Tax law uncertainty requires an estate plan that can roll with the changes

Events of the last decade have taught us that tax rates and exemption levels are anything but certain. Case in point: Congress is mulling abolishing gift and estate taxes as part of tax reform. So how can people who hope to still have long lifespans ahead of them plan their estates when the tax landscape may look dramatically different 20, 30 or 40 years from now? The answer is by taking a flexible approach that allows you to hedge your bets.

Conflicting strategies

Many traditional estate planning techniques evolved during a time when the gift and estate tax exemption was relatively low and the top estate tax rate was substantially higher than the top income tax rate. Under those circumstances, it usually made sense to remove assets from the estate early to shield future asset appreciation from estate taxes.

Today, the exemption has climbed to $5.49 million and the top gift and estate tax rate (40%) is roughly the same as the top income tax rate (39.6%). If your estate’s worth is within the exemption amount, estate tax isn’t a concern and there’s no gift and estate tax benefit to making lifetime gifts.

But under current law there’s a big income tax advantage to keeping assets in your estate: The basis of assets transferred at your death is stepped up to their current fair market value, so beneficiaries can turn around and sell them without generating capital gains tax liability. Assets you transfer by gift, however, retain your basis, so beneficiaries who sell appreciated assets face a significant tax bill.

Flexibility is key

A carefully designed trust can make it possible to remove assets from your estate now, while giving the trustee the authority to force the assets back into your estate if that turns out to be the better strategy. This allows you to shield decades of appreciation from estate tax while retaining the option to include the assets in your estate should income tax savings become a priority (assuming the step-up in basis remains, which is also uncertain).

For the technique to work, the trust must be irrevocable, the grantor (you) must retain no control over the trust assets (including the ability to remove and replace the trustee) and the trustee should have absolute discretion over distributions. In the event that estate inclusion becomes desirable, the trustee should have the authority to cause such inclusion by, for example, naming you as successor trustee or giving you a general power of appointment over the trust assets.

In determining whether to exercise this option, the trustee should consider several factors, including potential estate tax liability, if any, the beneficiaries’ potential liability for federal and state capital gains taxes, and whether the beneficiaries plan to sell or hold onto the assets.

Consider the risk

This trust type offers welcome flexibility, but it’s not risk-free. Contact us for additional information.

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Tax basis planning worth a look if estate taxes aren’t a threat

For many people today, income tax planning offers far greater tax-saving opportunities than gift and estate tax planning. A record-high gift and estate tax exemption — currently $5.49 million ($10.98 million for married couples) — means that fewer people are subject to those taxes.

If gift and estate taxes aren’t a concern for your family, it can pay to focus your planning efforts on income taxes — in particular, on basis planning.

Benefits of a “stepped-up” basis

Generally, your basis in an asset is its purchase price, reduced by accumulated depreciation deductions and increased to reflect certain investment costs or capital expenditures. Basis is critical because it’s used to calculate the gain or loss when you or a loved one sells an asset.

Under current law, the manner in which you transfer assets to your children or other beneficiaries has a big impact on basis. If you transfer an asset by gift, the recipient takes a “carryover” basis in the asset — that is, he or she inherits your basis. If the asset has appreciated in value, a sale by the recipient could trigger significant capital gains taxes.

On the other hand, if you hold an asset for life and leave it to a beneficiary in your will or revocable trust, the recipient will take a “stepped-up” basis equal to the asset’s date-of-death fair market value. That means the recipient can turn around and sell the asset tax-free.

Undoing previous gifts

What if you transferred assets to an irrevocable trust years or decades ago — when the exemption was low — to shield future appreciation from estate taxes? If estate taxes are no longer a concern, there may be a way to help your beneficiaries avoid a big capital gains tax hit.

Depending on the structure and language of the trust, you may be able to exchange low-basis trust assets for high-basis assets of equal value, or to purchase low-basis assets from the trust using cash or a promissory note. This allows you to bring highly appreciated assets back into your estate, where they’ll enjoy a stepped-up basis when you die. Keep in mind that, for this strategy to work, the trust must be a “grantor trust.” Otherwise, transactions between you and the trust are taxable.

Is your basis covered?

Before making any changes to your estate plan, be aware that, if an estate tax repeal is signed into law, it’s possible the step-up in basis at death could go away, too. We can keep you apprised of the latest developments and help you determine whether your family would benefit from basis planning.

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