How Community Property Affects Estate and Tax Planning

In most states, spouses can purchase and own property separately from one another. However, in certain states – called community property states – if one spouse purchases property, it is considered the property of both spouses. How marital property is owned has implications for both estate and tax planning.

There are currently nine community property states. They are: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. A few other states (for example, Alaska) allow couples to opt into community property arrangements.

Community property is property acquired by a husband and wife during marriage. In community property states, property held in only one spouse’s name can still be community property. For example, the paycheck that a spouse brings home every week is community property even though only one spouse’s name is on the check. If that check is used to buy an asset, then that asset is community property, regardless of whose name is on the account or the asset.

Property that is not community property is property that one spouse brings to the marriage, inherits, or is gifted. A spouse can turn separate property into community property by putting an asset owned by one spouse into both spouses’ names.

Depending on the state, partners may be able to change whether property is separate or community via pre-nuptial agreement, post-nuptial agreement, or exceptions in the law. Changing community property into separate property may be appropriate in second marriages or when one spouse is bringing significant separate property into the marriage. For example, if, at the time of the marriage, one spouse receives significant income from owning a business, the spouses may decide that it is appropriate that the business remain that spouse’s separate property and the income from that property will remain that spouse’s separate property.

One advantage of community property is with regard to capital gains taxes. If one spouse dies, the cost basis of the community property gets “stepped up.” The current value of the property becomes the cost basis. This means that if, for example, the couples’ house was purchased years ago for $150,000 and it is now worth $600,000. The surviving spouse will receive a step up from the original cost basis from $150,000 to $600,000. If the spouse sells the property right away, he or she will not owe any capital gains taxes. In non-community property states, if one spouse dies, only the deceased spouse’s interest (usually 50 percent of the value) is stepped up.

When estate planning in a community property state, it is important to fully review assets to determine which assets are community property and which are separate property. A surviving spouse in a community property state is entitled by law to half of the community property, regardless of what the spouses may have wanted to do with the property (such as pass it on to children). Community property can be a factor even in non-community property states if the couple owns property in a community property state.

If spouses move from one type of state to another, it is especially important that they have their estate plan reviewed by an attorney in the new state to make sure the plan still does what they want.

Using an Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust to Transfer Assets

An intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT) is a common estate planning tool that is used by wealthy families to transfer assets from one generation to the next while achieving significant tax savings. IDGTs are especially useful if you have assets that will appreciate significantly over time.

An IDGT is “intentionally defective” because it purposely gives the grantor – the person creating the trust – a right or power that allows the grantor to pay taxes on the income generated by the trust even though the trust assets are not a part of the grantor’s estate. The trust is irrevocable, which means the trust assets will not be counted for estate tax purposes. Transferring assets to an IDGT takes the assets out of an estate while the trust’s income is taxed at the grantor’s personal rate, not the trust’s much higher rate.

The benefit of an IDGT is that it allows the trust to grow without having to use trust assets to pay income taxes. This amounts to a tax-free gift to the trust. In addition, by paying the income taxes, you are also continuing to lower your taxable estate. IDGTs work best for assets that are likely to appreciate significantly in value, such as stock or real estate. For example, suppose you fund an IDGT with $10 million in assets and it earns 5 percent annually over a 30-year period. If the trust does not have to pay income tax, it might grow to more than $43 million. If the trust needs to pay income taxes from its own assets, its growth would likely be significantly less.

Bear in mind that when you transfer the assets to the trust, the transfer may be subject to gift taxes. Currently, the annual gift tax exclusion is $16,000 (for 2022). This means that any person who gives away $16,000 or less to any one individual (anyone other than their spouse) does not have to report the gift or gifts to the IRS. In addition, the IRS allows you to give away a total of $12.06 million (in 2022) during your lifetime before a gift tax is owed. Even if you gift assets to an IDGT and reduce your future gift and estate tax exemption, any future growth will occur outside of your estate.

