After The Fiscal Cliff

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Fiscal CliffWhat has Changed in the Estate and Gift Tax Laws? By Geri McHam

Congress passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012’’ (“ATRA”) that made the federal estate tax exemption permanent on January 1, 2013.  In a last minute move before we went over the “fiscal cliff”, in an 11th hour tax law passed by the Senate on New Year’s Eve, and by the House of Representatives one day later, mostly what Congress did was to make permanent the system that has been in effect for the past two years.  I am just thankful that we now have permanence that has been missing for the last 12 years.

What’s most important to us as planners is how the “fiscal cliff” deal changes will affect our clients’ existing estate plans and whether any changes are necessary.

Most estate planning documents deal with non-tax issues, including the very valuable benefit of structuring assets to avoid the probate process at death and to provide creditor protection for beneficiaries.  The Power of Attorney, Conservator, and healthcare documents are all extremely important and necessary.  These documents are critical to avoid unnecessary court oversight and expense, delay, and intrusion.

What are the provisions of the ATRA that will affect my estate planning practice or clients?

Top gift, estate and GST tax rates are set at 40%. ATRA 2012 establishes the top gift, estate, and GST tax rates at 40% for gifts made and decedents dying in 2013 and thereafter. This top rate is higher than the 2012 rate of 35%, but lower than the 55% rate that would have come into effect on January 1 in the absence of legislation. This top rate will apply to transfers exceeding the exemption amounts.

Exemption amount:  Permanently set at $5,000,000 per client, indexed for an inflation adjustment beginning 2012 ($5.12 million in 2012).   The estate tax exclusion amount for deaths in 2013 will be $5.25 million.

Gift Tax Rate:  The estate and gift taxes will remain unified, so the $5 million exemption also applies for gift tax purposes, and will follow the estate tax rate.  The rate was permanently set to 40% of the amount over the exemption.  In addition, the annual gift exclusion amount was raised to $14,000 per person this year.

Generation Skipping Tax Rate:  The generation skipping tax exemption follows the estate tax rate.  The rate was permanently set to 40% of the amount over the exemption.

Portability made permanent:  Further, the deal continues the estate tax portability provisions that allow a surviving spouse to take advantage of his or her deceased spouse’s unused exemption amount. This provision allows a surviving spouse to avoid complicated estate planning by recognizing that gifts between spouses are typically tax free and allowing the exemption to be portable between both spouses.  In order to utilize this, a 706 tax return MUST be filed within 9 months, so in my opinion, portability is less than optimal in many cases.

Use of the A/B/Bypass Trust:  Some of the discussion since passing this legislation has focused on the use of A/B trust structure, and whether planning is better without the credit shelter trust.  I still am in favor of estate planning with an A/B/C trust, especially to preserve a decedent’s share in case of a remarriage of the survivor spouse, and also to allow the flexibility of state estate tax planning.  As long as the trust is flexible enough to allow the options of funding the various sub-trusts to the survivor spouse, which ours does, you still have the benefit of planning that gives the most flexibility to the survivor.  We will review the provisions in our trust as a precaution

Upside to IRA Planning in ATRA

Hidden in the law — along with the typical year-end riders attached to a last minute piece of legislation, including tax breaks for NASCAR and the alternative fuel industry — were a couple of tangible impacts to the retirement world, though one may offer just short-term benefits. First, it looks as though folks hoping to roll over their regular 401(k)s to Roth 401(k)s may get an opportunity for a long-term tax break — lord knows you’re going to need one, as your taxes really are going to go up.  A new provision in the package will allow 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) participants to make the leap to a Roth 401(k) without waiting for the traditional qualifying events (retirement, reaching age 59 1/2 or changing jobs).  Why? Because doing so immediately sends that tax deferral — which you’ll have to pay up front — to Washington, rather than waiting until your far-off retirement day, and Washington wants your taxes. It’s a huge opportunity for regular folks to make that Roth conversion – provided they have the financial wherewithal to pay those taxes much sooner than later.

Potential future legislation. It is important to note that there may be a push for additional revenue-raising legislation as political debates continue. The current administration has expressed its desire to limit the advantages of GRATs, grantor trusts, GST-exempt dynasty trusts, and transfers in family entities that qualify for valuation discounts. Clients who might consider employing those techniques may wish to do so sooner rather than later.

