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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Monday, July 8, 2013

Think Treasure Hunts are Fun and Games? Think Again

You’ve had an attorney draft your estate planning documents, including your living trust and will. Probate avoidance and tax saving strategies have been implemented. Your documents are signed, notarized and witnessed in accordance with all applicable laws, and are stored in a location known to your chosen executor or estate administrator. Your work is done, right? Not exactly.

Although treasure hunts may be fun for youngsters, the fiduciaries of your estate will not find inventorying your assets to be nearly as exciting. When it comes time to settle your affairs, your estate representatives will be charged with the responsibility to gather and manage your assets, pay off debts and taxes, and distribute your assets to your named beneficiaries. This can be a tall order for an outsider who is likely unaware of the full scope of your assets. 

If your fiduciaries cannot determine exactly what property you own, and its value and location, you are setting up your loved ones for a frustrating treasure hunt that can delay the settlement of your estate and rack up additional estate-related expenses. You may be remembered for the frustration of locating your assets, rather than the gifts made upon your death – not a legacy many wish to leave. 

Instead, as you are establishing your estate plan take the extra time to record a comprehensive asset inventory and make sure those who will be responsible for settling your estate know where that inventory is stored. Do not presume that everything is handled once you meet with a lawyer and sign your documents. The legal instruments you have gone to the time, trouble and expense to prepare may not serve their purpose if your assets cannot be identified, located and transferred to your beneficiaries. However, creating a thoughtful asset inventory will aid your loved ones in closing your estate and honoring your memory.

Nobody knows better what assets you own than you. And who better than you to know an item’s value, age or location? Your fiduciaries may not have the benefit of tax or registration renewal notices for titled assets, and certainly won’t have copies of the titles or deeds – unless you provide them. It’s a good idea to include copies of the following items with your asset inventory:

  • Deeds to real property
  • Titles to personal property
  • Statements for bank, brokerage, credit card and retirement accounts
  • Stock certificates
  • Life insurance policy
  • Tax notices

For each of the above assets you should also list names and contact information for individuals who can assist with each the underlying assets, such as attorneys, brokers, financial planners and accountants.

If your estate includes unique objects or valuable family heirlooms, a professional appraisal can help you plan your estate, and help your representatives settle your estate. If you have any property appraised, include a copy of the report with your asset inventory.

Care should be taken to continually update your asset inventory as things change. There will likely be many years between the time your estate plan is created and the day your fiduciaries must step in and settle your estate. Properties may be bought or sold, and these changes should be reflected in your asset inventory on an ongoing basis.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Important Steps to Plan for the Future of a Special Needs Child

#1 Establish a Comprehensive Plan
Most estate planning attorneys will say that no person should use a “do-it-yourself” will kit to establish their estate plan.  If you have a child with special needs, it is extremely important to seek competent legal counsel from an estate planning lawyer with special needs planning experience before and during the process of writing your will and/or living trust.

In your estate plan, make sure that any bequests to your child are left to his or her trust (see #2, below) instead of to the child directly.  Your will or a separate Designation of Guardian document should also name the person or persons you want to serve as guardian of your child (see #3, below).

Once your estate plan is complete you should give copies to all the guardians and executors/trustees named in the will.

#2 Establish a Special/Supplemental Needs Trust
A special or supplemental needs trust is the most important legal document you will prepare for your child.  In order to preserve your child’s eligibility for federal financial benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, all financial assets for your child should be placed into this trust instead of being held in your child’s name.  This is because federal benefit programs restrict the amount of income and assets the recipient may have.  If your child has too many financial assets, he or she could lose his/her eligibility for important federal assistance programs.

You can use this trust as a depository for any money you save for your child’s future, money others give as a gift, funds awarded in a legal settlement or successful lawsuit, and other financial assets.

Should you create a special/supplemental needs trust if your child doesn’t currently have any financial assets?  Yes.  Once you create the special needs trust, then the trust can immediately become the named beneficiary of any life insurance policies or planned bequests, either yours or family members’.

