Why you should keep life insurance out of your estate

If you have a life insurance policy, you probably want to make sure that the life insurance benefits your family will receive after your death won’t be included in your estate. That way, the benefits won’t be subject to the federal estate tax.

Under the estate tax rules, life insurance will be included in your taxable estate if either:

  • Your estate is the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds, or
  • You possessed certain economic ownership rights (called “incidents of ownership”) in the policy at your death (or within three years of your death).

The first situation is easy to avoid. You can just make sure your estate isn’t designated as beneficiary of the policy.

The second situation is more complicated. It’s clear that if you’re the owner of the policy, the proceeds will be included in your estate regardless of the beneficiary. However, simply having someone else possess legal title to the policy won’t prevent this result if you keep so-called “incidents of ownership” in the policy. If held by you, the rights that will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate include:

  • The right to change beneficiaries,
  • The right to assign the policy (or revoke an assignment),
  • The right to borrow against the policy’s cash surrender value,
  • The right to pledge the policy as security for a loan, and
  • The right to surrender or cancel the policy.

Keep in mind that merely having any of the above powers will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate even if you never exercise the power.

Buy-sell agreements

If life insurance is obtained to fund a buy-sell agreement for a business interest under a “cross-purchase” arrangement, it won’t be taxed in your estate (unless the estate is named as beneficiary). For example, say Andrew and Bob are partners who agree that the partnership interest of the first of them to die will be bought by the surviving partner. To fund these obligations, Andrew buys a life insurance policy on Bob’s life. Andrew pays all the premiums, retains all incidents of ownership, and names himself as beneficiary. Bob does the same regarding Andrew. When the first partner dies, the insurance proceeds aren’t taxed in the first partner’s estate.

Life insurance trusts

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is an effective vehicle that can be set up to keep life insurance proceeds from being taxed in the insured’s estate. Typically, the policy is transferred to the trust along with assets that can be used to pay future premiums. Alternatively, the trust buys the insurance with funds contributed by the insured person. So long as the trust agreement gives the insured person none of the ownership rights described above, the proceeds won’t be included in his or her estate.

The three-year rule

If you’re considering setting up a life insurance trust with a policy you own now or you just want to assign away your ownership rights in a policy, contact us to help you make these moves. Unless you live for at least three years after these steps are taken, the proceeds will be taxed in your estate. For policies in which you never held incidents of ownership, the three-year rule doesn’t apply. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions about your situation.

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Important messages from our Managing Partner

A Follow-up Message

An Important Message

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The 2019 gift tax return deadline is coming up

If you made large gifts to your children, grandchildren or other heirs last year, it’s important to determine whether you’re required to file a 2019 gift tax return. And in some cases, even if it’s not required to file one, it may be beneficial to do so anyway.

Who must file?

Generally, you must file a gift tax return for 2019 if, during the tax year, you made gifts:

  • That exceeded the $15,000-per-recipient gift tax annual exclusion (other than to your U.S. citizen spouse),
  • That you wish to split with your spouse to take advantage of your combined $30,000 annual exclusion,
  • That exceeded the $155,000 annual exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse,
  • To a Section 529 college savings plan and wish to accelerate up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions ($75,000) into 2019,
  • Of future interests — such as remainder interests in a trust — regardless of the amount, or
  • Of jointly held or community property.

Keep in mind that you’ll owe gift tax only to the extent that an exclusion doesn’t apply and you’ve used up your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($11.4 million for 2019). As you can see, some transfers require a return even if you don’t owe tax.

Who might want to file?

No gift tax return is required if your gifts for 2019 consisted solely of gifts that are tax-free because they qualify as:

  • Annual exclusion gifts,
  • Present interest gifts to a U.S. citizen spouse,
  • Educational or medical expenses paid directly to a school or health care provider, or
  • Political or charitable contributions.

But if you transferred hard-to-value property, such as artwork or interests in a family-owned business, you should consider filing a gift tax return even if you’re not required to. Adequate disclosure of the transfer in a return triggers the statute of limitations, generally preventing the IRS from challenging your valuation more than three years after you file.

April 15 deadline

The gift tax return deadline is the same as the income tax filing deadline. For 2019 returns, it’s April 15, 2020 — or October 15, 2020, if you file for an extension. But keep in mind that, if you owe gift tax, the payment deadline is April 15, regardless of whether you file for an extension. If you’re not sure whether you must (or should) file a 2019 gift tax return, contact us.

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Home is where the tax breaks might be

If you own a home, the interest you pay on your home mortgage may provide a tax break. However, many people believe that any interest paid on their home mortgage loans and home equity loans is deductible. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

First, keep in mind that you must itemize deductions in order to take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction.

Deduction and limits for “acquisition debt”

A personal interest deduction generally isn’t allowed, but one kind of interest that is deductible is interest on mortgage “acquisition debt.” This means debt that’s: 1) secured by your principal home and/or a second home, and 2) incurred in acquiring, constructing or substantially improving the home. You can deduct interest on acquisition debt on up to two qualified residences: your primary home and one vacation home or similar property.

