How Family Businesses Can Prepare Now for Future Tax Changes

The upcoming presidential election is giving small to mid-sized business owners concerns regarding changes in their business and the legacy they leave to family members. The recent article “How family businesses can come out on top in presidential election uncertainty,” from the St. Louis Business Journal looks at what’s at stake.

Tax breaks. The current estate tax threshold of $11.58 million is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2025, when it will revert to the pre-2018 exemption level of $5 million (as indexed for inflation) for individuals. If that law is changed after the election, it’s possible that the exemption could be phased out before the current levels end.

Increased tax liability. These possible changes present a problem for business owners. Making gifts now can use the full exemption, but future gifts may not enjoy such a generous tax exemption. Some transfers, if the exemption changes, could be subject to gift taxes as high as 40%.

Missed opportunity with lower valuations. Properly structured gifts to family members, which benefit from lower valuations (that is, before value appreciation due to capital gains) and current allowable valuation discounts give families an opportunity to pass a great amount of their businesses to heirs tax free.

Here’s what this might look like: a family business owner gifts $1 million in the business to one heir, but at the time of the owner’s passing, that share appreciates to $10 million. Because the gift was made early, the business owner only uses up $1 million of the estate tax exemption. That’s a $9 million savings at 40%; saving the estate from paying $3.6 million in taxes. If the laws change, that’s a costly missed opportunity.

It’s better to protect a business from the “Three D’s”—death, divorce, disability or a serious health issue, by preparing in advance. That means the appropriate estate protection, prepared with the help of an estate planning attorney who understands the needs of business owners.

Consider reorganizing the business. If you own an S-corporation, you know how complicated estate planning can be. One strategy is to reorganize your business, so you have both voting and non-voting shares. Gifting non-voting shares might provide some relief to business owners, who are not yet ready to give up complete control of their business.

Preparing for future ownership alternatives. What kind of planning will offer the most flexibility for future cash flow and, if necessary, being able to use principal? Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), entity freezes, and sales are three ways the owner might retain access to cash flow, while transferring future appreciation of assets out of the estate.

Know your gifting options. Your estate planning attorney will help determine what gifting scenario may work best. Some business owners establish irrevocable trusts, providing asset protection for the family and allowing the trust to have control of distributions.

Reference: St. Louis Business Journal (April 3, 2020) “How family businesses can come out on top in presidential election uncertainty”

 

Estate Plan Updates in the Age of Coronavirus

With the ever-increasing number of deaths in  the U.S. from Covid-19, many people are now doing what estate planning attorneys have advised them to do for years—get their estate plans in order. Many are having phone meetings or videoconferences with estate planning attorneys, says Barron’s in the article “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know.” People are worried, and they are in a hurry too.

However, estate planning can be complex, even when there is plenty of time to prepare. Here are a few tips:

Everyone should have three basic documents: a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and an advance health care directive. These documents will allow assets to be distributed, give another person the ability to make financial decisions, if you are too sick to do so and also allow another person to talk to medical professionals on your behalf on treatment and care. These same documents are also a good idea for any young adults in the family, anyone older than 18 in most states.

With the proper documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state, you may be able to avoid having a court appoint a guardian for minor children, a guardian and/or conservator for yourself while you are alive and not able to manage your financial affairs either due to physical or mental incapacitation.

In addition to these basic documents, everyone needs to review their beneficiary designations on assets that include bank accounts, IRAs, annuities, insurance policies and any other assets. If family situations have changed, these may be out of date.

Other issues to be discussed with an estate planning attorney:

  • Living trusts (whether revocable or irrevocable), which provide an opportunity to direct how assets in a trust will be held, invested and distributed before and after death,  can avoiding probate, and, in the case of irrevocable trusts,  can protect assets and make the trustmaker eligible for Medicaid or MassHealth when or if the trustmaker needs skilled care in a nursing home.
  • Estate tax minimization strategies.
  • Charitable giving planning.
  • Durable powers of attorney, which appoint an agent to make financial decisions.
  • Health-care surrogates, which let people designate a surrogate to make health decisions on their behalf and receive health care information from physicians.
  • Living wills, which allow people to designate whether to provide life-prolonging treatment, if in a terminal state.

Reference: Barron’s (March 22, 2020) “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know”

 

Dark Side of Medicaid Means You Need Estate Planning

A woman in Massachusetts, age 62, is living in her family’s home on borrowed time. Her late father did all the right things: saving to buy a home and then buying a life-insurance policy to satisfy the mortgage on his passing, with the expectation that he had secured the family’s future. However, as reported in the article “Medicaid’s Dark Secret” in The Atlantic, after the father died and the mother needed to live in a nursing home as a consequence of Alzheimer’s, the legacy began to unravel.

Just weeks after her mother entered the nursing home, her daughter received a notice that MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, had placed a lien on the house. She called MassHealth; her mother had been a longtime employee of Boston Public Schools and there were alternatives. She wanted her mother taken off Medicaid. The person she spoke to at MassHealth said not to worry. If her mother came out of the nursing home, the lien would be removed, and her mother could continue to receive benefits from Medicaid.

The daughter and her husband moved to Massachusetts, took their mother out of the nursing home and cared for her full-time. They also fixed up the dilapidated house. To do so, they cashed in all of their savings bonds, about $100,000. They refinished the house and paid off the two mortgages their mother had on the house.

Her husband then began to show signs of dementia. Now, the daughter spent her days and nights caring for both her mother and her husband.

After her mother died, she received a letter from the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees MassHealth, notifying her that the state was seeking reimbursement from the estate for $198,660. She had six months to pay the debt in full, and after that time, she would be accruing interest at 12%. The state could legally force her to sell the house and take its care of proceeds to settle the debt. Her husband had entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

Despite all her calls to officials, none of whom would help, and her own research that found that there were in fact exceptions for adult child caregivers, the state rejected all of her requests for help. She had no assets, little income, and no hope.

State recovery for Medicaid expenditures became mandatory, as part of a deficit reduction law signed by President Bill Clinton. Many states resisted instituting the process, even going to court to defend their citizens. The federal government took a position that federal funds for Medicaid would be cut if the states did not comply. However, other states took a harder line, some even allowing pre-death liens, taking interest on past-due debts or limiting the number of hardship waivers. The law gave the states the option to expand recovery efforts, including medical expenses, and many did, collecting for every doctor’s visit, drug, and surgery covered by Medicaid.

Few people are aware of estate recovery. It’s disclosed in the Medicaid enrollment forms but buried in the fine print. It’s hard for a non-lawyer to know what it means. When it makes headlines, people are shocked and dismayed. During the rollout of the Obama administration’s Medicaid expansion, more people became aware of the fine print. At least three states passed legislation to scale back recovery policies after public outcry.

The Medicaid Recovery program is a strong reason for families to meet with an elder law attorney and make a plan. Assets can be placed in irrevocable trusts, or deeds can be transferred to family members. There are many strategies to protect families from estate recovery. This issue should be on the front burner of anyone who owns a home, or other assets, who may need to apply for Medicaid at some point in the future. Avoiding probate is one part of estate planning, avoiding Medicaid recovery is another.

Since the laws are state-specific, consult an elder law attorney in your state.

Reference: The Atlantic (October 2019) “Medicaid’s Dark Secret”