Q&A: Revocable living trusts don’t help with taxes

Dear Liz: Thanks for your recent column on setting up a living trust. This sounds like something that I should do, but I have a few questions. Would federal and state taxes be due on earnings on assets in the trust? Would these taxes due be paid out of earnings of the trust? Would I continue to pay taxes on my income from sources other than the trust?

Answer: Revocable living trusts are an estate-planning tool used to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. Unlike many other types of trusts, revocable living trusts don’t trigger special tax treatment. You’re still considered the owner of the assets, so you’ll continue reporting earnings and income on your individual tax return, as you previously did.

Revocable living trusts also don’t get special estate tax treatment. Revocable living trusts are designed to eliminate the potential costs and delays of probate, not of the estate tax system. Living trusts may include provisions meant to reduce estate taxes, such as language creating a bypass trust upon death, but those are the same kinds of provisions that can be included in wills.

Q&A: Why setting up a living trust may be wise, especially in California

Dear Liz: Is there a minimum amount of assets required before a revocable living trust is advisable? I am retired but my wife is still working. If we do not include our 401(k) plans, our total liquid assets (my wife’s monthly salary, my monthly Social Security benefit and my pension check) are below $100,000. We do not own a house or other real estate and do not have any major outstanding loans. We own our only car, a 2009 non-luxury vehicle.

Assuming we need a trust, do we still need to make out a will? If so, can we use a state-specific form online or just make out a handwritten will? Lastly, can a will be “until further notice” or do we have to update it each year? It should be obvious that we are trying to save expenses where we can.

Answer: Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise oversees the paying of creditors and distribution of someone’s assets. (The sources of income you listed aren’t considered assets, by the way, since those will cease upon your deaths and can’t be transferred to other heirs.) Living trusts offer privacy, because probate is a public process, and can make it easier for a designated person to take over for you if you should become incapacitated.

There’s no specific dollar amount of assets for which a living trust becomes a good idea. In many states, probate isn’t a big deal, while in others — including California — probate is expensive enough that the cost of setting up a living trust can be worthwhile. Even in California, smaller estates (those under $150,000) can avoid probate or qualify for a streamlined process that can make living trusts unnecessary.

Those with larger estates may be able to avoid probate using other methods.

The money in your 401(k)s, for example, will pass directly to the beneficiaries you name. In many states, you also can name a beneficiary for a vehicle right on the registration form so your car could avoid probate. Some states also offer this “transfer on death” option for real estate.

“Plan Your Estate,” an excellent primer from self-help legal publisher Nolo, details your options.

Living trusts typically replace the need for a will, although a lawyer likely would recommend creating a “pour-over” will to include any assets accidentally left out of the trust. If you don’t have a living trust, you’ll definitely need wills to outline how you want your property distributed.

You also should create powers of attorney for healthcare and for finances, so that someone you name can make decisions for you should you become incapacitated. These documents are probably more important than a will because they can determine your quality of life at the end of your days rather than just what happens to your stuff when you’re beyond caring.

Do-it-yourself options are fine if your estate is small, simple and unlikely to be challenged by contentious heirs. Each state has specific requirements for making a legal will, which will be detailed in the software or online forms you use. You don’t have to update a will yearly but it’s a good idea to at least review your estate documents annually to see if any changes might be needed.

Q&A: More reasons why adding an adult child to a deed is a bad idea

Dear Liz: I’m an estate planning attorney and I agree with your warning to the couple who wanted to add their daughter to their house deed to avoid probate.

The daughter’s share of the home would lose the step-up in tax basis she would get if she inherited instead, plus there are several other issues. What if the daughter gets sued or has creditor problems? The house could be at risk.

The parents also may not have thought through what might happen if the daughter marries, divorces or dies before they do. A living trust would cost some money to set up but would avoid these problems.

Answer: A revocable transfer-on-death deed is another option for avoiding probate, but a living trust is a more all-encompassing solution that also can help the daughter or another trusted person take over in case of incapacity.

In any case, they should consult an estate planning attorney, who has a far better understanding of what can go wrong after a death and how to prevent those worst-case scenarios.

Q&A: To give or not to give can be a taxing question

Dear Liz: A good friend who is childless wishes to give his property to my daughter before his death. He has been an informal uncle for the whole 50 years of my daughter’s life, and we are, in effect, his family. However, I am concerned that the gift tax may be more than he bargained for. He is not tax-aware, and earns very little, so his tax knowledge is skimpy. He owns his property outright, however.

I know that someone can give as much as $14,000 without having to file a gift tax return and that there is a “’lifetime exemption” of more than $5 million. If his property is worth, say, $500,000, can he be tax free on a gift of that magnitude by, in effect, using his lifetime exemption?

Answer: Essentially, yes, but he may be creating a tax problem for your daughter.

Gift taxes are not something that most people need to worry about. At most, a gift worth more than $14,000 per recipient would require the giver to file a gift tax return. Gift taxes wouldn’t be owed until the amount given away in excess of that annual exemption limit exceeds the lifetime exemption limit of $5.49 million.

