You Don’t Need An Angel, You Just Need a Guardian

One of the key decisions families with minor children have to make when setting up an estate plan is who will serve as the guardian of those children if both parents die prior to the children reach 18 years old.   The probability of a guardianship provision being enforced is rare, but not impossible. For that reason, it is essential that such a decision be made long before it can become an issue.

Guardianship can mean different things depending on who the ‘ward’ or person needing care is and why they need such care.   For persons with mental or physical disabilities or who lack capacity to care for themselves, an interested party will typically petition the court to allow them to take control of another person’s life. Guardianship for minors differs on several fronts. First, it has an expiration date built in (when the minor turns 18). Second, depending on the type of guardianship sought, it can affect a minor’s entire life or just the assets they may have. Finally, the proof needed to establish guardianship is significantly less than a guardianship based on incapacity or disability.

A guardian of a minor may be appointed to care for the minor’s person, property or both.   Guardianship of a person deals with the care of the actual minor. In most situations, the minor would live with the appointed guardian and the guardian would be responsible for ensuring the proper care of the child. Guardianship of property is specific to assets that are set aside for or owned by a minor child. This can include inherited property, gifts or other assets that require adult supervision. Guardians of property serve alongside the Surrogate’s Court as being responsible for the assets of the minor. On a minor’s 18th birthday, the assets become the direct property of the former minor.

The selection process for choosing a guardian can be fraught with familial issues, concerns about making the correct choice and anxiety about whether anyone can care for a child the way their parents can.   As mentioned above, it is a rare occurrence when these provisions actually get enforced.   When choosing a guardian, some factors to consider include the potential guardians values and beliefs and how they compare to your own; financial stability and responsibility; availability to care for a child; and if the guardian has their own children, whether the care of additional children would create an undue burden on your selected guardian.

It is not easy to think of someone other than yourself or your spouse/partner raising your child and many clients delay completing their estate planning work because of their anxiety over this issue. The alternative is relying on the state to name the right person as guardian without any guidance from the minor’s parents. It is far better to go through the small discomfort yourself than to leave your children with potentially greater issues if the wrong guardian is chosen.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

 

Summer’s Here, And the Time Is Right, For Getting Your Estate Plan in Order!

Over the next few weeks, summer will usher in a fun-filled, relaxing three-month period where kids can say goodbye to their studies for the time being and adults can travel and enjoy everything the season has to offer. It would seem odd to think of this as the perfect time to work on your estate plan; in fact, with many companies offering summer hours and workloads generally lightening during the warm months, it is the perfect time to consider to get your estate plan in proper shape.

Where do you start? It all depends on what you’ve already done, but here are ten action items for you to consider while you’re making your vacation and travel plans:

  1. Have your initial planning documents drafted. You’ve been busy all year…and the year before that…and the year before that.   Taking the first step in getting your estate planning prepared may be the hardest, but once you begin, the process can be completed quickly and painlessly.   Initial documents include a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy/living will.

 

  1. Review your existing documents to ensure they still fit your needs. Having an initial plan in place puts you ahead of most people, but that is only the starting point of the estate planning process.   Family, assets and health changes can affect what your wishes are. If you haven’t reviewed your documents recently, take the time to speak with your attorney to ensure that your wishes and intentions are still reflected in your documents.

 

  1. Fund your irrevocable and revocable trusts. Clients often forget that setting up a trust is a two-stage process.   First, the trust document is drafted to express how it will work and who will benefit from the assets. Second, the assets must be transferred into the trust. In particular, with irrevocable trusts, transfers should be made as soon as possible to avoid the imposition of the three-year rule if you die within three years of a transfer.

 

  1. Complete and/or update your beneficiary designations. Paid on death accounts and contracts such as retirement accounts, life insurance and annuities are amongst the easiest to claim after a loved one dies. Without the need to petition the court, these assets can be transferred quickly to the proper beneficiaries. However, without proper beneficiary designations, they can pass to the estate or to the wrong persons.

 

  1. Create or revise your assets list. Most estate attorneys, financial planners and other advisors will compile a list of your assets during the planning process, but the most accurate lists usually are self created. Updating or creating such a list will give you a better idea of where things stand with you and your family and can reveal that your assets have grown to the point where additional planning is needed.   Alternatively, in the event of your death, it can provide your heirs with a good roadmap of what assets need to be transferred and retitled.

 

  1. Review your life insurance. The amount, type and ownership of life insurance can change as you grow older and expand your family/assets. Many insurance agents provide audits of policies at no additional cost. Additionally, because life insurance is taxable only for estate tax purposes, changing the ownership of the policy to a life insurance trust is a great way to reduce the size of your taxable estate.

