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2018 Estate and Trust Tax Planning

Inflation Adjustments and Initial Observations on the 2017 Tax Act’s Impacts:

In late October, the Internal Revenue Service issued its inflation-adjusted exemptions, exclusions and tax brackets to be used for 2018 federal tax returns. See generally, Internal Revenue Notice 2017-178 and Revenue Procedure 2017-58 issued on October 19, 2017. In the estates and trusts area, the principal adjustments are as follows:

  • An individual’s federal estate, gift, and generation-skipping tax exemptions are increased after December 31, 2017 to $5,600,000. Thus, for decedents dying after December 31st with a gross estate (i.e., a taxable estate at death plus prior adjusted taxable gifts) of less than $5,600,000, there will be no federal estate tax due and no federal estate tax return is required to be filed. In addition, individuals may cumulatively make up to $5,600,000 in taxable lifetime gifts before any federal gift tax is imposed.
  • After years of remaining fixed at $14,000 per year, the federal gift tax exclusion will increase to $15,000. As a result, for calendar year 2018, individuals may make gifts that can be enjoyed immediately totaling $15,000 or less to any number of individuals without those gifts counting as lifetime taxable gifts (and without those gifts requiring the use of the $5,600,000 gift tax exemption mentioned above).
  • Finally, for trusts receiving and retaining taxable income, the federal income tax brackets have changed such that trusts do not reach the 39.6% marginal rate until they have taxable income in excess of $12,700. (Please recall that trusts get “distributable net income” deductions for amounts distributed to trust beneficiaries so that this maximum marginal rate will only be imposed on retained ordinary income above that amount. In turn, the beneficiaries receiving this distributable net income will pay tax on the income received at their personal marginal rates.) Note that the new bracket amount does not affect the Maryland income tax paid by the trust at Maryland rates on top of the federal tax.

Despite the IRS’s October pronouncement, a real question exists as to whether any of these limits will apply in 2018. As I write this article, House of Representatives and Senate conferees in Congress have agreed upon a final version for a bill entitled H.R. 1, “the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017” (referred to below as “the TCJA”). This “Conference Committee” version of the TCJA will now come before both houses of Congress for separate votes of approval. If, as expected, this Conference Committee report is approved by the House and Senate, the Conference Committee version of the TCJA will become law and generally apply with respect to tax years commencing after December 31, 2017. The Conference Committee approved version of the TCJA will substantially change the applicable 2018 estate and generation-skipping transfer tax exemption numbers already announced by the IRS and will change the income tax brackets for trusts:

  • The Conference Committee version of the TCJA will double the basic federal estate, gift, and generation-skipping tax exemptions from $5,000,000 to $10,000,000. With inflation adjustments back to 2010, the actual exemptions per individual will increase to approximately $11,200,000, and a married couple will be able to shelter over $22,000,000 for their post-mortem beneficiaries before having to worry about paying federal estate tax.
    On January 1, 2019, the Maryland estate tax exemption is scheduled to become “recoupled” with the federal exemption. As of now, were the TCJA to pass with the doubled estate tax exemption, that doubled estate tax exemption will apply for Maryland estate tax purposes as well. Time will tell how Maryland reacts to this substantial decrease in tax revenue.
  • The original House of Representatives’ version of H.R. 1 would have repealed the federal estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes entirely as of January 1, 2025. This repeal, however, is not included in the Conference Committee’s approved final version of the TCJA, and for now such repeal is no longer on the agenda.
    Since neither the House nor the Senate versions of the TCJA (nor the Conference Committee report) repeal or change the federal gift tax exclusion amount, it appears that the federal gift tax exclusion will in fact increase to $15,000 for 2018 and succeeding years (until inflation again requires an adjustment in a $1,000 increment).
  • Under the Conference Committee version of the TCJA, the brackets for trust taxable income will be changed as follows:
    • Retained trust income up to $2,550 would be taxed at 10% (a rate below the current 15% tax on such income);
    • From $2,550 to $9,150, retained trust income would be taxed at 24% (a rate also below that mandated by current law);
    • From $9,150 to $12,500, retained trust income would be taxed at 35% (a rate higher than that mandated by current law); and
    • Above $12,500, retained trust income would be taxed at the maximum 37% (a rate that is 2.6% less than that mandated by current law).

    Thus, under the Conference Committee’s version of the TCJA, the maximum bracket for federal income tax on retained trust income will apply at an amount slightly below that projected by the IRS in October, but the rate itself would be 2.6% lower.

  • Because estates and trusts are generally subject to the same rules for calculating taxable income as individuals and because the TCJA suspends most individual itemized deductions until December 31, 2025, estates and trusts will be subject to the same TCJA provisions as individuals with respect to the loss or limitation of itemized income tax deductions (e.g., a $10,000 limit on the deductibility of state and local property and income taxes, limits on the deductibility of home mortgage interest, and loss of the deduction for preparation of tax returns). In particular, trusts and estates will no longer be able to claim as deductions expenses that previously were allowable if they exceeded 2% of taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. However, trusts and estates will now be eligible for a new complicated deduction for certain “qualified business income” received for the taxable year with respect to pass-through business entities.
  • Since individual beneficiaries will not be able to make itemized deductions for these pass-throughs (at least until after December 31, 2025), residuary beneficiaries of estates and trusts will no longer be eligible to benefit from unused excess deductions for estate and trust administration expenses after termination of an estate or trust.
  • The TCJA does not change the “stepped-up” basis provisions of current law with respect to capital gains on inherited assets. As such, beneficiaries will continue to inherit capital assets with the date of death fair market value of the assets as their respective bases for capital gains purposes and without the potential of realizing income taxation on pre-mortem appreciation (or losses) in value.

