Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic turndown in some areas, you may have family members in need of financial support. If you’re interested in lending money to loved ones in need, consider establishing a “family bank.” These entities enhance the benefits of intrafamily loans, while minimizing unintended consequences.

Intrafamily loans

Lending can be an effective way to provide your family with financial assistance without triggering unwanted gift taxes. So long as a loan is structured in a manner similar to an arm’s-length loan between unrelated parties, it won’t be treated as a taxable gift. This means, among other things, documenting the loan with a promissory note, charging interest at or above the applicable federal rate, establishing a fixed repayment schedule, and ensuring that the borrower has a reasonable prospect of repaying the loan.

Even if taxes aren’t a concern, intrafamily loans offer important benefits. For example, they allow you to help your family financially without depleting your wealth or creating a sense of entitlement. Done right, these loans can encourage responsible financial behavior, promote accountability and help cultivate the younger generation’s entrepreneurial capabilities by providing financing to start a business.

Family banks

Too often, however, people lend money to family members with little planning and regard for potential unintended consequences. Rash lending decisions can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, conflicts among family members and false expectations. That’s where the family bank comes into play.

A family bank is a family-owned, family-funded entity designed for the sole purpose of making intrafamily loans. Often, family banks are able to make financing available to family members who might have difficulty obtaining a loan from a bank or other traditional funding sources or to lend at more favorable terms. By “professionalizing” family lending activities, a family bank can preserve the tax-saving power of intrafamily loans while minimizing negative consequences.

Build a strong governance structure

The key to avoiding family conflicts and resentment is to build a strong family governance structure that promotes communication, group decision-making and transparency. It’s important to establish clear guidelines regarding the types of loans the family bank is authorized to make and allow all family members to participate in the decision-making process. This ensures that family members are treated fairly and avoids false expectations.

Ease financial hardships

It’s possible that someone in your extended family has faced difficult financial circumstances recently. Contact us to learn more about intrafamily loans and family banks.

© 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

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

As a business owner, you should be aware that you can save family income and payroll taxes by putting your child on the payroll.

Here are some considerations. 

Shifting business earnings

You can turn some of your high-taxed income into tax-free or low-taxed income by shifting some business earnings to a child as wages for services performed. In order for your business to deduct the wages as a business expense, the work done by the child must be legitimate and the child’s salary must be reasonable.

For example, suppose you’re a sole proprietor in the 37% tax bracket. You hire your 16-year-old son to help with office work full-time in the summer and part-time in the fall. He earns $10,000 during the year (and doesn’t have other earnings). You can save $3,700 (37% of $10,000) in income taxes at no tax cost to your son, who can use his $12,550 standard deduction for 2021 to shelter his earnings.

Family taxes are cut even if your son’s earnings exceed his standard deduction. That’s because the unsheltered earnings will be taxed to him beginning at a 10% rate, instead of being taxed at your higher rate.

Income tax withholding

Your business likely will have to withhold federal income taxes on your child’s wages. Usually, an employee can claim exempt status if he or she had no federal income tax liability for last year and expects to have none this year.

However, exemption from withholding can’t be claimed if: 1) the employee’s income exceeds $1,100 for 2021 (and includes more than $350 of unearned income), and 2) the employee can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return.

Keep in mind that your child probably will get a refund for part or all of the withheld tax when filing a return for the year.

Social Security tax savings  

If your business isn’t incorporated, you can also save some Social Security tax by shifting some of your earnings to your child. That’s because services performed by a child under age 18 while employed by a parent isn’t considered employment for FICA tax purposes.

A similar but more liberal exemption applies for FUTA (unemployment) tax, which exempts earnings paid to a child under age 21 employed by a parent. The FICA and FUTA exemptions also apply if a child is employed by a partnership consisting only of his or her parents.

Note: There’s no FICA or FUTA exemption for employing a child if your business is incorporated or is a partnership that includes non-parent partners. However, there’s no extra cost to your business if you’re paying a child for work you’d pay someone else to do.

Retirement benefits

Your business also may be able to provide your child with retirement savings, depending on your plan and how it defines qualifying employees. For example, if you have a SEP plan, a contribution can be made for the child up to 25% of his or her earnings (not to exceed $58,000 for 2021).

Contact us if you have any questions about these rules in your situation. Keep in mind that some of the rules about employing children may change from year to year and may require your income-shifting strategies to change too.

© 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

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

What does a trustee do?

Your estate plan may include several different trusts. The reason is that various types of trusts can accomplish a myriad of estate planning goals. Thus, it’s critical to understand the role of a trustee.

The trustee’s duties 

The trustee is the person who has legal responsibility for administering the trust on behalf of the interested parties. Depending on the trust terms, this authority may be broad or limited.

Generally, a trustee must meet fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries of the trust. He or she must manage the trust prudently and treat all beneficiaries fairly and impartially.

This can be more difficult than it sounds because beneficiaries may have competing interests. For example, under a trust’s terms, a spouse in a second marriage may be entitled to annual income while the children of the deceased’s first marriage are entitled to the remainder. The trustee must balance out their needs when making investment decisions.

In some instances, the trustee is granted the discretion to distribute or withhold the distribution of trust funds. For example, this discretionary power may be intended to protect assets from the beneficiary’s creditors or safeguard funds until the beneficiary reaches a certain age. The trustee in such a discretionary trust should be sympathetic to the intent of the trust and legitimate needs of the beneficiary.

