What Is Involved with Serving as an Executor? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Serving as the executor of a relative’s estate may seem like an honor, but it can also be a lot of work, says The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times’ recent article entitled “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate.”

As an executor of a will, you are tasked with settling her affairs after she dies. This may sound rather easy, but you should be aware that the job can be time consuming and difficult, depending on the complexity of the decedent’s financial and family situation. Here are some of the required duties:

  • Filing court papers to initiate the probate process
  • Taking inventory of the decedent’s estate
  • Using the decedent’s estate funds to pay bills, taxes, and funeral costs
  • Taking care of canceling her credit cards and informing banks and government offices like Social Security and the post office of her death
  • Readying and filing her final income tax returns; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will.

Every state has specific laws and deadlines for an executor’s responsibilities. To help you, work with an experienced estate planning attorney and take note of these reminders:

Get organized. Make certain that the decedent has an updated will and locate all her important documents and financial information. Quickly having access to her deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies after she dies, will save you a lot of time and effort. With a complex estate, you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help you through the process. The estate will pay that expense.

Avoid conflicts. Investigate to see if there are any conflicts between the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate. If there are some potential issues, you can make your job as executor much easier, if everyone knows in advance who is getting what, and the decedent’s rationale for making those decisions. Ask your aunt to tell her beneficiaries what they can expect, even with her personal items because last wills often leave it up to the executor to distribute heirlooms. If there is no distribution plan for personal property, she should write one.

Executor fees. You are entitled to an executor’s fees paid by the estate. In most states, executors are allowed to take a percentage of the estate’s value, which can be from 1-5%, depending on the size of the estate. However, if you are a beneficiary, it may make sense for you to forgo the fee because fees are taxable, and it could cause rancor among the other beneficiaries.

Reference: The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times (Aug. 19, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

 

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How Do I Handle Inheritance? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The loss of a close loved one can make it very hard to think clearly and function effectively. Add to that the fact that you may have to make important decisions about an inheritance, and it can be an overwhelming time.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “5 Considerations for Managing an Inheritance” discusses some ways to be a responsible steward of the money you have received and how to best integrate new funds into your larger financial plan.

  1. Stop and organize your thoughts. After the funeral or memorial service, take time to grieve and reflect on the loss of your loved one. You should also not make any sudden, large changes to your life, if you have inherited a considerable amount of money or a valuable asset. After some time has passed, you should speak with the estate’s executor or court-appointed administrator about next steps.
  2. Create a plan and act on it. While the executor is tasked with winding up the deceased’s affairs, you might ask if you can help with an inventory of his or her assets in the estate. This should include both probate (assets without a named beneficiary) and non-probate (assets with a named beneficiary). It is helpful to make sure that you verify and then cancel your loved one’s subscription services and recurring household expenses (i.e., cable and electric). The executor will make that decision, but you may be able to help with some phone calls or emails to these companies. After the estate’s final expenses are paid, you should create an action plan and assign responsibilities. You’ll then be ready when the executor distributes the estate assets to heirs.
  3. Integrate to avoid mental accounting. After time has passed and you have received your inheritance, any new funds should be integrated into your own financial plan, as if it were earned income. If you do not yet have a written financial plan, talk to a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour or on a fixed-rate.
  4. Make certain that your financial priorities are met. Your inheritance creates a critical chance to possibly change the trajectory of your net worth. You might use it to pay off or reduce long-standing debts, like student loans. Build your emergency fund — at least six months’ worth of living expenses — that will cushion you from unforeseen circumstances (like this pandemic!). You should also make sure that Roth contributions are made for the year.
  5. Get creative! If you have inherited non-financial assets, like a car, artwork or antiques, you should make sure you know their value and decide whether you will keep or sell them. You might also swap an item with another heir, or if you are not ready to absolutely part with an inherited item, you might offer them to other family or friends. It can be nice to know that an unused item is being put to good use by people you know. Another option is to repurpose the item or donate it.

Losing a close loved one is difficult enough, but the need to wisely manage your inheritance will be a big task. Follow these steps to help with that process.

Reference: Motley Fool (Aug. 8, 20020) “5 Considerations for Managing an Inheritance”

 

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What Happens When a Will Is Challenged? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

What happens when estate planning does not go according to plan? A last will and testament is a legally binding contract that determines who will get a person’s assets. However, according to the article “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?” in the Augusta Free Press, it is possible for someone to bring a legal challenge.

