Now that we have started a new year, it’s a good time for many of us to stop putting off getting an estate plan created or updated.
Under current tax law, most people do not have a concern with estate tax. The current Federal estate tax exemption is $5.49 million per person. If properly elected, any unused exemption is portable between spouses. Therefore, a married couple with an estate of $10.98 million or below could pass their entire estate to heirs without any Federal estate tax liability.
While much attention is focused on the tax aspects, estate planning is more a matter of organizing and simplifying your affairs so that your heirs are not burdened with additional stress at the same time they are grieving for the loss of a loved one. We recommend that you engage the services of a qualified attorney to guide you and create the appropriate documents.
Your estate plan should include a will and possibly living or revocable trusts. Advanced directives and incapacity planning are other items that are typically addressed as part of your estate plan. This includes having documents prepared such as a durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney and living will.
As part of your estate plan, you should review your beneficiary designations. By filling out a beneficiary designation form, individuals can bypass the probate process and pass specific assets upon their death directly to their heirs. Many types of assets such as IRAs, qualified retirement plans, life insurance policies and commercial annuities pass via beneficiary designation rather than through your will. In addition, beneficiary designations can be added to taxable investment accounts (known as Transfer on Death or “TOD”) and bank accounts (known as Payable on Death or “POD”). Note that while the assets passing by beneficiary designation bypass the probate process, they are still included as part of the decedent’s estate for calculating any potential estate tax liability.
There is talk that the estate tax may be changed or even eliminated this year. For most people that shouldn’t be a deterrent to getting their estate plan done, since few are affected by the estate tax in the first place. Having an updated estate plan gives you peace of mind and helps prevent additional stress on your heirs. Once you have a plan in place, it can always be modified as tax laws and your personal circumstances change.
William S. Hansen, CFA
Chief Investment Officer