 

  1. Protect your family or small business. Business owners are often focused on the here and now and don’t take the time to consider what will happen to their business if and when they are no longer running it.   Many businesses lack the proper buy-sell agreements or even a proper organizational document to give co-owners and the owner’s family guidance over what happens to the business once the business owner leaves, retires or dies.

 

  1. Create a gifting plan. With the large increase to the federal estate tax exemption and the increased New York exemption, it might seem less important to consider gifting strategies. This is not true. For starters, individuals can now gift $15,000 (or $30,000 per married couple) to their beneficiaries every year. Additionally, through the use of trusts, the monies given to minors can be protected from waste and be available for usage for education and other expenses.   Finally, for those with estates nearing New York’s “estate tax cliff,” the lack of a New York specific gift tax continues to keep gifting as an important tool to reduce estate taxes.

 

  1. Consider Charitable Giving. For those with estate tax issues and philanthropic goals, setting up a structure to maximize your giving takes time and many state and federal approvals before you can begin giving. Summer gives you ample time to get the process started so that you can hopefully be ready to make contributions before the end of 2018.

 

  1. Understand your planning goals. Estate Planning attorneys and other advisors provide suggestions and advice based on what we know about the law and what others do.   But, without the input and understanding of what our client’s goals are, any plan we put in place will be incomplete.   With more time to contemplate your planning goals, you can help your advisors craft the right plan for you and your family.

 

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information

The New York/Federal Estate Tax Divorce Becomes Permanent (for now)

In the final month of 2017, President Trump and the Republicans in Congress agreed upon a massive change to the federal tax system. Amongst the changes was significant increase to the federal estate, gift and generation skipping transfer tax exemptions. Beginning in 2018 and continuing through the end of 2025, each individual receives a $11.2 million exemption (adjusted annually for inflation) and each married couple receives a collective $22.4 million exemption. This leaves the vast majority of estates able to pass free of federal estate tax.

In New York, however, this change brought about an end to the hope of both tax professionals and clients alike that the New York state and federal exemptions would once again be equal. This hope has now been extinguished as New York’s exemption will remain $5.25 million through the end of 2018. On January 1, 2019, the exemption will be determined based on a base exemption of $ 5 million adjusted for inflation over the course of the last ten years. Furthermore, two major differences from the federal estate tax system will complicate New York estate planning even further.

First, under federal estate tax law, if one spouse dies leaving a portion of their exemption unused, the surviving spouse may ‘inherit’ the remaining exemption through the concept of portability. New York, on the other hand, does not recognize portability and without additional planning, the unused exemption would not be preserved. Secondly, under federal estate tax law, the taxable portion of an estate is the value of the assets above the decedent’s exemption. This is also true in New York unless your estate exceeds 5% of the exemption. Once an estate exceeds this amount, the entirety of the estate is taxable, not just the excess amount.

The New York/Federal Exemptions historically

For many years, New York conformed it’s estate tax exemption to the state death tax credit under the federal estate tax system. In 2001, this changed due to the tax legislation passed by President George W. Bush which increased the federal estate exemption over the course of the next decade leading to a temporary repeal in 2010. In order to preserve the revenue that it was receiving from estate taxes, New York and other states which had a state-specific estate tax decoupled from the federal system and set their own exemptions. In New York, the exemption remaining $1 million for well over a decade.

In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted legislation by which the New York exemption would progressively grow in size over a period of five years. By 2019, the New York exemption was scheduled to be tied to the same formula by which the federal estate tax exemption was determined. This, it was hoped, would reduce the estate tax burden on many New York families while reduces the disparity between state and federal tax regimes.

Planning for the new New York/Federal disparity

 The large disparity between the two exemptions creates new complications and opportunities for New York residents with regard to their estate plans. Wills which utilized a mandatory credit shelter trust should be reviewed and changed to more flexible disclaimer trusts to give fiduciaries more room to determine how much and which tax to pay at a decedent’s death. Additionally, because New York does not have a state specific gift tax, New York residents with estates valued between the New York and Federal exemptions should consider gifting plans to lower their New York taxable estate and to avoid the estate tax cliff.

Gifting does not come without risks. For a taxable gift to be effective, the donor must live for three years after the gift is made. If they die in the interim, the gift is brought back into their estate for purposes of calculating their estate tax. In addition, given the partisan nature of the recent changes, it is not inconceivable that the current federal exemption may be repealed or lowered by a Democratic president and Congress. Finally, even if Republicans retain control over the presidency and Congress, the change to the estate tax will sunset. It is possible that any gifts made today may be subject to a future clawback by the IRS.