To learn about how The Wright Firm can help you make adjustments to your estate planning, please contact us at (410) 224-7800, or shines@thewrightfirm.net.

All of this will make wonderful fun for the IRS’s tax return designers over the Holidays. Here’s hoping that your Holidays are merrier than theirs and that we all have a Happy New Year.

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Becoming A Personal Representative: Begin With The End In Mind

 

A Personal Representative is the individual who is appointed to carry out all of the duties of collecting a decedent’s assets, paying the decedent’s outstanding obligations, and distributing the remaining property to the decedent’s legatees or heirs.

When you become a Personal Representative, it’s important to begin with an understanding of what will be required during the course of the administration. Within nine months of appointment, and at least every six months thereafter until the administration is completed, the Personal Representative must submit for review and approval by the supervising county Orphans’ Court an accounting describing all receipts of the Estate and any purchase, sale, transfer, compromise, disbursement, or distribution of the Estate’s assets. Any of these transactions are subject to examination by the Court’s staff. With this in mind, a Personal Representative will want to follow appropriate procedures to keep track of this information while setting up and managing the Estate.

 

LETTERS OF ADMINISTRATION CERTIFICATE

When new Personal Representative is appointed, he or she is given multiple copies of a certificate known as “Letters of Administration” that proves his or her appointment. Financial institutions are very careful when dealing with surrogates for their depositors, so a Personal Representative will need to prove that he or she is entitled to deal with the decedent’s assets. The Personal Representative therefore needs to always be prepared to supply a Letter of Administration certificate when collecting the decedent’s financial assets or when opening a new account.

THE ESTATE’S TAXPAYER IDENTIFICATION NUMBER

One of the first steps in our process for a new Personal Representative is to obtain a new taxpayer identification number (or “TIN”) for the Estate. When a decedent dies, his Estate becomes a new taxpayer for federal and state income tax purposes. The federal income tax rates applicable to estates and trusts differ markedly from those applicable to living individuals. The decedent’s Social Security Number is therefore no longer available as an identifier for the income earned on the property belonging to the decedent before death since that income will no longer be taxed to the decedent as an individual. Because financial institutions are required to report this income to the IRS and applicable state tax authorities, they will not change the ownership of the decedent’s funds or open any new account for the Personal Representative without first receiving and verifying the Estate’s new TIN. Consequently this TIN and the Letters of Administration will both be required for the Personal Representative to begin his or her financial duties.

DEPOSITS INTO THE ESTATE BANK ACCOUNT

If you are a new Personal Representative, you will want to begin by gaining access and closing out any individual accounts held by the decedent. Once closed, deposit the funds along with any cash and checks belonging to the decedent into a separate Estate account (usually a checking account) in your name as Personal Representative with all income on the account being taxed to the Estate’s new TIN. Keeping an Estate account separate from your personal account is both a fundamental Personal Representative duty and a primary means of obtaining and keeping information needed for the Estate account.

Knowing that you will be required to account for all Estate financial transactions, be sure to keep written records of all checks received and deposited by making photocopies or scanning and storing images of the checks as digital files. Because bank statements only list the total amount of a deposit (and not the separate deposited items), one very good idea is to list on each deposit slip exactly what checks were included in that deposit or to staple the deposit slip to copies of those checks. Keep this backup information and a list of all checks and cash received with the amount, the payer, and the reason for the payment of the funds in question. That way, this information will be readily accessible when it comes time to prepare the required Estate account. Not having such information will lead to needless expense down the road if it needs to be reconstructed.

PAYING ESTATE EXPENSES

Make sure also that you have copies of all checks written or a complete check register for all Estate expenditures. If your bank will supply copies of checks written, make sure you sign up for this service for the Estate checking account. Accounts dedicated to an Estate cannot be used for your personal expenses or for Personal Representative compensation or attorney’s fees without a court order. Also, while telephone and cable TV and internet bills initially received by the Estate can be deducted as Estate accrued liabilities, they will generally not be allowed afterwards at accounting time, so be sure to cancel the services as soon as they are no longer necessary for the administration of the Estate.

MAKE THE ESTATE ACCOUNT AN ONGOING EXERCISE

Make sure that you supply copies of your records to your attorney no less than every two months. At The Wright Firm, we ask our clients monthly to deliver or mail us their bank statements with copies of their canceled checks written to date. As soon as we know what comprises the Estate assets, we start and maintain the accounting of the activities they perform as Personal Representative throughout the administration process to ensure that we get all the details we will need and that all expected rules and procedures are accurately followed. It’s much easier to keep the account contemporaneously than to have to reconstruct activities after their details are forgotten. If we start early with a good understanding of the financial transactions involved and with assembling the proof of those transactions that we may need at the end of the process, preparation of the final required accounting at the process’ end is much easier and less expensive.

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