The decision about naming a trustee is similar to the dilemma of choosing an executor. The responsibilities require great attention to detail, financial acumen and dedication. Because of the heavy reliance on investment expertise, choosing a professional over a family member or friend is generally recommended. At the very least, make it clear to the trustee that he or she may — and should — rely on professionals as appropriate.

Reasons for choosing an alternate

It’s not enough to designate someone as trustee. It’s absolutely essential to also designate a “successor” (or an “alternate”) in the event that your top choice is unable or unwilling to fulfill the responsibilities. For instance, what happens if your trustee predeceases you? Or what if your designated trustee declines to accept the position or subsequently resigns if permission is allowed by the trust or permitted by a court? This further accentuates the need to name backups for this important position.

Without a named successor, the probate court will appoint one for the estate. For a trustee, the trust will often outline procedures to follow. As a last resort, a court will appoint someone else to do the job.

Practical suggestion: Choose the “next best” person to step in. Make sure that he or she is on board with your decision. Similar to the discussion about naming a power of attorney, consider whether you should name a professional as a backup. Contact us with questions.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

You may view your will as the centerpiece of your estate plan. But other documents can complement it. For example, if you haven’t already done so, consider writing a letter of instruction.

Elements of the letter

A letter of instruction is an informal document providing your loved ones with vital information about personal and financial matters to be addressed after your death. Bear in mind that the letter, unlike a valid will, isn’t legally binding. But its informal nature allows you to easily revise it whenever you see fit.

What should be included in the letter? It will vary, depending on your personal circumstances, but here are some common elements:

Documents and financial assetsStart by stating the location of your will. Then list the location of other important documents, such as powers of attorney, trusts, living wills and health care directives. Also, provide information on birth certificates, Social Security benefits, marriage licenses and, if any, divorce documents.

Next, create an inventory of all your assets, their location, account numbers and relevant contact information. This may include, but isn’t necessarily limited to, items such as bank accounts; investment accounts; retirement plans and IRAs; health insurance plans; business insurance; life and disability income insurance; and records of Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

And don’t forget about liabilities as well. Provide information on mortgages, debts and other obligations your family should be aware of.

Funeral and burial arrangementsA letter of instruction typically includes details regarding your funeral and burial arrangements. If you prefer to be cremated rather than buried, make that clear. In addition, details can include whom you’d like to preside over the service, the setting and even music selections.

List the people you want to be notified when you pass away and include their contact information. Finally, write down your wishes for specific charities where loved ones and others can make donations in your memory.

Digital informationAs many of your accounts likely have been transitioned to digital formats, including bank accounts, securities and retirement plans, it’s important that you recognize this change in your letter of instruction or update a previously written letter.

Personal itemsIt’s not unusual for family members to quarrel over personal effects that you don’t specifically designate in your will. Your letter can spell out who will receive items that may have little or no monetary value, but plenty of sentimental value.

Final thoughts

A letter of instruction can offer peace of mind to your family members during a time of emotional turmoil. It can be difficult to think about writing such a letter — no one likes to contemplate his or her own death. But once you get started, you may find that most of the letter “writes itself.”

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You’ve probably seen it in the movies or on TV: A close-knit family gathers to find out what’s contained in the will of a wealthy patriarch or matriarch. When the terms are revealed, a niece, for example, benefits at the expense her uncle, causing a ruckus. This “bad blood” continues to boil between estranged family members, who won’t even speak to one another.

Unfortunately, a comparable scenario can play out in real life if you don’t make proper provisions. With some planning, you can avoid family disputes or at least minimize the chances of your will being contested by your loved ones.

Start at the beginning

Before you (and your spouse, if married) set the table for your will, which is the centerpiece of any comprehensive estate plan, discuss estate matters with close family members who’ll likely be affected. This may include children, siblings, adult grandchildren and possibly others. Present an outline regarding the disposition of your assets and other important aspects.

This doesn’t mean you should be specific about everything in the will, but it’s a good idea to provide a basic overview of your estate. Consider the input of other family members; don’t just pay lip service to their feedback. In fact, they may raise issues that you hadn’t taken into account.

This meeting — which may require several sessions — may head off potential problems and better prepare your heirs. It certainly avoids the kind of “shockers” often depicted on screen.

Means of protection

Although there are no absolute guarantees, consider the following methods for bulletproofing your will from a legal challenge:

Draft a no-contest clause. Also called an “in terrorem clause,” this language provides that, if any person in your will challenges it, he or she is excluded from your estate. It’s often used to thwart contests to a will.

This puts the onus squarely on the beneficiary. If he or she asserts that the estate isn’t divided equitably, the beneficiary risks receiving nothing. Be aware that, in some states, this clause may not be enforceable or may be subject to certain exceptions.

Choose witnesses wisely. You may want to use witnesses who know you well, such as close friends or business associates. They can convincingly state that you were of sound mind when you made out the will. You also may want to choose witnesses who are in good health, preferably younger than you and easily traceable.

Obtain a physician’s note. A note from a physician about your health status is recommended. For instance, it can state that you have the requisite mental capacity to make estate planning decisions and thus will be useful in avoiding legal challenges.

Last but not least

After your will is drafted, don’t make the mistake of putting it in a safe where you may forget about it. Review it periodically with your attorney. By fine-tuning the will, you improve the likelihood that it’ll deter a legal challenge and, if necessary, prevail in court. Contact us with any questions regarding your will.

© 2020 Covenant CPA