Capital gains taxes are another matter and should always be considered before making gifts. Here’s why.

Your friend has what’s known as a “tax basis” in this property. If he sold it, he typically would owe capital gains taxes on the difference between that basis — usually the purchase price plus the cost of any improvements — and the sale price, minus any selling costs. If he has owned the property a long time and it has appreciated significantly, that could be a big tax bill.

If he gives the property to your daughter while he’s alive, she would receive his tax basis as well. If she inherited the property instead, the tax basis would be updated to the property’s value at the time of your friend’s death. No capital gains taxes would be owed on the appreciation that took place during his lifetime.

There’s something else to consider. If your friend doesn’t make much money, he may not have the savings or insurance he would need to pay for long-term care. The property could be something he could sell or mortgage to cover those costs.

If he gives the property away, he could create problems for himself if he has no other resources. Medicaid is a government program that typically pays such costs for the indigent, but there’s a “look back” period that could delay his eligibility for coverage. The look-back rules impose a penalty for gifts or asset transfers made in the previous five years. He should consult an elder-law attorney before making such a move.

Q&A: How to divvy up your wealth when you don’t agree with one offspring’s life choices

Dear Liz: I am reasonably well off thanks to hard work, some luck and a hard-earned (by my mother) inheritance. I don’t spend much because I prefer a simple life, so the money has piled up over the decades.

I have two children. One has a college degree, a decent job, and is saving for retirement. The other dropped out, became an actor and lives hand-to-mouth, getting very little paid-acting work. I want to help my kids while I’m alive, not wait to leave them money. I will help my worker bee to buy a home but I am at a loss how to help my actor. I hate to reward a lifestyle of “I can’t work a 9-to-5 job because I need to be free to audition.” On the other hand, don’t affluent parents help their artistic kids pursue their dreams?

What kind of financial advisor or family dynamics expert can I consult? Do you have any suggestions? I don’t need a money manager as the funds are handled well already. I need help to disburse funds in keeping with my values.

Answer: Talk to your estate planning attorney. If you don’t have one, get one. These professionals do more than draw up wills and trusts to distribute your assets after you’re gone. They also can help advise you about disbursements during your lifetime, including any gift tax implications. A fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour could be another good resource for you.

In answer to your question about affluent parents, some do help their children pursue dreams that aren’t wildly remunerative. The parents might supplement the income of an altruistic daughter who wants to teach in a low-income school or a talented son who needs time to build up a portfolio of artwork for a gallery show. It’s the parents’ choice, obviously, and there’s certainly no requirement they support career choices they think are questionable.

You have many options to be fair to your kids without enabling them. For example, you could put aside an amount equal to the down payment you’re giving your daughter and let your son know the money’s available when he’s “ready” to buy a home. That is so much nicer than saying, “When you snap out of your delusion that you’re going to make a living in a field where so few actually do.”

Q&A: Figuring out capital gains when an inherited house is sold

Dear Liz: I’ve have been following your responses related to the tax exemption on home sales. I understand that up to $250,000 per person of home sale profit is exempt from capital gains taxes and that married couples are entitled to exempt up to $500,000.

My spouse and her two siblings inherited a home from their parents. My father-in-law passed away four years ago, and my mother-in-law died last year. My wife was assigned as executor of their living trust. Who is entitled to take the tax exemption of the proceeds from the sale of the house? My wife? All three siblings? All of the above and their spouses?

Answer: None of the above, but don’t despair because the house will incur little if any capital gains when it’s sold.

We’ll assume your mother-in-law inherited the house outright from her husband, since that’s usually the case. When your mother-in-law died, the house received a “step up” in tax basis to reflect its current market value. If the house was worth $2 million when she died, for example, that’s the new value for tax purposes — even if she and your father-in-law paid only $25,000 decades ago for the house. All the gain that occurred in between their purchase and her death won’t be taxed.

If your wife sells the house for $2.2 million, there potentially would be some taxable capital gain. But the costs of marketing and selling the home would be deducted from its sale price. If those costs are 6% of the sale price — which is a pretty conservative assumption — the taxable gain would be about $68,000. (Six percent of $2.2 million is $132,000. Subtract the $2 million value at death and the $132,000 of sales costs, and you’re left with $68,000.) If your wife as executor sells the house and distributes the proceeds to the beneficiaries, the estate would pay the tax. If siblings inherit the house and then sell it, they would pay any tax.

Every year, millions of dollars of potential capital gain vanish this way as people inherit appreciated property. It’s a huge benefit of the estate tax system that many people don’t understand until they’re the beneficiaries of it.

Q&A: To help elderly dad hold off mooching adult kids, call in the experts

Dear Liz: My dad, age 90, needs personal care and I am trying to get him to move out of his house to a senior residential place. He is in agreement, but it is taking a long time to make this happen. He owns his home free and clear and, along with the sale of his home, has enough financial assets to cover these costs.

The problem is my two sisters’ husbands, who overspend and are in debt. These two guys continue to pressure my sisters to ask my dad for money for such things as their mortgages, expenses for their children and credit card debt. My sisters are not just starting out — they are in their 50s! Not only that, when I ask them for help with our dad, they flake out on me. I’ve told them that the financial assistance can’t continue because Dad will need his money to pay for his care.

