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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

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.
     

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

Estate planning is important for everyone. We simply don’t know when something tragic could happen such as sudden death or an accident that could leave us incapacitated. With proper planning, families who are dealing with the unexpected experience fewer headaches and less expense associated with managing affairs after incapacity or administering an estate after death.

If a person fails to do any planning and becomes involved in a debilitating accident or passes away, each state has laws that govern who will inherit assets, become guardians of minor children, make medical decisions for an incapacitated person, dispose of a person’s remains, visit the person in the hospital, and more. In some states, the spouse and any children are given top priority for inheritance rights. In the case of incapacity, spouses are normally granted guardianship over incapacitated spouse, though this requires a lengthy and expensive guardianship proceeding.

In today’s world, increasing numbers of couples are choosing to spend their lives together but aren’t getting married, either because they aren’t allowed to under the laws of their state, such as in the case of gay and lesbian couples, or simply because they choose not to. However, most states don’t recognize unmarried partners as spouses. In order to be given legal rights that married couples receive automatically, unmarried couples need to do special planning in order to protect each other.

In general, unmarried individuals need four basic documents to ensure their rights are protected:

  1. A Will – A will tells who should inherit your property when you pass away, and who you want your executor to be. These issues are all especially important for unmarried individuals. In most states, an unmarried partner does not have inheritance rights, so any property owned by his or her deceased partner would go to other family members.
  2. Designation of Guardian for Minors (if applicable) – Sometimes this provision is contained within the will, but often it is provided for in a separate document. In the case of many gay and lesbian couples, the living partner is not necessarily the biological or adoptive parent of any minor children, which could lead to custody disputes in an already very difficult time.  Therefore, it’s critical to nominate guardians for minor children.
  3. A power of attorney – A power of attorney (for financial matters) dictates who is authorized to manage your financial affairs in the event you become incapacitated. Otherwise, it can be very difficult or impossible for the non-incapacitated partner to manage the incapacitated partner’s affairs without going through a lengthy guardianship or conservatorship proceeding.
  4. Advance healthcare directives – A power of attorney for healthcare/medical power of attorney, informs caregivers as to who is responsible for making healthcare decisions for someone in the event that a person cannot make them for himself, such as in the event of a serious accident or a condition like dementia.  Another document, called a living will or a directive to physicians and family or surrogates, provides directions on life support issues and end of life decisions. Another important document is a HIPAA Authorization which allows certain people to have access to your confidential medical information.

Estate planning is undoubtedly more important for unmarried couples than those who are married, since there aren’t built-in protections in the law to protect them and their loved ones.  It’s imperative that unmarried couples establish proper planning to avoid undue hardship, expense and aggravation.
 


Friday, September 28, 2012

Remarried? Protect Your Children With Proper Planning

If you are married for the first time and are working on your estate plan, the decisions about where the assets go are usually easy. Most parents in that situation want their entire estate to go to the surviving spouse, and upon the death of the surviving spouse, equally to their children. There may be difficult decisions about who will serve as guardians of the children or trustees over the children’s property, but typically it’s easy to decide where the property will go.

However, in today’s society, there are ever-increasing numbers of blended families. There may be children from several marriages involved, making estate planning more complex.  Couples may bring an unequal number of children into the marriage, as well as unequal assets. A spouse may want to ensure that his or her spouse is provided for at death, but may be afraid to leave everything to that spouse out of fear that at the death of the second spouse, that spouse will leave everything to his or her biological children.

Planning can also be complicated when a couple gets married and either of them brings very young children into the marriage. The non-biological parent may raise those children, but unless formally adopted, for estate planning purposes, they are not considered the children of the non-biological parent. Therefore, if that parent dies without a will, the children will not inherit from the stepparent.

There are many options for estate planning for blended families that will treat everyone fairly. First, it’s imperative that parents of blended families have a will in place. If they don’t, it’s almost inevitable that someone will be treated unfairly. Also, it’s tempting for parents of blended families to create wills in which half of everything is left to the husband’s children and half is left to the wife’s children. However, as explained earlier, this approach can also lead to problems.  Moreover, it’s not at all uncommon for a surviving spouse to change his or her will at the death of the first spouse and cut the stepchildren out of the estate plan.

