3 Essential Estate Planning Strategies to Consider

essential estate planning strategies

With most tax planning, there are certain strategies that are generally effective and shouldn’t be ignored. The same holds true for estate planning. Here are three essential estate planning strategies to consider that may help you achieve your goals.

Use an ILIT to Hold Life Insurance

Do you own an insurance policy on your life? Then be aware that a substantial portion of the proceeds could be lost to estate taxes if your estate is large enough to be liable for them. The exact amount will depend on the estate tax exemption available at your death as well as the estate tax rates that apply.

However, if you don’t own the policy, the proceeds won’t be included in your taxable estate. One effective strategy for keeping life insurance out of your estate is to set up an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) to buy and hold the policy.

If you already own your life insurance policy, you can transfer the policy to an ILIT. But watch out for the “three-year rule,” which provides that certain assets, including life insurance, transferred within three years of your death are pulled back into your estate and potentially taxed.

Place Assets in a Credit Shelter Trust

Designating your spouse as your sole beneficiary may seem like a good strategy. But doing so can waste your estate tax exemption.

Suppose you leave everything to your spouse. There will be no current estate tax at your death because of the unlimited marital deduction (assuming your spouse is a U.S. citizen). When your spouse dies, however, the assets transferred to him or her at your death will be included in his or her taxable estate (assuming the assets remain intact). A portion of your spouse’s estate could be subject to estate tax, depending on a variety of factors such as the size of your spouse’s total estate and the estate tax exemption available at his or her death.

You can preserve your exemption and reduce or even eliminate estate taxes by placing assets in a credit shelter trust. If properly structured, the trust provides your spouse with income for life — and access to the principal as needed — but the assets aren’t included in his or her estate. Plus, your own exemption shields the trust assets from estate tax.

Take Advantage of a Gifting Strategy

Don’t underestimate the tax-saving power of making gifts. Currently, the annual exclusion is $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 if you split gifts with your spouse).

Annual exclusion gifts can be more effective because, unlike lifetime exemption gifts, they don’t reduce the amount of wealth you can transfer tax-free at death under your estate tax exemption. Gifting, whether under the annual exclusion or lifetime exemption, also removes future appreciation from your taxable estate.

Work with a Pro

In addition to these essential estate planning strategies, there’s much you need to consider when developing or reviewing your overall estate plan. Contact us so you can keep your plan on the right track.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

How to ensure life insurance isn’t part of your taxable estate

ensure life insurance isn’t part of your taxable estate

If you have a life insurance policy, you may want to ensure that the benefits your family will receive after your death won’t be included in your estate. That way, the benefits won’t be subject to federal estate tax.

Current exemption amounts

For 2021, the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $11.7 million ($23.4 million for married couples). That’s generous by historical standards but in 2026, the exemption is set to fall to about $6 million ($12 million for married couples) after inflation adjustments — unless Congress changes the law.

In or out of your estate

Under the estate tax rules, insurance on your life will be included in your taxable estate if:

  • Your estate is the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds, or
  • You possessed certain economic ownership rights (called “incidents of ownership”) in the policy at your death (or within three years of your death).

It’s easy to avoid the first situation by making sure your estate isn’t designated as the policy beneficiary.

The second rule is more complicated. Just having someone else possess legal title to the policy won’t prevent the proceeds from being included in your estate if you keep “incidents of ownership.” Rights that, if held by you, will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate include:

  • The right to change beneficiaries,
  • The right to assign the policy (or revoke an assignment),
  • The right to pledge the policy as security for a loan,
  • The right to borrow against the policy’s cash surrender value, and
  • The right to surrender or cancel the policy.
  • Be aware that merely having any of the above powers will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate even if you never exercise them.

Buy-sell agreements and trusts

Life insurance obtained to fund a buy-sell agreement for a business interest under a “cross-purchase” arrangement won’t be taxed in your estate (unless the estate is the beneficiary).

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is another effective vehicle that can be set up to keep life insurance proceeds from being taxed in the insured’s estate. Typically, the policy is transferred to the trust along with assets that can be used to pay future premiums. Alternatively, the trust buys the insurance with funds contributed by the insured. As long as the trust agreement doesn’t give the insured the ownership rights described above, the proceeds won’t be included in the insured’s estate.

The three-year rule

If you’re considering setting up a life insurance trust with a policy you own currently or simply assigning away your ownership rights in such a policy, consult with us to ensure you achieve your goals. Unless you live for at least three years after these steps are taken, the proceeds will be taxed in your estate. (For policies in which you never held incidents of ownership, the three-year rule doesn’t apply.)

Contact us if you have questions or would like assistance with estate planning and taxation.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Keep it all in the family: Transferring your vacation home

Transferring your vacation home

If your family owns a vacation home, you know what a relaxing refuge it can be. This is especially true these days due to the limited travel options you may have because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. However, without a solid plan and ground rules that all family members agree to, conflict and tension may result in a ruined vacation — or worse yet, selling the home.

Determining ownership

From an estate planning standpoint, it’s important for all family members to understand who actually owns the home. Family members sharing the home will more readily accept decisions about its usage or disposition knowing that they come from those holding legal title.

If the home has multiple owners — several siblings, for example — consider the form of ownership carefully. There may be advantages to holding the title to the home in a family limited partnership (FLP) and using FLP interests to allocate ownership interests among family members. You can even design the partnership — or a separate buy-sell agreement — to help keep the home in the family.

Laying down the rules

Typically, disputes between family members arise because of conflicting assumptions about how and when the home may be used, who’s responsible for cleaning and upkeep, and how the property will ultimately be sold or transferred. To avoid these disputes, it’s important to agree on a clear set of rules that cover using the home (when, by whom), and responsibilities for cleaning, maintenance, and repairs.

