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

Can a broken trust be fixed?

An irrevocable trust has long been a key component of many estate plans. But what if it no longer serves your purposes? Is it too late to change it? Depending on applicable state law, you may have several options for fixing a “broken” trust.

How trusts break

There are several reasons a trust can break, including:

Changing family circumstancesA trust that works just fine when it’s established may no longer achieve its original goals if your family circumstances change. Some examples are a divorce, second marriage or the birth of a child.

New tax lawsMany trusts were created when gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption amounts were relatively low. However, for 2021, the exemptions have risen to $11.7 million, so trusts designed to minimize gift, estate and GST taxes may no longer be necessary. And with transfer taxes out of the picture, the higher income taxes often associated with these trusts — previously overshadowed by transfer tax concerns — become a more important factor.

Mistakes. Potential errors include naming the wrong beneficiary, omitting a critical clause from the trust document, including a clause that’s inconsistent with your intent, and failing to allocate your GST tax exemption properly.

These are just a few examples of the many ways you might end up with a trust that fails to achieve your estate planning objectives.

How to fix them

If you have one or more trusts in need of repair, you may have several remedies at your disposal, depending on applicable law in the state where you live and, if different, in the state where the trust is located. Potential remedies include:

ReformationThe Uniform Trust Code (UTC), adopted in more than half the states, provides several remedies for broken trusts. Non-UTC states may provide similar remedies. Reformation allows you to ask a court to rewrite a trust’s terms to conform with the grantor’s intent. This remedy is available if the trust’s original terms were based on a legal or factual mistake.

ModificationThis remedy may be available, also through court proceedings, if unanticipated circumstances require changes in order to achieve the trust’s purposes. Some states permit modification — even if it’s inconsistent with the trust’s purposes — with the consent of the grantor and the beneficiaries.

DecantingMany states have decanting laws, which allow a trustee, according to his or her distribution powers, to “pour” funds from one trust into another with different terms and even in a different location. Depending on your circumstances and applicable state law, decanting may allow a trustee to correct errors, take advantage of new tax laws or another state’s asset protection laws, add or eliminate beneficiaries, and make other changes, often without court approval.

Seek professional guidance

The rules regarding modification of irrevocable trusts are complex and vary dramatically from state to state. And there are risks associated with revising or moving a trust, including uncertainty over how the IRS will view the changes. Before you make any changes, talk to us about the potential benefits and risks.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

A fresh look at CRTs, CRATs and CRUTs

A charitable remainder trust (CRT) allows you to support a favorite charity while potentially boosting your cash flow, shrinking the size of your taxable estate, and reducing or deferring income taxes. In a nutshell, you contribute stock or other assets to an irrevocable trust that provides you — and, if you desire, your spouse (or others you designate) — with an income stream for life or for a term of up to 20 years. At the end of the trust term, the remaining trust assets are distributed to one or more charities you’ve selected.

When you fund the trust, you’re entitled to claim a charitable income tax deduction equal to the present value of the remainder interest (subject to applicable limits on charitable deductions). Your annual payouts from the trust can be based on a fixed percentage of the trust’s initial value — this is known as a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT). Or they can be based on a fixed percentage of the trust’s value recalculated annually — in what’s known as a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT).

CRUT advantages

Generally, CRUTs are preferable for two reasons. First, the annual revaluation of the trust assets allows payouts to increase if the trust assets grow, which can allow your income stream to keep up with inflation. Second, donors can make additional contributions to CRUTs, but not to CRATs.

The fixed percentage — called the unitrust amount — can range from 5% to 50%. A higher rate increases the income stream, but it reduces the value of the remainder interest and, therefore, the charitable deduction. Also, to pass muster with the IRS, the present value of the remainder interest must be at least 10% of the initial value of the trust assets.

The determination of whether the remainder interest meets the 10% requirement is made at the time the assets are transferred. If the ultimate distribution to charity is less than 10% of the amount transferred, there’s no adverse tax impact related to the contribution.

NIMCRUTs can provide an income boost

By designing a CRUT with a “net income with makeup” feature — known as a NIMCRUT — you can reduce or even eliminate payouts early in the trust term and enjoy larger payouts in later years when you’re retired or otherwise need an income boost.

