Category Archives: Estate Tax

Should We Get Married? Estate Planning for Same Sex Couples Now

wedding-91797_150Dear Liza: My long term domestic partner of 30 years and I were registered domestic partners for a few years and then she decided she wanted to be totally financially independent of me so we terminated the agreement last year.  We are still together as a couple and live five minutes away from each other.  Our intention is to leave everything we own to each other and have named each other as executors in our wills.  She owns a house that she may or may not be selling but in general our estates are pretty modest.  I am wondering since we are still a couple is there is an advantage in terms of avoiding probate in getting married versus doing a living trust? First, can I just say I love being able to have this conversation! Now, down to business. There’s a lot packed into your question. I’m going to answer on a general level, but I think it would be worth it for you and your partner to sit down with an accountant and an attorney and see how my advice addresses your particular concerns.

There are three key  estate planning advantages to getting married for same sex couples now, but I wouldn’t frame it as a living trust versus marriage. That’s kind of apples and oranges.  A living trust will still allow you to transfer your assets to each other without probate, regardless of whether or not you marry. But being married has two key federal and one state TAX advantage, all of which you’d realize with or without a living trust.

1.  Married couples get a step up in basis when one spouse dies on all community property assets. That means that the surviving spouse won’t have to pay capital gains on any appreciated assets that she sells after the first death, other than any gain that happened after the death of the first spouse.  For example, if your partner’s house has appreciated a lot since she bought it, and you marry and make that house community property, when one of you dies, that house would be valued at its date of death value, not the original purchase price.

2. Married couples get an unlimited marital deduction from federal estate and gift tax.  That means that you and your spouse can give an unlimited amount of assets to each other, at death or during life, and no federal estate or gift tax will be due for those gifts. For those with modest estates (which are most of us) this isn’t as big a concern now that the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $5.25 million, but that number may be reduced by Congress in the future, and it is a benefit that only spouses receive.  This, in fact, was the basis for Edie Windsor’s challenge to DOMA.

3. Married couples can pass real property to each other in California without a change in property tax rates.  A transfer between spouses is an exception to Proposition 13′s reassessment requirement.  Since you and your partner terminated your Registered Domestic Partnership, and it sounds like she purchased the property alone, her transfer of the house to you via a Will would trigger a change of ownership and reassessment for at least 1/2, if not all, of the property, depending on how she holds title at her death.

Probate for U.S. Assets; Estate Tax for Non-Resident Aliens

pot of goldDear Liza: My brother and I are dual citizens (Japan and US).  We both reside in the US. Our Japanese mother recently passed away. She had some cash/ stock/ annuities/ mutual funds in the US, and some property in Japan that we will inherit jointly, with no disputes. She has a social security number and had a green card at one time, many years ago. She has not lived in the US for over 30 years. There was no will. Given that she was a non-resident foreign national, do we have to go through probate to distribute her US assets (around $650,000)?  Sorry about your Mom. To settle your Mom’s U.S.-based estate you are going to need a probate proceeding to transfer the assets because your mother didn’t leave a Will. This is not because she was a non-resident alien.  This is because she owned significant property in her own name.  That means that you and your brother are going to inherit her property as the intestate heirs (that’s state law for who inherits when someone dies without a Will). Because she owned property worth more than a minimal amount, you will need a court order to get those assets transferred to you, which is the end result of a probate proceeding.

The issues that relate to her citizenship status is this: your mother’s estate is going to have to pay U.S. estate tax.  The rules for non-resident, non-citizen owners of U.S.-based property are complex, but basically, her estate will be taxed on U.S. assets worth more than $60,000. Japan, though, has a taxation treaty with the U.S., so her estate won’t be subject to double estate taxation (in both the U.S. and Japan).   Click here for a link to an IRS summary of these rules.

