Some organizations struggle to prevent cyberattacks because they rely on cybersecurity tools and techniques that protect only their perimeter. Perpetrators who make it past a single line of defense (such as with a username and password) can gain unfettered access to the company’s network. They can then use ransomware to block access to data or steal customer information or intellectual property.

Zero trust security was designed to address the shortcomings of a single perimeter defense. Created by an IT industry analyst, zero trust requires companies to not automatically trust users or devices. This can be particularly effective if your business relies on cloud computing or if your employees work from home or use their own devices to access your network. 

3 principles

Three key principles underlie zero trust:

1. Trust must be earned — often. Zero trust requires initial and ongoing verification for every user and device entering and moving within an IT environment. For example, after users enter the correct network credentials, they must provide additional credentials to access its email system. And even after users are granted access, the system generates “timeouts” that force users and devices to reverify. This is intended to limit the amount of time a malicious actor can spend in the network.

2. Roles and business needs dictate access. By applying the “least privilege” concept, organizations following zero trust limit access to only the data and resources users need to do their jobs. For example, an administrative assistant typically doesn’t need access to a company’s general ledger and a salesperson doesn’t require access to HR files.

Least privilege segments a company’s IT environment into secure zones, based on users’ roles. Just as ships use bulkheads to create watertight compartments to maintain buoyancy, this micro-segmentation keeps the network “afloat,” even if a segment has been compromised.

3. Multifactor authentication is essential. Zero trust security requires verification with a high degree of confidence. Multifactor authentication (MFA) requires users to provide more than a username and password to access a network. It might entail entering a one-time password sent to a previously registered email or mobile phone. Or users might need to open a dedicated app on a mobile device and confirm that they’re seeking network access.

Building more and higher walls

If the only barrier between your IT network and a fraud perpetrator is simple perimeter security, your company’s risk of being hacked is higher than necessary. Consider adopting zero trust to build more and higher walls. Contact us for more information and cybersecurity tool recommendations.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Your estate plan may include a power of attorney for property that appoints another person to manage your investments, pay your bills, file your tax returns and otherwise handle your property if you’re unable to do so. But not all powers of attorney are created equal. Thus, it’s a good idea to periodically review your power of attorney with your advisor to ensure that it continues to serve its intended purpose. Questions to consider can include:

When does it take effect? If you live in a state that permits “springing” powers of attorney, your attorney-in-fact (that is, the person who holds your power of attorney) is authorized to act only on the occurrence of the event stated in the power of attorney. Typically, the power is designed to “spring” when you become incapacitated. If a power of attorney isn’t a springing power, the attorney-in-fact can act at any time after you’ve executed the document.

Is it durable? A durable power of attorney is one that continues in force after you’ve become incapacitated. Some states’ laws presume that a power of attorney is durable, but others don’t, in which case a power may be unenforceable unless it expressly states that it’s durable.

Is it powerful enough? Careful planning is required to ensure that your attorney-in-fact has the authority he or she needs to carry out your wishes. There are certain powers that you should expressly include to ensure such authority. For example, you must specify whether your attorney-in-fact has the power to make gifts or to make estate planning decisions, such as transferring assets to a trust.

Is it too old? Your attorney-in-fact’s ability to act on your behalf depends on whether third parties are willing to honor the power of attorney. Sometimes banks and others are reluctant to rely on a power of attorney that’s several years old. Therefore, consider signing a new one every two or three years.

If you have questions regarding power of attorney, please contact us. We’d be pleased to help answer your questions.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

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

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

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

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

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

Building customers’ trust in your website

The events of the past year have taught business owners many important lessons. One of them is that, when a crisis hits, customers turn on their computers and look to their phones. According to one analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce data, consumers spent $347.26 billion online with U.S. retailers in the first half of 2020 — that’s a 30.1% increase from the same period in 2019.

Although online spending moderated a bit as the year went on, the fact remains that people’s expectations of most companies’ websites have soared. In fact, a June 2020 report by software giant Adobe indicated that the pandemic has markedly accelerated the growth of e-commerce — quite possibly by years, not just months.

Whether you sell directly to the buying public or engage primarily in B2B transactions, building customers’ trust in your website is more important than ever.

Identify yourself

Among the simplest ways to establish trust with customers and prospects is to convey to them that you’re a bona fide business staffed by actual human beings.

Include an “About Us” page with the names, photos and short bios of the owner(s), executives and key staff members. Doing so will help make the site friendlier and more relatable. You don’t want to look anonymous — it makes customers suspicious and less likely to buy.

Beyond that, be sure to clearly provide contact info. This includes a phone number and email address, hours of operation (including time zone), and your mailing address. If you’re a small business, use a street address if possible. Some companies won’t deliver to a P.O. box, and some customers won’t buy if you use one.

Keep contact links easy to find. No one wants to search all over a site looking for a way to get in touch with someone at the business. Include at least one contact link on every page.

