Articles Posted in Tax Planning

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loneliness-2308923_640-300x200A few months ago, the New York Times published an article entitled, “Single? No Children? No Will? Big Mistake.” I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since. The author writes, “Certain people never reach one of those obvious points in their lives to write one. If you are unmarried in middle age, do not have children and have never had a devastating disease or brush with death, making plans for what happens to your stuff if you’re not around may not feel pressing.”

The author is so right. I have met many people who somehow feel that, because they don’t have children, they don’t need an estate plan. But here’s the thing — people without children may have even MORE need to make a plan that those with kids.

For one thing, all of us, at some point, are going to get sick or otherwise incapacitated, and need someone to act on our behalf — to pay bills, maintain our homes, or make medical decisions. Estate planning is not just about transferring assets when you die, it is also about planning for incapacity. And everyone needs to do that.

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money signI was recently at a friend’s house, and, accidentally made someone’s day. This is not a usual occurrence for me, but I did enjoy it.  Here’s what happened: a woman that I didn’t know told me that she had inherited her parents’ house in Berkeley. Because she had inherited it from her parents, she also was able to keep their very low property tax rate. Her problem was that she thought that she’d like to sell that house and buy a new one, but was worried that her property tax rate would skyrocket as a result.

Here’s what she didn’t know: if she waits until next year, when she turns 55, and purchases a new home that’s worth the same or less than the residence that she is selling, and buys the new house within two years of selling the old one, she can keep her old property tax base for the new house. She has to sell her old house to a new owner so that the new home can be reassessed for property tax purposes and she has to file a claim for exclusion from reassessment on the new property within three years of the purchase. In tax language, this is called “transfer of base year value,” which is the value that the county assessors use to calculate the property tax owed each year.

This is a one-time exclusion from reassessment for those over 55. So, the next time she sells her home and buys a new one, her property taxes will go up. Proposition 60, passed in 1986, established this exception for intra-county transfers–that’s Latin for WITHIN a county. So, if my new acquaintance stays in Alameda county, and otherwise follows these rules, she won’t be reassessed.

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college quad
As the season turns and it starts to feel like Fall, many parents are either paying college tuition bills or worrying about paying them. Many of my clients have asked me how 529 college savings plans or custodial accounts are counted when colleges consider financial aid.

Here are the basic rules and a few strategic ways to use them.

Student’s assets are counted more heavily than parents’ assets by colleges. When a school analyzes family finances using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which most schools do, they count parental assets differently than those owned by students when they calculate how much a family should contribute towards college costs. When the schools calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), they expect parents to contribute no more than 5.64% of their assets. But a student is expected to contribute 20% of their assets. That means that if a student is considered the owner of an asset, a school will expect that student to use more of it to pay for school than they would expect from a parent that owns the same amount of assets. So, any asset a student owns will reduce available financial aid more than any asset a parent owns.

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42198970 - picture of beautiful village house with gardenMany of my clients come to me with a very Californian problem: they bought their home many years ago for a fraction of what that home is worth today. For example, their mid-century house near downtown cost them $125,000 in 1973 and could be sold for $3.2 million next weekend. While that’s an excellent problem to have in some ways, what it means for a person who needs to sell that home is that they are going to have to pay a lot of capital gains on that sale.

Capital gains taxes are levied upon the difference between what someone buys an asset for (called ‘basis’) and what they sell that asset for–the lower the basis, the higher the gain, and the higher the tax.  In 2016, the maximum for long-term federal capital gains taxes (for assets held longer than one year) is 23.8% for high income families. In California, you need to add another 10%-13.3% for capital gains , so roughly a 33% total tax is what you’d expect to pay for capital gains at both the state and federal level.

Each person is entitled to a $250,000 exclusion on capital gains taxes for the sale of their primary residence, so if a married couple sells, they’ll have $500,000 excluded from tax.  In many parts of the country, that means people can indeed sell their residence and pay no capital gains taxes. But not around here.

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piggy bankCustodial accounts are an easy way to hold money for a minor child’s benefit. They have many advantages.  They’re free-it’s easy to open up a custodial account at any bank or financial services company.  (You’ll know if an account is custodial in California because it will say “CUTMA” on the statement, which stands for California Uniform Transfers to Minors Act.)

They’re simple-a custodial account can hold cash, or other assets, for the benefit of a minor until a certain age (in California, until age 21 if the account is established during life; 25 if created by a Will or a trust after a death). They work as intended – when the property is transferred to the CUTMA account, the child becomes the legal owner, but has no control over the money until the account ends, when they are old enough, presumably, to properly manage it. Until that time, the account’s custodian can use the money for that child’s benefit.

