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Biden’s Tax Proposal and the “Step-Up in Basis”: What it Means for Your Estate Plan or Trust

A commonly utilized tax law in estate planning considerations, known as the “step up in basis,” may be in jeopardy. The “step-up,” derived from section 1014 of the Internal Revenue Code, gets applied to the cost basis of property when it is transferred upon death of the transferor. This mechanism has been a beneficial way to minimize the capital gains tax of one’s heirs, especially for property that has greatly appreciated over time. For example, if someone buys a home for $100,000 dollars, and fifty years later the owner sells the home at a time when the home has appreciated in value to $1,000,000, there would be a capital gain of $900,000, to which a long-term capital gains tax rate of 20.00% is applied. However, if the owner dies owning the home, and the home is transferred upon the homeowner’s death at a time when the home has appreciated in value to $100,000, the step up in basis converts the original cost basis to the fair market value of the transferred property at the time of the homeowner’s death. Thus, if the persons inheriting the property were to immediately sell it for $1,000,000, there would be zero capital gain, because the basis is equivalent to the sale price. The step-up in basis has allowed for taxpayers to save tremendous amounts of money on capital gains tax. Note that, although it is often referred to as a “step-up” in basis, it could be a “step-down” if the value of the property a the time of death is less than what the owner purchased it for.

However, the Biden Administration has proposed to eliminate the step-up in basis. In short, this means that heirs will have to pay capital gains tax on inherited assets based upon the cost basis of the donor’s purchase price. According to Biden’s proposed tax plan, there would still be an exemption for capital gains on the first $1,000,000 of capital gains ($2,000,000 for married couples), but gains above the $1,000,000 ($2,000,000 for married couples) will not receive step-up in basis treatment.

Bernie’s “For the 99.5% Act”: Is It Time to Start Thinking about Tax Planning?

For the year 2021, each individual has $11,700,000.00 of estate tax credit (or $23,400,000.00 for married couples), otherwise known as the “applicable exclusion amount.” For estates that exceed the applicable exclusion amount, the tax rate is up to 40.00% of the amount in excess of the applicable exclusion amount. The current estate tax credit is scheduled to maintain that level, indexed for inflation, until December 31, 2025, at which point the applicable exclusion amount will be reduced to approximately $6,000,000.00 ($12,000,000.00 for married couples).  However, since the Biden administration proposed major estate tax reform, there has been much discussion about whether the estate tax credit will be reduced earlier.

On March 25, 2021, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the “For the 99.5% Act,” which proposed, among others, the following tax reforms:

I Made an Irrevocable Trust a Long Time Ago: Can I Change it Now?

People make irrevocable trusts for many reasons, one major reason being tax planning. In order to make a completed gift for tax reasons, a donor has to part with control over the gifted asset, and making a gift to a trust that is irrevocable is one of the ways this can be accomplished. But that if your circumstances change, or tax laws change, and you would like to modify or terminate an irrevocable trust? Can a trust still be modified if it is irrevocable?

The answer is yes, if certain conditions are met. Florida statutes specifically allow for modification of irrevocable trusts in certain circumstances. For instance, by court order (Fla. Stat. § 736.0410), to modify tax provisions (Fla. Stat. § 736.04114), or where the trustee and all beneficiaries unanimously agree (Fla. Stat. § 736.0412), just to name a few. But there are certain situations where none of the Florida statutes apply. For instance, a modification under Fla. Stat. § 736.0412 by agreement of trustees and beneficiaries can only be accomplished if the settlor has passed away and only with respect to a trust that was made irrevocable after January 1, 2001. That leaves some situations that are not covered by the Florida statute.

The Secure Act: Retirement Accounts and Your Estate Plan

Beginning on December 20, 2019, the Secure Act substantially changed the rules for designated beneficiaries of retirement plans, with wide raging implications for estate planning.

The old rule used to be that upon the death of a retirement account owner, the beneficiary of the plan would be able to take required minimum distributions based on that beneficiary’s life expectancy. This was beneficial especially for younger beneficiaries with long life expectancies who could “stretch” the payments over many years, allowing the assets to stay invested in the plan longer. It was also possible for beneficiaries to receive these stretch payments if a trust for their benefit was named as the beneficiary, as long as the trust qualified as a “see-through” trust. If no beneficiary was named, or if a non-see-through trust was named as beneficiary, the entire plan had to be distributed within 5 years of the date of death of the participant. Because many clients wish to leave their assets in trust for their children, much of the focus of estate planners up until this point had been drafting trusts so that they qualified as see-through trusts in order to avoid the 5-year rule.

