Q&A: Giving stock to your children

Dear Liz: We plan to give our children some stock that we have had for several years. What is the tax consequence when they sell it? Is it the difference from the value when we gave it to them till they sell it, or the difference from the value when we purchased it?

Answer: If the stock is worth more the day you give it to them than it was worth when you bought it, you’ll be giving them your tax basis too.

Let’s imagine you bought the stock for $10 per share.

Say it’s worth $18 per share when you gift it. If they sell for $25, their capital gain would be $15 ($25 sale price minus your $10 basis). They will qualify for long-term capital gains rates since you’ve held the stock for more than a year.

If on the day you give the stock, it’s worth less than what you paid for it, then different rules apply. Let’s say the stock’s value has fallen to $5 per share when you gift it.

If your children later sell for more than your original basis of $10, then $10 is their basis. So if they sell for $12, their capital gain is $2.

If they sell it for less than $5 (the market value when you gave it), that $5 valuation becomes their basis. If they sell for $4, then, their capital loss would be $1 per share ($4 sale price minus $5 basis). The silver lining: Capital losses can be used to offset income and reduce taxes.

Finally, if they sell for an amount between the value at the date of the gift and your basis — so between $5 and $10 in our example — there will be no gain or loss to report.

If, however, you wait and bequeath the stock to them at your death, the shares would get a new tax basis at that point. If the stock is worth more than what you paid, your kids get that new, higher basis. So if it’s worth $25 on the day you die and they sell for $25, no capital gains taxes are owed. If it’s worth $5 when you die, though, the capital loss essentially evaporates. Your kids can’t use it to offset other income.

Q&A: Their kids are spendthrifts. How do parents protect them with a trust?

Dear Liz: My wife (71) and I (68) have been diligent savers our entire lives. We have accumulated IRA assets of approximately $2 million along with a house and other assets. Our total estate is under $10 million. We have two adult children in their 20s who did not inherit the saving gene. My question is: Does a trust exist that would maintain the IRA’s tax-deferred status, make required minimum distributions to our kids and include appropriate spendthrift provisions? Also, would the distributions be based on our life expectancies or on theirs?

Answer: Yes, you can create a spendthrift trust and name it as the beneficiary of your IRAs. Your children could be named beneficiaries of the trust. Required minimum distributions for inherited IRAs would be based on the elder child’s life expectancy. Your children would not be able to “invade” or tap the principal.

A spendthrift trust would not only prevent your kids from blowing through any money left in the IRAs. It also would prevent creditors from getting the money in case of bankruptcy. In many states, inherited IRAs are vulnerable to creditor claims.

Here’s the thing, though: This is a question you should be asking your estate planning attorney. If you don’t have one, you need to get one. People with small, simple estates may be able to get away with do-it-yourself planning, but yours is neither small nor simple. Trying to save money by using software or forms just isn’t a good idea. Whatever money you save may be wasted when your estate plan goes awry in ways you didn’t foresee, because you’re not an estate planning expert.

Trusts that name IRAs as beneficiaries, for example, must have special language to accomplish what you want, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Without the right language, the IRA custodian might liquidate the IRA instead. That would trigger the taxes and lump sum payouts you’re trying to avoid.

Q&A: Procrastination can mean estate-planning disaster

Dear Liz: My husband and I own all our assets as joint tenants. Because we have no children, we did not want to rush into making a will. But for the past few years, my husband’s older sister has been pressuring him to write a will benefiting her 60-year-old daughter.

His sister has gone so far as to ask my husband to send her a notarized list of all our assets, including bank accounts. He’s declined but she does not take “no” for an answer. He no longer communicates with her. It is our wish to benefit only the organizations and institutions that we already support. Although family members and relatives will not be named in the will, I wonder if his sister or anyone else can still try to claim an inheritance.

Answer: If you don’t stop procrastinating, everything you own may be inherited by that pushy sister-in-law. So get a move on.

Your jointly owned assets should pass to the other spouse when one of you dies, but when the survivor dies the property would be distributed according to your state’s laws if you don’t have a will or other estate plan. The laws of intestate succession typically put any children first in line, followed by parents. If you don’t have kids and your parents are dead, then siblings usually inherit.

People who would have inherited in the absence of a will typically have the “standing” or legal ability to challenge a will. Given your sister-in-law’s extreme sense of entitlement, you should count on her doing so. You should enlist an experienced attorney to help set up a will that can survive such a challenge.

Q&A: When to consider creating a trust

Dear Liz: You’ve written about trusts recently, but I’m confused. What are the benefits of creating a trust and putting all of your assets in it? Does it make sense for someone in their 30s and without any major assets, such as a house, to create a trust? Will I need to create a new trust if I get married?

Answer: There are many different types of trusts, but they’re typically designed to protect assets in one way or another. If you don’t have a lot of assets, you may not need a trust — at least not yet.

One of the most common types of trusts is a revocable living trust, which is designed to avoid the potential costs and delays of probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. In some states, probate is not that big a deal, while in others, including California, probate can be lengthy and expensive.

