September 20, 2023
Few estate planning subjects are as misunderstood as probate. But circumventing the probate process is usually a good idea, and several tools are available to help you do just that.
Why should you avoid it?
Probate is a legal procedure in which a court establishes the validity of your will, determines the value of your estate, resolves creditors’ claims, provides for the payment of taxes and other debts, and transfers assets to your heirs.
Depending on applicable state law, probate can be expensive and time consuming. Not only can probate reduce the amount of your estate due to executor and attorney fees, it can also force your family to wait through weeks or months of court hearings. In addition, probate is a public process, so you can forget about keeping your financial affairs private.
Is probate ever desirable? Sometimes. Under certain circumstances, for example, you might feel more comfortable having a court resolve issues involving your heirs and creditors. Another possible advantage is that probate places strict time limits on creditor claims and settles claims quickly.
How do you avoid it?
There are several tools you can use to avoid (or minimize) probate. (You’ll still need a will — and probate — to deal with guardianship of minor children, disposition of personal property and certain other matters.)
The right strategy depends on the size and complexity of your estate. The simplest ways to avoid probate involve designating beneficiaries or titling assets in a manner that allows them to be transferred directly to your beneficiaries outside your will. So, for example, you should be sure that you have appropriate, valid beneficiary designations for assets such as life insurance policies, annuities and IRAs, and other retirement plans.
For assets such as bank and brokerage accounts, look into the availability of “pay on death” (POD) or “transfer on death” (TOD) designations, which allow these assets to avoid probate and pass directly to your designated beneficiaries. Keep in mind, though, that while the POD or TOD designation is permitted in most states, not all financial institutions and firms make this option available.
What if your estate is more complicated?
For larger, more complicated estates, a revocable trust (sometimes called a living trust) is generally the most effective tool for avoiding probate. A revocable trust involves some setup costs, but it allows you to manage the disposition of all your wealth in one document while retaining control and reserving the right to modify your plan. It also provides a variety of tax-planning opportunities.
To avoid probate, it’s critical to transfer title to all your assets, now and in the future, to the trust. Also, placing life insurance policies in an irrevocable life insurance trust can provide significant tax benefits.
The big picture
Avoiding probate is just part of estate planning. We can help you develop a strategy that minimizes probate while reducing taxes and achieving your other estate planning goals.
September 20, 2023
The SECURE 2.0 law, which was enacted last year, contains wide-ranging changes to retirement plans. One provision in the law is that eligible employers will soon be able to provide more help to staff members facing emergencies. This will be done through what the law calls “pension-linked emergency savings accounts.”
Effective for plan years beginning January 1, 2024, SECURE 2.0 permits a plan sponsor to amend its 401(k), 403(b) or government 457(b) plan to offer emergency savings accounts that are connected to the plan.
Basic distribution rules
If a retirement plan participant withdraws money from an employer plan before reaching age 59½, a 10% additional tax or penalty generally applies unless an exception exists. This is on top of the ordinary tax that may be due.
The goal of these emergency accounts is to encourage employees to save for retirement while still providing access to their savings if emergencies arise. Under current law, there are specific exceptions when employees can withdraw money from their accounts without paying the additional 10% penalty but they don’t include all of the emergencies that an individual may face. For example, while participants can take penalty-free distributions to pay eligible medical expenses, they can’t take them for car repairs.
Here are some features of pension-linked emergency savings accounts:
- The accounts can only be offered to employee-participants who aren’t highly compensated. In general, a highly compensated employee is one who is a 5% or more owner of a business or has compensation in the preceding year that exceeds an indexed limit (for 2024, $150,000 or more of compensation in 2023).
- Plan sponsors can automatically enroll employee-participants in these accounts at up to 3% of their salary. Plan participants may opt out of making these contributions or pick a different rate to be taken from their pay.
- Annual contributions are capped at the lesser of $2,500 (indexed for inflation) or an amount chosen by the plan sponsor.
- Contributions to pension-linked emergency savings accounts are made on a Roth after-tax basis. Contributions reduce an employee’s other retirement contributions that can be made to a plan.
- A participant must be allowed to make withdrawals from his or her account at least once per month. No reason needs to be provided and a participant must not be subject to any fees or charges for the first four withdrawals from the account each plan year. (However, subsequent withdrawals may be subject to reasonable fees and charges.)
Another option to help employees
In addition to these accounts, SECURE 2.0 adds a new exception for certain retirement plan distributions used for emergency expenses, which are defined as unforeseeable or immediate financial needs relating to personal or family emergencies. Only one distribution of up to $1,000 is permitted a year, and a taxpayer has the option to repay the distribution within three years. This provision is effective for distributions beginning January 1, 2024.