But what do you do if they get too big? I’ve had more than one client come into my office terrified because their children are going to inherit hundreds of thousands of dollars way before their parents think that would be a good idea. Some of you are, no doubt, rolling your eyes in mock horror, but this can be a source of great stress for parents. Imagine, for example, that a well-meaning grandparent bought Pretend Co. stock when it was at $7/share (in 2002) and gave 2000 shares of stock to a custodial account for your child. Fourteen years later, that stock is now worth $104/share and worth $208,000! And your adorable child is now a goofy 17 year old, interested more in texting, dating, and driving than careful investing.

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giveAs the year draws to a close, now is the time to consider making charitable gifts, both because it’s a good thing to do and because year-end charitable gifts will provide tax deductions.

In addition to the time-tested check writing method, here are three other ways that you can give that are less obvious and quite beneficial.

  1. Consider opening up a Donor Advised Fund. You can open up a Donor Advised Fund in 2015 and get a charitable deduction for that gift by year’s end. But, you can make recommendations on how those funds should be spent in 2016 or after.  Donor Advised Funds are a great strategy when you need the charitable deduction right away, but haven’t had time to research the charities that you want to support. You can open up Donor Advised Funds at large financial institutions like Schwab and Fidelity and Vanguard and also at community foundations like our very own Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
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gift2Recently, a client of mine asked me how to set up a trust to hold gifts to their children that those children wouldn’t be able to use for about twenty more years. This can be done by use of what’s called a “Crummey” Trust (named after the attorney who invented the technique).

This kind of trust is usually funded with annual gifts. Currently, you are allowed to give $14,000 per year to any one person without having to report the gift on a gift tax return or use any of your lifetime exclusion from the gift and estate tax (currently $5.43 million per person). A Crummey Trust allows you to make such annual gifts, but keep those gifts in trust for years. The gift counts as being made in the year of the gift, even though the beneficiary has no control over the money until the trust ends. Other people, like grandparents, can also make contributions to this kind of trust.

Why would you want to do this? The first reason is control: if your children are currently minors (let’s say, middle schoolers), you probably don’t want to just put $14,000 into their bank accounts each year, unless you are extremely relaxed about the choices they’d likely make with that kind of annual bonanza (or want to support GameStop). You’d much rather put that money into a trust that’s managed for your children until they grow up to an age where they’re likely to use the money more wisely. Since you are setting up the trust, you can have control over what the trust’s assets can be used for, too — maybe it’s just for the purchase of a house, or maybe just to pay for graduate school, or a wedding.

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clockLate in the year, and at the last minute, on December 16, 2014, Congress has extended the ability of those over 70 1/2 to make direct charitable donations from their IRA’s of up to $100,000, as long as they haven’t already taken out the required minimum distribution for 2014 and do this charitable rollover by December 31.  The way to do this is to tell your plan custodian to distribute up to $100,000 to a public charity of your choice from your IRA. (For a couple, this is 100K from each IRA.)

Although there’s no charitable deduction for a charitable rollover, there’s still a potentially big tax benefit for those who make them: the money that’s designated to charity does not count as taxable income to the donor, and that can help keep the donor’s taxable income below threshold limits for Medicare means testing, and other tax thresholds.

The current extension is for 2014, only, and is one of many temporary laws that were supposed to last only two years, but have been extended annually since the end of 2013.

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giveAs 2014 draws to a close, many of our clients are thinking about making annual gifts to charities. The IRS has just posted a handy article with six tips to keep in mind to make sure that you can claim an income tax deduction for the gift. Here’s a summary:

1. Qualified charities. Make sure that you are making a donation to a qualified charity. The IRS offers a tool to make sure that your intended recipient is qualified. Donations to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and government agencies are also deductible, even if they’re not listed.

2. Monetary donations. If you want to give a charity money, in cash, or by check, electronic funds transfer, or credit card, you must have a bank record (like a cancelled check) or a written statement from the charity to deduct the gift.

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black-29972_150The IRS has extended the deadline for filing an estate tax return for decedents dying in 2011, 2012, and 2013 to December 31, 2014. The purpose of the extension is to provide time for surviving spouses to elect portability on the return, which would allow them to use their deceased spouse’s unused exemption from the federal estate tax. Electing portability means, in effect, that a married couple can combine their available exemptions, potentially saving a family a significant amount of money when the second spouse dies.

For example, if a person died in 2011, and had an estate worth $2 million, and that $2 million was allocated to a Credit Trust (as many of our client’s estate plans would do), their surviving spouse could file an estate tax return, elect portability, and gain an additional $3 million in exemption to be used at the spouse’s death. (In 2011, the available exemption was $5 million, and the decedent used up $2 million by funding the Credit Trust.)

In the above example, an estate tax return would not need to be filed for any other reason (because $2 million wasn’t a taxable estate in 2011), and many families may have missed the opportunity to file a return within nine months of the death (which is the usual deadline) because the decedent didn’t have a taxable estate, so no return was required.  The IRS, however, has extended the deadline for such returns until the end of this year to allow surviving spouses to take another look at the benefits of requesting this additional exemption.