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.
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Dear Liza: Do you have any recommendations on naming children as secondary beneficiaries for life insurance/investments? Why, as a matter of fact, I do! If your children are minors (under 18 in most states), your estate plan should establish some way of managing money for them until they are old enough to handle money responsibly. This is usually accomplished by creating a trust for them until a certain age, say twenty-seven. Until then, you would name a trustee to manage and distribute the child’s assets for them; after that, the money’s theirs to manage and invest. If you have created a living trust, you would name that trust as the beneficiary for your life insurance and the secondary beneficiary for your retirement accounts — that way, the money will be available to your children, but be managed by your trustee.
You can instead use a Will as your main estate planning document and your Will can set up exactly the same structure of a trust for children managed by a trustee until the children reach a certain age. However, if you use a Will, your estate will go through probate BEFORE the trust for the kids can be funded (don’t worry, the kids will have access to your estate during the probate process). Think of this as two roads to the same place — one road (the living trust) just gets you there faster.
If, however, you name minor children directly as beneficiaries on those forms, and you die while they are still minors, a guardian of the estate will have to appointed to manage these assets, and, when a child reaches the age of 18, they money will be all theirs.
If your children are adults, you can and should name them directly. It makes it easier for them to deal with these assets after your death and there are special advantages to doing this with respect to retirement accounts.