Worry about the right thing with estate taxes

Death and taxes may be the only certainties in life, but death taxes are only a remote possibility for most people. The vast majority of Americans won’t ever have or give away enough to owe estate or gift taxes.

Far more people could be affected if a tax break that benefits heirs is eliminated. While campaigning for president, Joe Biden proposed doing away with something called the “step-up in basis” that allows people to minimize or avoid capital gains taxes on inherited assets. But no legislation has been proposed yet, and such a change could have a tough time getting approved by a divided Congress.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why it’s time to think about the hard stuff and plan ahead.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why you may not want to be an executor. Also in the news: 5 ways to foil catalytic converter thieves, 3 money habits to carry forward from the pandemic era, and how to avoid fees when paying your taxes.

Why You May Not Want to Be an Executor
Settling someone’s estate can be time-consuming and difficult, plus you could be sued.

5 Ways to Foil Catalytic Converter Thieves
Catalytic converter thefts have soared during the pandemic.

3 Money Habits to Carry Forward From the Pandemic Era
According to a new survey, 78% of Americans report that the pandemic spurred them to take financial action.

How to Avoid Fees When Paying Your Taxes
Some options are better and cheaper than others.

Why you don’t want to be an executor

Being asked to be an executor is an honor you might want to pass up.

Settling an estate typically involves tracking down and appraising assets, paying bills and creditors, filing final tax returns and distributing whatever’s left to the heirs. At best, the process is time-consuming. At worst, it takes hundreds of hours, exposes you to lawsuits and thrusts you into the middle of family fights.

Robert Braglia of New York, a certified financial planner, was executor of an estate where the woman disowned three of her four children and left most of her money to just one of her many grandchildren. That could have caused an uproar even if the family got along, which it didn’t: Two of the woman’s children were fighting over the woman’s ashes before she actually died.

“Even without conflicts — which there always are — it is an enormous job,” Braglia says.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why it’s important be clear on what’s involved before you agree to take on this role.

Q&A: U.S. is best when picking a trustee

Dear Liz: My wife and I have a revocable living trust and we would like to change our primary successor trustee to someone who lives in the United Kingdom. The new trustee is not related to us nor is he a U.S. citizen. Can this be done and would our trust then become a foreign trust subject to a lot of U.S. taxes? How can we avoid this becoming a foreign trust?

Answer: Please rethink your plan, and not just for the reason you suggest.

Naming a foreign trustee very well may change the trust to a foreign trust for federal or state tax purposes when you die, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

But settling an estate is difficult enough when the successor trustee lives nearby. Trying to manage the process from another country could qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

If you really don’t have someone in the U.S. whom you trust, consider hiring a professional trustee. Some banks offer trust administration or settlement services as well as other fiduciary services, Sawday said. A licensed professional fiduciary could handle this role as well. Your estate planning attorney should be able to give you some referrals.

Hiring someone could cost more than naming a friend or family member, but often the money is well spent, Sawday said, because the professional is familiar with the work and is efficient compared to a layperson who may serve as a trustee once in a lifetime.

Q&A: A collection of advice on selling collections

Dear Liz: I concur with your advice regarding selling collections. I am a retired licensed marriage and family therapist. I’ve witnessed clients struggle with caring for a loved one and their things. One family started taking photos of their loved one with much-treasured collectible objects, and recording the stories told about them. This offered increased connection and understanding across the generations. With this recorded story, it was easier to release and sell the things. And there were a few treasures that family members asked to keep, pleasing their elders immensely!

Answer: What a lovely idea! As collectors know, it’s all about the story, and many would embrace the chance to share theirs.

Dear Liz: A friend collected and has some wonderful pieces of Japanese items such as antique tonsu chests and porcelain, some of which are quite valuable. When she was updating her estate plan, her attorney suggested she ask me, as a friend and fellow collector, to be an advisor to her family about disposing of these items after her death (assuming she predeceases me). My contact info was then shared with her loved ones. Another trick I have seen is to have copies made of receipts with identifying information and prices paid placed inside drawers of valuable furniture. Whether these items are sold at auction, estate sale or upscale consignment, the information is extremely valuable in helping to determine authenticity. Naturally, this information should also be stored with legal documents. Prior to a recent surgery I also shared my information with my sister and went over the location in my files for all pertinent information. It can be difficult for heirs to differentiate Baccarat crystal, vintage Wedgwood china and top-quality French copper from goods sold in discount chains. Once they know what the items are, the internet and EBay make it easy to get a sense of the value of items for sale. Hope you find this helpful.

Answer: Very much so, and I’m sure readers will as well. Thanks for the tips!

Dear Liz: Regarding your advice to the collectors and the impact on the executors, there can be another wrinkle: disagreements on valuations among the heirs.

I’m the executor for my parents’ estate and my mother spent a considerable amount of time and resources collecting art. Unfortunately there is little documentation on the art and it is in a niche market where it will be hard to get accurate values.

I’ve decided that when the time comes, I will use what little documentation my mother had to establish values and then divide the art collection among the heirs. If the heirs want to liquidate the art, that is their choice. It takes me out of the middle of squabbles over whether or not I got a “good” price for something. And it gives me time to decide for my portion of the collection what pieces I want to keep for myself and what I want to sell. This obviously only works when the heirs are people and not organizations and they have the ability to take the collection rather than a check.

Answer: Oh, boy.

If you are the executor, you will have a fiduciary duty to the estate. What that means is that you will be legally required to act in the estate’s best interests, rather than in your own. Cherry picking a collection is an excellent way to violate that duty and potentially get yourself sued. Another way to invite lawsuits is to rely on scanty, out-of-date documentation to establish values without attempting to get current appraisals.