The deduction for acquisition debt comes with a stipulation. From 2018 through 2025, you can’t deduct the interest for acquisition debt greater than $750,000 ($375,000 for married filing separately taxpayers). So if you buy a $2 million house with a $1.5 million mortgage, only the interest you pay on the first $750,000 in debt is deductible. The rest is nondeductible personal interest.

Higher limit before 2018 and after 2025

Beginning in 2026, you’ll be able to deduct the interest for acquisition debt up to $1 million ($500,000 for married filing separately). This was the limit that applied before 2018.

The higher $1 million limit applies to acquisition debt incurred before Dec. 15, 2017, and to debt arising from the refinancing of pre-Dec. 15, 2017 acquisition debt, to the extent the debt resulting from the refinancing doesn’t exceed the original debt amount. Thus, taxpayers can refinance up to $1 million of pre-Dec. 15, 2017 acquisition debt, and that refinanced debt amount won’t be subject to the $750,000 limitation.

The limit on home mortgage debt for which interest is deductible includes both your primary residence and your second home, combined. Some taxpayers believe they can deduct the interest on $750,000 for each mortgage. But if you have a $700,000 mortgage on your primary home and a $500,000 mortgage on your vacation place, the interest on $450,000 of the total debt will be nondeductible personal interest.

“Home equity loan” interest

“Home equity debt,” as specially defined for purposes of the mortgage interest deduction, means debt that: is secured by the taxpayer’s home, and isn’t “acquisition indebtedness” (meaning it wasn’t incurred to acquire, construct or substantially improve the home). From 2018 through 2025, there’s no deduction for home equity debt interest. Note that interest may be deductible on a “home equity loan,” or a “home equity line of credit,” if that loan fits the tax law’s definition of “acquisition debt” because the proceeds are used to substantially improve or construct the home.

Home equity interest after 2025

Beginning with 2026, home equity debt up to certain limits will be deductible (as it was before 2018). The interest on a home equity loan will generally be deductible regardless of how you use the loan proceeds.

Thus, taxpayers considering taking out a home equity loan— one that’s not incurred to acquire, construct or substantially improve the home — should be aware that interest on the loan won’t be deductible. Further, taxpayers with outstanding home equity debt (again, meaning debt that’s not incurred to acquire, construct or substantially improve the home) will currently lose the interest deduction for interest on that debt.

Contact us with questions or if you would like more information about the mortgage interest deduction.

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Do you run your business from home? You might be eligible for home office deductions

If you’re self-employed and work out of an office in your home, you may be entitled to home office deductions. However, you must satisfy strict rules.

If you qualify, you can deduct the “direct expenses” of the home office. This includes the costs of painting or repairing the home office and depreciation deductions for furniture and fixtures used there. You can also deduct the “indirect” expenses of maintaining the office. This includes the allocable share of utility costs, depreciation and insurance for your home, as well as the allocable share of mortgage interest, real estate taxes and casualty losses.

In addition, if your home office is your “principal place of business,” the costs of traveling between your home office and other work locations are deductible transportation expenses, rather than nondeductible commuting costs. And, generally, you can deduct the cost (reduced by the percentage of non-business use) of computers and related equipment that you use in your home office, in the year that they’re placed into service.

Deduction tests

You can deduct your expenses if you meet any of these three tests:

Principal place of business. You’re entitled to deductions if you use your home office, exclusively and regularly, as your principal place of business. Your home office is your principal place of business if it satisfies one of two tests. You satisfy the “management or administrative activities test” if you use your home office for administrative or management activities of your business, and you meet certain other requirements. You meet the “relative importance test” if your home office is the most important place where you conduct business, compared with all the other locations where you conduct that business.

Meeting place. You’re entitled to home office deductions if you use your home office, exclusively and regularly, to meet or deal with patients, clients, or customers. The patients, clients or customers must physically come to the office.

Separate structure. You’re entitled to home office deductions for a home office, used exclusively and regularly for business, that’s located in a separate unattached structure on the same property as your home. For example, this could be in an unattached garage, artist’s studio or workshop.

You may also be able to deduct the expenses of certain storage space for storing inventory or product samples. If you’re in the business of selling products at retail or wholesale, and if your home is your sole fixed business location, you can deduct home expenses allocable to space that you use to store inventory or product samples.

Deduction limitations

The amount of your home office deductions is subject to limitations based on the income attributable to your use of the office, your residence-based deductions that aren’t dependent on use of your home for business (such as mortgage interest and real estate taxes), and your business deductions that aren’t attributable to your use of the home office. But any home office expenses that can’t be deducted because of these limitations can be carried over and deducted in later years.

Selling the home

Be aware that if you sell — at a profit — a home that contains (or contained) a home office, there may be tax implications. We can explain them to you.

Pin down the best tax treatment

Proper planning can be the key to claiming the maximum deduction for your home office expenses. Contact us if you’d like to discuss your situation.

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