#3 Appoint a guardian and complete necessary guardianship papers
Like any parent, you worry about who will care for your child if you were to die before the child becomes an adult.  You also worry about who will care for your child and provide guidance even after he or she is an adult.

A legal guardian is the person who will care for your child after your death and until the child turns 18.  If your child is unable to live independently, then you can either make arrangements for adult care or discuss your preferences with the appointed guardian.

As you consider choices of a guardian for your special needs child, consider how much time is required to raise a child with special needs.  Who do you know who can respond to the challenge?  Who do you know who has already formed a bond with your child?

After you make a choice, ask the individual if he or she will accept the responsibility of serving as your child’s legal guardian.  It is never wise to keep this decision a secret.  Also, discuss with your selected guardian how he or she will probably still have responsibilities toward your child even after his or her 18th birthday.

#4 Apply for an adult guardianship
Even if your child is still a minor, you can start planning now for when he or she reaches the age of majority.  When children turn 18, the law considers them adults and able to make their own financial and medical decisions.  If your special needs child will be incapable of managing his or her own health and finances, consider a legal guardianship.

#5 Prioritize your savings account
Parents of special needs children quickly learn that their children need many resources and equipment that insurance and school systems do not cover.  The more financial assistance you can give your child, the better.  Start saving as early as possible for your child’s lifetime needs – just remember to not open the savings account in your child’s name

Savings can help pay for therapies, equipment, an attorney to advocate for your child in the school system, or a special education expert who can help you make sure your child is getting access to all the programs he or she qualifies for.

#6 Plan for your child’s adulthood
Early planning for your child’s adult years will help you bring the legal and financial picture into sharper focus.  Will your child continue to live with you?  If so, will he or she need in-home assistance?  How often?  Do adult day care programs for people with special needs exist in your community?  How are they rated?

Is your goal for your child to live independently?  If so, what support will he or she need?  Will your child live in a group home, an assisted living community, an apartment with on-site nursing care, or another type of situation?  The earlier you research available options in your community, the sooner you can add your child’s name to the waiting list for the living situation you both prefer.

#7 Write a letter of intent
A letter of intent is not a formal legal document.  It is more like a manual of instruction, containing your wishes for your child’s upbringing.  In the best case scenario, you would give this letter of intent to your child’s chosen guardian and to anyone else who will play a significant role in his or her life after your death.

  • What is your child’s daily routine?  What kind of weekly and monthly routine does she have?
  • What does he find especially comforting?  What frightens her?  What are favorite foods, books and movies?  Be as detailed as you wish.
  • List all of your child’s health care and educational providers.
  • List all current medications, doses and schedules.
  • List all allergies.
  • Are there people you don’t want your child to spend time with? Be specific.
  • Are there people you want your child to spend time with? Who?
  • Are there activities you especially want your child to try, such as sports or arts and crafts?

Update this letter at least once a year.  Keep a copy wherever you keep copies of your will and other estate planning documents.  And be sure to give a copy to your child’s appointed guardian.

#8 Talk with family members
Either in person or in writing, explain the major decisions you have made to important family members.  It is especially important to explain to generous grandparents and other relatives why they must not leave gifts of money – or inheritances – directly to your child.  Give relatives the information about your child’s special needs trust and instruct them to leave any financial gifts to the trust.  Similarly, explain that family members should designate the trust – not the child – as the beneficiary of life insurance policies and so forth.

If you have made decisions you fear will be unpopular (such as naming a guardian), consider explaining your reasons directly to family members whom you fear will be unhappy.  You could also consider including the named guardian in these difficult conversations.

The process of planning for your special needs child’s future may seem long and arduous at times, but you will experience a great relief when the major pieces of the plan are in place.  Creating a plan for the future will allow you to relax and enjoy the present with your child and family.
 


Friday, June 21, 2013

What is Estate Tax Portability and How Does it Affect Me?

