Not Just Estate Tax Anymore

Anyone who has been following our blog knows that the expiring Bush tax cuts (including the repeal of the estate tax this year and the tax’s reinstatement next year) have given lawmakers no end of trouble as they struggle and debate—and debate and struggle—to agree on new tax legislation moving forward. In fact, The Wall Street Journal calls the issue “a ticking time bomb,” while the New York Times warns that “an epic fight is brewing.” It seems that the only thing everyone does agree on is that something has to be done before December 31, 2010.

Unfortunately, according to both news sources, politics takes precedence over legislation.  “The tax fight will serve as a proxy for the bigger political clashes of the year, including the size of government and the best way of handling the tepid economic recovery,” warns David M. Herszenhorn of the NY Times, “’…this is code for the role of the federal government, the debate over the size of government and the priorities of the nation.’”

According to David Wessel of the WSJ party lines are clearly drawn.  “The Obama administration is pressing to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone with an income under $250,000 a year and to raise taxes on those above. A recent Pew/National Journal poll found that only 11% of Democrats favor extending all the Bush tax cuts.” Meanwhile, “Republicans are happily staking out the no-new-taxes turf, playing to their traditional constituency. Pew says 52% of Republicans favor extending all the Bush tax cuts.”

It would certainly give taxpayers some comfort if legislation could be passed quickly and decisively, but Herszenhorn warns that it’s not likely to happen, “Given the partisan gridlock of recent months, there is a chance that the battle could go down to the last minute, or even — in the face of a stalemate — that the tax cuts could be allowed to expire completely, a development that… lawmakers in both parties say could be the worst outcome.”

Either way, the best advice we can give our readers is to be prepared.  Just because lawmakers keep putting off a decision doesn’t mean you should.  Talk to your attorney about the best way for your family to weather the coming storm.  Be aware of changes to tax laws and update your estate plan accordingly.

Falling Through the Cracks

Our country may be facing a simultaneous growth and recession… unfortunately, according to journalist John Leland, the two seem to be at odds.  What we are referring to is the growth of the elderly population and the recession of funds available to help this aging community pay for the care they need.

The economic downturn of the past few years has hit the elderly with a double-whammy.  Many of them lost close to all of their savings when the stock market bottomed out, and now budget cuts to state-funded home-care services threaten to force many of them out of their homes and into hospitals or nursing facilities.

“’I’m not getting a cost-of-living adjustment, and now I’m not getting food,’ said Joyce Plennert, 83, who is on a waiting list for Meals on Wheels in Palatine, Ill. ‘Now I’m worried my home services will be cut. Without that, I’d be in a nursing home, if I could find one with room.’”

According to the above-mentioned NY Times article, a number of states have already made cuts to home-care services, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas.  “The situation is grim, and it’s safe to say that present trends are expected to continue,”

These budget cuts impact more than just senior citizens—they affect the professional caregivers and home aides who lose their jobs when state programs are cancelled, as well as the families of the elderly.  When these seniors lose their ability to live at home it’s their families who will have to pick up the slack either by contributing to the costs of care or more often by become the caregiver themselves.

If you or a loved one is facing a loss of benefits due to budget cuts don’t be afraid to explore your options.  Geriatric care managers can help families through confusing times, and other advisors such as elder lawyers, estate planners, financial planners and others can offer invaluable advice when creating your plan for the future.

Will Billionaire Steinbrenner’s Death Inspire Congress to Reinstate the Estate Tax?

Common superstition says that famous deaths come in threes, but the death of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner on July 13 makes four billionaire deaths in 2010. It’s hard to deny the significance of such events in a year when there is no estate tax.

According to the Associated Press Steinbrenner’s family is set to receive a tax break of “about $328 million” because of the estate tax repeal this year. This number, along with the millions of dollars saved (that would otherwise have gone to pay estate taxes) by the families of Dan L. Duncan, Walter Shorenstein, and Mary Janet Morse Cargill may inspire Congress to take action on the issue of the estate tax before the year is over. The Washington Post quotes Senator Bernard Sanders of R.I. as saying, “In the midst of this terrible recession, the idea of giving billionaires a massive tax break is obscene… Already we have four billionaire families who are not paying taxes — Steinbrenner’s being the last one. Many billions are being lost. We have to address that reality right now.”

Although there is still some talk of the possibility of the estate tax being reinstated retroactively, most lawmakers and attorneys agree that the further into 2010 we get the less likely this becomes. But missing out on the estate taxes of four billionaires has to hurt, and the members of Congress are not likely to drag their feet much longer. One way or another, we can soon expect to see the issue of the estate tax become a hot topic of debate in Washington. Our firm will keep you abreast of any changes to the law that could affect you, your loved ones, or your estate.