If you plan to rent out the home as a source of income, it’s critical to establish rules for such activities. The tax implications of renting out a vacation home depend on several factors, including the number of rental days and the amount of personal use during the year.

Planning for the future

What happens if an owner dies, divorces, or decides to sell his or her interest in the home? It depends on who owns the home and how the legal title is held. If the home is owned by a married couple or an individual, the disposition of the home upon death or divorce will be dictated by the relevant estate plan or divorce settlement.

If family members own the home as tenants-in-common, they’re generally free to sell their interests to whomever they choose, to bequeath their interests to their heirs, or even to force a sale of the entire property under certain circumstances. If they hold the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, an owner’s interest automatically passes to the surviving owners at death. If the home is held in an FLP, family members have a great deal of flexibility to determine what happens to an owner’s interest in the event of death, divorce, or sale.

Handle with care

A vacation home that has been in your family for generations needs to be handled carefully. You likely want to do everything possible to hold on to it for future generations. We can assist you in developing a plan to help you achieve this.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Avoid these four estate planning deadly sins

four estate planning deadly sins

According to literature, the “seven deadly sins” are lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy, and pride. Although individuals may be guilty of these from time to time, other types of “sins” can be fatal to an estate plan if you’re not careful. Here are four transgressions to avoid.

Sin #1: You don’t update beneficiary forms.

Of course, your will spells out who gets what, where, when, and how. But a will is often superseded by other documents like beneficiary forms for retirement plans, bank accounts, annuities, and life insurance policies. Therefore, like your will, you must also keep these forms up to date.

For example, despite your intentions, retirement plan assets could go to a sibling — or even an ex-spouse — instead of your children or grandchildren if you haven’t updated your retirement plan beneficiary form in a long time. Review beneficiary forms for relevant accounts periodically and make the necessary adjustments.

Sin #2: You don’t properly fund trusts.

Frequently, an estate plan will include one or more trusts, including a revocable living trust. The main benefit of a living trust is that assets don’t have to be probated and exposed to public inspection. It’s generally recommended that such a trust be used only as a complement to a will, not as a replacement.

However, the trust must be funded with assets, meaning that legal ownership of the assets must be transferred to the trust. For example, if real estate is being transferred, the deed must be changed to reflect this. If you’re transferring securities or bank accounts, you should follow the directions provided by the financial institutions. Otherwise, the assets may have to go through probate.

Sin #3: You don’t properly title assets.

Both inside and outside of trusts, the manner in which you own assets can make a big difference. For instance, if you own property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the assets will go directly to the other named person, such as your spouse, on your death.

Not only is titling assets critical, but you should also review these designations periodically, just as you should your beneficiary designations. In particular, major changes in your personal circumstances or the prevailing laws could dictate a change in the ownership method.

Sin #4: You don’t coordinate different plan aspects.

Typically, there are a number of moving parts to an estate plan, including a will, a power of attorney, trusts, retirement plan accounts, and life insurance policies. Don’t look at each one in a vacuum. Even though they have different objectives, consider them to be components that should be coordinated within the overall plan.

For instance, arrange to take distributions from investments — including securities, qualified retirement plans, and traditional and Roth IRAs — in a way that preserves more wealth. Also, naming a revocable living trust as a retirement plan beneficiary could accelerate tax liability.

Work with us to make sure your estate plan continues to meet your objectives.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Maximize your 401(k) plan to save for retirement

Maximize your 401(k) plan to save for retirement

Contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan can help you reduce taxes and save for retirement. If your employer offers a 401(k) or Roth 401(k) plan, contributing to it is a smart way to build a substantial sum of money.

If you’re not already contributing the maximum allowed, consider increasing your contribution rate. Because of tax-deferred compounding (tax-free in the case of Roth accounts), boosting contributions can have a major impact on the size of your nest egg at retirement.

With a 401(k), an employee makes an election to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by an employer on his or her behalf to the plan. The contribution limit for 2020 is $19,500. Employees age 50 or older by year-end are also permitted to make additional “catch-up” contributions of $6,500, for a total limit of $26,000 in 2020.

The IRS recently announced that the 401(k) contribution limits for 2021 will remain the same as for 2020.

If you contribute to a traditional 401(k)

A traditional 401(k) offers many benefits, including:

  • Contributions are pretax, reducing your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which can also help you reduce or avoid exposure to the 3.8 percent net investment income tax.
  • Plan assets can grow tax-deferred — meaning you pay no income tax until you take distributions.
  • Your employer may match some or all of your contributions pretax.

If you already have a 401(k) plan, take a look at your contributions. Try to increase your contribution rate to get as close to the $19,500 limit (with an extra $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older) as you can afford. Keep in mind that your paycheck will be reduced by less than the dollar amount of the contribution, because the contributions are pretax — so, income tax isn’t withheld.

If you contribute to a Roth 401(k)

Employers may also include a Roth option in their 401(k) plans. If your employer offers this, you can designate some or all of your contributions as Roth contributions. While such contributions don’t reduce your current MAGI, qualified distributions will be tax-free.

Roth 401(k) contributions may be especially beneficial for higher-income earners, because they don’t have the option to contribute to a Roth IRA. Your ability to make a Roth IRA contribution for 2021 will be reduced if your adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2021 exceeds:

  • $198,000 (up from $196,000 for 2020) for married joint-filing couples, or
  • $125,000 (up from $124,000 for 2020) for single taxpayers.

Your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA in 2021 will be eliminated entirely if you’re a married joint filer and your 2021 AGI equals or exceeds $208,000 (up from $206,000 for 2020). The 2021 cutoff for single filers is $140,000 or more (up from $139,000 for 2020).

Contact us if you have questions about how much to contribute or the best mix between traditional and Roth 401(k) contributions. We can discuss the tax and retirement-saving strategies in your situation.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.