Statistically speaking, women live longer than men; if you're married, that means that the odds are that you're going to outlive your husband. That's significant for a couple of reasons. First, it means that if your husband dies before you, you'll likely inherit his estate. More importantly, though, it means that to a large extent, you'll probably have the last word about the final disposition of all of the assets you've accumulated during your marriage.
But estate planning isn't just for women who are or were married. You'll want to consider whether these concepts and strategies apply to your specific circumstances.
Taxes on transfers
When you transfer your property during your lifetime or at your death, your transfers may be subject to federal gift tax, federal estate tax, and federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax. (The top estate and gift tax rate is 40%, and the GST tax rate is 40%.) Your transfers may also be subject to state taxes.
Federal gift tax
Gifts you make during your lifetime may be subject to federal gift tax. Not all gifts are subject to the tax, however. You can make annual tax-free gifts of up to $15,000 per recipient. Married couples can effectively make annual tax-free gifts of up to $30,000 per recipient. You can also make tax-free gifts for qualifying expenses paid directly to educational or medical services providers. And you can also make deductible transfers to your spouse and to charity. There is a basic exclusion amount that protects a total of up to about $11,400,000 (in 2019, $11,180,000 in 2018) from gift tax and estate tax.
Federal estate tax
Property you own at death is subject to federal estate tax. As with the gift tax, you can make deductible transfers to your spouse and to charity, and there is a basic exclusion amount that protects up to about $11,400,000 (in 2019) from gift and estate taxes. However, many states have estate taxes with lower exclusions.
Federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax
The federal GST tax generally applies if you transfer property to a person two or more generations younger than you (for example, a grandchild). The GST tax may apply in addition to any gift or estate tax. Similar to the gift tax provisions above, annual exclusions and exclusions for qualifying educational and medical expenses are available for GST tax. You can protect up to about $11,400,000 (in 2019, $11,180,000 in 2018) with the GST tax exemption.
Income tax basis
Generally, if you give property during your life, your basis (generally, what you paid for the property, with certain up or down adjustments) in the property for federal income tax purposes is carried over to the person who receives the gift. So, if you give your $1 million home that you purchased for $50,000 to your brother, your $50,000 basis carries over to your brother — if he sells the house immediately, income tax will be due on the resulting gain.
In contrast, if you leave property to your heirs at death, they get a "stepped-up" (or "stepped-down") basis in the property equal to the property's fair market value at the time of your death. So, if the home that you purchased for $50,000 is worth $1 million when you die, your heirs get the property with a basis of $1 million. If they then sell the home for $1 million, they pay no federal income tax.
Making gifts during one's life is a common estate planning strategy that can also serve to minimize transfer taxes. One way to do this is to take advantage of the annual gift tax exclusion, which lets you give up to $15,000 (in 2018 and 2019) to as many individuals as you want gift tax free. As noted above, there are several other gift tax exclusions and deductions that you can take advantage of. In addition, when you gift property that is expected to appreciate in value, you remove the future appreciation from your taxable estate. In some cases, it may even make sense to make taxable gifts to remove the gift tax from your taxable estate as well.
Life insurance plays a part in many estate plans. For example, it might be used to provide cash to pay final expenses, outstanding debts, and taxes, so that other assets don't have to be liquidated to pay these expenses. Life insurance proceeds can generally be received income tax free.
The importance of planning ahead
Obviously, no one expects you to become an expert on the strategies. But a general awareness may help reduce confusion and anxiety when you (and, hopefully, your spouse) meet with your CPA, attorney or estate planner to discuss these issues. Ideally, it’s best to have these discussions and formulate a plan while you both are in reasonably good physical and mental health, so you’ll at least be prepared financially when one of you passes.
This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend that you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.
Dan Flanagan is a financial advisor located at Canby Financial Advisors, 161 Worcester Road, Framingham, MA 01701. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 508.598.1082 or at [email protected]
Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2019. Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. does not provide investment, tax, legal, or retirement advice or recommendations. The information presented here is not specific to any individual's personal circumstances.