How to Plan for the Future While Estate Tax Debate Continues in the Senate

With all the estate tax proposals currently floating around the Senate the future of the estate tax is anybody’s guess… but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop trying to figure it out. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal touches on some of the more recent (and more controversial) proposals floating around Washington.

The proposal that is currently getting the most attention comes from Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and three Senate Democrats who say that “It’s time for multi-millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.”  And pay they would!  According to Sanders’ proposal “the [estate tax] exemption would be $3.5 million for an individual or as much as $7 million for a couple, with a tax rate of 45%. But estates with taxable assets between $10 million and $50 million would pay a 50% rate, and estates valued above $50 million would pay 55%. A further 10% surtax would apply to assets above $500 million.”

Of course, it’s too early to get worked up just yet, Sanders’ proposal is just one of many right now, and the debate still rages in the Senate with no clear winner in sight.  Of course, if no action is taken the estate tax will come back in 2011 with a 55% tax rate on estates above a mere $1 million.

Either way, you’ll want to be prepared, and the only way to do that is to keep in contact with your estate planner and make sure that your plan is designed to handle anything.  Although it may be tempting to wait to update your estate plan until a clear decision is made, all that really does is leave your family unprepared if something should happen to you while the tax is in flux.  Contact our office to find out what adjustments should be made to your estate plan to keep your family protected while lawmakers continue to debate the future of the estate tax.

It’s a Dog’s Life

There seems to be some confusion nowadays about whether “a dog’s life” refers to a life of ease or toil, but for these wealthy canine heirs life is definitely the former!  Whether it’s a wealthy eccentric leaving millions to a dear canine companion or whether it’s a lover of animals leaving a portion of their estate to charity, more and more dogs (and other animals) are being included in wills and trusts.

Naming your pet in your will or trust may be odd, but it’s perfectly legitimate.  Unfortunately, disinherited family members may not always agree.  When Leona Helmsley passed away in 2007 she left $12 million to her dog Trouble, but that amount was reduced by Judge Renee Roth of the Manhattan Surrogate Court to a mere $2 million.  The current canine court battle is over the will of Miami heiress Gail Posner, which leaves $3 million to her dog Conchita, as well as $26 million split between seven of her bodyguards, housekeepers and other personal aides.

Naming your pet in your will may be perfectly legitimate, but the truth is that there is nothing to stop disgruntled family members from contesting your wishes.  If you choose to do something “unusual” in your will or trust, or if you know of family members who are likely to make trouble, it may be necessary to take extra precautions to ensure your wishes are followed.  Inform your estate planning attorney of the potential conflict and discuss what steps can be taken to prevent it.  In some cases “no contest clauses” can be added to a will or trust to discourage court battles.  In other cases a simple meeting of all family members with your attorney to explain your wishes and reasoning will do the trick.  Talk to your attorney or call our office to find out what can be done to keep the peace in your family—canine or human.

More News About the Repealed Estate Tax

Six months into 2010 and the estate tax repeal is still making news.  This time it’s a story about Texas billionaire Dan L. Duncan who died in March, leaving all of his billions to his spouse, family and various charitable organizations… and none to the government:

“Had his life ended three months earlier, Mr. Duncan’s riches — Forbes magazine estimated his worth at $9 billion, ranking him as the 74th wealthiest in the world — would have been subject to a federal tax of at least 45 percent. If he had lived past Jan. 1, 2011, the rate would be even higher… Instead, because Congress allowed the tax to lapse for one year and gave all estates a free pass in 2010, Mr. Duncan’s four children and four grandchildren stand to collect billions that in any other year would have gone to the Treasury.”

According to the NY Times article this news is meeting with mixed reactions.  Opponents of the estate tax (sometimes called the death tax) are hoping to make the repeal permanent.  Others, however, don’t agree:

“’The ultrawealthy in this country will still be able to pass on enormous wealth to the next generation,’ said Chuck Collins, who studies income inequality and has worked with billionaires like Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates to promote an estate tax. Mr. Collins argues that the tax is a ‘recycling program for economic opportunity.’”

Whatever happens in future years, considering that this year is already half over it can only be hoped that heirs and executors won’t have to worry about the tax being reinstated and made effective retroactively; which leaves us free to look ahead and plan for 2011 when the estate tax comes back at a whopping 55%. If you’re wondering how all these changes will impact your estate plan today, tomorrow, or years in the future please call our office.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15

As we age we become vulnerable.  We begin to doubt our memories, our bodies are not as reliable as they used to be, and technological advances outstrip our abilities to keep up with them.  With this vulnerability comes the opportunity for abuse.

