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
One benefit of the current federal gift and estate tax exemption amount ($11.7 million in 2021) is that it allows most people to focus their estate planning efforts on asset protection and other wealth preservation strategies, rather than tax minimization. (Although, be aware that President Biden has indicated that he’d like to roll back the exemption to $3.5 million for estate taxes. He proposes to exempt $1 million for the gift tax and impose a top estate tax rate of 45%. Of course, any proposals would have to be passed in Congress.)
If you’re currently more concerned about personal liability, you might consider an asset protection trust to shield your hard-earned wealth against frivolous creditors’ claims and lawsuits. Foreign asset protection trusts offer the greatest protection, although they can be complex and expensive. Another option is to establish a domestic asset protection trust (DAPT).
DAPT vs. hybrid DAPT
The benefit of a standard DAPT is that it offers creditor protection even if you’re a beneficiary of the trust. But there’s also some risk involved: Although many experts believe they’ll hold up in court, DAPTs haven’t been the subject of a great deal of litigation, so there’s some uncertainty over their ability to repel creditors’ claims.
A “hybrid” DAPT offers the best of both worlds. Initially, you’re not named as a beneficiary of the trust, which virtually eliminates the risk described above. But if you need access to the funds in the future, the trustee or trust protector can add you as a beneficiary, converting the trust into a DAPT.
Before you consider a hybrid DAPT, determine whether you need such a trust at all. The most effective asset protection strategy is to place assets beyond the grasp of creditors by transferring them to your spouse, children or other family members, either outright or in a trust, without retaining any control. If the transfer isn’t designed to defraud known creditors, your creditors won’t be able to reach the assets. And even though you’ve given up control, you’ll have indirect access to the assets through your spouse or children (provided your relationship with them remains strong).
If, however, you want to retain access to the assets later in life, without relying on your spouse or children, a DAPT may be the answer.
Setting up a hybrid DAPT
A hybrid DAPT is initially created as a third-party trust — that is, it benefits your spouse and children or other family members, but not you. Because you’re not named as a beneficiary, the trust isn’t a self-settled trust, so it avoids the uncertainty associated with regular DAPTs.
There’s little doubt that a properly structured third-party trust avoids creditors’ claims. If, however, you need access to the trust assets in the future, the trustee or trust protector has the authority to add additional beneficiaries, including you. If that happens, the hybrid account is converted into a regular DAPT subject to the previously discussed risks.
If you have additional questions regarding a DAPT, a hybrid DAPT or other asset protection strategies, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
Dividing a marital estate is rarely easy. But it’s made much harder if a divorcing spouse owns a private business and attempts to artificially deflate its profits or hide assets. If you or your attorney suspects this type of deception, engage a forensic accountant to investigate.
When working on divorce cases, fraud experts ask several questions about private business interests. For example, does a spouse own a cash business that may have unreported income? Does the owner receive special (or excessive) perks or tax write-offs that affect the business’s profitability? Are numbers intentionally reported incorrectly to affect the business’s value?
n addition, experts investigate whether the company has any subsidiaries or is part of any other business ventures. Sometimes, a business owner may be a silent partner in an entity where ownership isn’t obvious.
Anomalies in a business’s income statements may reveal possible deception, particularly:
- Excessive write-offs,
- Withheld revenue deposits,
- A large one-time expense, or
- A decrease in revenue with no related decrease in variable expenses.
Sudden changes that occur when a spouse is contemplating divorce may suggest unreported income or overstated expenses. However, these changes could also be due to external forces, such as the loss of a major salesperson or adverse market conditions.
When evaluating expenses, experts often focus on the amounts paid to owners and other related parties. These may include payments for compensation, benefits, rent, management fees, and company vehicles and other perks. The owner-spouse also might try to flush personal expenses through the business.
Balance sheet secrets
Balance sheets may reveal whether an owner is trying to hide assets (for example, in an offshore account) or transfer them to a related party for less than market value. Inventory is particularly susceptible to manipulation. Although notes payable to shareholders can be legitimate transactions, they also may be used to conceal income being distributed to an owner.
Experts review the equity section for any changes in the business’s ownership after the parties filed for divorce. They also search for suspicious withdrawals or distributions from capital accounts. Controlling owners may sometimes attempt to transfer ownership of business interests to close friends or associates to deprive their spouses of portions of the assets or portions of the business income.