If you want to avoid gift taxes, you may be able to sell assets to the trust. This is usually done in installments through an interest-bearing promissory note. When an asset is sold to an IDGT, there are no capital gains taxes because you are selling something to yourself. If the assets in the trust gain more in value than the interest rate, then the sale will still benefit the trust overall. This strategy works best when interest rates are low.

To find out if an IDGT is right for you, contact your attorney.

The Tax Consequences of Selling a House After the Death of a Spouse

If your spouse dies, you may have to decide whether or when to sell your house. There are some tax considerations that go into that decision.

The biggest concern when selling property is capital gains taxes.  A capital gain is the difference between the “basis” in property and its selling price. The basis is usually the purchase price of property. So, if you purchased a house for $250,000 and sold it for $450,000 you would have $200,000 of gain ($450,000 – $250,000 = $200,000).

Couples who are married and file taxes jointly can sell their main residence and exclude up to $500,000 of the gain from the sale from their gross income. Single individuals can exclude only $250,000. Surviving spouses get the full $500,000 exclusion if they sell their house within two years of the date of the spouse’s death, and if other ownership and use requirements have been met. The result is that widows or widowers who sell within two years may not have to pay any capital gains tax on the sale of the home.

If it has been more than two years after the spouse’s death, the surviving spouse can exclude only $250,000 of capital gains. However, the surviving spouse does not automatically owe taxes on the rest of any gain.

When a property owner dies, the cost basis of the property is “stepped up.” This means the current value of the property becomes the basis. When a joint owner dies, half of the value of the property is stepped up. For example, suppose a husband and wife buy property for $200,000, and then the husband dies when the property has a fair market value of $300,000. The new cost basis of the property for the wife will be $250,000 ($100,000 for the wife’s original 50 percent interest and $150,000 for the other half passed to her at the husband’s death). In community property states, where property acquired during marriage is the community property of both spouses, the property’s entire basis is stepped up when one spouse dies.

To understand the tax consequences of selling property after the death of a spouse, contact your attorney.

What to Do If You Want to Leave Your Children Unequal Inheritances

Parents usually want to leave their children equal shares of their estate, but equal isn’t always fair. If you plan to provide more (or less) for one child in your estate plan, preparation is important.

It is natural for parents to want to treat their children equally in their estate plan, but there are some circumstances in which a parent might want to leave children unequal shares. If one child is providing all the caregiving, the parent might want to reward that child. If one child is substantially better off than another child, then the parent might want to provide more for the child who has a greater need for the funds.

Other factors that can influence how much to give each child is if one child has special needs or if there is a family business that only one child wants to run. It’s also possible that the parents have already provided more for one child during their lifetime, maybe by paying for graduate school or helping them buy a house.

Whatever the reason for leaving your children unequal shares, the important thing is to discuss your reasoning with the children. Sit down with them and explain your decision-making process. If you feel like the conversation could be difficult and contentious, you could hire a mediator to help facilitate the discussion.

Your children may be understanding of your decision, but if you are worried about one child challenging your will after you die, you may want to take additional steps:

  • Draft your will and estate plan with the assistance of an attorney and make sure it is properly executed. To avoid accusations of undue influence, do not involve any of your children in the process.
  • Explain in detail your reasoning in your estate planning document and make it clear that it is your decision and not the influence of the child who is receiving more.
  • Include a no-contest clause (also called an “in terrorem clause”) in your will. A no-contest clause provides that if an heir challenges the will and loses, then he or she will get nothing. You must leave the heir enough so that a challenge is not worth the risk of losing the inheritance.

Can Life Insurance Affect Your Medicaid Eligibility?

When applying for Medicaid many people often forget about life insurance. But depending on the type of life insurance and the value of the policy, it can count as an asset.