At the end of 2012, the entire country watched as major changes were made to income tax  laws with the adoption of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA). The act also made significant changes in estate tax laws.

Estate Tax Portability

One important change is that the estate tax portability law is now permanent.  Estate tax portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse.  The current 2013 estate tax exemption is $5.25 million ($5 million with adjustments for inflation).  This means that a married couple’s total estate tax exemption is currently $10.5 million.  For example, a husband dies with $2 million in separate assets.  He has $3.25 million remaining in his estate tax exemption, which passes to his wife, giving her a total of $7.5 million in estate tax exemption.  Without portability, the husband’s remaining exemption might have been forfeited if the couple had not implemented special tax planning techniques as part of their estate plans.

How Do You Claim the Portability?

This is where married couples and estate executors can get into trouble.  The estate tax portability rule is not automatic.  In order to claim the remainder of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption, the surviving spouse or the deceased spouse’s estate executor must file an estate tax return soon after the death, usually within nine months.

If this filing deadline is missed, then the couple will not get the benefit of estate tax portability.  Missing the estate tax filing deadline can result in the possibility of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary and avoidable estate taxes.

In a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, estate planning experts expressed concern that executors of small estates may be unaware of the estate tax return filing requirement and may believe that an estate tax return is unnecessary if the deceased spouse’s assets fall under the $5.25 million exemption amount. To preserve portability, however, the estate tax return must be filed after the first spouse’s death.  

Alternatively, married couples can utilize a special trust, referred to as a “credit shelter trust” or “bypass trust” to prevent forfeiture of their individual exemptions.  This planning technique must be undertaken when both spouses are still alive, and if this strategy is implemented, the preservation of the deceased spouse’s exemption is accomplished and an estate tax return may not be necessary at all.

The Consequences of Failing to File an Estate Tax Return

As a simple example, consider a husband and wife who have a total of $7.5 million in assets, $6 million of husband’s assets (separate and community) and the remaining $1.5 million owned by the wife (her share of the community).  Upon the wife’s death, the estate’s executor files a timely estate tax return and the wife’s remaining $3.75 million in estate tax exemptions pass to the husband.  The husband then has a total of $9 million in exemptions. When the husband dies, his entire $6 million passes to his heirs tax free, even though his personal estate tax exemption is only $5.25 million (in 2013).  If portability is not claimed, then $750,000 of the husband’s assets will be taxed (the current rate is 40 percent).  The husband’s heirs would be required to pay approximately $300,000 in estate taxes which could have been avoided if the wife’s estate executor had filed an estate tax return within the time limit.

Even if both spouses together have assets under the current $5.25 million exemption, it is still a good idea to file an estate tax return after the death of the first spouse.  Filing the estate tax return and preserving the portability benefit protects the surviving spouse’s heirs in the event the surviving spouse receives a windfall during his or her lifetime that raises his or her assets above the $5.25 million exemption level.
 


Thursday, June 6, 2013

People. The Essential Component of Your Estate Plan’s Success

Properly drafted estate planning documents are integral to the success of your legacy and end-of-life wishes.  Iron-clad estate planning documents, written by a knowledgeable attorney can make the difference between the success and failure of having your wishes carried out.  However, there’s more to estate planning than paperwork.  For your wishes to have the best chance of being honored, it is important to carefully choose the people who will carry them out.

Your estate plan can assign different responsibilities to different people.  The person who you most trust to raise your children, for example, may not be the person you’d designate to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated.  Before naming individuals to carry out your various estate and incapacity planning wishes, you should carefully consider the requirements of each role and the attributes which each individual has that will allow him or her to perform the duties effectively.

Executor.  You name the executor, (also known as a personal representative), in your will.  This person is responsible for carrying out all the terms of your will and guiding your will through probate, if necessary.  The executor usually works closely with a probate or estate administration attorney, especially in situations where will contests arise and your estate becomes involved in litigation.  You may appoint co-executors, or name a professional – such as a lawyer or accountant – as the co-executor.