Although divorce can give rise to angry actions, most business owners would never stoop to falsifying financial records simply to deprive their ex-spouses of a fair division of marital assets. But if the value of a business seems distorted, contact us for help identifying the causes and to suggest reasonable adjustments.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
Are you considering replacing a car that you’re using in your business? There are several tax implications to keep in mind.
A cap on deductions
Cars are subject to more restrictive tax depreciation rules than those that apply to other depreciable assets. Under so-called “luxury auto” rules, depreciation deductions are artificially “capped.” So is the alternative Section 179 deduction that you can claim if you elect to expense (write-off in the year placed in service) all or part of the cost of a business car under the tax provision that for some assets allows expensing instead of depreciation. For example, for most cars that are subject to the caps and that are first placed in service in calendar year 2020 (including smaller trucks or vans built on a truck chassis that are treated as cars), the maximum depreciation and/or expensing deductions are:
- $18,100 for the first tax year in its recovery period (2020 for calendar year taxpayers);
- $16,100 for the second tax year;
- $9,700 for the third tax year; and
- $5,760 for each succeeding tax year.
The effect is generally to extend the number of years it takes to fully depreciate the vehicle.
The heavy SUV strategy
Because of the restrictions for cars, you might be better off from a tax standpoint if you replace your business car with a heavy sport utility vehicle (SUV), pickup or van. That’s because the caps on annual depreciation and expensing deductions for passenger automobiles don’t apply to trucks or vans (and that includes SUVs). What type of SUVs qualify? Those that are rated at more than 6,000 pounds gross (loaded) vehicle weight.
This means that in most cases you’ll be able to write off the entire cost of a new heavy SUV used entirely for business purposes as 100% bonus depreciation in the year you place it into service. And even if you elect out of bonus depreciation for the heavy SUV (which generally would apply to the entire depreciation class the SUV belongs in), you can elect to expense under Section 179 (subject to an aggregate dollar limit for all expensed assets), the cost of an SUV up to an inflation-adjusted limit ($25,900 for an SUV placed in service in tax years beginning in 2020). You’d then depreciate the remainder of the cost under the usual rules without regard to the annual caps.
The tax benefits described above are all subject to adjustment for non-business use. Also, if business use of an SUV doesn’t exceed 50% of total use, the SUV won’t be eligible for the expensing election, and would have to be depreciated on a straight-line method over a six-tax-year period.
Contact us if you’d like more information about tax breaks when you buy a heavy SUV for business.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
According to literature, the “seven deadly sins” are lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy and pride. Although individuals may be guilty of these from time to time, other types of “sins” can be fatal to an estate plan if you’re not careful. Here are four transgressions to avoid.
Sin #1: You don’t update beneficiary forms. Of course, your will spells out who gets what, where, when and how. But a will is often superseded by other documents like beneficiary forms for retirement plans, bank accounts, annuities and life insurance policies. Therefore, like your will, you must also keep these forms up-to-date.
For example, despite your intentions, retirement plan assets could go to a sibling — or even an ex-spouse — instead of your children or grandchildren if you haven’t updated your retirement plan beneficiary form in a long time. Review beneficiary forms for relevant accounts periodically and make the necessary adjustments.
Sin #2: You don’t properly fund trusts. Frequently, an estate plan will include one or more trusts, including a revocable living trust. The main benefit of a living trust is that assets don’t have to be probated and exposed to public inspection. It’s generally recommended that such a trust be used only as a complement to a will, not as a replacement.
However, the trust must be funded with assets, meaning that legal ownership of the assets must be transferred to the trust. For example, if real estate is being transferred, the deed must be changed to reflect this. If you’re transferring securities or bank accounts, you should follow the directions provided by the financial institutions. Otherwise, the assets may have to go through probate.
Sin #3: You don’t properly title assets. Both inside and outside of trusts, the manner in which you own assets can make a big difference. For instance, if you own property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the assets will go directly to the other named person, such as your spouse, on your death.
Not only is titling assets critical, you should review these designations periodically, just as you should your beneficiary designations. In particular, major changes in your personal circumstances or the prevailing laws could dictate a change in the ownership method.
Sin #4: You don’t coordinate different plan aspects. Typically, there are a number of moving parts to an estate plan, including a will, a power of attorney, trusts, retirement plan accounts and life insurance policies. Don’t look at each one in a vacuum. Even though they have different objectives, consider them to be components that should be coordinated within the overall plan.
For instance, arrange to take distributions from investments — including securities, qualified retirement plans, and traditional and Roth IRAs — in a way that preserves more wealth. Also, naming a revocable living trust as a retirement plan beneficiary could accelerate tax liability.
Work with us to make sure your estate plan continues to meet your objectives.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
Generally, the proceeds of your life insurance policy are included in your taxable estate. You can remove them by transferring ownership of the policy, but there’s a catch: If you wait too long, your intentions may be defeated. Essentially, if ownership of the policy is transferred within three years of your death, the proceeds revert to your taxable estate.
Eliminating “incidents of ownership”
The proceeds of a life insurance policy are subject to federal estate tax if you retain any “incidents of ownership” in the policy. For example, you’re treated as having incidents of ownership if you have the right to:
- Designate or change the policy’s beneficiary,
- Borrow against the policy or pledge any cash reserve,
- Surrender, convert or cancel the policy, or
- Select a payment option for the beneficiary.
You can eliminate these incidents of ownership by transferring your policy. But first you need to determine who the new owner should be. To choose the best owner, consider why you want the insurance, such as to replace income, to provide liquidity or to transfer wealth to your heirs.
Understanding the ILIT option
An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) can be one of the best ownership alternatives. Typically, if you transfer complete ownership of, and responsibility for, the policy to an ILIT, the policy will ― subject to the three years mentioned above ― be excluded from your estate. You’ll need to designate a trustee to handle the administrative duties. It might be a family member, a friend or a professional. Should you need any additional life insurance protection, it would work best if it were acquired by the ILIT from the outset.
An ILIT can also help you accomplish other estate planning objectives. It might be used to keep assets out of the clutches of creditors or to protect against spending sprees of your relatives. Also keep in mind that, as long as the policy has a named beneficiary, which in the case of an ILIT would be the ILIT itself, the proceeds of the life insurance policy won’t have to pass through probate.
The sooner, the better
If transferring ownership of your life insurance policy is right for you, the sooner you make the transfer, the better. Contact us with any questions regarding life insurance in your estate plan or ILITs.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
Nearly everyone owns at least some digital assets, such as online bank and brokerage accounts, bill-paying services, cloud-based document storage, digital music collections, social media accounts, and domain names. But what happens to these assets when you die or if you become incapacitated?
The answer depends on several factors, including the terms of your service agreements with the custodians of digital assets, applicable laws and the terms of your estate plan. To reduce uncertainty, address your digital assets in your estate plan.
Pass on passwords
The simplest way to provide your family, executor or trustee with access to your digital assets is to leave a list of accounts and login credentials in a safe deposit box or other secure location. The disadvantage of this approach is that you’ll need to revise the list every time you change your password or add a new account. For this reason, consider storing this information using password management software and providing the master password to your representatives.
Or, you can use an online service designed for digital estate planning. These services store up-to-date information about your digital assets and establish procedures for releasing it to your designated beneficiary after your death or if you become incapacitated.
Know the law
Although sharing login credentials with your representatives is important, it’s no substitute for covering digital assets in your estate plan. For one thing, a third party who accesses your account without formal authorization may violate federal or state privacy laws.
In addition, many states have laws, such as the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA), that establish default rules regarding access to digital assets by executors, trustees and other fiduciaries. If those rules are inconsistent with your wishes, you’ll want to modify them in your plan.
The UFADAA allows people to provide for the disposition of digital assets using online settings offered by the account provider. For example, Facebook enables users to specify whether their accounts will be deleted or memorialized if they die and to designate a “legacy contact” to maintain their memorial pages.
The act also allows people to establish rules in their wills, trusts or powers of attorney. If users don’t have specific instructions regarding digital assets, the act allows the account provider’s service agreement to override default rules.
To ensure that your wishes are carried out, take inventory of your digital assets now. Then, talk to us about including these important assets in your estate plan.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
Some of the most effective estate planning strategies involve setting up irrevocable trusts. For a trust to be deemed irrevocable, you, the grantor, lose all incidents of ownership of the trust’s assets. In other words, you’re effectively removing those assets from your taxable estate.