Determine whether there’s time
In addition to what is outlined here, other rules apply to pension-linked emergency savings accounts. The IRS is likely to issue additional guidance in the next few months. Be aware that plan sponsors don’t have to offer these accounts and many employers may find that they need more time to establish them before 2024. Or they may decide there are too many administrative hurdles to clear. Contact us with questions.
September 14, 2023
The need for a will as a key component of your estate plan may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of people — even affluent individuals — who don’t have one. In the case of the legendary “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, she had more than one, which after her death led to confusion, pain and, ultimately, a court trial among her surviving family members.
Indeed, a Michigan court recently ruled that a separate, handwritten will dated 2014, found in between couch cushions superseded a different document, dated 2010, that was found around the same time.
In any case, when it comes to your last will and testament, you should only have an original, signed document. This should be the case even if a revocable trust — sometimes called a “living trust” — is part of your estate plan.
Living trust vs. a will
True, revocable trusts are designed to avoid probate and distribute your wealth quickly and efficiently according to your wishes. But even if you have a well-crafted revocable trust, a will serves several important purposes, including:
- Appointing an executor or personal representative you trust to oversee your estate, rather than leaving the decision to a court,
- Naming a guardian of your choosing, rather than a court-appointed guardian, for your minor children, and
- Ensuring that assets not held in the trust are distributed among your heirs according to your wishes rather than a formula prescribed by state law.
The last point is important, because for a revocable trust to be effective, assets must be titled in the name of the trust. It’s not unusual for people to acquire new assets and put off transferring them to their trusts or they simply forget to do so. To ensure that these assets are distributed according to your wishes rather than a formula mandated by state law, consider having a “pour-over” will. It can facilitate the transfer of assets titled in your name to your revocable trust.
Although assets that pass through a pour-over will must go through probate, that result is preferable to not having a will. Without a will, the assets would be distributed according to your state’s intestate succession laws rather than the provisions of your estate plan.
Reason for an original will
Many people mistakenly believe that a photocopy of a signed will is sufficient. In fact, most states require that a deceased’s original will be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is necessary, presented to the probate court. If your family or executor can’t find your original will, there’s a presumption in most states that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. That means the court will generally administer your estate as if you died without a will.
It’s possible to overcome this presumption — for example, if all interested parties agree that a signed copy reflects your wishes, they may be able to convince a court to admit it. But to avoid costly, time-consuming legal headaches, it’s best to ensure that your family members can locate your original will when they need it.
Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions about your will or overall estate plan.
September 14, 2023
Does your business receive large amounts of cash or cash equivalents? If so, you’re generally required to report these transactions to the IRS — and not just on your tax return.
Each person who, in the course of operating a trade or business, receives more than $10,000 in cash in one transaction (or two or more related transactions), must file Form 8300. Who is a “person”? It can be an individual, company, corporation, partnership, association, trust or estate. What are considered “related transactions”? Any transactions conducted in a 24-hour period. Transactions can also be considered related even if they occur over a period of more than 24 hours if the recipient knows, or has reason to know, that each transaction is one of a series of connected transactions.
In order to complete a Form 8300, you’ll need personal information about the person making the cash payment, including a Social Security or taxpayer identification number.
The definition of “cash” and “cash equivalents”
For Form 8300 reporting purposes, cash includes U.S. currency and coins, as well as foreign money. It also includes cash equivalents such as cashier’s checks (sometimes called bank checks), bank drafts, traveler’s checks and money orders.
Money orders and cashier’s checks under $10,000, when used in combination with other forms of cash for a single transaction that exceeds $10,000, are defined as cash for Form 8300 reporting purposes.
Note: Under a separate reporting requirement, banks and other financial institutions report cash purchases of cashier’s checks, treasurer’s checks and/or bank checks, bank drafts, traveler’s checks and money orders with a face value of more than $10,000 by filing currency transaction reports.
The reasons for reporting
Although many cash transactions are legitimate, the IRS explains that the information reported on Form 8300 “can help stop those who evade taxes, profit from the drug trade, engage in terrorist financing and conduct other criminal activities. The government can often trace money from these illegal activities through the payments reported on Form 8300 and other cash reporting forms.”
Failing to comply with the law can result in fines and even jail time. In one case, a Niagara Falls, NY, business owner was convicted of willful failure to file Form 8300 after receiving cash transactions of more than $10,000. In a U.S. District Court, he pled guilty and was recently sentenced to five months home detention, fined $10,000 and he agreed to pay restitution to the IRS. He had received cash rent payments in connection with a building in which he had an ownership interest.
Forms can be sent electronically
Businesses required to file reports of large cash transactions on Forms 8300 should know that in addition to filing on paper, e-filing is an option. The form is due 15 days after a transaction and there’s no charge for the e-file option. Businesses that file electronically get an automatic confirmation of receipt when they file.