Health care agent.  Your health care agent is the person you name to make medical decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated and unable to do so yourself.  In addition to naming a health care agent (sometimes called a health care power of attorney or medical power of attorney), most people also create a living will (or health care directive or directive to physicians), in which they directly state their wishes for medical care and end-of-life care in the event of incapacity.  When choosing a health care agent, select a person who you know understands your wishes regarding medical care, and who you trust to carry out those wishes, even if other family members disagree.  You should also consider individuals who have close geographic proximity to you as well as persons you believe can make difficult decisions under pressure.

Power of attorney.  A financial power of attorney (or simply power of attorney) is different from a health care or medical power of attorney in that it gives another person the authority to act on your behalf in financial, property and legal matters.  You can limit the areas in which the person may act, or you may grant unlimited authority.  A power of attorney may also be limited for a specific time, or it may be a durable power of attorney, in which case it will continue even after the onset of incapacity (until your death).  A power of attorney can take effect immediately or “spring” into effect in the event of incapacity.

Guardians.  If you have minor children or other dependents (disabled adult children or other disabled adults for whom you are the named guardian), then your estate plan should name a person or persons to take over the parental role in the event of your death.  The guardian may also have control over any assets that you leave directly to your minor children or other dependents.  If you create a trust for the benefit of your minor children, then the trust’s trustee(s) will have control over those assets and their distribution.  Important considerations include age of the guardian, compatibility with his or her personality and moral values as well as the extent and quality of the existing relationship with your children.

Trustee.  If you place any assets in trust as part of your estate plan, then you must designate one or more trustees, who will act as the legal owners of the trust.  If you do not wish to appoint someone you know personally, you may appoint a corporate trustee – often a bank or trust company – to play this role.  Some clients choose corporate trustees because they are financial professionals and neutral, objective third parties.  It’s important you select individuals who are not only trustworthy but also organized, diligent and detail oriented.
 
 


Thursday, February 14, 2013

The ‘Sandwich Generation’ – Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

“The sandwich generation” is the term given to adults who are raising children and simultaneously caring for elderly or infirm parents.  Your children are one piece of “bread,” your parents are the other piece of “bread,” and you are “sandwiched” into the middle.

Caring for parents at the same time as you care for your children, your spouse and your job is exhausting and will stretch every resource you have.  And what about caring for yourself? Not surprisingly, most sandwich generation caregivers let self-care fall to the bottom of the priorities list which may impair your ability to care for others.

Following are several tips for sandwich generation caregivers.

  • Hold an all-family meeting regarding your parents. Involve your parents, your parents’ siblings, if any, and your own siblings in a detailed conversation about the present and future.  If you can, make joint decisions about issues like who can physically care for your parents, who can contribute financially and how much, and who should have legal authority over your parents’ finances and health care decisions if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.  Your parents need to share all their financial and health care information with you in order for the family to make informed decisions.  Once you have that information, you can make a long-term financial plan.
     
  • Hold another all-family meeting with your children and your parents.  If you are physically or financially taking care of your parents, talk about this honestly with your children.  Involve your parents in the conversation as well.  Talk – in an age-appropriate way – about the changes that your children will experience, both positive and challenging.
     
  • Prioritize privacy.  With multiple family members living under one roof, privacy – for children, parents, and grandparents – is a must.  If it is not feasible for every family member to have his or her own room, then find other ways to give everyone some guaranteed privacy.  “The living room is just for Grandma and Grandpa after dinner.”  “Our teenage daughter gets the downstairs bathroom for as long as she needs in the mornings”, etc. etc.
     
  • Make family plans.  There are joys associated with having three generations under one roof.  Make the effort to get everyone together for outings and meals.  Perhaps each generation can choose an outing once a month.
     
  • Make a financial plan, and don’t forget yourself.  Are your children headed to college?  Are you hoping to move your parents into an assisted living facility?  How does your retirement fund look?  If you are caring for your parents, your financial plan will almost certainly have to be revised.  Don’t leave yourself, and your spouse, if you are married,  out of the equation.  Make sure to set aside some funds for your own retirement while saving for college and elder health care.
     