Where the Gift Tax falls

Dear Liza: Currently, I own 1/3 of a condominium. My mom owns 1/3 and and brother owns 1/3.  My mom and brother (both alive) want to change the title to just my name.  Do my mom and brother have to pay gift tax or do I have to pay gift tax?   I read on IRS.gov that $5 million free of gift tax during my lifetime is only for estate tax and 13,000 is gift tax each year. Don’t you have to be dead to receive estate tax? So many good questions here.  I will answer, with this caveat: if Congress makes a deal with the President, some of what I have to say may change. As of RIGHT NOW (December 30th, 2012), the donor of the gift (your mother and your brother) are liable for any gift tax due on the transaction, not the donee (that’s you). But, unless that’s one pricey condo, they’re not likely to actually owe any gift tax at all.
Until tomorrow, each person is allowed to give up to $5.12 million, free of gift tax.  This ‘magic  number’ currently applies to all lifetime gifts, or gifts made at death. That number is scheduled to go down to $1 million on January 1, 2013–but still, what that means is your mother and brother would have to file a gift tax return by April of the year following the gift and report the value of the gift (this will require an appraisal to document that value).  If the value of the gift is less than the available magic number, no tax is actually due (but they’ll have used up some of their lifetime ability to give free of gift or estate tax).
That $13,000 gift is called an ‘annual exclusion gift’ and it can be made entirely free of tax, each year, and as long as no gift to any individual exceeds the annual exclusion, no gifts need to be reported at all. The annual exclusion is scheduled to increase to $14,000 in 2013.
I can’t tell from your question where you live. But in California, where I practice, the gift you describe will also result in a partial reassessment of your property taxes,  so please make sure that you also understand the property tax issues raised by the gift you contemplate.

How the Estate Tax Works

Dear Liza: My dad just received about $200,000 in cash from his recently passed-away friend’s trust.  I wonder how he should file his tax for 2012?  I found several documents discussing about inheritance tax exemption being $5 million.  Does that only apply to family members and spouses? I love getting questions with clear answers! Your father’s inherited gift from his generous friend does not affect his income tax return for 2012.  Gifts are not ‘ordinary income’ under the tax code.  He gets that money TAX FREE.  It doesn’t matter what his relationship was to the generous friend.  But, if his generous friend’s estate was over the applicable federal exclusion from the estate tax ($5.12 million in 2012), his estate would have had to pay estate tax due.  That’s why it’s called the ‘estate tax’ and not the ‘inheritance tax’–the tax, if over the amount excluded from federal estate tax,  falls on the estate of the decedent, not on those who inherit the assets.

Giving away that family cabin

Dear Liza: I am divorced and own a second vacation cabin that I want my children to have when I die.  Is there a way for me to retain rights, ownership and control while I am alive and of sound mind but pass the property to them when I die that doesn’t have a bunch of overwhelming taxes?  Yes.  Upon your death you can leave the kids the cabin either outright or in a trust. If you leave it to them outright, as tenants in common, each will own 1/2 and can leave their half to whomever they choose when they die. If you leave it to them in trust, you can control how it’s managed and how it would be transferred upon their deaths (as in maybe it has to go to their children or be sold to other family members.) The tax treatment of the gift is that it will go to them free of tax — if there’s a tax to pay, it falls on your estate, but they inherit what’s left free of tax.  The capital gains tax basis on the property will be what it is on your date of death, so if they sell it someday, they’ll owe tax on the gain in value from your date of death to the date of sale. I don’t know what state you live in, but in California, where I practice, a gift from parent to children is also excluded from reassessment of property tax, so they get the property tax rate you were paying.

Funding subtrusts after the death of the first spouse

Dear Liza: In settling an AB trust I understand that 50% of the estate is to be placed in each of the A and B trusts. However, in our estate our house is worth more than all of the other equity. How can the estate be settled? With percentages of the home? Put the home in which trust?  That’s not a question you can answer in the abstract.  Those decisions get made after the first spouse dies.  First, you can’t know, now, what assets you’ll own then.  Second, in an A/B trust, the assets of the deceased spouse are used to fund a trust, often called a “B” trust or a “Unified Credit Trust,” up to the amount of money that’s excluded from the federal estate tax in the year of the first spouse’s death.  In 2012, that’s $5.12 million, but at the end of this year, that number falls to $1 million, unless Congress enacts new law. So, it’s not always going to “half” of the total trust estate, that will entirely depend upon the tax code in effect at the time your spouse dies. But, to answer part of the question you asked, the B Trust can be funded with a percentage of the house, and often is when there aren’t other assets that can be used to do so.

Death and Taxes: The Basics

Dear Liza: My cousin passed away in 2011, and she had a revocable living trust. My cousins inherited the assets 50/50. The assets were stocks. Do my cousins have to file income tax returns for what they received? Also, am I required to file an income tax return for the trust? Your cousins inherited the stocks at their value on the date your cousin died in 2011. Inheritances are NOT ordinary income under the federal tax code, so they receive those assets free of federal income tax. (We have a federal estate tax; if any tax was due, it would have been on your deceased cousin’s estate, if she owned more than $ 5 million in assets when she died.)  Seven states have an inheritance tax, so they’ll need to check on whether any state inheritance tax is due.  Your two cousins will be responsible for filing income taxes on any dividends they received after inheriting the stocks, and for any capital gains earned when they sell that stock if it has appreciated since they inherited it. You, as Trustee, would be responsible for filing a trust income tax return (Form 1041) if the trust earned more than $600 worth of income between the time your cousin died and the time the trust assets were distributed to the beneficiaries.