It’s often possible to avoid probate using beneficiary designations on financial accounts and, in some states, on property including vehicles and real estate. That may be sufficient for small estates or people just starting out. Once you have a home and some assets you’ll want to investigate whether a living trust makes sense.

Q&A: An inexpensive lawyer in the suburbs is fine for smaller estates

Dear Liz: My wife and I have updated our will and trust every 10 years. So far we’ve been sorely disappointed. The local bar association recommended some attorneys, but they were relatively young, inexperienced, unable to answer a lot of our most basic questions, and produced documents that I could have created on my home computer. It seems as though the most experienced attorneys are downtown in tall office buildings with equally tall price tags while the suburbs get the new graduates, the generalists or the estate planning attorneys who didn’t make it in the big leagues. Can you recommend a referral source that will actually suggest someone who is experienced, specializes in estate planning and won’t require us to drive 40 miles to downtown?

Answer: The first question that must be asked is whether yours is a big-league estate.

If your joint estate is worth more than $22.4 million, the current estate tax exemption limit for a married couple, you probably should swallow your distaste and hire a skyscraper-based attorney. You’ll need expert help dealing with estate tax issues, and that doesn’t come cheap.

If your estate is not in the big leagues, you should still be able to hire a competent, experienced attorney if you do sufficient research beforehand. Understand that software will be drafting your plan, regardless of which lawyer you choose.

What you’re paying for is advice on the documents you need, assurance that those documents are prepared correctly and help getting the deeds for your real estate recorded for your trust, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Good estate planning attorneys have seen the many ways an estate plan can go wrong so they can give the guidance needed to help you avoid disaster and create the outcomes you want.

Sawday said the best source of referrals maybe your CPA or tax preparer. Your tax pro has a good idea of your financial situation and probably has referred many other clients to good attorneys. Financial planners and attorneys who specialize in other areas can often recommend someone as well.

“Professionals don’t refer to other professionals time and time again who give bad service or otherwise generate unhappy clients,” Sawday said.

Interview two or three attorneys before you decide. You’ll typically have to pay a consultation fee, but you’ll have a much better idea of whether they can answer your questions to your satisfaction.

The suburbs, by the way, are precisely where you’re likely to find reasonably priced, competent attorneys, since they don’t have the same overhead costs as the skyscraper set.

Q&A: A ‘poor man’s trust’ may be a poor estate plan

Dear Liz: I am 85 and my wife is 76. We have a house free of mortgage worth about $1 million. We have market investments above $4 million and life insurance of $1 million. We do not have a trust, just a will. Our financial advisor says that we do not need a trust because we have named both of our grown children as beneficiaries on all of our accounts and on the deed to our house. Please advise us if a trust is needed in our situation or if we are fine the way things are set up.

Answer: If your financial advisor is an estate-planning attorney, he or she may be correct. Otherwise, you’d be smart to seek out a lawyer experienced in these matters to review what you’ve done.

Naming beneficiaries on financial accounts, and on deeds in states that allow that, can allow those assets to pass to heirs without going through probate. So-called transfer-on-death accounts and deeds are sometimes called “the poor man’s trust.” You’re far from poor, though, and a living trust may be a better option for distributing your wealth because there are many ways the current arrangement could go wrong.

The surviving spouse, for example, could change the beneficiaries. You both may be of sound mind now, but there’s no guarantee you’ll remain so. Fraud experts can tell story after story of caregivers, relatives, friends, advisors and romantic interests persuading a vulnerable older person to change beneficiaries in favor of the interloper. A living trust that bypasses probate can include language to prevent your children from being completely disinherited.

Another potential problem: paying funeral costs and the expenses of settling the estate. If everything does go to the kids at the survivor’s death, the executor may have to go after them to return some of the money.

This column isn’t long enough to detail all the other ways transfer-on-death arrangements can misfire, so you’ll want to make an appointment with an experienced estate-planning attorney soon.

Q&A: Don’t rush when setting up your living trust

Dear Liz: Your column recently answered a question about whether a living trust was the right move, and I thought you mentioned a free online form or worksheet that one could download and fill out. Where can I find that?

Answer: Many sites offering free software or forms are actually subscription services. You typically use a credit card to sign up and are charged a monthly fee after the free trial period ends. If you can wrap up your estate planning in short order and cancel before the fee kicks in, your trust may be free — but given what’s at stake, it’s not a good idea to rush.

After all, if you make a mistake with your estate planning that’s revealed after your death, you can’t come back and fix it. That means your desire to save a few bucks could cost your heirs dearly.

At a minimum, you should consider consulting with an attorney to ensure you’re not making obvious errors. Some of the do-it-yourself sites, including LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, offer the option to consult with a lawyer. RocketLawyer, a $40-a-month subscription service, has a seven-day free trial. LegalZoom sells a $269 living trust package that includes a 30-day free trial of its subscription advice service. After the free trial, the subscription costs $15 a month. Legal self-help site Nolo has an online living trust form for $60 that doesn’t include advice, but you can use Nolo’s attorney directory to find an expert you can hire for a review.

If your situation is at all complicated — blended families, special needs children, contentious heirs, family businesses, foreign assets and large estates all count — then it’s best to seek out an experienced estate planning attorney to draft your paperwork.

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.