  • Revise your estate plan documents as necessary.  If you had named your parents guardians of your children in case of your death, you may need to find other guardians.  You may need to set up trusts for your parents as well as for your children.  If your parent was your power of attorney, you may have to designate a different person to act on your behalf.
     
  • Seek out and accept help.  Help for the elderly is well organized in the United States.  Here are a few governmental and nonprofit resources:
    • www.benefitscheckup.org – Hosted by the National Council on Aging, this website is a one-stop shop for determining which federal, state and local benefits your parents may qualify for
    • www.eldercare.gov – Sponsored by the U.S. Administration on Aging
    • www.caremanager.org  -- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
    • www.nadsa.org – National Adult Day Services Association
       

Monday, January 21, 2013

2013 Changes to Federal Estate Tax Laws

Changes to income taxes grabbed the lion’s share of the attention as the President and Congress squabbled over how to halt the country’s journey towards the “fiscal cliff.”  However, negotiations over exemptions and tax rates for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes also occurred on Capitol Hill, albeit with less fanfare.

The primary fear was that Congress would fail to act and the estate tax exemption would revert back down to $1 million.  This did not happen.  The ultimate legislation that was enacted, American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, maintains the $5 million exemption for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes.  The actual amount of the exemption in 2013 is $5.25 million, due to adjustments for inflation.

The other fear was that the top estate tax rate would revert to 55 percent from the 2012 rate of 35 percent.  The top tax rate did rise, but only 5 percent from 35 percent to 40 percent.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 also makes permanent the portability provision of estate tax law.  Portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse to be used in addition to the surviving spouse’s individual $5.25 million exemption.

Some Definitions and Additional Explanations

The federal estate tax is imposed when assets are transferred from a deceased individual to surviving heirs.  The federal estate tax does not apply to estates valued at less than $5.25 million.  It also does not apply to after-death transfers to a surviving spouse, as well as in a few other situations.  Many states also impose a separate estate tax, but Texas does not.

The federal gift tax applies to any transfers of property from one individual to another for no return or for a return less than the full value of the property. The federal gift tax applies whether or not the giver intends the transfer to be a gift.  In 2013, the lifetime exemption amount is $5.25 million at a rate of 40 percent.  Gifts for tuition and for qualified medical expenses are exempt from the federal gift tax as are gifts under $14,000 per recipient per year.

The federal generation-skipping tax (GST) was created to ensure that multi-generational gifts and bequests do not escape federal taxation.  There are both direct and indirect generation-skipping transfers to which the GST may apply.  An example of a direct transfer is a grandmother bequeathing money to her granddaughter.  An example of an indirect transfer is a mother bequeathing a life estate for a house to her daughter, requiring that upon her death the house is to be transferred to the granddaughter.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Preparing Your Family for an Emergency during School Hours

Every family should establish a clear plan to handle an emergency that occurs during school hours. Unfortunately, many parents mistakenly believe that filling out the school’s emergency card is sufficient. Sadly, this practice falls far short of what is truly necessary to protect your children in the event something tragic happens to you during the school day.

Even with a fully-completed school emergency card, your children could still spend time “in the system.” The emergency card only gives permission for certain named individuals to pick up your children if they are sick, but does not authorize them to take short-term custody if one or both parents are killed or become incapacitated. Without having alternate arrangements in place, children in this situation would likely end up spending at least some time with social services.

Parents should create an emergency plan, to avoid confusion and ensure their children are in the right hands if tragedy strikes. With just a few simple steps, parents can rest easy knowing their children will be cared for in the manner they choose.

Name Temporary Guardians
Parents should name short-term guardians who have legal permission to care for their children until a parent or other long-term guardian is available to take over. This individual should be someone who lives nearby and can aid and comfort your child in an emergency. You can establish this temporary guardianship arrangement by completing a temporary guardianship agreement or authorization, preferably, with the assistance of a qualified attorney.