Each year, a NIMCRUT distributes the lesser of the unitrust amount (say, 5%) or the trust’s net income. The trustee can invest the trust assets in growth investments that produce little or no income, allowing the trust to grow tax-free and deferring distributions to later years. The deferred payouts accumulate in a “makeup account.”

When you’re ready to begin receiving an income, the trustee shifts the assets into income-producing investments. You can use the funds in the makeup account to increase your distributions beyond the unitrust amount (up to the amount of net income).

Handle with care

CRTs, CRATs and CRUTs require careful planning and solid investment guidance to ensure that they meet your needs. Contact us to discuss your options before taking action.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

In some cases, it may be desirable to move a trust to a more favorable jurisdiction. But moving a trust from one state to another can present significant risks, so don’t attempt to do so without considering all the benefits, limitations and risks, and obtaining professional advice.

Reasons to move a trust

There are many reasons for moving a trust to another jurisdiction, such as:

  • Avoiding or reducing state income taxes on the trust’s accumulated ordinary income and capital gains,
  • Taking advantage of trust laws that allow the trustee to improve investment performance,
  • Extending the trust’s duration,
  • Obtaining stronger creditor protection for beneficiaries, and
  • Reducing fees and administrative expenses.

Many people retire to states with more favorable tax laws. But just because you move to a state with lower income or estate taxes doesn’t mean your trusts move with you.

For individual income tax purposes, you’re generally taxed by your state of domicile. The state to which a trust pays taxes, however, depends on its situs.

Can your trust be moved?

Moving a trust means changing its situs from one state to another. Generally, this isn’t a problem for revocable trusts. In fact, it’s possible to change situs for a revocable trust by simply modifying it. Or, if that’s not an option, you can revoke the trust and establish a new one in the desired jurisdiction.

If a trust is irrevocablewhether it can be moved depends, in part, on the language of the trust document. Many trusts specify that the laws of a particular state govern them, in which case those laws would likely continue to apply even if the trust were moved. Some trusts expressly authorize the trustee or beneficiaries to move the trust from one jurisdiction to another.

If the trust document doesn’t designate a situs or establish procedures for changing situs, then the trust’s situs depends on several factors. These include applicable state law, where the trust is administered, the trustee’s state of residence, the domicile of the person who created the trust, the location of the beneficiaries and the location of real property held by the trust.

The actual process of moving the trust may entail creating a new trust to which the existing trust’s assets are transferred, merging the existing trust into a new trust or modifying the existing trust to designate the new state as its situs.

Depending on the trust’s terms and applicable state law, the move may require court approval or the unanimous consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

Understanding the risks

Depending on your circumstances, moving a trust can offer tax savings and other benefits. Keep in mind, however, that the laws governing trusts are complex and vary considerably from state to state. We can help you determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Many people, when planning their estates, simply divide their assets equally among their children. But “equal” may not necessarily mean “fair.” It all depends on your family’s circumstances. Specifically, providing for grandchildren is one area where equal treatment may inadvertently result in unfairness.

Consider this scenario

Bob has two adult children, Ted and Carol. Ted has two children and Carol has four. Suppose Bob’s estate plan calls for his $8 million estate to be divided equally between his two children.

When he dies, Ted and Carol each receive $4 million. But after they die, Ted’s two children receive $2 million each from their grandparent’s inheritance, while Carol’s four children receive only $1 million each. (This assumes, of course, that Ted and Carol each preserve the full amount of their inheritances.)

Possible solutions

To help ensure that Bob’s grandchildren are treated equally, he can purchase a life insurance policy, with the proceeds divided equally among his grandchildren. Alternatively, he can arrange policies on the lives of Ted and Carol designed to provide equal amounts to each grandchild. One advantage of this approach is that, because Ted and Carol are younger, the available death benefits would be greater. Bob could use gifts or loans to help Ted and Carol pay the premiums.

Life insurance allows Bob to provide more for his grandchildren, on an equal basis, while still dividing his other assets equally between his children. Depending on how Ted and Carol spend their inheritances, Ted’s children may still receive more than Carol’s on a per capita basis, but the additional assets provided by life insurance will likely make Bob’s estate plan appear “more fair” in the eyes of his grandchildren.