But what if you’re uncomfortable placing your assets beyond your control? What happens if your financial fortunes take a turn for the worse after you’ve irrevocably transferred a sizable portion of your wealth? This may be an especially pertinent question in light of the current economic downturn resulting from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
If you’re married, and feel as though your marriage is strong, a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT) allows you to obtain the benefits of an irrevocable trust while creating a financial backup plan.
A SLAT in action
A SLAT is simply an irrevocable trust that authorizes the trustee to make distributions to your spouse if needs arise. Like other irrevocable trusts, a SLAT can be designed to benefit your children, grandchildren or future generations. You can use your lifetime gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions (currently, $11.58 million each) to shield contributions to the trust, as well as future appreciation, from transfer taxes. And the trust assets also receive some protection against claims by your beneficiaries’ creditors, including any former spouses.
The key benefit of a SLAT is that by naming your spouse as a lifetime beneficiary you retain indirect access to the trust assets. You can set up the trust to make distributions based on an “ascertainable standard” — such as your spouse’s health, education, maintenance or support — or you can give the trustee full discretion to distribute income or principal to your spouse.
To keep the trust assets out of your taxable estate, you must not act as trustee. You can appoint your spouse as trustee, but only if distributions are limited to an ascertainable standard. If you desire greater flexibility over distributions to your spouse, appoint an independent trustee. Also, the trust document must prohibit distributions in satisfaction of your legal support obligations.
Another critical requirement is to fund the trust with your separate property. If you use marital or community property, there’s a risk that the trust assets will end up in your spouse’s estate.
Understand the pitfalls
There’s a significant risk inherent in the SLAT strategy: If your spouse predeceases you, or if you and your spouse divorce, you’ll lose your indirect access to the trust assets. One way to mitigate this risk is to use dual SLATs. In other words, you and your spouse each establish an irrevocable trust using your separate property and naming each other as lifetime beneficiaries.
If you’re considering using a SLAT, or would like to learn about other estate planning strategies, contact us to learn more about the benefits and risks.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
The economic fallout from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced business owners to reevaluate their operations and make difficult decisions. One place to look for the information you need to make rational, reasonable moves is your financial statements. Under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, these typically comprise a statement of cash flows, a balance sheet and an income statement.
A statement of cash flows should be organized into three sections: cash flows from operating, financing and investing activities. Ideally, a company generates enough cash from operations to cover its expenses.
For many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused revenue to drop precipitously without a proportionate decrease in certain (fixed) operating expenses. Keep a close eye on whether you’re reaching a danger point. To generate additional cash flow, you may need to borrow money — consider a Small Business Administration loan, if you’re eligible.
Assets and liabilities
Your balance sheet tallies your company’s assets, liabilities and net worth — creating a snapshot of its financial health on the statement date. Assets are typically listed in order of liquidity. Current assets (such as accounts receivable) are expected to be converted into cash within a year, while long-term assets (such as your plant and equipment) will be used to generate revenue beyond the next 12 months.
Similarly, liabilities are listed in order of maturity. Current liabilities (such as accounts payable) come due within a year, while long-term liabilities are payment obligations that extend beyond the current year.
As its name indicates, the balance sheet must balance — that is, assets must equal liabilities plus net worth. Net worth is the extent to which the book value of assets exceeds liabilities. In times of distress, certain assets (such as receivables, financial assets, pension funds and inventory) may need to be written off, and intangibles (such as brands and goodwill) may become impaired. These changes may cause the book value of a company’s net worth to be negative, suggesting that the business is insolvent. Other red flags include current assets growing faster than sales, and a deteriorating ratio of current assets to current liabilities.
Income and overhead
An income statement shows revenue and expenses over the accounting period. Revenue has fallen for many businesses as the result of social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, certain variable expenses — such as materials and direct labor costs — have also fallen.
Unfortunately, most fixed expenses — such as rent, equipment leasing fees, advertising, insurance premiums and manager salaries — are ongoing. Review costs that are categorized on the income statements as overhead and sales, general and administrative expenses. Consider whether you can scale back these items, renegotiate them or convert them into variable costs over the long run.
For example, you might return a leased copier that isn’t being used, decrease your insurance coverage or rely more on independent contractors, rather than employees, for certain tasks.
Your existing financial statements may not account for the sudden changes inflicted upon businesses worldwide by COVID-19. We can assist you in evaluating them, gleaning insightful data using updated numbers, and generating new ones going forward.
© 2020 Covenant CPA