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Archive for the ‘Estate Planning’ Category

It May Be Time to Review Your Estate Plan

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 @ 09:03 AM
Author: Steven Ness

For more than a decade the estate planning landscape has been foggy at best.  During that entire period, existing laws created “automatic” changes that many tax and legal professionals found difficult to predict.  The passing of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (the “2012 Act”) at the close of 2012, finally makes the estate and gift tax laws “permanent,” meaning that they are not scheduled to expire, be repealed or rolled back. This is a significant change because since 2001 taxpayers and their advisers have had to plan based on an uncertain statutory framework.

The 2012 Act sets the estate tax exemption amount at $5 million. This is the amount of money that can pass estate tax free to any individual without triggering federal estate tax.  Since this exemption amount will be adjusted for inflation, the exemption amount in 2012 was actually $5.12 million and it is predicted to rise to $5.25 million this year.

The 2012 Act unifies the estate tax with the gift tax, making the lifetime gift tax exemption amount also equal to $5 million (adjusted for inflation). The generation-skipping tax (“GST”) exemption amount is also set at $5 million (adjusted for inflation). As a result, a person can gift over $5 million during life ($10 million between spouses) and not trigger any transfer tax.

The maximum estate and gift tax rate was increased from 35% to 40%.

The “portability” of exemptions between spouses has been permanently extended so that a surviving spouse will be able to utilize his or her last deceased spouse’s unused exemption amount. This does require the filing of a federal estate tax return, but with proper elections built into a carefully prepared estate plan, a surviving spouse can protect up to $10 million (adjusted for inflation) if his or her deceased spouse did not utilize any of his or her exclusion amounts.

While the exemption amounts are high and portability enables a surviving spouse to use both spouses’ exemptions, there are still many reasons why planning during life is very important, including:

  1. All appreciation on gifted assets escapes federal and state estate taxes. For this reason, it still may make sense to make lifetime gifts if you anticipate that assets may appreciate and/or grow to a level that exceeds the exemption amounts.
  2. While the federal exemption amount is $5 million, the Minnesota estate tax exemption amount is still $1 million. A $10 million estate may not be subject to federal estate tax but will be subject to approximately $1 million in Minnesota estate tax.  Proper planning can reduce or eliminate this $1 million state estate tax exposure.
  3. While the estate tax exemption is portable, the state level estate tax exemption and the federal GST exemption are not portable. If not properly planned for, these valuable exemptions can be wasted, costing significant tax dollars.

Steven E. Ness is an estate planning attorney for Business Law Center, PLC in Bloomington, Minnesota.

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Tax Plans Must Have A Business Purpose, and Sometimes Even Tax Attorneys End Up in Jail

Friday, September 14, 2012 @ 10:09 AM
Author: Peter Brehm

When I was in the mire of my tax education I was presented with this seemingly contradictory reality:

1. Congress creates rules in the tax code (including deductions and credits) to encourage businesses to engage in specific types of conduct (buy certain products, hire certain types of employees, or provide specific benefits); and

2. Congress (and the IRS) also creates rule prohibiting businesses from claiming those tax benefits unless there is a substantial business purpose for the transaction other than tax savings.

One of the frustrating parts of tax planning is coming to grips with the idea that Congress wants to control your behavior with rewards, but then denies you the reward if they find out that you only did it for the money. Its a bit like offering someone $1,000 to be your friend, and then refusing to pay them when you find out that they only liked you for your money. So the game becomes convincing the IRS that you love their sense of humor and just as much as (if not more than) their deductions.

Successful business owners are like gold to tax planning consultants because they have the two things that all tax planners need: taxable income and a desire to send less of that income to the government. As a result, the more successful you are, the greater the chance that you will find yourself in contact with an army of tax planners and consultants. Tax planners (and tax attorneys) range from conservative (declare all income at the highest possible tax rate), moderately creative (use the plain language of the tax code to reduce taxes within the letter of the law), aggressively creative (expand the possible meaning of the code, and fill in gaps of the code to aggressively reduce taxes), to criminally creative (knowingly engaging in planning and conduct that is contrary to the law to avoid taxes at all costs).

Its not always easy to tell which kind of adviser you are dealing with, but the line you should never cross (and a clear indication that you are entering the world of the criminal planner) is a fairly bright one: would I do this transaction if I wouldn’t save taxes? If the answer is yes, then you are probably fine. If the answer is a resounding NO, there is a good chance that something is amiss, and that you should speak with a lawyer (unrelated to the people selling you their plan) about the transaction. For example, would you take all of your liquid assets, transfer them into a trust controlled by someone you don’t know in another country, who then deposits the funds in a third world bank? If you can think of a good reason for your business to do that, and you were going to do that anyway, any tax benefits will probably be appropriate. If the primary, if not exclusive, reason was to save taxes then tough times may be ahead.