Are Actions Taken Before Appointment as Personal Representative Valid? Yes, if the Actions Were Beneficial to the Estate

Florida law states that the duties and powers of a personal representative commence upon appointment. You may be named as personal representative in a decedent’s will, you are not legally considered a personal representative until the court appoints you. But what happens if you need to take action regarding an estate before a court officially appoints you as the personal representative of the estate, such as paying bills or filing a lawsuit? As it turns out, under the relation back doctrine, any act that you do on behalf of the estate becomes valid after you are appointed the personal representative, if such actions are beneficial to the estate. Florida courts have also clarified that performing the duties of a personal representative is considered beneficial to the estate.

Florida’s Relation Back Doctrine is found in Fla. Stat. § 733.601, which states, “The powers of a personal representative relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed, occurring before appointment and beneficial to the estate, the same effect as those occurring after appointment. A personal representative may ratify and accept acts on behalf of the estate done by others when the acts would have been proper for a personal representative.”

Legitimate Taxation or “Confiscation?”

Taxing Trust Income

Which states can tax a trust’s income? This exact question was taken up by the Supreme Court in their recent opinion North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberly Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust. North Carolina was of the opinion that they could tax the trust income of any and all trusts with at least one beneficiary residing in their state. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed.

Foreign Property, Divorce, and Florida Probate Proceedings: Do not Assume Anything

          In Florida, if for some reason your marriage ends, there are some instances where your ex-spouse’s rights to inheritance under your estate plan are automatically severed. In Florida, the ex-spouse is automatically cut out of any estate planning documents, reducing the need to amend a will in the event of a divorce. Also, if a couple owns a house in Florida as tenants by the entireties, that joint interest is severed upon divorce and they become tenants in common. The divorce changes the property interest, and allows that each ex-spouse inherits their half, but the other half does not automatically transfer to the surviving ex-spouse. However, all of these automatic changes happen when the property is located in Florida. What changes if the property is located in a foreign country? A case out of the Second District Court of Appeals addressed the issue in Ebanks v. Ebanks.

Arthur and Diane Ebanks were divorced in Florida in 2008. Arthur executed his will on the day he filed for divorce in 2006. The Ebanks jointly owned three water front properties in the Cayman Islands. In his will, Arthur provided that upon his death, the property jointly held will pass to the survivor. The property in the Cayman Islands was owned under “joint proprietorship,” which is a form of holding title in the Cayman Islands which is similar to joint tenancy with right of survivor ship. Under “joint proprietorship” the interest of the deceased proprietor would transfer to the surviving proprietor. There is no law in the Cayman Islands dissolving a joint proprietorship in the event of divorce.

Understanding Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Under Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

Social networking, e-mail, and digital platforms are here to stay; unfortunately, we are not. Internet users must plan for the management and disposition of their assets in similar ways that they make plans for tangible property.

Florida statutes define a digital asset as “an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest.” When a user with digital assets passes away or becomes incapacitated, a representative may want access to these digital assets to collect financial records of the decedent, to prevent identity theft, or even for sentimental reasons. There are various state and federal privacy laws, however, that may prevent one from acquiring this information. Amongst these laws is the Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. The Act applies to a fiduciary acting under a will, trust, or power of attorney executed before, on, or after July 1, 2016 Fla. Stat. § 740.08. Chapter 740 generally prevents access to electronic information and assets without specific authorization from a user, even if a general grant of authority has been given to a fiduciary. As such, if the user desires that the agent have access to electronically stored information digital information or digital assets, they must curate the operating document to include a special authorization to that effect.

ESTATE PLANNING: CRYPTO CURRENCIES AND DIGITAL ASSETS

Although we all unquestionably live in a digital age at least for the past two decades and the legislatures are adopting new laws every day to reflect this reality, digital estate planning remains one of the areas where relying on state-made laws might not be enough. Laws in this area are scarce and only of a general nature. What happens with our digital assets after we die is usually controlled by private companies that store the data. For that reason, and because of the specific nature of digital assets, it is advisable to take these matters in your own hands.

What is a digital estate planning? It is a estate planning that covers any of your digital assets, including cryptocurrencies, websites, email accounts, social network accounts, cloud accounts, and all content stored or communicated trough these tools. What sets these assets apart from the more traditional ones is the fact that there might not be any person other than you who is aware of those assets or who could access them. In other words, no official register, no tax records, no bills, no paper contracts. Yet these assets may have a great value, both personal and monetary.

What is Probate?

Probate is a process, which the court supervises, for settling a deceased person’s estate.  The process involves identifying assets belonging to the estate, paying the decedent’s debt, and distributing the remainder of the assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries.  Costs for the probate proceeding have first priority for payment from the estate’s assets.

If a decedent dies testate (with a valid will) and designates a personal representative, then the will’s provisions govern disposition of the decedent’s probate assets.  If a decedent dies intestate (without a valid will), then Florida law will govern selection of a personal representative and will govern who will receive the decedent’s probate assets.

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