Most will contests are centered around five key reasons:

  • The deceased had a more recent will.
  • The will was not signed voluntarily.
  • The deceased was incapacitated, when she signed the will.
  • The will was not signed in front of the right number of witnesses.
  • The will was signed under some kind of duress or mental impairment.

What is the best way to lessen the chances of someone challenging your will? Take certain steps when the will is created, including:

Be sure your will is created by an estate planning attorney. Just writing your wishes on a piece of paper and signing and dating the paper is not the way to go. Certain qualifications must be met, which they vary by state. In some states, one witness is enough for a will to be properly executed. In others, there must be two and they can’t be beneficiaries.

The will must state the names of the intended beneficiaries. If you want someone specific to be excluded, you will have to state their name and that you want them to be excluded. A will should also name a guardian, if your children are minors.  It should also contain the name of an alternate executor, in case the primary executor predeceases you or cannot serve.

What about video wills? First, make a proper paper will. If you feel the need to be creative, make a video. In many states, a video will is not considered to be valid. A video can also become confusing, especially if what you say in the paper will is not exactly the same as what is in the video. Discrepancies can lead to will contests.

Do not count on those free templates. Downloading a form from a website seems like a simple solution, but some of the templates online are not up to date. They also might not reflect the laws in your state. If you own property, or your estate is complex, a downloaded form could create confusion and lead to family battles.

Tell your executor where your will is kept. If no one can find your will, people you may have wanted to exclude from your estate will have a better chance of succeeding in a will challenge. You should also tell your executor about any trusts, insurance policies and any assets that are not listed in the will.

Don’t expect that everything will go as you planned. Prepare for things to go sideways, to protect your loved ones. It is costly, time-consuming and stressful to bring an estate challenge, but the same is true on the receiving end. If you want your beneficiaries to receive the assets you intend for them, a good estate planning attorney is the right way to go.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (July 12, 2020) “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?”

 

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What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there is not always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Do not procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it is time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They will be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You will also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companie, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that were not filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

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How Do I Avoid the Three Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

After you die, your last will and testament must be approved by the local probate court. The judge will determine if the document is the last will of the deceased, review the inventory of the estate and confirm who will administer the estate proceeds. It is known as “executing” a will.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones” discusses some mistakes that people make and how to avoid them.

  1. You do not have a will, or you have a will that was written in another state. You also should have a current will. Life changes, and you need a will for where you live in now. Residency is defined differently in each state, and an out-of-state will delays the probate process, because it fails to satisfy state requirements. Worse yet, it may even be declared invalid.

If there is no will, the deceased is said to have died “intestate,” and his estate must go through probate. However, an administrator will be named by the judge to distribute assets, according to state law. It can be a lengthy and often costly process.

Some people do not want to hire an attorney to create their estate plan or write a will, because they believe it is too expense or they never get around to doing it. However, if you die without a will, the legal costs will be even more and that will be paid by your estate—that decreases what’s left to give to your heirs.

  1. Mixing up estate taxes with probate. Your estate may be too small to be subject to federal tax, if it is less than the $11.58 million exemption. However, you still will be subject to probate and possibly a state estate tax. Therefore, you still need an estate plan.
  2. Disregarding easy things to keep some assets from probate. Most states have a “mini-probate” that is expedited for small estates. With this process, heirs may have fewer fees, less paperwork and shorter waiting.

You can also create a living trust (revocable trust) to avoid probate altogether, if done correctly. This is a legal vehicle to which all of your assets pass upon your death. Ask an estate planning lawyer to help you create a trust, because they can be complicated. Whether you need a trust, a will, or both, an experienced estate planning attorney has worked through a variety of situations and will have sound and creative ideas. Investing time and money with an attorney makes life easier for you now and for your family later.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 18, 2020) “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones”

 

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Elder Financial Abuse Fraud Occurs, When No One’s Watching – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The case of Nice vs. U.S. is a dramatic example of what can happen when there are no professionals involved in an elderly person’s finances and one person has the power to make transactions without supervision. In the article “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud” from Financial Planning, a trusted son allegedly decimated his mother’s IRA and left her estate with $500,000 tax bill.

