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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.

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.

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.

What Happens to My Estate Plan When I Divorce?

People often designate their spouse as a primary beneficiary in their will, trust, or beneficiary designation, but what happens in the case of divorce? Oftentimes, a person may neglect to update their testamentary plan following a divorce and leave their ex-spouse as a beneficiary. Thankfully, in Florida, several laws help automatically update a person’s estate plan upon divorce to avoid unintentionally bequeathing a gift to an ex-spouse.

Florida law provides that any provision of a will in favor of a divorced spouse treats that former spouse as if that spouse had already died. The controlling statute, Fla. Stat. § 732.507(2) states the following:

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.

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).

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.

I Already Have a Will; When Should I Update My Estate Planning Documents?

When someone executes a valid will, some people assume that if their wishes do not change, they should never have to revisit their estate plan. However, there are certain common events in life that should cause you to review or update your estate planning documents.

Marriage/Divorce: A surviving spouse is entitled to a percentage of a decedent’s estate, regardless of whether the decedent included the spouse in the decedent’s will. Interestingly, the amount that a surviving spouse is entitled to may vary depending on whether the will was executed before or after the marriage. If you execute a will and subsequently marry, the spouse will receive a share equal to what he or she would have had, had the testator died intestate. This typically amounts to either one-half of the estate (if there are children of the decedent who are not children of the surviving spouse), or the entire estate (if there are no surviving children, or if the surviving spouse and the decedent are the parents of the only surviving children). Fla. Stat, Sec. 732.301 and Sec. 732.102. In either case, this is more than the amount that a surviving spouse is entitled to under the “elective share” which is thirty percent (30%) of the decedent’s estate.

Avoiding Undue Influence, as an Adult Child, Assisting Parent’s Estate Planning

Writing a will is a process most people view as a terrible chore, but it is one that is necessary. The process may get further complicated when one spouse has already passed away and the adult children of the surviving elderly parent assist in managing and dividing finances. This has become more of a reality as more and more middle-aged children are caring for elderly parents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, this phenomenon is more pronounced in Florida, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau, leads the nation in terms of greatest share of its population aged 65 and older in 2010.

This scenario can lead to issues in estate planning especially if the parent is experiencing diminished mental capacity where too much of an adult child’s influence over estate planning decisions of the parent may bring legal problems such as legal charges of “undue influence.” Every state has its own undue influence laws to address these types of issues not only in the context of children’s undue influence on parents but others outside the family, such as a girlfriend or caretaker. In Florida, in order to raise a presumption of undue influence, a petitioner must show “(1) the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the decedent and the procurer of a will; (2) the active participation of the procurer in the planning and drafting of the will; and (3) the realization by the procurer of a substantial benefit under the provisions of the will.” These elements in Florida are found in common law as opposed to codified statutes so the court’s decision will be based on how convincing the evidence is in a case.

FLORIDA CHARITABLE TRUSTS: ALTERNATIVE BENEFICIARIES AND CY PRES DOCTRINE

Due to applicable tax exemptions and tax deductions, charitable trusts are a great tool for preserving the value of your property intended for charitable purposes and for reducing taxes payable by your remaining estate (intended for purposes other than charitable ones). Naturally, the main goal when setting up a charitable trust will be the fulfillment of the philanthropic objective of your choice. While the law comes to aid with mechanisms to fill in the blank spaces in the will or trust agreement, well-meant but poorly executed provisions in the documents may defend these mechanisms and obstruct the desired purpose.

Charitable purposes may include relief of poverty; advancement of arts, sciences, education, or religion; promotion of health, governmental, or municipal purposes. Fla. Stat. 736.0405(1).  This list is, of course, non-exhaustive. A specific charitable purpose and beneficiary organization will usually be designated in the document. Even if it is not, the court will select one or more charitable purposes or beneficiaries that will be consistent with the settlor’s original intent, at least to the extent it can be ascertained. Fla. Stat. 736.0405(2). But what if the agreement names a purpose and a beneficiary, but the beneficiary does not exist? Or exists at the time the agreement is made, but ceases to exist before it is supposed to take the bequest? Or what if the stated purpose is impossible to fulfill? In those situations the cy pres doctrine applies to help execute the bequest in accordance with the general spirit of the will or trust agreement.

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