The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty.

 In the sixteen plus years since New York first decoupled from the federal estate tax system, the federal exemption has changed twelve times and the New York exemption has changed five times. There is no reason to believe that these changes will suddenly end at the federal or state level. The best way to ensure that your plan reflects these changes is to remain in contact with your estate planning and tax professionals.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

Estate Tax 2018-What We Know, What Trump Wants and What’s To Come

On Wednesday afternoon, after months of speculation, the Congressional Republicans released their and President Trump’s proposal for tax reform/cuts to begin as soon as 2018. Much of the general parameters of the plan have been known for months with few specifics being known. The proposal released on Wednesday didn’t add many specific although the contours of the proposal were now official. Not shockingly, a repeal of the federal estate tax was amongst the proposals presented.

With a formal bill not yet written and a strategy for passage still unclear, it is helpful to look at what the estate tax system-both federal and state-may look like next year depending on what Congress does and whether or not the estate tax factors into the eventual final bill.

Federal Estate Tax Exemption-A Tale of Two Possible Futures.

Currently, the Federal Estate Tax Exemption stands at $5.49 million per individual and a collective $10.98 million for married couples. Under the federal system, through the concept of portability, a surviving spouse may utilize any unused portion of their deceased spouse’s estate tax exemption. Since all assets pass to surviving spouses estate tax free (due to the federal marital deduction), a surviving spouse has great potential to transfer an eight-figure estate to their heirs free of estate tax.

Since 2010, the exemption has been increased annually as a factor of inflation. And although an official decision will not be made by the IRS until next month, the expectation is that the exemption will be increased to $5.6 million per person and $11.2 million per married couple. It is also projected that the federal gift tax exclusion will be increased from $14,000 per beneficiary per year to $15,000.

Under the Trump/Republican plan, the federal estate tax and the generation skipping transfer tax (GST tax) will be repealed. Beyond that, very few specifics are known. Will the repeal begin in 2018, be retroactive or phased in as it was when it was repealed in 2001? What will happen with capital gains treatment of inherited property? Since there will be no longer an estate tax, will property that previously received a step up in basis be given a favorable treatment at death and what, if any, limit on stepped up basis will there be?

Another notable omission from the plan is any mention of the federal gift tax. Given the reduction in revenue that a repeal of the estate tax will create, is it possible that the federal gift tax exemption will be reduced? Or will the system also be overhauled to deal with the reality of an estate tax federal tax system? The coming weeks and months may or may not tell the tale on this issue.

New York and other local State Estate Tax Exemptions.

 In New York, the outcome of where the Federal Estate Tax Exemption will land matters more over the next year than any time since 2000. In 2014, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature agreed to increase New York’s state exemption from $1 million to eventually re-connecting it with the applicable federal exemption. Currently and through December 31, 2018, the New York estate tax exemption is $5.25 million. On January 1, 2019, the exemption will be tied to the then in-effect Federal Estate Tax Exemption. What if there is no Federal Estate Tax Exemption? It is unclear as of now what New York would do, but it seems unlikely that New York would follow suit with a full repeal.

Our neighboring states have taken different tacts with regard to their state specific exemptions. Last year, New Jersey repealed their estate tax exemption starting January 1, 2018. They continue to have an inheritance tax for bequests to non-lineal family members and with a new governor entering office shortly after the New Year, there may be additional changes to their estate tax/inheritance tax system. Like New Jersey, Pennsylvania has only an inheritance tax, but only fully exempts bequests to surviving spouses and children under 21. Connecticut has an estate tax with a current exemption of $2 million.

Beyond 2018.

By this time next year, we will likely know what both the exemptions for both the federal and state specific estate tax systems will be. But, as with any change to a tax code, it may be many months if not years before we fully understand the ramifications of these changes.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

When a ‘minor’ issue can become a Major Problem.

One of the primary concerns for families with minor children have with regard to their estate planning is the care, both personal and financial, of the minor children if both parents predecease the child before he or she reaches the age of majority. The appointment of a guardian (typically a relative or close friend) provides a level of comfort for parents who wish to be certain of who will take of their children if they are no longer around.

Relying on a guardianship appointment alone may not sufficiently protect your child from certain financial problems that are common with children who receive large sums of money at an early age. In New York, a child reaches the age of majority at 18. Unless the child consents to the continuation or appointment of a guardian, all monies and property held for their benefit must be released to them directly. In rare circumstances, a child can petition the Surrogate’s Court prior to reaching 18 if the appointed guardian is not fulfilling his or her responsibilities or the court finds guardianship to not be in the child’s best interest.

