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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:

2021 Biden Administration Proposed Tax Changes: Will My Estate Be Subject to Estate Tax?

Over the course of the last several decades, the federal estate tax credit has increased to the point that only very high net-worth individuals and families need to concern themselves with estate tax planning. For the year 2021, the “applicable exclusion amount” is $11,700,000.00 per individual (23,400,000.00 for married couples). The gift tax exclusion amount is the same, that is, each individual may give $11,700,000.00 during their lifetime without incurring any gift tax. If the sum of lifetime gifts and assets transferred at death is greater than the applicable exclusion amount, then such transfers will be taxed at a rate as high as 40%.

However, the Biden administration has proposed a reduction of the applicable exclusion amount to $3,500,000.00 per person for estates, $1,000,000.00 for lifetime gifts, and increase the tax rate to up to 45%. Such a change is made more likely by the fact that, in January, the Democratic party has consolidated power in both branches of the U.S. Congress. Last year, there was even fear that, if such a change came in to effect at any time during 2021, congress could make the change retroactive to January 1, 2020, prompting many families to make gifts before the end of the year to ensure their use of the current applicable exclusion amounts.

Contracts to Create a Will

A last will and testament must be the consequence of a person’s free will (which is why they are aptly referred to as “wills”). Nevertheless, a person may execute a contract during life to include certain terms and/or beneficiaries in their will in exchange for goods or services.

Enforcing a contract to create a will is more complex than enforcing a normal contract. With these types of agreements, it may be impossible to tell whether the testator lived up to his or her side of the bargain until their estate plan is revealed after their death. Additionally, the terms of a will do not come into effect until death, so there may not technically be a breach of the contract until the decedent’s death. Further, if you were supposed to be a part of the decedent’s estate plan, but were not included, it’s possible you may never even receive notice regarding the administration of the decedent’s estate.

Homestead Protection: Can You Lose It in Probate?

A person’s home (homestead) is often the most important asset in their estate plan because of the monetary and sentimental value that is inherent in a person’s main residence. Florida has special rules that govern a person’s primary residence, known as homestead property. Unless a creditor is the IRS, a mortgagee, or a laborer that performed work on the home, a homestead property is safe from creditors’ claims. Essentially, the homestead is exempt from a forced sale of the property unless there is a special creditor.

To qualify for homestead protection, a person must be a permanent resident of Florida, and the homestead must be that person’s primary place of residence, among other rules. This means that second homes and investment properties are ineligible for such protection. However, there is no monetary cap associated with the exemption, so a Florida resident that invests millions of dollars into their primary residence will receive full protection.

Does My Will Control My Joint Property?

There are several different ways to hold real property with another individual in Florida. The three main ones are: 1) tenancy in common, 2) joint tenancy with a right of survivorship, and 3) tenancy by the entirety. The way co-ownership of real property is classified may have significant impacts on the disposition of an estate after one of the owners dies.

In Florida, the default classification of real estate ownership is known as tenancy in common. If a property title lists only the names of owners without specifying another classification, there is a presumption that the property is a tenancy in common (unless the individuals are married). Additionally, unless specifically stated otherwise, tenants in common own equal shares of the property. When a tenant in common dies, the real property passes according to that person’s estate plan. This type of ownership will ensure that the property will flow through the owner’s estate. However, unless this property is held by a mechanism that can avoid probate proceedings (e.g. a Revocable Trust), it must go through the time consuming, expensive and public probate process to transfer title to the heirs.

COVID-19 – Buying Life Insurance to protect your children, but what happens when you name them as the beneficiaries?

During these uncertain times, people are attempting to prepare for the worst. This is especially true for those who have minor children. The fear of getting infected with the virus, developing a serious illness that could potentially lead to death, and leaving their children unprotected is very real. Thus, individuals are opting to buy life insurance to make sure their children are taken care of in the event of their death.

But what happens when you die and your minor children are the beneficiaries under your life insurance policy? Since minors cannot legally manage property, the court will appoint a guardian to handle the money for the benefit of your children until they reach the age of majority—a guardianship proceeding. Alternatively, life insurance companies will sometimes ask you to name a custodian, which will create a custodianship account under the Florida Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (“UTMA”), also until the age of majority.

Social Distancing and Signing Documents: Can a Beneficiary Act as a Witness?

During COVID-19, we have had to adapt the way we sign estate planning documents while maintaining safe social distancing. Although businesses are slowly reopening and things appear to be getting back to a sense of normal, it is still important to be cautious and keep our exposures to a minimum. One of the strategies Chepenik Trushin LLP has adjusted is to make the estate planning process entirely remote, with phone and video conferences, email communications, and sending estate planning documents through regular or electronic mail with detailed instructions for clients to sign on their own. For some clients, this has worked well, but for others, it has been a challenge to find two witnesses and a notary, which are required for many estate planning documents. A frequent question that has arisen is whether a relative or a beneficiary may serve as the witness to a will or other estate planning documents, such as a trust.

For a number of years, Florida law disfavored beneficiaries under a will from also being witnesses to the will. Under current Florida law, a will or codicil is not invalid simply because the will or codicil is signed by an interested witness. Fla. Stat. § 732.504(2). Based on the Florida statute, a beneficiary can serve as a witness to a will.

How to Safely get Documents Notarized During a Pandemic

For the indefinite time being, social distancing and staying home are necessary safety measures. However, that does not mean the world stops. People still have needs and documents that must be notarized. There are ways to do that without leaving the house and risking exposure.

Florida Statute sections 117.201-117.305 went into effect on January 1, 2020 and allows notarization to occur remotely once a notary completes an application and training course. Usually, when getting a document notarized, the notary either confirms that they know you personally or verifies your identity by looking at government-issued identification. Now, according to Florida Statute § 117.265, via audio-video communication, a notary can do the same thing with an additional step. If the notary does not know you personally, you can remotely show your government-issued identification and then answer a few questions to confirm your identity. See Fla. Stat. § 117.265; See also Fla. Stat § 117.295. Once that is complete, the notary can watch you electronically sign the document and notarize it from his/her computer. When looking for a notary to provide this online service, look for someone that is a Remote Online Notary, also known as a “RON.” Not all notaries are qualified to perform this service remotely. The lawyers and staff at Chepenik Trushin LLP can help you through this process, keeping you and your loved one’s safe.

Do I Need to Amend My Trust Because of the Secure Act?

Last month, in our last blog, we addressed the basics of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the “SECURE Act’) and how retirement plan beneficiary designations will be impacted for individuals who die in or after 2020. But what if you already set up an estate plan with a trust as beneficiary of your retirement account? Do you need to amend your trust or your beneficiary designation form as a result of the passage of the SECURE Act?

The answer is that it depends on whether the trust is an “accumulation” trust or a “conduit” trust and how you want such retirement accounts to be treated. Generally, in an accumulation trust, assets payable to the trust are to be distributed in the trustee’s discretion. A conduit trust, on the other hand, generally requires that assets must be distributed to the beneficiary – in other words, the trust simply acts as a conduit to deliver the assets to the beneficiary, and the assets cannot stay (that is, cannot accumulate) in the trust. It is possible to draft the trust as an accumulation trust with respect to all assets except retirement accounts, just as it is possible to draft a conduit trust that requires only outright distributions of retirement accounts (leaving the remainder of the funds at the trustee’s discretion).

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