I feel that my sisters’ and their husbands’ behavior is senior financial abuse. I read that this situation happens a lot in families, where the kids will milk an elderly, wealthy, sympathetic parent or grandparent, sometimes draining their savings. Or one dysfunctional sibling with take financial advantage of a parent, while other siblings in the family struggle with making ends meet. In our family, both my sisters have children, so my dad feels a soft spot for helping them out. I am single, no children, and I am treated differently. I do struggle to make ends meet. My dad is sometimes even reluctant to reimburse me $20 for gas that I spend driving him around and doing shopping and errands.

I’m trying to remain on good terms with my sisters but it is getting tough. Is there any financial advice or references you can give in my situation?

Answer: You’re right that most financial abuse of the elderly is committed by people close to the person, typically family, friends or caregivers. The toll isn’t small, either. A survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company found that the average victim lost $30,000 and 1 in 10 lost more than $100,000.

Family members may not see what they’re doing as abuse. They may think that they “deserve” the money or that it’s some kind of advance on a future inheritance. They also know that Dad just can’t say no and will continue to press him for money as long as they’re allowed to do so.

You and your dad should consult an elder law attorney to discuss ways your dad can be protected against predators. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Elder Law Attorneys at naela.org, and the attorney can discuss your options.

One obvious solution would be for Dad to hand over his checkbook to you, which would give you the unpleasant job of standing up to your brothers-in-law. You’re certainly in a better position to do so than your elderly father, but he may not be willing to give up control or you may not want the job.

Another option is hiring third parties. Daily money managers provide personal finance and bookkeeping services to elderly clients. They can keep a watchful eye on transactions and spot signs of fraud. You can get referrals from the the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at aadmm.com. Hiring a geriatric care manager also could be a good move. The manager could assess your father’s health, living and financial situations and help craft a plan to help him move forward. Referrals are available from the Aging Life Care Assn. at aginglifecare.org.

Q&A: This trust avoids probate (but not death and taxes)

Dear Liz: Reading your articles I understand that having a revocable living trust makes transferring wealth quicker and easier. What about taxes? If you use a will to bequeath your house, for example, the beneficiaries get a stepped-up cost basis. What are the taxes with a revocable living trust? Do you pay taxes on assets going into the trust and again going out to the beneficiaries? What are the tax advantages and disadvantages of a trust?

Answer: Many kinds of trusts have tax implications, but revocable living trusts typically don’t. Your assets get the same tax treatment as if you held them outright.

Some people mistakenly believe that revocable living trusts can help them avoid or eliminate estate taxes. The purpose of a living trust is primarily to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. In some states, including California, probate can be lengthy and expensive, which often makes a living trust worth the cost and effort to set up.

Living trusts also offer more privacy because they don’t have to be made public, unlike a will, which becomes a public record at your death. Living trusts also make it easier for your appointed person to take over for you in case you become incapacitated.

Q&A: More solutions for avoiding probate

Dear Liz: I’m wondering why, in your answer about whether to use a will or a living trust, you didn’t mention that probate can be avoided by using beneficiaries for assets such as mutual funds and brokerage accounts and now, in many states, homes. This seems quite relevant to the question and the gist of your answer.

Answer: Space limitations, and reader attention spans, prohibit exhaustive answers to many personal finance questions. Nowhere is that more true than in estate planning, which can get complicated quickly.

It’s hard to avoid probate entirely without a living trust. So-called transfer on death designations can indeed work for small estates, providing that the rest of the estate — the “tangible personal property” such as furniture and jewelry — is small enough to qualify for simplified probate proceedings. (In California, that limit is $150,000.)

Even with small estates, though, transfer on death designations aren’t necessarily the right solution for everyone. Beneficiary designations are easy to forget, for one thing, which can mean accounts going to the wrong people after life changes. In other words, your ex-wife or your mother may wind up with an account that should have gone to your spouse. People who choose to use transfer on death designations instead of a living trust need to remain vigilant about keeping those designations up to date.

They also need to explore other potential ramifications, especially if they’re taking a do-it-yourself approach. For example, if a beneficiary dies first, or simultaneously, the asset may wind up having to go through probate.

Also, as this column discussed a few months ago, real estate transfers in certain circumstances can cause the property to be reassessed, leading to much higher tax bills for heirs. That’s something an attorney would be able to explain to a client while preparing a will or living trust, but it’s something a DIYer might miss.

Q&A: When a living trust can save money

Dear Liz: Here’s another advantage to a living trust. If the person owns real estate in more than one jurisdiction and just uses a will, there will be a probate in the resident jurisdiction and ancillary probates the other location or locations, with the attendant time, costs and delays — all of which could be avoided with a living trust. All properties would have to be transferred into the trust, of course, and it’s always wise to have a pour-over will to make sure that anything inadvertently left out of the trust is included and protected from probate.

Answer: Good points. Living trusts are more expensive to set up than wills but can save money in the long run in such situations.