Make Sure the Temporary Guardians are Also Named on the School Emergency Card
In addition to listing neighbors or friends who are authorized to pick up your children from school, it is also vital that you list the full contact information for your authorized temporary guardians. In the event of a true emergency, this guardian can step in immediately to care for your children. Otherwise, your kids may wind up in the custody of social services until a parent or other named legal guardian can be located.

Ensure the Babysitter Knows the Plan if You Don’t Return Home
Make sure you give your babysitters detailed instructions regarding who to call or what to do in the event you are unexpectedly absent. Without this information, many babysitters will panic and contact the police. Involving law enforcement will also involve social services who may step in and take temporary custody of your children until a long-term guardian or parent arrives.

These three simple steps will make all the difference for your children and their caregivers in the event the unthinkable happens. In times of tragedy, the last thing you want is for your little ones to end up in the system, rather than the loving arms of a trusted friend or relative.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Preparing to Meet With an Estate Planning Attorney

A thorough and complete estate plan must take into account a significant amount of information about your assets, your family, your property, and your wishes during and after your life.  When you make your first appointment with an estate planning attorney, ask the attorney or the paralegal if they can provide a written list of important information and documents that you should bring to the meeting.  It is a common practice in our office to send out a packet of information which includes a rather lengthy questionnaire which we ask that our clients complete and return to us prior to our first meeting. That way, when we meet, we will already be familiar with our client’s family, finances and goals and objectives.

Generally speaking, if your attorney does not provide you with a questionnaire to complete, you should gather the following information before your first appointment with your estate planning lawyer.

Family Information
List the names, birth dates, death dates, and ages of all immediate family members, specifically current and former spouses, all children and stepchildren, and all grandchildren.

If you have any young or adult children with special needs, gather all information you have about their lifetime financial needs.

Property Information
For all real property you own or can reasonably expect to acquire, gather the property description, your ownership interest information, the address, market value, any outstanding mortgage balance, and the most recent tax assessment.

For any personal property of value (such as vehicles, jewelry, coins, antiques, stamps, and art), compile a list that includes a description, the physical location of each item, your ownership interest information, the market value, and any liens against the property.

Business Information
If you have an ownership interest in a business, make sure you have documents showing your ownership interest in the business, the business location, the names and contact information of other owners, and 2-3 years of past profit and loss statements.

Financial Information
Compile a list of all your financial accounts, including: checking accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts, stocks and bonds, and U.S. Treasury notes.  If any of these accounts currently have designated beneficiaries, bring that information as well.

Gather all retirement savings information, including 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, IRAs, life insurance policies, Social Security statements, and pension information.  Make sure you have the account names, account numbers, current balances, outstanding loan balances, and currently named beneficiaries.

If any family members owe you debts, compile that information.

Questions to Think About
The following are some of the first questions your estate planning attorney will ask.  You are not required to have answers ready for all these questions, but because some of them are complex, it is a good idea to think through these issues before your appointment.

  • Who will be beneficiaries of your property?
  • Do you want to bequeath any specific items of property to specific individuals?
  • Is there anyone you do not want to be a beneficiary of any of your property?
  • Do you plan to make any bequests to any nonprofit organizations – university, church, synagogue, charity, or other organization?
  • Do you know who you want to act as executor of your will?
  • Do you know who you want to act as trustee of any trusts you establish?
  • If you have minor children, who do you want to appoint as guardian?
  • Do you know who you want to serve as your agent to make health and financial decisions for you in the event you become unable to make decisions for yourself?
  • Do you have specific wishes for your funeral?
  • Are you a registered organ donor?

During your initial consultation, your estate planning attorney will review your family and financial situation, discuss your wishes, answer your questions and suggest strategies and planning options to protect your family, wealth and legacy.
 