While there may be many planning options, there are two options often recommended for blended families when doing estate planning. The first is to use a trust. Under this plan, all family assets are usually held in trust. Upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has the right to use the assets in the trust for support, with certain limits, such as rights to income or limited use of the trust principal for living expenses. However, the surviving spouse will not be able to change the beneficiaries of the trust, and hence stepchildren could not be disinherited. A second option is for a certain amount of money to be left to children at the death of the first spouse. In that situation, the children will not have to wait for the death of the stepparent in order to inherit. This works well in situations when the children are mature adults and there is sufficient money for the surviving spouse to support herself without relying on the extra funds that are inherited by the children.  One way to accomplish this is through a life insurance policy payable to the children or payable to a trust for the benefit of the children.

Estate planning with blended families can be complex and each situation is unique. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and to be aware that it can be a sticky situation for many families. However, with proper planning, many issues that could arise on the death of a stepparent can be avoided completely.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney? Or Do I Need Both?

Many people are confused by these two important estate planning documents. It’s important to understand the functions of each and ensure you are fully protected by incorporating both of these documents into your overall estate plan.

In Texas, a Directive to Physicians and Family or Surrogates, commonly referred to as a “living will,” and often called an advance health care directive, is a legal document setting forth your wishes for end-of-life medical care, in the event you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. The safest way to ensure that your own wishes will determine your future medical care is to execute an advance directive stating your wishes for the future. In some states, the advance directive is only operative if you are diagnosed with a terminal condition and life-sustaining treatment merely artificially prolongs the process of dying, or if you are in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery.

A health care or medical power of attorney is a document in which you name another person to serve as your health care agent. This person is authorized to speak on your behalf in order to consent to – or refuse – medical treatment if your doctor determines that you are unable to make those decisions for yourself. A medical power of attorney can be operative at any time you designate, not just when your condition is terminal.

For maximum protection, it is strongly recommended that you have both a living will and a medical power of attorney. The power of attorney affords you flexibility, with an agent who can express your wishes and respond accordingly to any changes in your medical condition. Your agent should base his or her decisions on any written wishes you have provided, as well as familiarity with you. The advance directive is necessary to guide health care providers in the event your agent is unavailable and to assist in making your end of life decisions consistent with your wishes. If your agent’s decisions are ever challenged, the advance directive can also serve as evidence that your agent is acting in good faith and in accordance with your wishes.

 

 


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Common Estate Planning Myths

Estate planning is a powerful tool that among other things, enables you to direct exactly how your assets will be handled upon your death or disability. A well-crafted estate plan will ensure you and your family avoid the hassles of guardianship, conservatorship, probate or unpleasant estate tax surprises. Unfortunately, many individuals have fallen victim to several persistent myths and misconceptions about estate planning and what happens if you die or become incapacitated.

Some of these misconceptions about living trusts and wills cause people to postpone their estate planning – often until it is too late. Which myths have you heard? Which ones have you believed?

Myth: I’m not rich so I don’t need estate planning.
Fact: Estate planning is not just for the wealthy, and provides many benefits regardless of your income or assets. For example, a good estate plan includes provisions for caring for a minor or disabled child, caring for a surviving spouse, caring for pets, transferring ownership of property or business interests according to your wishes, tax savings, and probate avoidance.

Myth: I’m too young to create an estate plan.
Fact: Accidents happen. None of us know exactly when we will die or become incapacitated. Even if you have no assets and no family to support, you should have a power of attorney and health care directive in place, in case you ever become disabled or incapacitated.

Myth: Owning property in joint tenancy is an easier, more affordable way to avoid probate than placing it in a revocable living trust.
Fact: It is true that property held in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship will pass to the other owner(s) outside of the probate process. However, it is usually a very bad idea. Placing property in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship may constitute a gift to the joint tenant, and may result in a sizable gift tax being owed. Furthermore, once the deed is executed, the property is legally owned by all joint tenants and may be subject to the claims of any joint tenant’s creditors. Transferring a property into joint tenancy is irrevocable, unless all parties consent to a future transfer; whereas property owned in a living trust remains under your control and the transfer is fully revocable until your death.

Myth: Keeping property out of probate saves money on federal estate taxes.
Fact: Probate, and probate avoidance, are governed by state law and address how property passes upon your death; they have nothing to do with federal estate taxes, which are set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. Estate planning can reduce estate taxes, but that has nothing to do with a discussion regarding probate avoidance.