In order to qualify for Medicaid, you can’t have more than $2,000 in assets (in most states). Life insurance policies are usually either “term” life insurance or “whole” life insurance. If a Medicaid applicant has term life insurance, it doesn’t count as an asset and won’t affect Medicaid eligibility because this form of life insurance does not have an accumulated cash value. On the other hand, whole life insurance accumulates a cash value that the owner can access, so it can be counted as an asset.

That said, Medicaid law exempts small whole life insurance policies from the calculation of assets. If the policy’s face value is less than $1,500, then it won’t count as an asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes. However, if the policy’s face value is more than $1,500, the cash surrender value becomes an available asset.

For example, suppose a Medicaid applicant has a whole life insurance policy with a $1,500 death benefit and a $700 cash surrender value (the amount you would get if you cash in the policy before death). The policy is exempt and won’t be used to determine the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid. However, if the death benefit is $1,750 and the cash value is $700, the cash surrender value will be counted toward the $2,000 asset limit.

If you have a life insurance policy that may disqualify you from Medicaid, you have a few options:

  • Surrender the policy and spend down the cash value.
  • Transfer ownership of the policy to your spouse or to a special needs trust. If you transfer the policy to your spouse, the cash value would then be part of the spouse’s community resource allowance.
  • Transfer ownership of the policy to a funeral home. The policy can be used to pay for your funeral expenses, which is an exempt asset.
  • Take out a loan on the cash value. This reduces the cash value and the death benefit, but keeps the policy in place.

Before taking any actions with a life insurance policy, you should talk to your attorney to find out what is the best strategy for you.

The Durable Power of Attorney: Your Most Important Estate Planning Document

For most people, the durable power of attorney is the most important estate planning instrument available — even more useful than a will. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of you – the “principal” — for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated.

In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes time, costs money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that she could implement immediately under a simple durable power of attorney.

A power of attorney may be limited or general. A limited power of attorney may give someone the right to sign a deed to property on a day when you are out of town. Or it may allow someone to sign checks for you. A general power is comprehensive and gives your attorney-in-fact all the powers and rights that you have yourself.

A power of attorney may also be either current or “springing.” Most powers of attorney take effect immediately upon their execution, even if the understanding is that they will not be used until and unless the grantor becomes incapacitated. However, the document can also be written so that it does not become effective until such incapacity occurs. In such cases, it is very important that the standard for determining incapacity and triggering the power of attorney be clearly laid out in the document itself.

However, attorneys report that their clients are experiencing increasing difficulty in getting banks or other financial institutions to recognize the authority of an agent under a durable power of attorney. A certain amount of caution on the part of financial institutions is understandable: When someone steps forward claiming to represent the account holder, the financial institution wants to verify that the attorney-in-fact indeed has the authority to act for the principal. Still, some institutions go overboard, for example requiring that the attorney-in-fact indemnify them against any loss. Many banks or other financial institutions have their own standard power of attorney forms. To avoid problems, you may want to execute such forms offered by the institutions with which you have accounts. In addition, many attorneys counsel their clients to create living trusts in part to avoid this sort of problem with powers of attorney.

While you should seriously consider executing a durable power of attorney, if you do not have someone you trust to appoint it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may execute a limited durable power of attorney simply nominating the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian. Most states require the court to respect your nomination “except for good cause or disqualification.”

 

Married Couples Need an Estate Plan

Don’t assume your estate will automatically go to your spouse when you die. If you don’t have an estate plan, your spouse may have to share your estate with other family members.

If you die without an estate plan, the state will decide where your assets go. Each state has laws that determine what will happen to your estate if you don’t have a will. If you are married, most states award one-third to one-half of your estate to your spouse, with the rest divided among your children or, if you don’t have children, to other living relatives such as your parents or siblings.

In addition, without an estate plan, you need to worry about what could happen if you become incapacitated. While your spouse may be able to access your joint bank accounts and make health care decisions for you, what happens if something happens to your spouse? It is important to have back-up plans. And even if your spouse is fine, depending on how your finances are set up, your spouse may not be able to access everything without a power of attorney authorizing it.