Add trust elements

Another increasingly critical feature of business websites is “trust elements.” Examples include:

  • Icons of widely used payment security providers such as PayPal, Verisign and Visa,
  • A variety of payment alternatives, as well as free shipping or lower shipping costs for certain orders, and
  • Professionally coded, aesthetically pleasing and up-to-date layout and graphics.

Check and double-check the spelling and grammar used on your site. Remember, one of the hallmarks of many Internet scams is sloppy or nonsensical use of language.

Also, regularly check all links. Nothing sends a customer off to a competitor more quickly than the frustration of encountering nonfunctioning links. Such problems may also lead visitors to think they’ve been hacked.

Abide by the fundamentals

Of course, the cybersecurity of any business website begins (and some would say ends) with fundamental elements such as a responsible provider, firewalls, encryption software and proper password use. Nonetheless, how you design, maintain and update your site will likely have a substantial effect on your company’s profitability. Contact us for help measuring and assessing the impact of e-commerce on your business.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

As a formal estate planning term, “tangible personal property” likely won’t elicit much emotion from you or your loved ones. However, the items that make up tangible personal property, such as jewelry, antiques, photographs and collectibles, may be the most difficult to plan for because of their significant sentimental value.

Without special planning on your part, squabbling among your family members over these items may lead to emotionally charged disputes and even litigation.

Communicate clearly

There’s no reason to guess which personal items mean the most to your children and other family members. Create a dialogue to find out who wants what and to express your feelings about how you’d like to share your prized possessions.

Having these conversations can help you identify potential conflicts. After learning of any ongoing issues, work out acceptable compromises during your lifetime.

Bequeath assets to specific beneficiaries

Some people have their beneficiaries choose the items they want or authorize their executors to distribute personal property as they see fit. For some families, this approach may work. But more often than not, it invites conflict.

Generally, the most effective strategy for avoiding costly disputes and litigation over personal property is to make specific bequests — in your will or revocable trust — to specific beneficiaries. For example, your will might leave your art collection to your son and your jewelry to your daughter.

If you use a revocable trust (sometimes referred to as a “living” trust), you must transfer ownership of personal property to the trust to ensure that the property is distributed according to the trust’s terms. The trust controls only the property you put into it. It’s also a good idea to have a “pour-over” will, which provides that any property you own at your death is transferred to your trust. Keep in mind, however, that property that passes through your will and pours into your trust generally must go through probate.

Plan for all of your assets

Your major assets, such as real estate and business interests, are top of mind as you prepare your estate plan, but don’t forget to also plan for your tangible personal property. These lower monetary valued assets may be more difficult to deal with, and more likely to result in disputes, than big-ticket items.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

There are two trust types that don’t require one or more human beneficiaries: charitable trusts and noncharitable purpose (NCP) trusts. A charitable trust is the more common of the two, but an NCP trust could also be a formidable tool to help achieve your estate planning goals.

Defining an NCP trust

Historically, trusts were required to have human beneficiaries. Why? Because, for a trust to be valid, there must be someone to enforce it. Charitable trusts were the exception: The attorney general of the relevant jurisdiction was authorized to enforce the trust in the public interest.

Over the years, however, many U.S. states and a number of foreign jurisdictions have enacted legislation (including provisions of the Uniform Probate Code and the Uniform Trust Code) that authorizes NCP trusts.

These trusts may be used to achieve a variety of purposes, such as caring for a pet or other animal (including its offspring); maintaining a gravesite; providing for future graveside religious ceremonies (often referred to as “honorary” trusts); maintaining art collections, antiques, automobiles, jewelry or other personal property; and funding or otherwise sustaining a family business.

A trust may be an NCP trust even if the grantor’s children or other heirs will ultimately receive trust property as “remaindermen.” Suppose, for example, that you create an NCP trust to maintain and exhibit your art collection. After a specified time period — let’s say 20 years — the trust terminates and the collection is distributed to your children. The fact that your children will receive the art once the trust has fulfilled its purpose doesn’t change its character as an NCP trust. Nor does it render the trust valid or enforceable absent an applicable NCP trust statute.

To be valid, an NCP trust must meet certain requirements. Most important, it must 1) have a purpose that’s certain, reasonable and attainable, 2) not violate public policy, and 3) be capable of enforcement. Typically, an NCP trust is enforced by a designated “enforcer” — someone whose job it is to ensure that the trust’s purpose is fulfilled and who has the authority to bring a court action — and/or a “trust protector,” who’s empowered to modify the trust when its purpose has been achieved or is no longer relevant.

Choosing the right jurisdiction 

The permitted uses of NCP trusts, as well as their duration, vary significantly from state to state, as do the powers of a trust protector or enforcer. Some states, for example, allow only pet trusts, honorary trusts or both. Other states authorize NCP trusts for most purposes, so long as they don’t violate public policy. Most states limit an NCP trust’s duration to a term of 21 years, although some permit longer terms or even “dynasty” NCP trusts of unlimited duration. Contact us for additional information.

© 2020 Covenant CPA