If you have concerns about how to properly address certain family members in your estate plan, please contact us. We’d be happy to assess your situation and offer the proper guidance.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

You’ve likely spent a lot of time working with your advisor to plan your estate. While documents such as your will, various trusts and a power of attorney are essential, consider adding a “road map” to your plan.

Plot it out

Essentially, the road map is an informal letter or other document that guides your family in understanding and executing your estate plan and ensuring that your wishes are carried out.

Your road map should include, among other things:

  • The location of your will, living and other trusts, tax returns and records, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, automobile titles, and other important documents,
  • A personal financial statement that lists stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, vehicles and other assets, as well as information about mortgages, credit cards and other debts,
  • An inventory of digital assets — such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, and social media accounts — including login credentials or a description of arrangements made to provide your representative with access,
  • The location of family heirlooms or other valuable personal property,
  • A list of important professional contacts, including your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisors,
  • Computer passwords and home security system codes,
  • Safe combinations and the location of any safety deposit boxes and keys, and
  • Information about funeral arrangements or burial wishes.

Explain your thinking

The road map may also be a good place to explain to your loved ones the reasoning behind certain estate planning decisions. Perhaps you’re distributing your assets unequally, distributing specific assets to specific heirs or placing certain restrictions on an heir’s entitlement to trust distributions. There are many good reasons for using these strategies, but it’s important for your family to understand your motives to avoid hurt feelings or disputes.

Finally, like other estate planning documents, your road map won’t be effective unless your family knows where to find it, so it’s a good idea to leave it with a trusted advisor and a copy in a place where your heirs will likely find it.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Estate planning in the FAST lane

Traditionally, estate planning has focused on more technical objectives, such as minimizing gift and estate taxes and protecting assets against creditors’ claims or lawsuits. These goals are still important, but affluent families are increasingly turning their attention to “softer,” yet equally critical, aspirations, such as educating the younger generation, preparing them to manage wealth responsibly, promoting shared family values and encouraging charitable giving. To achieve these goals, many are turning to a family advancement sustainability trust (FAST).

Decision-making process

Typically, FASTs are created in states that 1) allow perpetual, or “dynasty,” trusts that benefit many generations to come, and 2) have directed trust statutes, which make it possible to appoint an advisor or committee to direct the trustee with regard to certain matters. A directed trust statute makes it possible for both family members and trusted advisors with specialized skills to participate in governance and management of the trust.

A common governance structure for a FAST includes four decision-making entities:

  1. An administrative trustee, often a corporate trustee, that deals with administrative matters but doesn’t handle investment or distribution decisions,
  2. An investment committee — consisting of family members and an independent, professional investment advisor — to manage investment of the trust assets,
  3. A distribution committee — consisting of family members and an outside advisor — to help ensure that trust funds are spent in a manner that benefits the family and promotes the trust’s objectives, and
  4. A trust protector committee — typically composed of one or more trusted advisors — which stands in the shoes of the grantor after his or her death and makes decisions on matters such as appointment or removal of trustees or committee members and amendment of the trust document for tax planning or other purposes.

Funding options

It’s a good idea to establish a FAST during your lifetime. Doing so helps ensure that the trust achieves your objectives and allows you to educate your advisors and family members on the trust’s purpose and guiding principles.

FASTs generally require little funding when created, with the bulk of the funding provided upon the death of the older generation. Although funding can come from the estate, a better approach is to fund a FAST with life insurance or a properly structured irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT). Using life insurance allows you to achieve the FAST’s objectives without depleting the assets otherwise available for the benefit of your family.

A flexible tool

A FAST is a flexible tool that can be designed to achieve a variety of goals. How you use one depends on your family’s needs and characteristics. Properly designed and implemented, a FAST can help prepare your heirs to receive wealth, educate them about important family values and financial responsibility, and maximize the chances that they’ll reach their potential. Contact us for additional details.

© 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

The executor’s role is critical to the administration of your estate and the achievement of your estate planning objectives. So your first instinct may be to name a trusted family member as executor. But that might not be the best choice.