Mrs. Nice and her husband had been married for more than 60 years. Before he died in 2002, her husband arranged to leave significant assets for his wife’s care. Their son Chip was named executor of the husband’s estate and moved in with his mother. In 2007, she was diagnosed with dementia. As her condition deteriorated, Chip allegedly began fraudulent activities. He gained access to her IRAs, causing distributions to be made from the IRAs and then allegedly taking the funds for his own use.

Chip also filed federal income tax returns for his mother, causing her to execute a fraudulent power of attorney. The federal tax returns treated the IRA distributions as taxable income to Mrs. Nice. She not only lost the money in her IRA but got hit with a whopping tax bill.

In 2014, Mrs. Nice’s daughter Julianne applied for and received a temporary injunction against Chip, removing him from her mother’s home and taking away control of her finances. Chip died in 2015. A court found that Mrs. Nice was not able to manage her own affairs and Mary Ellen was appointed as a guardian. Julianne filed amended tax returns on behalf of her mother, claiming a refund for tax years 2006-07 and 2009-13. The IRS accepted the claim for 2009 but denied the claims for 2006 and 2010-2013. The appeal for 2009 was accepted, but the IRS never responded to the claim for 2007. Julianne appealed the denials, but each appeal was denied.

By then, Mrs. Nice had died. Julianne brought a lawsuit against the IRS seeking a refund of $519,502 in federal income taxes plus interest and penalties. The suit contended that because of her brother’s alleged fraudulent acts, Mrs. Nice never received the IRA distributions. Her tax returns for 2011-2014 overstated her actual income, the suit maintained, and she was owed a refund for overpayment. The court did not agree, stating that Julianne failed to show that her mother did not receive the IRA funds and denied the claim.

There are a number of harsh lessons to be learned from this family’s unhappy saga.

When IRA funds are mishandled or misappropriated, it may be possible for the amounts taken to be rolled over to an IRA, if a lawsuit to recover the losses occurs in a timely manner. In 2004, the IRS issued 11 private-letter rulings that allow lawsuit settlements to be rolled over to IRAs. The IRS allowed the rollovers and gave owners 60 days from the receipt of settlement money to complete the rollover.

Leaving one family member in charge of family wealth with no oversight from anyone else—a trustee, an estate planning attorney, or a financial planner—is a recipe for elder financial abuse. Even if the funds had remained in the IRA, a fiduciary would have kept an eye on the funds and any distributions that seemed out of order.

One of the goals of an estate plan is to protect the family’s assets, even from members of their own family. An estate plan can be devised to arrange for the care of a loved one, at the same time it protects their financial interests.

Reference: Financial Planning (March 6, 2020) “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud”

 

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Update Will at These 12 Times in Your Life – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning lawyers hear it all the time—people meaning to update their will, but somehow never getting around to actually getting it done. The only group larger than the ones who mean to “someday,” are the ones who do not think they ever need to update their documents, says the article “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” from Kiplinger. The problems become abundantly clear when people die, and survivors learn that their will is so out-of-date that it creates a world of problems for a grieving family.

There are some wills that do stand the test of time, but they are far and few between. Families undergo all kinds of changes, and those changes should be reflected in the will. Here are one dozen times in life when wills need to be reviewed:

Welcoming a child to the family. The focus is on naming a guardian and a trustee to oversee their finances. The will should be flexible to accommodate additional children in the future.

Divorce is a possibility. Do not wait until the divorce is underway to make changes. Do it beforehand. If you die before the divorce is finalized, your spouse will have marital rights to your property. Once you file for divorce, in many states you are not permitted to change your will, until the divorce is finalized. Make no moves here, however, without the advice of your attorney.

Your divorce has been finalized. If you did not do it before, update your will now. Do not neglect updating beneficiaries on life insurance and any other accounts that may have named your ex as a beneficiary.

When your child(ren) marry. You may be able to mitigate the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating trusts in your will, so anything you leave your child will not be considered a marital asset, if his or her marriage goes south.

Your beneficiary has problems with drugs or money. Money left directly to a beneficiary is at risk of being attached by creditors or dissolving into a drug habit. Updating your will to includes trusts that allow a trustee to only distribute funds under optimal circumstances protects your beneficiary and their inheritance.

Named executor or beneficiary dies. Your old will may have a contingency plan for what should happen if a beneficiary or executor dies, but you should probably revisit the plan. If a named executor dies and you do not update the will, then what happens if the second executor dies?

A young family member grows up. Most people name a parent as their executor, then a spouse or trusted sibling. Two or three decades go by. An adult child may now be ready to take on the task of handling your estate.

New laws go into effect. In recent months, there have been many big changes to the law that impact estate planning, from the SECURE Act to the CARES act. Ask your estate planning attorney every few years, if there have been new laws that are relevant to your estate plan.

An inheritance or a windfall. If you come into a significant amount of money, your tax liability changes. You will want to update your will, so you can do efficient tax planning as part of your estate plan.

Can’t find your will? If you cannot find the original will, then you need a new will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that your new will has language that states revokes all prior wills.

Buying property in another country or moving to another country. Some countries have reciprocity with America. However, transferring property to an heir in one country may be delayed, if the will needs to be probated in another country. Ask your estate planning attorney, if you need wills for each country in which you own property.

Family and friends are enemies. Friends have no rights when it comes to your estate plan. Therefore, if families and friends are fighting, the family member will win. If you suspect that your family may push back to any bequests to friends, consider adding a “No Contest” clause to disinherit family members who try to elbow your friends out of the estate.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

 

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What Exactly Does an Executor Do? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The job of the executor is an important one. The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the assets and debts of the decedent and carry out instructions documented in his last will and testament. The executor is also responsible for distributing assets, explains the article “A Step-by-Step Guide to Being an Executor” from Kiplinger. If there are any claims against the estate, the executor might be facing personal responsibility, if funds are not handled properly.

The learning curve could be steep, especially if the executor does not know a lot about the person’s finances and possessions, or is new to the tasks of managing money, corralling heirs or the legal processes that occur after someone dies. If the decedent didn’t tell the executor where his records and important papers are kept, things can get even more challenging.

Here is what an executor needs to know, preferably before her services are needed:

Get informed and up to speed. Read the will and see if the decedent’s intentions are clear. That is not always the case. When one man became executor of his mother’s will, he and his sister had two different interpretations about what their mother wanted to happen to the family home. While they wrangled out the issue, there were property taxes to be paid and maintenance costs. A letter of direction explaining things clearly would have prevented many problems.

Sit down and talk about it. It is a kindness to heirs to share information and intentions, while you are still alive. Discuss the will with the immediate family to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings. Consider having an annual conference with children to ensure that they understand the estate, the will and what to expect. If you have an argumentative family, doing this in advance will not guarantee smooth sailing, but it may lessen the fighting.

Make an inventory. Managing an estate can be a long process, with many curves along the way. You will make it easier, if you create a list of all assets, accounts, debts and liabilities. Make a note of where tax records and insurance policies can be found. Include a list of all online accounts and digital assets, plus the names of your professional advisors, including the estate planning lawyer and CPA. Ideally, review the list with your executor.

Should the executor change the locks? In a word, yes. Two kinds of theft happen while people are attending funeral and memorial services. Some family members will outright take items and thieves may break into empty homes. Remove anything of value and have a reputable locksmith install good locks. If the executor is technically inclined, an inexpensive videocam system would be a good idea.

Get copies of the death certificate. Request multiple copies. Some institutions will require originals with a raised seal, while others will work with a copy or a scanned document. Better to have a few more than you need, so you do not have to keep buying new ones.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. There are legal forms and tax forms that will need to be prepared. In some states, probate is straightforward. In other states, it is a complex and time consuming process. You do not need to go it alone.

Open an estate account. The estate is a legal entity and requires a separate tax ID. The executor needs to apply for a separate tax ID, and then can use that to open a bank account. The estate funds the bank account, which is used to pay bills and deposit proceeds from assets.

Distribute assets. The executor is responsible for keeping heirs updated. Heirs receive assets, as designated in the will. If there are collections or a home, they will need to be professionally assessed, before they can be sold.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 12, 2020) “A Step-by-Step Guide to Being an Executor”

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Do Beneficiaries of a Will Get Notified? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

In most instances, a will is required to go through probate to prove its validity.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “When the Beneficiaries of a Will Are Notified” explains that there are exceptions to the requirement for probate, if the assets of the diseased are below a set dollar amount. This dollar amount depends on state law.