Amending a Living Trust

Dear Liza:  My mom and dad set up a revocable living trust and now dad has passed away. Can my mom amend it?  My answer is: Maybe. If your parents set up a trust that’s pretty common for married couples, in which the trust is divided into two trusts after the first spouse dies, your mother can’t amend the trust that holds your father’s assets.  She can, however, amend the trust that holds her assets, which is revocable during her lifetime.  This is called an A/B Trust.  To find out if your parents have that kind of trust, find the section that says what happens after the first spouse dies. If it says to divide the assets into a ‘Bypass Trust” and a “Survivor’s Trust” or a “Credit Trust” and a “Marital Trust,” then your parents established an A/B trust.  However, if that section says something like the assets are to be held in a revocable trust for the survivor’s benefit, then your mom can amend the entire trust (because it was never divided into two trusts).

Lifetime Gifts

Dear Liza: My friend has a stock portfolio she wants to give me before she dies.  She had cancer and only has a few months to live.  She wants to give it to me now to avoid the whole estate thing.  The total is about $220,000.  Do I have to pay gift tax if she transfers the portfolio to me in kind?  I am sorry to hear that your friend is so ill.  She can give you that portfolio, but it might not be the most tax-effective way to do it.  If she gives you the portfolio before she dies, she (or her estate) must report the gift on a gift tax return by April 15th of the following year. She won’t owe any gift tax on the transfer, because in 2012, each of us can give up to $5.12 million dollars free of gift tax, but any gift over the annual gift tax exclusion amount of $13,000 must be reported on that gift tax return.  If you later sell any of that portfolio, though, you will owe capital gains taxes on the difference between your friend’s basis in that stock and the sales price.   For example, if your friend owned stock in Y Corp., that she purchased for $1 dollar a share in 1982, and that stock is worth $100/share in 2013, you will owe capital gains on that $99/share rise in value.  Alternatively, if she gives you that portfolio upon her death, you will inherit it at the current fair market value for capital gains tax purposes.  In other words, if that Y Corp. stock is worth $100/share when your friend dies, and you later sell it at that price, you will owe zero in capital  gains taxes.  That portfolio will, however, be part of her taxable estate at her death, so, depending upon her other assets, her estate may or may not have to pay estate tax on those assets.  (Currently, she can give up to $5.12 million at death free of estate tax.) So, you and your friend should seek the advice of an accountant to see whether it makes sense for your friend to give you that stock via a Will or a trust upon her death, or during her lifetime.

Portability: Worth Filing an Estate Tax Return?

Dear Liza: It is my understanding that in order to preserve the “portability exemption” a surviving spouse must file an estate tax return  (706), which would not be required otherwise. It seems that 706 involves quite a bit of work and additional expenses. Do you think it’s worth the effort?  Surviving spouses of those who died in 2011 and 2012 have that decision to make. The problem is, there’s not an easy answer.  For those who don’t know what the question is, here’s a quick summary: Current estate tax law allows a surviving spouse to use any part of the $5 million exclusion from the estate tax that was available to their deceased spouse but not used by that spouse.  For example, if your spouse died in 2011, and their part of the estate was $1 million, you could use that extra $4 million dollars of unused exclusion to further reduce any estate tax due at your death. Your spouse’s exclusion would be portable to you. Except. There’s always an except. And this time there are couple of them, and they’re all pretty big:

  • In order to make use of that exclusion, you do have to file an estate tax return nine months after your spouse has died.
  • Estate tax returns require a detailed accounting of all of your spouse’s assets, which costs money and takes time to prepare.
  • Once filed, the IRS can examine, without any limitation period, a deceased spouse’s estate tax return to adjust the amount of the deceased spouse’s unused exclusion amount passing to the surviving spouse. 
  • There’s no guarantee that the additional, portable, exclusion will actually be available to you when you die, unless you die in 2012, because the current law expires in 2013.

In the end, you have to decide whether the time and cost involved are worth the potential tax savings down the road. For some people it is; for many, it isn’t.