Monday, May 10, 2010

How To Protect Your Family From Estate Tax Uncertainty


An Illinois woman inherited just about $100 million this year. Estate taxes could consume 53%, 45%, 16% or none of it, depending on whether the federal and/or Illinois estate taxes--which both lapsed on Jan. 1, 2010--are reinstated retroactively. "It's wacky to have so many scenarios and not know what the tax is," complains Richard A. Lang, a Chicago partner of McDermott, Will & Emery representing the estate.

You're not crying for the heiress or her lawyer? Then consider another Lang client, a widow trying to divide her late husband's modest estate with the children from his first marriage without incurring ill feelings or big lawyers' bills. The husband's will was tied to the defunct federal estate tax. Now, by one legal reading the widow gets everything outright. By another, all the assets go into a trust that ultimately goes to the children, with the widow having access to the trust's earnings (and, if need be, principal) while she's alive. "This is going to be worked out," Lang vows.

Lots of families are living in similar estate limbo. Under the crazy terms of the 2001 Bush tax cuts, the federal estate tax expired on Jan. 1, 2010 and then springs back to life on Jan. 1, 2011, with only $1 million in assets exempt from a stiff 55% levy on all assets not left to a spouse or charity. Meanwhile, a long-standing provision, which "steps up" the basis of someone's assets to their market value at his or her death (allowing them to be sold immediately with no capital gains taxes due), has also lapsed for 2010.

President Obama and most Democrats want to restore the estate tax retroactively to its 2009 state--meaning $3.5 million per estate would be exempt, the tax rate would be 45% and all assets would get a step-up in basis. Republicans want a higher exemption and lower rate. When and how this gridlock will end is anyone's guess. After all, rational folks (including most estate planners) had assumed Congress would cut a deal before the tax expired. Complicating matters: Any retroactive tax is likely to face an epic court fight from rich heirs, perhaps including those of Texas pipeline tycoon Dan L. Duncan, who died in March with (we estimate) $9.8 billion.

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