Many people think of estate planning as a way to save on taxes as their hard-earned assets are passed from one generation to the next. That is certainly a part of estate planning, but there are many other aspects of estate planning that focus on protecting the person and their family. They are detailed in the article “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution” from the Houston Business Journal.
Now is a good time to start the new year off right to put an estate plan in place. For those who have an estate plan, it is a good time to revisit living documents that need to be updated to reflect changes in a person’s life, family dynamics, changes in exemption limits and the recently passed SECURE Act.
Here are the top four items to make sure that your estate plan is ready for 2020.
Take a look at your financial situation. No matter how modest or massive your assets, just about everyone has an estate that is worth protecting. Most people have something they want to pass along to their children or grandchildren. An estate plan simply formalizes these wishes and minimizes the chances that the family will fight over how assets are distributed.
Many people meet with their team at least once a year to get a clear picture of their financial status. This allows the estate planning attorney to review any changes that may impact how the estate is structured, including tailoring gifting strategies to reduce the tax burden.
Put your wishes on paper, and your affairs in order. Without a will, there is no way for anyone to know what your wishes are and how you would want your assets passed to others. A will spells out who gets what and avoids having the estate administered by state laws. A living will is also needed to establish medical power of attorney and state wishes about life support and what medical care you may or may not want to receive. That can include everything from blood transfusions, palliative care, diagnostic tests or the use of a respirator. A financial POA is needed to give someone the legal authority to make decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.
With these estate planning documents, you relieve family members of the burden of guessing what you might have wanted, especially during emergency situations when emotions are running high.
Asset estate and gift tax exemptions for 2020. The exemption for 2020 has increased to $1.58 million. This eliminates federal estate taxes on amounts under that limit that are gifted to family members during a person’s lifetime or left to them upon a person’s death. This is a significant increase from prior years. In 1997, the exemption was $600,000. It rose to $5.49 million in 2018, and as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was $11.4 million in 2019.
Understand the “claw back.” The exemption amount will increase every year until 2025. There was some uncertainty about what would happen if someone uses their $11.58 million exemption in 2020 and then dies in 2026, when the number could revert back to the $5 million range. Would the IRS say that the person used more of their exemption than they were entitled to? The agency recently issued final regulations that will protect individuals who take advantage of these exemption limits through 2025. Gifts will be sheltered by the increasing exemption limits when the gifts are actually made.
Continuing changes in the tax laws are examples of why an annual review of an estate plan is necessary. The one thing we can all be certain of is change, and keeping estate plans up to date makes sure that the family benefits from all available changes to the law.
Reference: Houston Business Journal (Jan. 1, 2020) “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution”