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.

Q&A: Which is better: Will or living trust?

Dear Liz: I am 48 and my wife is 45. Should we set up a will or a living trust? Which is better?

Answer: One of the major differences between wills and living trusts is whether the estate has to go through probate, which is the court process that typically follows death. Living trusts avoid probate while wills do not.

Probate isn’t a big problem in many states, but in some — including California — it can be protracted, expensive and often worth avoiding. Another advantage of living trusts is privacy. While wills are entered into the public record, living trusts aren’t.

Living trusts can help you avoid another court-supervised process called conservancy. If you’re incapacitated, the person you’ve named as your “successor trustee” can take over management of your finances without going to court. To avoid the court process without a living trust, you’d need separate documents called powers of attorney. If you have minor children, your living trust trustee can manage their money for them. If you have a will, you would need to include language setting up a trust and naming a trustee.

One big disadvantage of living trusts is the cost. Although price tags vary, a lawyer typically charges a few hundred dollars for a will, while a living trust may cost a few thousand. Also, there’s some hassle involved, since property has to be transferred into the trust to avoid probate.

There are do-it-yourself options, including Nolo software and LegalZoom, that can save you money if your situation isn’t complicated and you’re willing to invest some time in learning about estate planning. If your situation is at all complicated, though — if you’re wealthy or have contentious relatives who are likely to challenge your documents — an experienced attorney’s help can be invaluable.

Whichever you decide, make sure that you have one or the other before too much longer. Otherwise, when you die, state law will determine who gets your stuff and who gets your kids.

Q&A: Avoiding estate taxes

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about what a wealthy couple could do to reduce future estate taxes, and you mentioned the annual exclusion. They also could pay education and medical expenses for anyone, and there’s no annual limit.

Answer: Absolutely — and the couple’s estate planning attorney almost certainly would have informed them of this option.

The original letter came from one of the couple’s children, asking what their parents could do to reduce future estate taxes, in addition to the irrevocable trust that already had been set up. The reader lamented that the estate was bigger than the current exemption limits (now $10.98 million for a married couple) and so could incur estate taxes.

My answer was that the couple’s attorney would have told them of other options. One of those options is to use the annual exclusion of $14,000 per recipient to gift tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their estate. If the couple chooses not to use available options, and instead lets the estate incur the taxes, there’s not much the heirs can do about it.

Q&A: Federal estate tax exemption

Dear Liz: You mentioned that the federal estate tax exemption limit this year is $5.49 million per person. Can I double that if married?

Answer: Essentially, yes. Married couples can double the amount that can be given or bequeathed to heirs tax free. If one spouse doesn’t use up his or her exemption, the surviving spouse can use the remaining amount in addition to the surviving spouse’s own exemption.

You also should know that you can leave an unlimited amount of money to a spouse who is a U.S. citizen. (The rules for non-citizen spouses are different and could fill a whole column on their own.) This is known as the unlimited marital deduction.