To avoid this, it is important to make sure you have estate planning documents in place. The most basic estate planning document is a will. If you do not have a will directing who will inherit your assets, your estate will be distributed according to state law, which, as noted, gives only a portion of your estate to your spouse. If you have children, a will is also where you can name a guardian for your children.

You may also want a trust to be a part of your estate plan.  It permits you to name someone to manage your financial affairs. You can name one or more people to serve as co-trustee with you so that you can work together on your finances. This allows them to seamlessly take over in the event of your incapacity. Trusts have many options for how they can be structured and what happens with your property after your death. There are several different reasons for setting up a trust. The most common one is to avoid probate. If you establish a revocable living trust that terminates when you die, any property in the trust passes immediately to the beneficiaries. This can save your beneficiaries time and money. Certain trusts can also result in tax advantages both for the donor and the beneficiary. These could be “credit shelter” or “life insurance” trusts. Other trusts may be used to protect property from creditors or to help the donor qualify for Medicaid.

The next most important document is a durable power of attorney. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in your place for financial purposes if and when you ever become incapacitated. Without it, if you become disabled or even unable to manage your affairs for a period of time, your finances could become disordered and your bills not paid, and this would place a greater burden on your family. They might have to go to court to seek the appointment of a conservator, which takes time and money, all of which can be avoided through a simple document.

Similar to a durable power of attorney, a health care proxy appoints an agent to make health care decisions for you when you can’t do so for yourself, whether permanently or temporarily. Again, without this document in place, your family members might be forced to go to court to be appointed guardian. Include a medical directive to guide your agent in making decisions that best match your wishes.

Do not assume your spouse is automatically protected when you die. Consult with your attorney to make sure you have all the estate planning documents you need.

What Are the House Ownership Options When Parents and Adult Children Live Together?

Increasingly, several generations of American families are living together. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data, 64 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, live in households containing two adult generations. These multi-generational living arrangements present legal and financial challenges around home ownership.

Multi-generational households may include “boomerang” children who return home after college or other forays out into the world, middle-aged children who have lost jobs, or seniors who no longer can or want to live alone. In many, if not most, cases when mom moves in with daughter and son-in-law or daughter and son-in-law move in with mom, everything works out well for all concerned. But it’s important that everyone, including siblings living elsewhere, find answers to questions like these:

  1. If mom owns the house, what happens when she passes away? Do daughter and son-in-law have to move out? If mom leaves them the house, is that fair to the other siblings? If she leaves them her savings and investments instead, what happens if that money gets spent down on her care?
  2. If mom pays for an in-law addition to be built on daughter and son-in-law’s house, what guarantees should she have about being able to live there? What happens if, despite everyone’s best intentions, mom moves out either because living together isn’t working out or she needs care that the family can’t provide? Do the daughter and son-in-law simply get the advantage of the increase in value to their property? What if mom needs the money she put into the house to live on? What are the Medicaid issues if she needs nursing home care within five years?
  3. What are everyone’s expectations in terms of paying living and housing expenses?
  4. What happens if daughter gets a great job offer in another city? Or daughter and son-in-law get divorced?
  5. If grandchildren are still living at home, is mom expected to help with child care?
  6. How do the answers to all of the questions change if mom and daughter and her husband are pooling their resources to purchase a new home for everyone?
  7. Who will care for mom if she becomes disabled? Is daughter expected to give up her work to provide the care? Should she be compensated? What about using up mom’s financial resources to pay for care providers?

It is difficult to answer many of these questions in the abstract, but having an open discussion about them at the start, writing down the answers, and reviewing the questions and answers as circumstances change, can help avoid misunderstandings and potential recriminations down the road.

The answers to these questions may lead to different forms of home ownership that can help achieve the family’s goals.  Here are some of the options:

  1. Joint Ownership. If mom, daughter, and (perhaps) son-in-law own the house as joint tenants with right of survivorship, when mom passes away the house will go to the other owners without going through probate. This has an advantage if mom ever needs Medicaid to pay for home or nursing home care because it may avoid the state’s claim for reimbursement at her death (usually referred to as “estate recovery”) Some states have expanded the definition of estate recovery to include property in which the recipient had an interest but which passes outside of probate, so property in joint ownership may be included in estate recovery in those states. If the house is sold while the owners are alive, the proceeds (absent another agreement) will be divided equally among the co-owners.
  2. Tenants in Common. If mom, daughter, and son-in-law own the house as tenants in common, mom’s share at her death will go to whomever she names in her will. This may be fairer to other family members, but does not avoid probate. As with joint ownership, if the house is sold while all the owners are alive, the proceeds (absent another agreement) will be divided equally among the co-owners.
  3. Life Estate. A life estate is a form of joint ownership where mom as the “life tenant” has the right to live in the house during her life and at her death it passes automatically to the “remaindermen” who can be anyone she names — daughter or son-in-law or all of her children equally. Like joint ownership, it avoids probate and thus may also avoid Medicaid estate recovery. If the property is sold, the proceeds are divided up between the mom and whoever is on the deed as remaindermen, the shares being determined based on mom’s age at the time — the older she is, the smaller her share and the larger the share of the remaindermen.
  4. Trust. Putting the house in trust is the most flexible approach because a trust can say whatever the person creating it wants. It can guarantee mom the right to live in the house and compensate daughter and son-in-law for the care they provide. It can also take into account changes in circumstances, such as daughter passing away before mom. At the same time, it avoids probate and Medicaid estate recovery.

All of these options have different tax results in terms of capital gains when the home is sold, as well as different treatment by Medicaid if mom needs help paying for care. It’s best to consult with your attorney to determine what makes the most sense in your particular situation.

Nursing Home Residents Face Even Greater Barriers to Voting Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has forced nursing homes to place a number of restrictions on their residents. These constraints are having the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for nursing home residents to vote. Hundreds of thousands of nursing home and assisted living community residents could be disenfranchised.

Older Americans are some of the most reliable voters, but nursing home residents face challenges to voting even in normal times, and they are encountering even greater barriers this election season. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes have locked down, prohibiting family and friends from visiting residents and residents from leaving the facilities. This means residents may not be able to leave to vote and also will not be able to have help from family members or organizations in obtaining and filling out mail-in ballots.

In past years, nursing homes and assisted living facilities often acted as polling places, but many of those are being moved due to the pandemic. In addition, nonpartisan organizations have historically been able to enter nursing homes to assist residents with their ballots, but it is unclear whether this will be allowed this year. North Carolina and Louisiana specifically prohibit nursing home staff from assisting residents with their ballots, but even in states that don’t explicitly prohibit it, overworked staff may not have the time to help residents.

While federal law requires nursing homes to protect their residents’ rights, including the right to vote, it is “a really open question to what extent people in long-term care institutions are going to be able to participate in our election in November,” says Nina Kohn, a law professor at Syracuse University who has studied facility residents’ voting-rights issues. Kohn warns that “we should be clear that there is tremendous reason to be concerned that nursing home residents will be . . . systematically disenfranchised in this election,”

Medicare Open Enrollment Starts October 15: Is It Time to Change Plans?

Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Now is the time to start shopping around to see whether your current choices are still the best ones for you.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans.

Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of Open Enrollment, but of those who do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2020 should review their choices for 2021, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

  • Medicare Plan Finder, which helps you find a plan to match your needs: www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan
  • Medicare coverage options: https://www.medicare.gov/medicarecoverageoptions/
  • The 2020 Medicare & You handbook, which all Medicare beneficiaries should have received. The handbook can also be downloaded online at: medicare.gov/forms-help-resources/medicare-you-handbook/download-medicare-you-in-different-formats
  • The Medicare Rights Center: www.medicareinteractive.org
  • Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which offers independent counseling: https://www.shiptacenter.org