Thursday, June 04, 2009

How To Avoid The 'Death Tax'

Earlier today posted a helpful tips list on how to avoid the death tax. The article aims to help taxpayers understand how to pass on the most possible to their future heirs. You can read a clip of the story below, or read the full post here.

If 84-year-old Bob Sievers of Pacific Palisades, Calif., had his way, Congress would scrap the estate tax altogether when it considers an Obama administration proposal on the future of the controversial tax. As co-owner of a lumber business for 40 years, Sievers built his wealth from scratch and paid taxes on his earnings every step of the way.

"What we have, we earned, and we paid tax on everything we earned, and we don't want to be taxed again when we die," says Sievers emphatically. Sievers, along with his wife, Carol, first set up an estate plan in 1982, and they have updated it numerous times over the years to reflect changes in the value of their nest egg and the expansion of their family, which now includes five children, 11 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. They quickly discovered they would need to establish an intricate network of trusts and other tools if they hoped to pass along the bulk of their hard-earned assets to their children without Uncle Sam taking a sizable chunk in taxes.

The estate tax - known as the "death tax" among its detractors - will be a hot topic in coming months. The tax-cut package enacted in 2001 called for it to be phased out over 10 years. This year, for example, only the portion of estates that exceeds $3.5 million for an individual and $7 million for a couple is subject to tax; the rate is 45%. This exemption is far bigger than in 2008, when the tax applied to estates valued above $2 million. But the 2001 tax cuts expire after next year. If Congress doesn't act, the estate tax will disappear in 2010 but will return in 2011 at the pre-2001 level of $1 million with a tax rate of 55%.

President Obama has said that he wants to keep the estate tax where it is today: at 45% on amounts above $7 million (for couples). Estate-planning experts speculate Congress will pass a new law before year's end to prevent 2010 from being a tax-free year. "They can't suffer the revenue loss" from removing the tax for a year, says Jay Adkisson, an attorney and founding partner at Riser Adkisson LLP. (One thing that's not expected to change: A spouse can inherit an unlimited amount tax-free through the marital deduction.)

Regardless of what happens in Washington, creating an estate plan and keeping it updated is critical. A smart plan uses tools, ranging from life insurance to trusts, to lower or even eliminate the estate tax and to prevent strife and bitter feuds among beneficiaries after a death. "Poor planning can destroy a family," says Les Kotzer, an attorney who is the author of "Where There's an Inheritance - Stories From Inside the World of Two Wills Lawyers." If no plan is in place or if terms are not explicitly spelled out, chaos can ensue, he says. Kotzer recalls a man who made a handwritten will leaving "all his personal stuff" to a son. A bitter court battle erupted as a daughter claimed "stuff" meant his power tools and personal possessions, not gold and diamond rings that their mother had owned. The son vowed to fight her to the gritty end, claiming he hoped his sister's legal fees would cost more than the jewelry was worth. Here are some tools you and your lawyer or estate planner can use to avoid such disasters.

The joy of giving. Let's start with a couple of simple techniques. For example, giving away money during your lifetime can reduce the value of your taxable estate. Here are the basics: You can give any number of individuals up to $13,000 each year without any tax consequences. Amounts above $13,000 are subject to the gift tax, but you also have a tax credit that allows you to give up to $1 million during your lifetime without incurring taxes. In addition, there is no limit on how much you can give tax-free when you pay someone's higher education or medical expenses directly.

As far as how you make those gifts, you can simply hand the money over to the recipient, but you have other choices. One popular method is a so-called Crummey trust, often used for a child, which allows you to impose conditions on how and when the beneficiary can get access to the money.

Life insurance. If you're planning to leave property, a business, or other non-cash assets to your heirs, life insurance can be a lifesaver. If you purchase a policy that will cover the taxes on your estate, your heirs won't be faced with having to sell assets to pay the taxes. "Mom and Dad give money to the kids to take insurance out on their lives," says attorney Jeffrey Condon, author of "The Living Trust Advisor." "When they die, the insurance company will write a check tax-free to the kids." You can also set up a life-insurance trust to be the beneficiary of the policy: That way, the death benefits won't be taxed as part of the estate.

Geoffrey VanderPal, of Elite Financial Planning Group of America in Las Vegas, recalls one client who had a $40 million financial services business that he wanted to pass on to his son. The client ignored suggestions that he set up an estate plan with a life insurance trust to cover the taxes on the estate. When the client died, the son couldn't afford the $18 million in taxes and had to liquidate the business.

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