Estate planning is essential for everyone, no matter how simple or small the estate. But once your estate edges close to $1 million, the complexities increase. Unless your estate is valued at more than $5.43 million—or $10.86 million for a married couple—you’re exempt from federal estate taxes.
But some states impose estate and/or inheritance taxes at a lower threshold, with most around $1 million to $2 million, although the cutoff is only $675,000 in New Jersey. A comprehensive estate plan can help to maximize what your heirs receive and ensure that your wishes are followed.
Understanding Wills Vs. Trusts
Most people start their estate plan with a will, said Bill Ringham, senior manager of Wealth Strategies at RBC Wealth Management. That’s because wills are relatively easy and inexpensive to create. But for more complicated estates—as those that exceed $1 million often are—a will may not be the only solution to consider.
Wills are a matter of public record, which means anyone can find out the value of your estate and who your beneficiaries are, Ringham said. “A very public figure such as a politician, entertainer or professional athlete might not want people to know what they’re leaving in their estate,” he said. “Or, someone might not want people to know exactly how much is being directed to their children and how much is being directed to charity.“
For a more private resolution after death, many people with larger estates choose to put their assets in revocable trusts, also called living trusts. You transfer assets into the trust and those assets are managed by a trustee—often that trustee is you—for your benefit while you’re still alive.
As the name implies, the trust can be modified during your lifetime. When you pass away, the trust can specify that assets be distributed to your beneficiaries, or a successor trustee can be named to manage and control the trust for your heirs.
A revocable trust can include real estate, cash and non-retirement/non-qualified investments accounts, non-qualified annuities, and tangible personal property such as cars. Retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and -deferred IRAs cannot be placed in a revocable trust. There is no minimum amount for establishing a revocable trust, but such trusts become more attractive as an estate becomes more complex and exceeds $1 million, Ringham said.
“With a trust, no one can see where you’ve left your money,” Ringham said.
Family Estate Planning
Trusts often take less time to settle than wills, since wills must also go through probate. Administering an estate with most assets in a revocable trust could take six to nine months, Ringham said. Probating a will, especially in several states, could add three months to the typical timeline for a trust, he said.
Cost varies by state. “Many of our clients, especially northerners, have homes in more than one state—a primary home in New York, a home in Florida, another home in California,” said Barry Zischang, an RBC Wealth Management consultant. “Going through probate in three states will be expensive and a lot more work. By having individual homes titled in a trust, you can avoid that.”
Setting up the initial trust document isn’t necessarily more difficult than setting up a will, but trusts do require some additional work, Ringham said. After you set up the trust, you have to change the title in all applicable assets from your name to the name of the trust. If you don’t, the title of the accounts takes precedence over your will or the trust and it may take longer for funds to be released to your heirs.
Give While You’re Alive
While planning for the distribution of your assets after you pass, you can also start giving them away during your lifetime. Since the rules vary by state and each family situation is different, it’s important to consult an experienced financial advisor regarding tax implications that may apply You can give $14,000 per year ($28,000 per year for married couples) to a child, grandchild or anyone else you choose without it counting as a gift under the federal gift-tax exclusion. That’s especially appealing if your estate has grown past the level of being exempt from state or federal taxes.
“[For] every dollar that you move out of your estate, your heirs save [approximately] 40 cents in taxes,” Ringham said. If you give more than that $14,000, it counts as a taxable gift and taxes are imposed not on the recipient, but on you as the giver, Zischang said. You don’t have to pay those taxes, but you do have to file a gift tax return and the gift counts against your individual estate exemption of $5.43 million, he added.
However, there are two unique instances where you can exceed that $14,000 individual annual limit with no tax consequences. “You may pay somebody’s tuition at an educational institution in unlimited amounts and that is not considered a gift,” Zischang said. But the payment must be for tuition only—not for books or room and board. And you must pay the money directly to the educational institution—not to the child, grandchild, other recipient or their parents. The other exception is paying medical bills. “If your child or grandchild goes to the hospital and gets a bill for $100,000 they can’t pay, you can pay the hospital or other provider directly and that is not considered a gift either,” Zischang said. You could even help pay for health insurance as long as you write the check directly to the insurance provider, he added.
As your assets grow beyond the $5.43 million federal estate tax threshold, you may want to set up an irrevocable trust. Assets placed into an irrevocable trust are removed from your estate, which can make it an especially attractive option for any assets you expect to increase in value, such as stocks and real estate, Ringham said. The assets you put into an irrevocable trust still count against the $5.43 million gift exclusion, but any growth or appreciation occurs outside your estate.
There are some downsides: An irrevocable trust can’t be terminated or modified except under special circumstances. Ringham also pointed out that you will have to draft and file separate tax returns for the irrevocable trust. A well-thought-out estate plan is crucial to ensuring that your wishes will be followed after you’re gone. With the right tools and the help of an experienced estate planner, even a large estate can be handed down to your heirs in exactly the way you intend.