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.

Tax-Favored Ways to Build Up A College Fund

build up a college fund

If you’re a parent with a college-bound child, you may be concerned about being able to fund future tuition and other higher education costs. You want to take maximum advantage of tax benefits to minimize your expenses. Here are some possible options.

Savings bonds

Series EE U.S. savings bonds offer two tax-saving opportunities for eligible families when used to finance college:

  • You don’t have to report the interest on the bonds for federal tax purposes until the bonds are cashed in, and
  • Interest on “qualified” Series EE (and Series I) bonds may be exempt from federal tax if the bond proceeds are used for qualified education expenses.

To qualify for the tax exemption for college use, you must purchase the bonds in your name (not the child’s) or jointly with your spouse. The proceeds must be used for tuition, fees and certain other expenses — not room and board. If only part of the proceeds is used for qualified expenses, only that part of the interest is exempt.

The exemption is phased out if your adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds certain amounts.

529 plans

A qualified tuition program (also known as a 529 plan) allows you to buy tuition credits for a child or make contributions to an account set up to meet a child’s future higher education expenses. Qualified tuition programs are established by state governments or private education institutions.

Contributions aren’t deductible. The contributions are treated as taxable gifts to the child, but they’re eligible for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 for 2021). A donor who contributes more than the annual exclusion limit for the year can elect to treat the gift as if it were spread out over a five-year period.

The earnings on the contributions accumulate tax-free until college costs are paid from the funds. Distributions from 529 plans are tax-free to the extent the funds are used to pay “qualified higher education expenses.” Distributions of earnings that aren’t used for qualified expenses will be subject to income tax plus a 10% penalty tax.

Coverdell education savings accounts (ESAs)

You can establish a Coverdell ESA and make contributions of up to $2,000 annually for each child under age 18.

The right to make contributions begins to phase out once your AGI is over a certain amount. If the income limitation is a problem, a child can contribute to his or her own account.

Although the contributions aren’t deductible, income in the account isn’t taxed, and distributions are tax-free if used on qualified education expenses. If the child doesn’t attend college, the money must be withdrawn when he or she turns 30, and any earnings will be subject to tax and penalty. But unused funds can be transferred tax-free to a Coverdell ESA of another member of the child’s family who hasn’t reached age 30. (Some ESA requirements don’t apply to individuals with special needs.)

Plan ahead

These are just some of the tax-favored ways to build up a college fund for your children. Once your child is in college, you may qualify for tax breaks such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit. Contact us if you’d like to discuss any of the options.

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.

Divorcing couples should understand these 4 tax issues

divorce planning

When a couple is going through a divorce, taxes are probably not foremost in their minds. But without proper planning and advice, some people find divorce to be an even more taxing experience. Several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are four issues to understand if you’re in the midst of a divorce.

Issue 1: Alimony or support payments.

For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)

Issue 2: Child support.

No matter when a divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).

Issue 3: Your residence.

Generally, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect the exclusion for the spouse who moves out.

If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.

Issue 4: Pension benefits.

A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO, the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.

More to consider

These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. If you own a business, you may have to pay your spouse a share. There are also estate planning considerations. Contact us to help you work through the financial issues involved in divorce.

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.

Selling your home? Consider these tax implications

Selling Your Home

Spring and summer are the optimum seasons for selling a home. And interest rates are currently attractive, so buyers may be out in full force in your area. Freddie Mac reports that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 4.14% during the week of May 2, 2019, while the 15-year mortgage rate was 3.6%. This is down 0.41% and 0.43%, respectively, from a year earlier.
But before you contact a realtor to sell your home, you should review the tax considerations.

Sellers can exclude some gain

If you’re selling your principal residence, and you meet certain requirements, you can exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) of gain. Gain that qualifies for the exclusion is also excluded from the 3.8% net investment income tax.
To qualify for the exclusion, you must meet these tests:

  1. The ownership test. You must have owned the property for at least two years during the five-year period ending on the sale date.
  2. The use test. You must have used the property as a principal residence for at least two years during the same five-year period. (Periods of ownership and use don’t need to overlap.)

In addition, you can’t use the exclusion more than once every two years.

Handling bigger gains

What if you’re fortunate enough to have more than $250,000/$500,000 of profit when selling your home? Any gain that doesn’t qualify for the exclusion generally will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate, provided you owned the home for at least a year. If you didn’t, the gain will be considered short term and subject to your ordinary-income rate, which could be more than double your long-term rate.

Other tax issues

Here are some additional tax considerations when selling a home:

Keep track of your basis.

To support an accurate tax basis, be sure to maintain thorough records, including information on your original cost and subsequent improvements, reduced by any casualty losses and depreciation claimed based on business use.

Be aware that you can’t deduct a loss.

If you sell your principal residence at a loss, it generally isn’t deductible. But if part of your home is rented out or used exclusively for your business, the loss attributable to that portion may be deductible.

If you’re selling a second home (for example, a vacation home), be aware that it won’t be eligible for the gain exclusion. But if it qualifies as a rental property, it can be considered a business asset, and you may be able to defer tax on any gains through an installment sale or a Section 1031 exchange. Or you may be able to deduct a loss.

Your home is probably your largest investment. So before selling it, make sure you understand the tax implications. We can help you plan ahead to minimize taxes and answer any questions you have about 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.

Could your business benefit from the tax credit for family and medical leave?

paid family and medical leave

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created a new federal tax credit for employers that provide qualified paid family and medical leave to their employees. It’s subject to numerous rules and restrictions, and the credit is only available for two tax years — those beginning between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2019. However, it may be worthwhile for some businesses.

The value of the credit

An eligible employer can claim a credit equal to 12.5% of wages paid to qualifying employees who are on family and medical leave, if the leave payments are at least 50% of the normal wages paid to them. For each 1% increase over 50%, the credit rate increases by 0.25%, up to a maximum credit rate of 25%.

An eligible employee is one who’s worked for your company for at least one year, with compensation for the preceding year not exceeding 60% of the threshold for highly compensated employees for that year. For 2019, the threshold for highly compensated employees is $125,000 (up from $120,000 for 2018). That means a qualifying employee’s 2019 compensation can’t exceed $72,000 (60% × $120,000).

Employers that claim the family and medical leave credit must reduce their deductions for wages and salaries by the amount of the credit.

Qualifying leave

For purposes of the credit, family and medical leave is defined as time off taken by a qualified employee for these reasons:

  • The birth, adoption or fostering of a child (and to care for the child),
  • To care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition,
  • If the employee has a serious health condition,
  • Any qualifying need due to an employee’s spouse, child or parent being on covered active duty in the Armed Forces (or being notified of an impending call or order to covered active duty), and
  • To care for a spouse, child, parent or next of kin who’s a covered veteran or member of the Armed Forces.

Employer-provided vacation, personal, medical or sick leave (other than leave defined above) isn’t eligible.

When a policy must be established

The general rule is that, to claim the credit for your company’s first tax year that begins after December 31, 2017, your written family and medical leave policy must be in place before the paid leave for which the credit will be claimed is taken.

However, under a favorable transition rule for the first tax year beginning after December 31, 2017, your company’s written leave policy (or an amendment to an existing policy) is considered to be in place as of the effective date of the policy (or amendment) rather than the later adoption date.

Attractive perk

The new family and medical leave credit could be an attractive perk for your company’s employees. However, it can be expensive because it must be provided to all qualifying full-time employees. Consult with us if you have questions or want more information.

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.