited amount can be gifted to a U.S. citizen spouse, there’s a separate exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse ($157,000 for 2020 and $159,000 for 2021).

Also, if you make gifts of future interests, even if they’re less than the annual exclusion amount, a gift tax return is required. Finally, if you split gifts with your spouse, regardless of amount, you must file a gift tax return.

The return is due by April 15 of the year after you make the gift, so the deadline for 2020 gifts is coming up soon. But you can extend the deadline to October 15 by filing for an extension. (The IRS announced that the federal income tax filing and payment due date has been extended from April 15, 2021, to May 17, 2021. However, the IRS didn’t specifically address the gift tax filing deadline. Additional IRS guidance is expected soon.)

Being required to file a form doesn’t necessarily mean you owe gift tax. You’ll owe tax only if you’ve already exhausted your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($11.58 million for 2020 and $11.7 million for 2021).

When a return isn’t required

No gift tax return is required if you:

  • Paid qualifying educational or medical expenses on behalf of someone else directly to an educational institution or health care provider,
  • Made gifts of present interests that fell within the annual exclusion amount,
  • Made outright gifts to a spouse who’s a U.S. citizen, in any amount, including gifts to marital trusts that meet certain requirements, or
  • Made charitable gifts and aren’t otherwise required to file Form 709 — if a return is otherwise required, charitable gifts should also be reported.

If you transferred hard-to-value property, such as artwork or interests in a family-owned business, consider filing a gift tax return even if you’re not required to. Adequate disclosure of the transfer in a return triggers the statute of limitations, generally preventing the IRS from challenging your valuation more than three years after you file.

In some cases, it’s even advisable to file Form 709 to report nongifts. For example, suppose you sold assets to a family member or a trust. Again, filing a return triggers the statute of limitations and prevents the IRS from claiming, more than three years after you file the return, that the assets were undervalued and, therefore, partially taxable.

Seek professional help

Estate tax rules and regulations can be complicated. If you need help determining whether a gift tax return needs to be filed, contact us.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Dissecting the contents of a will

For many people, the first thing they think of when they hear the words “estate plan” is a will. And for good reason, as it’s the cornerstone of any estate plan. But do you know what provisions should be included in a will and what are best to leave out? The answers to those questions may not be obvious.

Understanding the basics

Typically, a will begins with an introductory clause, identifying yourself along with where you reside (city, state, county, etc.). It should also state that this is your official will and replaces any previous wills.

After the introductory clause, a will generally explains how your debts and funeral expenses are to be paid. Years ago, funeral expenses were often paid out of the share of assets going to an individual’s children, instead of the amount passing to his or her spouse under the unlimited marital deduction. However, now that the inflation-adjusted federal gift and estate tax exemption has increased to $11.7 million for 2021, this may not be as critical as before.

A will may also be used to name a guardian for minor children. To be on the safe side, name a backup in case your initial choice is unable or unwilling to serve as guardian or predeceases you. 

Making specific bequests

One of the major sections of your will — and the one that usually requires the most introspection — divides up your remaining assets. Outside of your residuary estate, you’ll likely want to make specific bequests of tangible personal property to designated beneficiaries.

If you’re using a trust to transfer property, make sure you identify the property that remains outside the trust, such as furniture and electronic devices. Typically, these items aren’t suitable for inclusion in a trust. If your estate includes real estate, include detailed information about each property and identify the specific beneficiaries.

Finally, most wills contain a residuary clause. As a result, assets that aren’t otherwise accounted for go to the named beneficiaries.

Addressing estate taxes

The next section of the will may address estate taxes. Remember that this isn’t necessarily limited to federal estate tax; it can also apply to state death taxes. You might arrange to have any estate taxes paid out of the residuary estate that remains after assets have been allocated to your spouse.

Naming an executor

Toward the end of the will, the executor is named. This is usually a relative or professional who’s responsible for administering the will. Of course, the executor should be a reputable person whom you trust. Also, include a successor executor if the first choice is unable to perform these duties. Frequently, a professional is used in this backup capacity.

Turn to the professionals

Regardless of your age, health and net worth, if you want to have a say in what happens to your children and your wealth after you’re gone, you need a will. Contact us for assistance with tax-saving estate strategies and contact your attorney to help you draft your will.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

For many people, an important goal of estate planning is to leave a legacy for their children, grandchildren and future generations. And what better way to do that than to help provide for their educational needs? A 529 plan can be a highly effective tool for funding tuition and other educational expenses on a tax-advantaged basis. But when the plan’s owner (typically a parent or grandparent) dies, there’s no guarantee that subsequent owners will continue to use it to fulfill the original owner’s vision.

To create a family education fund that lives on for generations, a carefully designed trust may be the best solution. But trusts have a significant drawback: Unlike 529 plans, the earnings of which are tax-exempt if used for qualified education expenses, trusts are subject to some of the highest federal income tax rates in the tax code.

One strategy for gaining the best of both worlds is to establish a family education trust that invests in one or more 529 plans.

Plan basics

529 plans are state-sponsored investment accounts that permit parents, grandparents and other family members to make substantial cash contributions. Contributions are nondeductible, but the funds grow tax-free and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free for federal income tax purposes provided they’re used for qualified education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and some room and board at most accredited colleges and universities and certain vocational schools. Contributions to 529 plans are removed from your taxable estate and shielded from gift taxes by your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption or annual exclusions.

In addition to the risk that a subsequent owner will use the funds for noneducational purposes, disadvantages of 529 plans include relatively limited investment choices and an inability to invest assets other than cash.

Holding a 529 plan in a trust

Establishing a trust to hold one or more 529 plans provides several significant benefits:

  • It allows you to maintain tax-advantaged education funds indefinitely (depending on applicable state law) to benefit future generations and keeps the funds out of the hands of those who would use them for other purposes.
  • It allows you to establish guidelines on which family members are eligible for educational assistance, direct how the funds will be used or distributed in the event they’re no longer needed for educational purposes, and appoint trustees and successor trustees to oversee the trust.
  • It can accept noncash contributions and hold a variety of investments and assets outside 529 plans.

A trust may also use funds held outside of 529 plans for purposes other than education, such as paying medical expenses or nonqualified living expenses.

Plan carefully

If you’re interested in setting up a family education trust to hold 529 plans and other investments, contact us. We can help you design a trust that maximizes educational benefits, minimizes taxes and offers the flexibility you need to shape your educational legacy.

© 2021 Covenant CPA