By Bob Carlson
Published August 13, 2009 on InvestorsInsight.com
Perhaps one of the worst effects of high estate taxes is the way tax planning diverts attention from other important estate planning issues. For many years, I have stressed that estate planning is about much more than taxes, but most people believe estate planning and estate tax planning were the same thing. Though wrong, it was understandable when the lifetime estate tax exemption was $600,000. Many “modest millionaires” who considered themselves middle class would be hit by high estate and gift taxes without planning.
Unfortunately, the idea that estate planning is all about tax reduction still is widely held. With the estate tax exemption at $3.5 million and likely to stay there or higher, many people simply are neglecting estate planning. Since estate taxes are not going to be a problem for them, they see no reason to put together a plan.
One way to avoid falling into this trap is to think about legacy planning instead of estate planning. Everyone needs a legacy plan, even those with less than $1 million in assets. With a new estate tax law likely to come down the pike this year and stabilize the tax picture, 2009 is a good time to put together your legacy plan.
Legacy planning has four key goals. Consider these goals and how to accomplish them. Working with an estate planner will be easier and faster when you understand legacy planning this way, and it will make meeting these goals easier and more likely.
Financial security for you and the objects of your affection is a priority of legacy planning.
Though few people realize it, putting yourself first should come be the priority of legacy planning. Establishing a legacy involves giving to or providing things (not necessarily money) for others. Yet, you are best able to give to others when your own standard of living is secure. You won’t be able to give to or provide for others when your own situation is precarious. As the plan is developed, keep returning to the question of whether a strategy would put your standard of living at risk under some circumstances. The sharp decline in asset prices in 2008 brought that home to many people.
Once comfortable with your financial security, establish goals for the ultimate disposition of your wealth. Often, the spouse is the first beneficiary of the wealth. After that, children, grandchildren, and charities are the usual recipients of the wealth. You need to decide who will benefit from your estate, the order in which they will benefit, and the amount or percentage of your wealth they should receive.
After determining who should benefit from the wealth, the next issue is how they will benefit. That issue often is determined by the other goals of legacy planning.
Continuing the management and caretaking of the estate is the next goal. If you are like most people, you have been calling the shots if not doing all the management. Too many estates, regardless of their size, dwindle rapidly after the first owners pass them on. Often the successors did not understand how the assets were to be managed or did not share the values and outlook of the founder.
This issue is particularly important with small businesses. The founding owner must decide who will own the business, who will benefit from its income, and who will manage the business. Those are three separate categories and do not have to consist of the same person or people. A key to successful legacy planning for a business, however, is to have a succession plan in place and to follow it. Succession planning is an issue we have discussed in my newsletter, Retirement Watch from time to time.
Even estates without businesses need to address the issue of the stewardship transition. It could be that the people you want to benefit from the wealth are not likely to manage it well over the long term. In that case, you want to consider trusts and other arrangements that separate management and ownership. It is important to recognize that those who benefit from the assets do not have to be the managers.
Protecting the estate is another key element of the plan. This goal is particularly important to small business owners and professionals. They feel a greater need to protect assets from potential creditors and lawsuits. But others might need asset protection from those sources as well as disgruntled family members, irresponsible family members, and ex-family members in divorces.
There are simple, low-cost vehicles that will protect assets, including different ways to hold title to assets, IRAs, annuities, and umbrella liability insurance. These work for estates of any size. For larger estates, there are vehicles that can be used to protect assets, including trusts and limited partnerships. Your fears, needs, and the various methods can be discussed with your estate planner. The key is to identify the assets you want protected and the potential harms from which you want protection. Surprisingly, the size of the estate often is not a factor. Many estate planners report that the worst fights are over the smaller estates.
The legacy plan must address the potential tax burden. Once you have established who should benefit from the wealth, you want to transfer the wealth to them in the ways with the lowest possible tax bill that meet your other goals. For many estates, that has become easier each year for about a decade, but easier tax reduction probably won't continue after 2009.
One reason many people do not develop estate plans is they do not realize how valuable the estate is and the potential tax burden. There often are "hidden assets" that are included in the taxable estate such as annuities, life insurance, IRAs, and some trusts. Other people "forget" about some of their assets or do not know their true value.
Even when federal estate taxes are not a problem, state inheritance or estate taxes could be. A number of states have these taxes, and some impose taxes on estates or assets with values as low as $250,000.
Income taxes on beneficiaries also need to be considered in the plan. For example, the beneficiaries of IRAs face an income tax burden many people overlook. That burden is one reason it might benefit you or your heirs to empty an IRA early, pay the taxes, and put the IRA assets in a taxable account to compound over the years. If you do not consider income taxes, your beneficiaries could benefit from far less of your wealth than you expected.
Planning a legacy involves far more than reducing estate taxes. It is time to start determining your goals and putting your plan together. Once the new estate tax law is final, push forward with the final details and implementation.