If you really don’t want the hassle, ask your mother to designate, in writing, who gets what. She should discuss this with an estate planning attorney to see if her estate documents need updating or if she can include a letter detailing her bequests.

Q&A: Your prized collection isn’t going to sell itself

Dear Liz: I am in the process of winding down my duties as executor of the estate of a 91-year-old gentleman who, like the reader who wrote to you, had a prized collection. I had repeatedly urged him to dispose of his prized things. I reasoned that because he was retired and had the time, and because he knew the story behind his prized items, he was in a far better position to find a buyer than I would ever be. (Knowing the provenance of the item is important because people purchase the story, not just the item itself.) He did dispose of some of the more valuable things and actually got some good cash, which he was able to enjoy. But he didn’t follow my advice completely, which meant that when he died, I had to deal with his remaining prized collectibles.

My suggestion to any older person who has collectibles is: Don’t wait to dispose of items that have market value. If you’re retired and have the time, sell the items yourself! If you don’t need the cash, deposit the money into the bank account that will pass to your heirs in due course. Don’t burden your executor — who is probably still working full time and who has bigger things to deal with, like your house, car and investment accounts — with disposing of your collectibles.

Answer: Obviously, parting with collectibles can be tough. The alternative, though, could be that precious items wind up in a yard sale or a dumpster. Collectors who sell get the satisfaction of knowing that the items are going to people who really want them.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a holiday

Dear Liz: In a recent response, you wrote, “Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die.” This sort of writing is not uncommon but it implies some people won’t die. It would have been better to write “… take over managing your affairs when you die or if you should become incapacitated.” This is important, since it is noteworthy how many people are unwilling to face the facts when it comes to being prepared and finances: None of us are going to get out of this alive.

Answer: Good point!

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 credit mistakes that can haunt you. Also in the news: The benefits of a renovation refinance, 7 times you might want to product-change a credit card, and why you should name a guardian for your kids right away.

5 Credit Mistakes That Can Haunt You
Some mistakes are much worse than others.

Looking to Fund a Remodel? Consider a Renovation Refinance
Paying for home improvements with a renovation refinance loan has certain advantages — including a potentially lower interest rate.

7 Times You Might Want to Product-Change a Credit Card
Swapping your card, instead of closing it and opening a new one, can help you avoid an annual fee and hard inquiry.

Why You Should Name a Guardian for Your Kids Right Away
Life is unpredictable.

Q&A: Finding someone to sell your stuff after you’re gone

Dear Liz: I have a question on how to have my affairs managed after I die. I am single, with no children or living relatives, so finding someone to handle my estate is a challenge. Do you have a recommendation for where I can find a person or business, such as a bank’s trust department? I have a living trust but need to have someone sell all my assets (many are collectible and worth the extra effort in their sale). Do I need to go through probate just to ensure none of my assets are “lost” by the executor? Should I make a list of valuable items that would easily be omitted from the sale and distribution? To ensure all items are accounted for, to whom would I now provide the list?

Answer: Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die. The successor trustee will be the one who will pay your final bills and sell or distribute your stuff after you’re gone. A list of your valuable items, along with the names of experts who can help with their sale, could help with that process. You can store that information with your living trust.

The person you choose doesn’t need to be a collectibles expert or even particularly financially savvy as long as they’ve got common sense and integrity. Successor trustees can hire any help that they need.

But this should be a person you trust completely because you’re putting a lot of power and discretion in their hands. If you’re worried this person will “lose” or mishandle your estate, you probably should choose someone else or reconsider having a living trust. Allowing your estate to go through probate instead would provide at least some court supervision of an estate’s distribution.

You may be able to hire a successor trustee. Bank trust departments can serve as successor trustees, but they tend to charge significant fees and are unlikely to want the job if your estate isn’t substantial. Another option might be a private trust services company or a professional fiduciary. Neither are exactly cheap, but they’re likely to be less expensive than a bank. Any of these options require making arrangements in advance — you can’t just name a company or fiduciary and expect them to take on the work.

Q&A: Death, taxes and home sales: How to handle the mixture

Dear Liz: My wife and I bought our house 61 years ago in Southern California. The wife passed away seven years ago, and I became the sole owner. If I should die owning the house, I know my daughter will inherit and her tax basis will be the value of the house on that date. But if I sell the house, I’m not sure what my basis will be. Do I pick up the 50% of what the house was worth on the day my wife died and add to that the 50% of the original purchase price that would be mine? Or is my basis the original price of the house?

Answer: In most states, only your wife’s half of the home would get a new value for tax purposes at her death. In community property states such as California, though, both her half and yours get this step up in tax basis.

Tax basis determines how much taxable profit there might be when property and other assets are sold. For those who aren’t sure how tax basis works, a simplified example might help.

Let’s say Raul and Ramona bought their home for $40,000 in 1959. In 2013, when Ramona died, the home was worth $800,000. Today, it’s worth $1 million.

At her death, Ramona’s half of the home got a new tax basis. Instead of $20,000 (half of the purchase price), her half of the home now has a tax basis of $400,000 (half of its $800,000 value at the time).

In most states, Raul would keep the $20,000 tax basis on his half, so his combined basis in the home would be $420,000. If he should sell the home for $1 million, the profit for tax purposes would be $580,000.

In California and other community property states, the entire house gets a step up in basis to $800,000 when Ramona dies. If Raul sells the house for $1 million, the profit (or capital gain, in tax parlance) would be $200,000.

Of course, there would be no tax owed on this home sale, since Raul can exempt up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Raul could use Ramona’s home sale exclusion, and avoid tax on up to $500,000 of home sale profit, if he sells the home within two years of her death.

If Raul keeps the home until his death, on the other hand, it will get a further step up in tax basis equal to whatever the home’s fair market value is at the time (let’s say $1.2 million). If the daughter sells it for that amount, no capital gain tax would be owed.