Duties of an executor

Your executor will have a variety of important duties, including:

  • Arranging for probate of your will (if necessary) and obtaining court approval to administer your estate,
  • Taking inventory of — and collecting, recovering or maintaining — your assets, including life insurance proceeds and retirement plan benefits,
  • Obtaining valuations of your assets if necessary,
  • Preparing a schedule of assets and liabilities,
  • Arranging for the safekeeping of personal property,
  • Contacting your beneficiaries to advise them of their entitlements under your will,
  • Paying any debts incurred by you or your estate and handling creditors’ claims,
  • Defending your will in the event of litigation,
  • Filing tax returns on behalf of your estate, and
  • Distributing your assets among your beneficiaries according to the terms of your will.

Typically, family members lack the skills and time to handle all of these tasks on their own. They’re entitled, of course, to hire accountants, attorneys, financial planners and other advisors — at the estate’s expense — for assistance. But even with professional help, serving as executor is a big job that requires a substantial time commitment during an already stressful period. Plus, if your executor is also a beneficiary of your will, other beneficiaries may view that as a conflict of interest.

Other choices

So, what are your options? One is to name a trusted advisor, such as an accountant or lawyer, as executor. Another is to appoint an advisor and a family member as co-executors. The advisor would handle most of the executor’s day-to-day responsibilities, while your family member would oversee the process and ensure that the advisor acts in your family’s best interests. (However, be aware that naming co-executors may result in delays and other issues.)

If you still haven’t decided who you should appoint at your estate’s executor, discuss the issues with us. We’d be pleased to help you make the right decision based on your circumstances.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As a result of the current estate tax exemption amount ($11.58 million in 2020), many estates no longer need to be concerned with federal estate tax. Before 2011, a much smaller amount resulted in estate plans attempting to avoid it. Now, because many estates won’t be subject to estate tax, more planning can be devoted to saving income taxes for your heirs.

While saving both income and transfer taxes has always been a goal of estate planning, it was more difficult to succeed at both when the estate and gift tax exemption level was much lower. Here are some strategies to consider.

Plan gifts that use the annual gift tax exclusion. One of the benefits of using the gift tax annual exclusion to make transfers during life is to save estate tax. This is because both the transferred assets and any post-transfer appreciation generated by those assets are removed from the donor’s estate.

As mentioned, estate tax savings may not be an issue because of the large estate exemption amount. Further, making an annual exclusion transfer of appreciated property carries a potential income tax cost because the recipient receives the donor’s basis upon transfer. Thus, the recipient could face income tax, in the form of capital gains tax, on the sale of the gifted property in the future. If there’s no concern that an estate will be subject to estate tax, even if the gifted property grows in value, then the decision to make a gift should be based on other factors.

For example, gifts may be made to help a relative buy a home or start a business. But a donor shouldn’t gift appreciated property because of the capital gain that could be realized on a future sale by the recipient. If the appreciated property is held until the donor’s death, under current law, the heir will get a step-up in basis that will wipe out the capital gain tax on any pre-death appreciation in the property’s value.

Take spouses’ estates into account. In the past, spouses often undertook complicated strategies to equalize their estates so that each could take advantage of the estate tax exemption amount. Generally, a two-trust plan was established to minimize estate tax. “Portability,” or the ability to apply the decedent’s unused exclusion amount to the surviving spouse’s transfers during life and at death, became effective for estates of decedents dying after 2010. As long as the election is made, portability allows the surviving spouse to apply the unused portion of a decedent’s applicable exclusion amount (the deceased spousal unused exclusion amount) as calculated in the year of the decedent’s death. The portability election gives married couples more flexibility in deciding how to use their exclusion amounts.

Be aware that some estate exclusion or valuation discount strategies to avoid inclusion of property in an estate may no longer be worth pursuing. It may be better to have the property included in the estate or not qualify for valuation discounts so that the property receives a step-up in basis. For example, the special use valuation — the valuation of qualified real property used for farming or in a business on the basis of the property’s actual use, rather than on its highest and best use — may not save enough, or any, estate tax to justify giving up the step-up in basis that would otherwise occur for the property.

Contact us if you want to discuss these strategies and how they relate to your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA