THE WHOLE POINT OF A SOLID, UP-TO-DATE ESTATE PLAN is to help protect you and your family against life’s changes—and the last couple of years have been an object lesson in just how sweeping change can be. Since the start of 2020 we’ve seen a health and humanitarian crisis, severe economic disruption, see-saw markets and an unusually contentious election. For many people, this rush of external events underscored the importance of having in place a plan for their family’s future, and of adjusting existing plans.
Will the unpredictability continue into 2022? While there’s clearly no way of knowing, it seems foolish to discount the possibility. What is apparent is that a number of issues and factors in the coming year could have an impact on your estate plan, including a probable reduction in the federal estate tax exemption. “It’s important to have a plan in place that can absorb the shocks of some of the items on everyone’s minds today: the economy, the pandemic and so forth,” says Jean Y. Kim, a managing director and wealth strategist with Merrill’s Strategic Wealth Advisory group.
In addition to external events like shifting markets or changes in the law, you might experience personal changes that could trigger the need to create or revisit your estate plan—for instance, a marriage, birth, divorce or a death. In light of all the things that might be coming down the line, this might be an especially opportune moment for you to initiate a conversation with your financial advisor, tax professional and attorney.
The key is to have a plan that’s flexible enough to accommodate shifting circumstances. “Your plan should be able to adapt to changes in your life, or your children’s lives, often with very little or even no revision needed,” says Lynn Bebeau, director, trust specialist with Merrill.
Because estate planning generally involves the transfer of wealth, during life or at death, to beneficiaries in a manner that seeks to minimize taxes, any changes in tax laws can be consequential. Among the many provisions currently being discussed in Congress is one that would lower federal gift and estate tax exemptions, potentially to as low as $3.5 million for individuals for 2022.1
Because of the uncertainty, it’s critical to keep tabs on what’s happening on Capitol Hill, says Anthony Fittizzi, a managing director and trust specialist with Bank of America Private Bank. “Being proactive in looking at how clients can transition wealth to the next generation under current law is something we’re focused on.”
But while tax considerations are important, they’re far from the only factor in a well-designed, flexible estate plan. “When we meet with clients who are establishing or reviewing a plan for the benefit of their family, we often say, ‘Don’t let the tax tail wag the estate planning dog,’” Bebeau notes. “In other words, acknowledge and respond to possible changes in tax laws, but keep family at the forefront of your planning.”
To help insure that you have an estate plan that’s as flexible as you need it to be, it’s important to have a conversation with your financial advisor, after consulting with your tax professional and personal lawyer, so they can all work in tandem. What might that involve? For one thing, a number of foundational questions. “Some of the things we’ll ask include: Has your family tree changed? What is your net worth now? What kind of assets do you have? Who are you hoping to take care of in the future?” says Fittizzi. “The answers can help your attorney, accountant and financial advisors determine strategies that can make an estate plan truly personal.” He adds that some areas they might focus on include:
If one of your priorities is to transfer wealth to the next generation, your advisor, accountant and attorney can work together to help you find one appropriate to your goals. Among the most commonly used:
Gifts. “The simplest vehicle is an outright gift, which can be tax-free if it qualifies for the gift tax annual exclusion," says Fittizzi. He adds, "In addition to this annual exclusion, exemption gifts can also be made to children or grandchildren.” The latest information on the gift tax annual and lifetime exclusions can be found here.
Loans. While technically not a gift, an intra-family loan can transfer assets to children for a limited time. It would need to be paid back within a set period, though at an extremely low, government-set, minimum interest rate (currently about 0.15% for a short-term loan).
Trusts. Rather than gifting outright, you can move assets into a trust, which will have a trustee such as a financial institution, a family member or another individual. Fittizzi notes, “Those assets can be invested, managed and administered for the benefit of your children or grandchildren over a period of time, having been gifted tax-free under current law, even if that law changes in the future.” While many types are available, here are a few of the most popular trusts:
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that being prepared for change is critical. As Fittizzi puts it, “Revisiting an estate plan from time to time is always worthwhile. In the current environment it may be essential.”
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