Myth: I don’t need a living trust if I have a will or vice versa.
Fact: A properly drafted trust contains provisions addressing what happens to your property if you become incapacitated as well as what happens to the property owned by your trust after your death. On the other hand, a will only becomes effective upon your death and specifies who will inherit the property. Many times, it’s a good idea to have both documents. If you have a living trust as your primary dispositive vehicle, you should have something known as a “pour over will” to make sure that any assets which don’t get titled in the name of the trust during your life, will pour over to your trust after your death.

Myth: With a living trust, a surviving spouse need not take any action after the other spouse’s death.
Fact: Failure to adhere to the proper legal formalities following a death could result in significant administrative and tax implications. While a properly drafted and funded living trust will avoid probate, there are still many tasks that have to be performed after the death of your spouse, and you should seek the advice of an experienced estate planning attorney for advice and counsel.     

 

 

 


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What happens if you are bequeathed a car that no longer exists? The ABC's of Ademption

If you’re involved in settling a loved one’s estate, you may come across the curious word “ademption”. Ademption describes what happens when something designated in a will no longer exists. Say, for example, your uncle dies and leaves for you in his will an old-school Harley Davidson motorcycle. However, if your uncle crashed the motorcycle two years before the will was probated and there’s nothing to leave, then that gift would be considered adeemed and you would receive nothing. This is why certain wills include language that says, “if owned by me at my death.”

However, it is important to realize that certain items cannot be adeemed. For instance, money. If your uncle died and left $7,000 for you in his will, but left a zero dollar balance in his accounts, your gift of cash would not be adeemed. Depending on your state’s laws, the estate could be responsible for satisfying that gift, say for example, through the sale of other such property.

There are exceptions to ademption, however. Some states make exceptions for cases where interest in a corporation that no longer exists because the shares were exchanged with that of an acquiring company.  Your state may tackle ademption differently based on its laws, so please consult a qualified real estate or probate lawyer if you want to learn more about ademption and its exceptions.

 

 


Friday, June 1, 2012

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and depending on the financial situation of the deceased’s estate, many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will probably bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.

 

 


Monday, May 14, 2012

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper steps and engaged in certain estate planning procedures, your beneficiaries could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is one ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the deceased’s Will is reviewed, executors are approved and appointed, beneficiaries, and creditors are notified, assets are gathered and valued, debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your Will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Depending on your state’s procedures, Probate can be costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust is a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the trust, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are typically co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the trust agreement, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your non-retirement property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”, because the assets that are left out of your trust, will pour over into the trust after your death. This is a “belt” and “suspenders” approach because it will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – that you don’t get around to transferring to your trust while you are alive, will be distributed to your trust upon your death and then ultimately distributed according to the trust provisions. Without a pour over will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks or months by completing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust administration process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.

 

 


Friday, May 4, 2012

Avoid Family Feuds through Proper Estate Planning

A family feud over an inheritance is not a game and there is no prize package at the end of the show. Rather, disputes over who gets your property after your death can drag on for years and deplete your entire estate. When most people are preparing their estate plans, they execute wills and living trusts that focus on minimizing taxes or avoiding probate. However, this process should also involve laying the groundwork for your estate to be settled amicably and according to your wishes. Communication with your loved ones is key to accomplishing this goal.

Feuds can erupt when parents fail to plan, or make assumptions that prove to be untrue. Such disputes may evolve out of a long-standing sibling rivalry; however, even the most agreeable family members can turn into green-eyed monsters when it comes time to divide up the family china or decide who gets the vacation home at the lake.

Avoid assumptions. Even the most loving of families can have problems and issues after a parent’s death. Do not presume that any of your children will look out for the interests of your other children. To ensure your property is distributed to the beneficiaries you select, and to protect the integrity of the family unit, you must establish a clear estate plan and communicate that plan – and the rationale behind certain decisions – to your loved ones.

In formulating your estate plan, you should have a conversation with your children or other loved ones to discuss who will be the executor or trustee of your estate, or who wants to inherit a specific personal item. Ask them who wants to be the executor or trustee, or consider the abilities of each child in selecting who will settle your estate, rather than just defaulting to the eldest child. This discussion should also include provisions for your potential incapacity, and address who has the power of attorney and as such, who will make medical, financial and legal decisions for you if you cannot.

Do not assume any of your children want to inherit specific items. Many heirs fight as much over sentimental value as they do monetary items. Cash and investments are easily divided, but how do you split up Mom’s engagement ring or the table Dad built in his woodshop? By establishing a will or trust that clearly states who is to receive such special items, you avoid the risk that your estate will be depleted through costly legal proceedings as your children fight over who is entitled to such items.