Monday, December 10, 2012

Medicare vs. Medicaid: Similarities and Differences

With such similar sounding names, many Americans mistake Medicare and Medicaid programs for one another, or presume the programs are as similar as their names. While both are government-run programs, there are many important differences. Medicare provides senior citizens, the disabled and the blind with medical benefits. Medicaid, on the other hand, provides healthcare benefits for those with little to no income.

Overview of Medicare
Medicare is a public health insurance program for Americans who are 65 or older. The program does not cover long-term care, but can cover payments for certain rehabilitation treatments. For example, if a Medicare patient is admitted to a hospital for at least three days and is subsequently admitted to a skilled nursing facility, Medicare may cover some of those payments. However, Medicare payments for such care and treatment will cease after 100 days or if the patient stops improving.

Nursing home patients often find their Medicare payments are terminated much sooner than 100 days. If a patient’s condition stops improving, Medicare coverage will be discontinued. For example, many older Americans are suffering from diseases with no known cure, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease. Accordingly, it is simply impossible to “rehabilitate” these patients so Medicare typically denies skilled nursing facility coverage in these types of situations.

In summary:

  • Medicare provides health insurance for those aged 65 and older
  • Medicare is regulated under federal law, and is applied uniformly throughout the United States
  • Medicare pays for up to 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility
  • Medicare pays for hospital care and medically necessary treatments and services
  • Medicare does not pay for long-term care
  • To be eligible for Medicare, you generally must have paid into the system

 

Overview of Medicaid
Medicaid is a state-run program, funded by both the federal and state governments. Because Medicaid is administered by the state, the requirements and procedures vary across state lines and you must look to the law in your area for specific eligibility rules. The federal government issues Medicaid guidelines, but each state gets to determine how the guidelines will be implemented.

In summary:

  • Medicaid is a health care program based on financial need
  • Medicaid is regulated under state law, which varies from state to state
  • Medicaid will cover long-term care
     

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Annual Year End Gifts

If you’re like most people, you want to make sure you and your loved ones pay the least amount of tax possible. Many use simple year-end gift giving as a way to transfer wealth to younger generations and also reduce the overall potential estate tax that will be due upon their death. Below are some steps you can take to make small gifts, within the exemption amount, to your heirs without triggering any gift tax liability. Some of these techniques may also reduce your own income tax liability.

A combination of estate and gift tax exemptions can be used to significantly reduce the overall tax liability of your estate. Upon your death, federal estate tax may be owed. A portion of your estate is exempt from the tax. That exemption amount is set by Congress and can change from year to year. For deaths that occur in 2011 the exemption amount is $5 million and for deaths that occur in 2012 the exemption amount is indexed at $5.12 million, and the value of an estate in excess of the respective amount is subject to estate tax.

Many taxpayers make annual gifts to loved ones during their lifetimes, to reduce the overall value of the estate so that it does not exceed the exemption amount in effect at the time of death. It is important to consider that gifts made during your lifetime are subject to a gift tax (equal to the estate tax). However, certain gifts or transfers are not subject to the gift tax, enabling you to make tax-free gifts that benefit your loved ones and reduce the overall taxable value of your estate upon your death.

The annual gift tax exclusion allows each individual to make annual gifts of up to $13,000 to each recipient without even having to file a gift tax return. There is no limit to the number of recipients who may each receive up to $13,000 totally tax-free. Married couples may gift up to $26,000 to each recipient without triggering any tax liability. This annual exclusion expires on December 31 of each year, and larger gifts may be made by splitting it up into two payments. By making a payment in December and one the following January, you can take advantage of the gift tax exclusion for both years. Keeping annual gifts below $13,000 per recipient ensures that no gift tax return must be filed, and that there is no reduction in the estate tax exemption amount available upon your death.

Annual gifts may also be made in the form of contributions to a §529 College Savings Plan. These, too, are subject to the $13,000 annual gift tax exclusion. Additionally, such contributions may afford the giver with a state tax deduction.

