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Duncan: Learn these estate planning changes

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

After many years of complete uncertainty with the federal estate tax, there is now a law in place that provides some level of predictability. Further, in 2013, Indiana repealed its inheritance tax. Indiana’s inheritance tax was known as one of the most onerous of all the states and resulted in many snowbirds making Florida their permanent home.

Effects on estate planning

duncan-greg-mug Duncan

While the federal law was not the hoped-for outright repeal of the death tax, it does provide certainty and a permanent exemption at the highest historical levels – $5.34 million per person ($10.68 million for a married couple) in 2014. The law also made permanent “portability” of the exemption amount, which means that the portion not used by one spouse at death can now be used by the surviving spouse. The exemption amount (whether your own or obtained from a predeceased spouse) can now be used to make lifetime gifts or gifts at death, which is a tremendous advantage compared to the historical $1 million limit on lifetime gifts. The death tax rates have decreased over the years from a high of 55 percent to the current 40 percent rate.

This means that, for 99 percent of Americans, estate planning will shift away from death taxes. The focus will shift to life insurance, income tax and business-succession planning. For those of high affluence and whose estates exceed the exemption amount, planning will continue as usual, with particular attention to the impact of the new income tax laws on their plans. The trust and estate professional will need to hone skills to get up to speed with non-customary services to remain relevant and add value for clients.

For the married couple of modest means or who are affluent but whose estate does not exceed the high exemption of $10.68 million, complacency is not the answer. It is still necessary to plan.

What should practitioners review with clients?

Familiarity with the new income tax laws will take time, and prior estate planning techniques should be reviewed for tax law impacts. Many “old” trusts may need to be actively managed to minimize the income tax consequences. The net investment income tax can be very burdensome to many trusts.

Life insurance policies should be reviewed and managed. Many policies were purchased to pay death taxes at a time when the exemption was much lower – $600,000 (and the rates were much higher – 55 percent). As the imposition of the death tax becomes less of a factor, the liquidity afforded by life insurance may lose its luster in light of the premium outlays. These policies may not be needed, may be deployed in some other fashion (e.g., gifted to children or grandchildren to pay the ongoing premiums), or even possibly sold to the highest bidder in the life settlement market.

Family limited partnerships (commonly referred to as FLIPs) have been created by many families to help facilitate lifetime gifts. In light of the change in the death tax landscape, many families are re-evaluating the continued use of the FLIP. There are many income tax issues to consider with unwinding a FLIP, depending on the current owners: the duration of existence, whether property contributed had a built-in gain, and whether liquidating distributions are made pro rata under the treasury regulations, among other factors. Competent tax advice should be sought prior to liquidation.

One of the more interesting income tax issues to be managed and understood is the interaction between death taxes and income taxes in light of the “step-up” in basis rule. This rule says that most assets receive a change in basis at a person’s death. The new basis becomes the value on the date of death. Assume a person owns Eli Lilly & Co. stock that has a $0 basis. If the person sells the stock there would be capital gains tax on the sale proceeds. If the stock were gifted during lifetime to children and the children sell the stock, the children would have the same capital gains tax (gifted assets have a “carryover” basis to the donee, meaning that the donee receives the donor’s basis). By contrast, if the stock is left to children after a person’s death, and the children sell the inherited stock the day after death, there would be no capital gains tax. While this rule is commonly referred to as the “step-up” in basis, it can also result in a “step-down” in basis (e.g., publicly traded stock purchased for $100,000 during life but only worth $50,000 at death will result in a new basis of $50,000, and the possible income tax “loss” will vanish).

Assessing assets in light of changes

Out of fear of the death tax, most laypersons (and appraisers) assume that assets are to be valued at the lowest possible value after a person’s death. However, in light of the high exemption amounts and the step-up in basis rule, that may not be the case. Most people should want assets to be valued at the highest possible value as long as it does not exceed the death tax exemption amount. Thus, for hard-to-value assets (real estate or business interest), assuming a person’s estate will not exceed the exemption amount, most should want the value to be as high as reasonably possible so as to minimize future income taxes (or increase current depreciation expenses for depreciable assets). Most appraisers recognize that there is a range of reasonableness, and it may be necessary to educate appraisers to understand the issues or to merely state that you do not want the lowest possible value. Many are not familiar with these scenarios, and understanding these rules is critical to advising families on which assets to gift or sell during lifetime and advising estate administrators in order to minimize future income tax.

While the estate tax laws are great for our clients, there is still much work to be done. Estate plans or techniques that are dated by five years or more should be reviewed with a fresh perspective in light of the changes that have taken place over the last two years.•

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Greg J. Duncan is a partner in the Indianapolis office of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. He practices in the areas of estate planning, probate and trust administration, estate and gift tax planning, estate litigation and nonprofit planning. He is a certified trust & estate lawyer by the Indiana Trust & Estate Specialty Board. He can be contacted at gduncan@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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