It is rare to find an 18 year old with sufficient financial maturity to handle the administration, investment and maintenance of large sums of money. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate establishing trusts for children under both last will and testaments and under lifetime trusts. The benefits are substantial and clear: first, by continuing to have a fiduciary (rather than the child) as the responsible party for the assets, the value of the assets have a reduced chance of being wasted or used for frivolous or harmful purposes.   Second, by retaining the assets in a trust and not in a child’s name, the assets can be shielded from potential creditors of the child.

Finally, using a trust gives the donor of the assets-the testator under a will or a grantor of a trust-the ability to structure the distributions and usage of the assets to best accommodate their wishes and the needs of the children beneficiaries. The donor is typically a parent or close relative and may have a better understanding of a child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to managing money.

There is no perfect solution that ensures that assets being inherited by or gifted to a child will not ultimately be wasted or abused. However, by relying on your own knowledge of a child rather than arbitrary deadlines, the chances of seeing the assets used for the intended purposes greatly increases.

 

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

The President has no Trust.

Following his election as the 45th President of the United States, President Trump made repeated claims that he would divest himself from his business assets to avoid any conflicts of interest. Despite numerous claims that conflicts of interest laws do not apply to a sitting president, in January, Trump finally revealed his plan to the world-he would transfer his business holdings to the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, a trust set up for his own personal benefit but controlled by his son Donald and Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, who were named as Trustees. This, he claimed, would allow him to remove any doubt with regard to any potential conflict between his acts as president and his business holdings.

Earlier this month, ProPublica published a report that in February, the terms of the Trust were changed to allow the President the ability to receive principal and income from the Trust at his request subject to the approval of the Trustees. While this appeared to be an about face from Trump, the truth of the matter is the choice to use a revocable trust as a means of divestiture was never a serious transfer of his assets and the control thereof.

For starters, a revocable trust is not a traditional trust under United States trust law. Typically, trusts are irrevocable and the person contributing property to a trust loses all direct control over the property. Additionally, in many states, the donor or grantor of a trust cannot also be a beneficiary of the trust. Finally, while not impossible, most trusts cannot be amended or changed without a court order.

A revocable trust has none of these restrictions. The grantor of the trust reserves the right to revoke the trust at any time. In most instances, a grantor of a revocable trust is also the main beneficiary of the trust. And while the trust agreement can put restrictions on the control and distribution of trust property, the grantor has the ability to amend the trust and remove and replace the trustees if they are not happy with how the trust is being administered.

The main restriction found in a revocable trust is that these powers typically disappear if the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. The trust then becomes irrevocable and the grantor loses the power to revoke and amend. It is possible that the President’s trust could have included his time as president as a further triggering event to losing these powers. The certification of trust presented by the President indicates that he retained his right to revoke the trust, so it is clear he did not do that.

Revocable trusts are often used to ensure a client’s privacy, to protect a client’s assets if they become incapacitated and to reduce the time and cost of estate administration upon their death. The idea that such a trust could be used to create any sort of separation between the president and his assets ignores the fact that the rights retained by the President are not a bug, but a feature of these trusts.  Revocable trusts are trusts in name alone and cannot be used to properly separate the President or any other government official from the conflicts associated with their business holdings.

For more information on trusts, please contact info@levyestatelaw.com

A Declaration of Interdependence

Last Monday, we celebrated the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document by which the United States of America was born.  By recognizing the need to break free from the control of England, the former colonists put forth the belief that only by gaining independence could they gain the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Nearly two and half centuries later, the world has changed dramatically, but the desire for independence and the ability to chart our own course remain key values to Americans. Running parallel to this need for freedom is our history of finding great success by relying upon each other.  The motto “E Pluribus Unim” (out of many, one) reflects that this is also a core American value.

When preparing an estate plan, it is understandable to want to rely on one person or one advisor to ensure all your wishes and desires are fulfilled.  However, in most cases, it is preferable and useful to have multiple advisors across multiple professions working with you to provide you and your family with the security you wish for.  By working together, attorneys, accountants, financial and wealth advisors and other professionals can bring their specific expertise to the table and strengthen the other advisors’ abilities to help a client reach their goals.

Family members and friends also play a part in ensuring your estate plan fulfills its goals. In their capacities as fiduciaries or beneficiaries, these most important individuals can assist both the individual and their advisors during their lifetime and beyond.  Conversely, a disgruntled family member can cause great harm to the success of an estate plan.

In the end, each individual’s estate plan should reflect their specific wishes and intentions.  It is each individual’s right to plan their affairs as they see fit.  Utilizing the people and resources available to you is best way to achieve this goal.

For more information, please contact info@levyestatelaw.com.