For example, in Alabama, the threshold is $3,000, and in California, the cut-off is an estate with assets valued at less than $150,000. If the assets are valued below those limits, the family can divide any property as they want with court approval.

The beneficiaries of a will must be notified after the will is filed in the probate court, and in addition, probated wills are placed in the public record. As a result, anyone who wants to look, can find out the details. When the will is proved to be valid, anyone can look at the will at the courthouse where it was filed, including anyone who expects to be a beneficiary.

However, if the will is structured to avoid probate, there are no specific notification requirements.  This is pretty uncommon.

As a reminder, probate is a legal process that establishes the validity of a will. After examining the will, the probate judge collects the decedent’s assets with the help of the executor. When all of the assets and property are inventoried, they are then distributed to the heirs, as instructed in the will.

Once the probate court declares the will to be valid, all beneficiaries are required to be notified within a certain period established by state probate law.

There are devices to avoid probate, such as setting up joint tenancy or making an asset payable upon death. In these circumstances, there are no formal notification requirements, unless specifically stated in the terms of the will.

In addition, some types of assets are not required to go through probate. These assets include accounts, such as pension assets, life insurance proceeds and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

The county courthouse will file its probated wills in a department, often called the Register of Wills.

A will is a wise plan for everyone. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney to help you draft yours today.

Reference: Investopedia (Nov. 21, 2019) “When the Beneficiaries of a Will Are Notified”

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Estate Planning Options to Consider in Uncertain Times – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Now is a good time to reach out to an estate planning attorney to review and update beneficiaries, named executors, financial and healthcare powers of attorney, wills and trusts, advises the article “Planning Strategies During Market Uncertainty & Volatility: Estate Planning and Debt Usage” from Traders Magazine. There are also some strategic estate planning tools to consider in the current environment.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts (IDGTs): These are irrevocable trusts that are structured to be “intentionally defective.” They are gifts to grantor trusts for non-grantor beneficiaries that allow contributed assets to appreciate outside of the grantor’s estate, while the income produced by the trust is taxed to the grantor, and not the trust. The external appreciation requires the grantor to use non-trust assets to pay the trust’s income taxes, which equals a tax-free gift to the beneficiaries of the trust, while reducing the grantor’s estate. Trust assets can grow tax-free, which creates additional appreciation opportunities for trust beneficiaries. IDGTs are especially useful to owners of real estate, closely held businesses or highly-appreciating assets that are or will likely be exposed to estate tax.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs): GRATs allow asset owners to put assets irrevocably into trusts to benefit others, while receiving fixed annuity payments for a period of time. GRATs are especially effective in situations where low asset values and/or interest rates are present, because the “hurdle rate” of the annuity payment will be lower, while the price appreciation is potentially greater. GRATs are often used by asset owners with estate tax exposure who want to transfer assets out of their estate and retain access to cash flow from those assets, while they are living.

Debt strategies: Debt repayment represents an absolute and/or risk-adjusted rate of return that is often the same or better than savings rates or bond yields. Some debt strategies that are now useful include:

Mortgage refinancing: Interest rates are likely to be low for the foreseeable future. People with long-term debt may find refinancing right now an advantageous option.

Opportunistic lines of credit: The low interest rates may make tapping available lines of credit or opening new lines of credit attractive for investment opportunities, wealth transfer, or additional liquidity.

Low-rate intra-family loans: When structured properly, loans between family members can be made at below-interest, IRS-sanctioned interest rates. An estate planning attorney will be able to help structure the intra-family loan, so that it will be considered an arms-length transaction that does not impose gift tax consequences for the lender.

High-rate intra-family or -entity loans: This sounds counter-intuitive, but if structured properly, a high-rate intra-family or -entity loan can charge a higher but tax-appropriate rate that increases a fixed income cash flow for the borrower, while avoiding gift and income tax.

All of these techniques should be examined with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that they align with the overall estate plan for the individual and the family.

Reference: Traders Magazine (May 6, 2020) “Planning Strategies During Market Uncertainty & Volatility: Estate Planning and Debt Usage”

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