Unfortunately, elder abuse is becoming more and more common, both physically and financially.  Seniors are a growing class of individuals with money in savings or retirement, and there is no shortage of scam artists looking to take advantage of them financially.  The truly sad fact is that most financial elder abuse is committed by someone close to the victim, a person in whom they have placed their trust.  In such cases, the abuse may not be pre-meditated, but that in no way makes the abuse acceptable.

The good news is that there are ways to guard against elder abuse; and one of the best ways to guard against it is to be aware of it. June 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, and we urge our readers to participate and find out how they can learn more about this issue. 

To learn more about the warning signs and risk factors, and what you can do to help prevent elder abuse, click here.  If you think that someone you know may be the victim of elder abuse, either physically or financially, you can help.  The National Center on Elder Abuse has a help hotline, as well as a list of warning signs, and community outreach opportunities.

Does the New Health Care Reform Affect Your Long Term Care Plan?

From a recent announcement on PR Newswire:

“Many Americans seem confused and immobilized by a key part of the recent Health Reform legislation, the CLASS Act, which will offer a form of long term care insurance for working people and others who may become disabled. ‘CLASS’ stands for Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, and the program, a legacy of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, is intended to offer new choice and security for millions now at risk. But, ‘we find that the public doesn’t know how to react,’ says Denise Gott, Chairman of the Board of LTC Financial Partners LLC (LTCFP), one of the nation’s most experienced long term care insurance agencies.”

The new Health Care Reform will almost surely affect your long term care plan, but is it too soon to know exactly how? You don’t want to be caught without coverage, but you also don’t want to make any decisions without having all the facts.

To help you discover how health care reform may affect your long term care plans, the link above provides access to a newly released 2010 Long Term Care Guide complete with healthcare reform update.  Don’t let your family be caught off-guard.

Recent Deaths Bring Home the Consequences of No Estate Tax in 2010

There was too much confusion to be much rejoicing when the estate tax was repealed for a year on January 1st, 2010. Although the words “no estate tax” may sound good, nobody really expected the state of affairs would last. Most experts believed that Congress would never actually let it happen in the first place; then when ’09 became ’10 without any action on the estate tax repeal that the George W. Bush administration had put into place experts warned people not to get too comfortable, that a retroactive estate tax would likely be implemented.

Well, we’re 4 months into 2010 and there is still no retroactive estate tax—but there is also still no rejoicing. This is because the lack of estate tax has actually created more problems than it has solved for the wealthy and affluent. According to this article in Financial Advisor Magazine the recent deaths of Texas billionaire Dan Duncan and Taco Bell founder Glen W. Bell, Jr. have only made it clear to tax attorneys that “lawsuits of various kinds will blossom in the estate-tax vacuum. The more money left on the table when the wealthy die, the more likely heirs are to fight for years over who should inherit.”

And you don’t have to be a billionaire to feel the consequences of the lack of tax. This article in Bloomberg Businessweek explains that those who think they’re catching a break on the estate tax could instead “…wind up paying stiff capital-gains taxes on inheritances. That’s because of the disappearance of what’s known as the “step-up” in basis, which allowed assets to be revalued for tax purposes at the time of death.”

But even this is preferable to finding yourself unintentionally disinherited by standard estate tax clauses included in older wills and trusts, a scenario that is more likely to happen than you may think if your spouse or parent hasn’t had their estate plan reviewed yet this year.

What is the bottom line? Every silver lining has a dark cloud, and you want to take every precaution possible to keep your heirs safe from the storm during this “gap year” in the estate tax.

Tax Tips to Benefit YOUR Family

Tax day is coming up quickly, are you ready to file?  And just as important—are you taking advantage of all the savings and deductions available to you? Most people who do their own taxes are unaware of some of the lesser-known deductions which can help you save money come tax-time. We have a couple of articles we’d like to share with our readers that may make it easier for your family come April 15th.

A recent article on SmartMoney.com offers 3 often overlooked ways to save on your income taxes. Two of the three items have to do with parenthood and buying a home, but of particular interest to our readers is tip #2, Selling Grandma’s Stuff: “If you sold something last year that you inherited, understand that your tax basis for gain or loss purposes generally has nothing to do with what your benefactor paid for the asset. And that’s probably going to save you a bundle in taxes.” If you sold an asset from an inheritance last year (or if you received an inheritance last year at all, regardless of whether you’ve sold the asset or not) contact our office before filing your taxes.

Another potentially useful resource for tax savings is the ABC News article Top Ten Commonly Missed Tax Deductions to Put Cash in Your Wallet. This article reminds us to include the little things—such charity volunteer related expenses, the new car deduction, old school books used for work, and more. There are a number of tax deductions your family may be able to take advantage of… if you just know where to look.