Effective January 1, 2024, you may have to e-file Forms 8300 if you’re required to e-file other information returns, such as 1099 and W-2 forms. You must e-file if you’re required to file at least 10 information returns other than Form 8300 during a calendar year.
The IRS also reminds businesses that they can “batch file” their reports, which is especially helpful to those required to file many forms.
You should keep a copy of each Form 8300 for five years from the date you file it, according to the IRS. “Confirmation receipts don’t meet the recordkeeping requirement,” the tax agency added.
Contact us with any questions or for assistance.
September 14, 2023
August 31, 2023
August 28, 2023
There’s a common misconception that only married couples with children need estate plans. In fact, estate planning may be even more important for single people without children. Why? Because for married couples, the law makes certain assumptions about who should make financial or medical decisions on their behalf should they become incapacitated and who should inherit their property if they die.
Who’ll inherit your assets?
It’s critical for single people to execute a will that specifies how, and to whom, their assets should be distributed when they die. Although certain types of assets can pass to your intended recipient(s) through beneficiary designations, absent a will, many types of assets will pass through the laws of intestate succession.
Those laws vary from state to state, but generally they provide for assets to go to the deceased’s spouse or children. For example, the law might provide that if someone dies intestate, half of the estate goes to his or her spouse and half goes to the children. If you’re single with no children, however, these laws set out rules for distributing your assets to your closest relatives, such as your parents or siblings. Or, if you have no living relatives, your assets may go to the state.
By preparing a will, you can ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes, whether to family, friends or charitable organizations.
Who’ll make financial decisions on your behalf?
It’s a good idea to sign a durable power of attorney. This document appoints someone you trust to manage your investments, pay your bills, file your tax returns and otherwise make financial decisions should you become incapacitated.
Although the law varies from state to state, typically, without a power of attorney, a court would have to appoint someone to make these decisions on your behalf. Not only will you have no say in who the court appoints, but the process can be costly and time consuming.
Who’ll make medical decisions on your behalf?
You should prepare a living will, a health care directive (also known as a medical power of attorney), or both to ensure that your wishes regarding medical care — particularly resuscitation and other extreme lifesaving measures — are carried out in the event you’re incapacitated. These documents can also appoint someone you trust to make medical decisions that aren’t expressly addressed.
Absent such instructions, the laws in some states allow a spouse, children or other “surrogates” to make these decisions. In the absence of a suitable surrogate, or in states without such laws, medical decisions are generally left to the judgment of health care professionals or court-appointed guardians.
Contact us if you fall into the category of being single without children. We can help draft an estate plan that’s best suited for you.
August 28, 2023
If you operate your small business as a sole proprietorship, you may have thought about forming a limited liability company (LLC) to protect your assets. Or maybe you’re launching a new business and want to know your options for setting it up. Here are the basics of operating as an LLC and why it might be a good choice for your business.
An LLC is a bit of a hybrid entity because it can be structured to resemble a corporation for owner liability purposes and a partnership for federal tax purposes. This duality may provide the owners with the best of both worlds.
Protecting your personal assets
Like the shareholders of a corporation, the owners of an LLC (called “members” rather than shareholders or partners) generally aren’t liable for the debts of the business except to the extent of their investment. Thus, the owners can operate the business with the security of knowing that their personal assets are protected from the entity’s creditors. This protection is much greater than that afforded by partnerships. In a partnership, the general partners are personally liable for the debts of the business. Even limited partners, if they actively participate in managing the business, can have personal liability.
The owners of an LLC can elect under the “check-the-box” rules to have the entity treated as a partnership for federal tax purposes. This can provide a number of benefits to the owners. For example, partnership earnings aren’t subject to an entity-level tax. Instead, they “flow through” to the owners, in proportion to the owners’ respective interests in profits, and are reported on the owners’ individual returns and taxed only once.
To the extent the income passed through to you is qualified business income, you’ll be eligible to take the Section 199A pass-through deduction, subject to various limitations. (However, keep in mind that the pass-through deduction is temporary. It’s available through 2025, unless Congress acts to extend it.)
In addition, since you’re actively managing the business, you can deduct on your individual tax return your ratable shares of any losses the business generates. This, in effect, allows you to shelter other income that you (and your spouse, if you’re married) may have.
An LLC that’s taxable as a partnership can provide special allocations of tax benefits to specific partners. This can be a notable reason for using an LLC over an S corporation (a form of business that provides tax treatment that’s similar to a partnership). Another reason for using an LLC over an S corp is that LLCs aren’t subject to the restrictions the federal tax code imposes on S corps regarding the number of owners and the types of ownership interests that may be issued.
Consider all angles
In conclusion, an LLC can give you corporate-like protection from creditors while providing the benefits of taxation as a partnership. For these reasons, you may want to consider operating your business as an LLC. Contact us to discuss in more detail how an LLC might be an appropriate choice for you and the other owners.