Those Who Don’t Know Exactly What a Trust Is – Class 101

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The "Living Trust" term comes from the Latin "Inter Vivos" which means "during life". This phrase is used to refer to the making of a gift while a person is still alive, unlike a bequest in a will. So a Living Trust or Inter Vivos Trust is a property controlling entity that is created and goes into effect while you are still alive, and will remain as long as you want it to, after your demise.

Trusts date back to the days of European Kings and conquerors during the Middle Ages. It seems that when a knight went off to fight in faraway lands for his King, the very same King often had the bad habit of taking over the management of any property owned by the knight. Eventually, the King would claim ownership of the property, considering it as payment for the management services rendered. Since some of these wars lasted for many years, the knight would come to nothing!

But, when the knights discovered Inter Vivos Trusts and placed their property in them before going away to war, they secured greatly enhanced asset and property protection. The Trust was an organized, legal vehicle complete with an appointed Trustee. Back then, the church was the Trustee of choice for the best chance of getting the property back later.  This Trustee was given the responsibility and power to manage the property and defend it from any claims of abandonment or other false claims the government might have made against it.

Eventually, the concept of the Living Trust migrated across the Atlantic. In 1765, Patrick Henry (who was not a lawyer) became the first to write a Living Trust in the New World. The Trust was written for Robert Morris, Governor of the Virginia colony. Interestingly, his Trust, the North American Land Company, is still operational today!

However, for most of the history of the United States, Living Trusts were not very popular with the mainstream population. This was because in modern times (the birth of the IRS), a separate trust tax return was required each year for all Trust holders which is known as IRS Tax Form 1041. Fortunately in 1981, congress passed a law that allows all American taxpayers to draft a Trust and no longer be required to file a separate Trust tax return (as long as you remain competent and in charge of your trust estate). That opened up the floodgate for this very popular legal estate planning vehicle here in the United States. It is being utilized today by younger and younger generations. (I have written trusts for executives still in their 20's!)

Prior to this huge IRS tax law change the Living Trust concept was usually used only in cases of vast riches. You can bet that most of the past relatives of families such as the Kennedy's, Vanderbilt's, and Rockefellers, had either a Living Trust or a Testamentary Trust in their Will when they died. (A Testamentary Trust is just a trust that is born upon your death and controls your money and property for the sake of your surviving heirs.)

When the tax law first changed, people caught on pretty slowly. But the Living Trust revolution gained steam throughout the 80's and was at full pace by the early 90's. Sadly, in spite of the revolution, about 70% of Americans today still die intestate, meaning they have no Will or Trust in place to control their lifetime achievement - their estate!

And just as the Trusts of old protected the property of knights, placing your property into a Trust with someone in charge as Trustee does protect your assets for both a long term disability as well as for your eventual demise. It was a good idea back in the beginning when they first came onto the scene -- and it is just as good an idea today.

Today, properly signed and funded Living Trusts also protect you against high legal fees as long as you choose adequate (meaning trustworthy and financially smart) Trustees and appoint one or two backup Trustees. This will insure that someone will always be in charge, and thus court intervention can be prevented.

The Trust Portfolio of almost any Arizona practitioner also contains valuable Power of Attorney documents. If you don't have these documents, a court may order a Conservatorship in the event that you become disabled. In Arizona, a legal Conservatorship requires attorney representation and multiple court appearances each year until you either recover or die. During this time, you can expect continuous generous withdrawals from your checking account. Fortunately, this "living hell" money scenario can easily be avoided via a low cost properly executed General Durable Power of Attorney document in most cases.

In summary, a Living Trust allows professional management of your property when you are disabled or die. The rest of the coordinated legal documents in a modern Trust Portfolio protect you further from hefty legal expenses and court fees. Normally, this holds true even without invoking an official court declared "disabled" status.

This allows the agent you appoint on your Money Care Power of Attorney document to manage your affairs privately without the extra expense of legal representation required by the court as is the case in Arizona with a legal court Conservatorship. Also, it allows your medical power of attorney agent to represent you in all medical decisions when you can't make them.