Often times these people will have already anticipated your objections, and may present you with a letter from a reputable lawyer or accounting firm to alleviate your fears. Rather than calm you, let me suggest that this is exactly the time to reach out to a qualified tax lawyer who has no stake in the proposed transaction. Why? Because some lawyers (and I am going to shock some of you here) are not particularly ethical.

Yesterday a lawyer out of Chicago pled guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion (in a scheme in which she made $1.6 Millon). Her crime? Knowingly writing false tax opinion letters. In those letters, the attorney opined that transactions without any purpose other than tax avoidance had “a substantial business purpose”. The client needed the letter to justify a transaction that was solely for tax avoidance and the lawyer was willing to write the letter for money. Now, they are all going to prison. Here is a copy of the plea agreement if you have ever wanted to see one.

There are a LOT of very good and ethical tax planners in this country, with a LOT of very good and creative tax planning ideas and opportunities. And to be very clear, the tax code is almost beyond common sense comprehension, and some of the best legal and tax minds will disagree among themselves about what the code does and should say. So nearly all tax planning, even good faith conservative planning, has some level of risk associate with it. But there are three things I want people to understand: 1. whatever planning you do should generally be tied to a purpose beyond tax savings; 2. there are professionals who will advise you to take a tax benefit you are not entitled to so that they can make money off of your money; and 3. when you enter into those kind of transactions, no matter how many letters you have saying it was OK, everyone can end up in jail.

Peter Brehm is a tax attorney practicing with the Business Law Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Gifting Stock: Use a Formula, Not a Savings Clause

Thursday, August 9, 2012 @ 02:08 PM
Author: Peter Brehm

Small business owners often struggle finding ways to transfer the value of what they have built to their children and grandchildren.  The current tax law permits a parent to gift $13,000 to each child without paying gift tax.  So, for example, a husband and wife with 4 children could gift $26,000 in stock every year to each child ($104,000 per year) without paying tax.   As most small business owners know, however, establishing the value of small business stock is not easy to do, and if the IRS decides that the amount of stock you gave exceeds the annual exclusion amount, there is the potential for a rather punitive gift tax.

Many practitioners have tried to remedy this situation by adding a ‘savings clause’ to the gift that says: we are gifting X number of shares to each child with the expectation that the value of the shares does not exceed the gift tax exclusion amount, and if the IRS finds that  X number of shares exceeds the gift tax exclusion amount, we take back enough of the gift so that no tax is owed.  The IRS, and most court have rejected this approach.

However, the Tax Court has held that a gift of stock based upon a formula, where the gift is for a set dollar amount (not a specific number of shares) the taxpayer can effectively create a gift that will never exceed the exclusion amount.  In Wandry v. Commissioner, the court held that “[a] savings clause is void because it creates a donor that tries ‘to take property back’.  On the other hand, a ‘formula clause’ is valid because it merely transfers a ‘fixed set of rights with uncertain value’.  The difference depends on an understanding of just what the donor is trying to give away.”

For the small business owner the solution is clear: when planning around the gift tax exclusion, you should use a formula based gift, not a savings clause.

Peter Brehm is a small business and estate lawyer practicing in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Will Minnesota Tax Your Estate?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 @ 08:07 AM
Author: Steven Ness

The State of Minnesota imposes a tax on the estates of individuals who are residents of the state when they die or who own tangible property in MN when they die. The taxable estate is generally the fair market value of the estate on the day the decedent died, less deductions (e.g., transfers to a surviving spouse and charitable bequests) and an exemption mount, which is $1 million for unmarried individuals. The tax is imposed under a graduated rate schedule on the taxable estate.  The tax rates range from 0.8% to 16%. For the 16 years ending December 31, 2001, the MN estate tax was directly linked to the federal tax as a “pickup” or “soak-up” tax equal to the credit allowed under federal estate tax for state death taxes. As a pickup tax, the MN tax imposed no additional tax burden on estates. For each dollar of state tax paid, federal tax was reduced by an equal amount.

However, U.S. Congress repealed this credit in 2001, the MN legislature chose to continue imposing the estate tax under the rules in effect before Congress repealed the credit. As a result, the MN estate tax now is a stand-alone tax.  Many people, including some estate planning practitioners, drafted their estate plan around the federal estate tax and ignored the impact of Minnesota’s estate tax rules.  All estate plans, especially estate plans created prior to 2002, should be reviewed, and may need to be modified to recognize Minnesota’s lower taxable estate threshold.

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