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Resolutions and Taxes
RESOLUTIONS AND TAXES
Every year when the New Year rolls around, we all talk about making resolutions. We make resolutions to improve our appearance and physical health. We make resolutions to become better people. We make resolutions to improve our finances. I saw one study that says that people achieve less than 10% of their New Year’s resolutions. I wonder if it’s even that high.
I would like to propose a resolution for the New Year (I know this will be published in late January, but we had the new tax law to deal with). I want people to resolve to update their estate plans, and the new tax law provides an incentive. Here’s why.
The federal estate tax exemption used to be $600,000. With homes and life insurance and retirement benefits, a lot of people got caught by this tax. We wrote a lot of estate plans with tax planning included, which was the right thing to do at the time.
A typical plan for a married couple involved two separate trusts. We used two trusts to make administration simpler on the death of the first spouse to die. The trusts were generally equal in value. Every year or so we wanted to look at the assets in the separate trusts to make sure they were still generally equal, and the clients were supposed to periodically rebalance the trusts by shifting assets from one to the other where possible.
On the death of the first spouse to die, the assets in his or her trust would be distributed first to a tax-sheltered trust up to the amount of the exemption. The trustee of that trust (typically the surviving spouse) was required to distribute all of the income to the beneficiary. The surviving spouse was almost always entitled annually to demand a distribution of 5% of the trust for no reason at all. In addition, the trustee could use the principal for the health, education, maintenance, and support of the spouse in the trustee’s discretion. The amounts in the tax-sheltered trust would avoid estate taxes even on the death of the second of the spouses to die, provided that the trust was properly administered. Clients generally felt that these restrictions were reasonable enough to avoid estate taxes. Any amounts in excess of the exemption would be distributable to a marital trust that could be subject to estate taxes on the death of the second spouse to die.
The problem with this plan is that the tax-sheltered trust was an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts are taxable. They have to file tax returns. Failure to file the return can result in penalties and interest. And these trusts can generate taxes on trapped capital gains. Taxes on trust income are particularly bad because although the rates are comparable to individual rates, they kick in very quickly. For instance, any trust income over $11,950 will be taxed at 39.6%.
With the new tax law, the exemption amount is around $11 million. A married couple can avoid taxes on approximately $22 million. It is estimated that only two in every 100,000 people will be subject to federal estate tax. What that means is that for most married couples, an estate plan with tax planning is not only unnecessary, but it can also end up costing money.
Another problem with these old plans is that the separate assets of spouses can be liable for the debts of the individual spouse.Jointly held marital assets are protected from the claims of the creditors of either individual spouse. In 2011, the Missouri legislature passed a law allowing joint, marital trusts to be protected from the claims of individual spouses as well. Separate trusts could be liable for the debts of an individual spouse.
I would like to propose a resolution with couples with old estate plans: update your plan. Don’t leave the surviving spouse with a headache.When one of you dies, it probably is not a good time to deal with this sort of thing.
It’s the right thing to do. I’ll wait for your call.
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