Payment of a beneficiary’s medical expenses is also excluded from the gift tax. There is no limit to the amount of medical expense payments that may be excluded from tax. To qualify, the payment must be made directly to the health care provider and must be the type of expenses that would qualify for an income tax deduction.

If you have a large estate that may be subject to taxes upon your death, making annual gifts during your lifetime can be a simple way to reduce the size of your estate while avoiding negative tax consequences.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships as Part of Your Estate Plan

Designed to preserve family businesses for future generations, Family Limited Partnerships (FLPs) can help shelter your assets and reduce overall estate and gift taxes. FLPs are commonly used as part of business succession planning, business continuity plans, and often serve as an integral component of an estate plan for high net worth individuals.

A Family Limited Partnership is typically established by married couples who place assets in the FLP and serve as its general partners. They may then grant limited-partnership interests to the children, of up to 99% of the value of the FLP’s assets. When this occurs, the assets are removed from the general partners’ estates, thus saving on future estate taxes. The general partners keep control of the FLP and its assets, even though they may own as little as just 1% of the asset value.

Limited partners may receive distributions from the FLP, and enjoy certain tax benefits. Asset protection is another attractive feature of the FLP. The partnership’s assets are shielded from the limited partners’ creditors. The interests in a FLP can be easily divided among family members, who may each own different amounts. The FLP enables ownership of a business to transfer to the younger generation, while allowing the senior generation to continue conducting operations and mentoring and grooming the young owners.

One of the significant benefits of a properly established and maintained FLP is that it can reduce the value of gifts to your children and grandchildren.  The value of each limited partnership interest which you give away decreases the value of your taxable estate and, consequently, any tax which your heirs would have to pay upon your death. The gifts are made using the annual gift tax exclusion, so you may not have to pay any gift tax on the transfer.  

Since limited partners do not have the ability to direct or control the day-to-day operation of the partnership, a minority discount can be applied to reduce the value of the limited partnership interests which you are gifting.  Therefore, the value of the partnership interests transferred to your beneficiaries may be far less than the corresponding value of the assets in the partnership.  Furthermore, because the partnership is a closely-held entity and not publicly-traded, a discount can be applied based upon the lack of marketability of the limited partnership interest.  This allows you to leverage the FLP as a vehicle to transfer more wealth to your beneficiaries, while retaining control of the underlying assets.  

With these significant tax benefits, it’s no surprise that many FLPs have attracted scrutiny from the IRS. Others have run into various problems due to mistakes or outright abuse. Care must be taken to ensure your FLP is properly established and operated. Specifically, the IRS may look at the following issues when assessing the viability of the FLP:

  • It’s not all about taxes. You stand a better chance of avoiding – or surviving – a challenge from the IRS if you can show a significant, legitimate non-tax-related reason the FLP was created. Tax savings are an important consideration, but you must be able to demonstrate that there are other reasons, as well.
     
  • Keep your personal assets out of the FLP. You can reasonably expect to transfer closely held stock or interests in commercial real estate into a Family Limited Partnership. However, personal property such as cars or residences will not fare well against an IRS challenge. Similarly, the FLP’s assets should not be used to pay for any personal expenses. The FLP must be a legitimate business entity operated to fulfill business purposes.
     
  • Have your FLP’s assets professionally appraised. Partners or family members should not determine the valuations or discounts for any assets transferred into the FLP. A qualified appraiser has a much better chance of withstanding IRS scrutiny.
     
  • Don’t push it. Many are tempted to put as many assets into the FLP as possible, to maximize the asset protection and tax savings benefits. Unfortunately, if the FLP is successfully challenged, a significant portion of a partner’s net worth could be vulnerable to taxes or lawsuits.
     

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Schnurr Law Firm, PLLC serves clients throughout the greater Houston area, including, but not limited to Houston, Bellaire, West University, Sugar Land, Missouri City, Richmond, Rosenberg, Katy, Cypress, The Woodlands, Kingwood, League City, Webster, Clear Lake, Pearland, Angleton, and throughout Harris County, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, Brazoria County and Galveston County.



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