Take the following steps to ensure your wishes are carried out:

  • Discuss your estate planning with your family. Ask for their input and explain anything “unusual,” such as special gifts of property or if the beneficiaries are not inheriting an equal amount.    
  • Name guardians, as back-up parents, for your minor children, if both mom and dad should die while they are still minors.  
  • Write a letter, outside of your will or trust, that shares your thoughts, values, stories, love, dreams and hopes for your loved ones.  
  • Select a special, tangible gift for each heir that is meaningful to the recipient.  
  • Explain to your children why you have appointed a particular person to serve as your trustee, executor, agent or guardian of your children.  
  • If you are in a second marriage, make sure your children from a prior marriage and your current spouse know that you have established an estate plan that protects their interests.  
  • Seek the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney to help you establish your estate plan and make sure that you leave your intended legacy.

     

 

 


Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Much of Your Estate Will Be Left Out of Your Will? (It’s Probably More Than You Think)

You’ve hired an attorney to draft your will, inventoried all of your assets, and have given copies of important documents to your loved ones. But your estate planning shouldn’t stop there. Regardless of how well your will is drafted, if you do not take certain steps regarding your non-probate assets, you run the risk of unintentionally disinheriting your chosen beneficiaries from a significant portion of your estate.

A will has no effect on the distribution of certain types of property after your death. Such assets, known as “non-probate” assets are typically transferred upon your death either as a beneficiary designation or automatically, by operation of law.

For example, if your 401(k) plan indicates your spouse as a designated beneficiary, he or she automatically inherits the account upon your passing.  In fact, by law, your spouse is entitled to inherit the funds in your 401(k) account.  If you wish to leave your 401(k) retirement account to someone other than a surviving spouse, you must obtain a signed waiver from your spouse indicating her agreement to waive her rights to the assets in that account.

Other types of retirement accounts also transfer to your beneficiaries outside of a probate proceeding, and therefore are not subject to the provisions of your will.  An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) does not automatically transfer to your spouse by operation of law as is the case with 401(k) plans, so you  must complete the IRA’s beneficiary designation form, naming the heirs you want to inherit the account upon your death. Your will has no effect on who inherits your IRA; the beneficiary designation on file with the financial institution controls who will receive your property.

Similarly, you must name a beneficiary on your life insurance policy. Upon your death, the insurance proceeds are not subject to the terms of a will and will be paid directly to your named beneficiary.

Probate avoidance is a noble goal, saving your loved ones both time and money as they close your estate. In addition to the assets listed above, which must be handled through beneficiary designations, there are other types of assets that may be disposed of using a similar procedure.   These include assets such as bank accounts and brokerage accounts, including stocks and bonds, in which you have named a pay-on-death (POD) or transfer-on-death (TOD) beneficiary; upon your passing, the asset will be transferred directly to the named beneficiary, regardless of what provisions are in your will. Most such designations also allow for listing of alternate beneficiaries in case they predecease you.

Another non-probate asset is real estate that is co-owned with someone else where the deed has a survivorship provision in it.  For example, some deeds to real property owned by married couples or by two unmarried individuals are owned jointly by both people, with right of survivorship.  Upon the passing of either person, the interest of the passing person immediately passes to the surviving person by operation of law, irrespective of any conflicting instructions in your will.  Keep in mind that you need not be married for such a provision to be in effect; joint ownership of real property with right of survivorship can exist among any group of co-owners.  If you want your will to be controlling with regard to disposition of such property, you need to have a new deed prepared (and recorded) that does not have a right of survivorship provision among the co-owners.

You’ve spent a lifetime of hard work to accumulate your assets and it’s important that you take all necessary steps to ensure that your wishes regarding who will get your assets will be honored as you intend. Carve a few hours out of your busy schedule, a couple times a year, to review all of your assets and beneficiary designations to make certain that they remain consistent with your objectives.

When considering hiring an estate planning attorney, it’s important to hire someone who will take a holistic approach and help you in coordinating all your assets – your probate and non-probate assets as well as your non-financial assets (your values, hopes, dreams, etc) so that your overall estate plan will meet your goals and objectives and help you leave your intended legacy.

 

 


Monday, April 16, 2012

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the primary beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation normally limits the potential for income tax deferral. However, a trust may be the preferred option under certain circumstances, such as if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, or when it’s used as a contingent beneficiary designation after the surviving spouse’s death, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that this is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.


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