How to Prepare for Changes to Estate Tax Law

This may seem like we’re listening to a broken record, but once again Congress’ inability to act is creating uncertainty in the estate-tax-planning world. We’re little over 3 months away from a major upheaval in the estate tax, and according to the New York Times the upcoming law is likely to cause a lot of grumbling unless Congress takes action. And it’s no wonder when the new law will mean that more families are taxed at a higher percentage:

“The amount of each estate that is exempt from estate tax is scheduled to become $1 million in 2011 (down from $3.5 million in 2009, when the tax was last in effect). The tax on the balance is to rise to 55 percent in most cases (up from the 2009 rate of 45 percent). So now is the time to consider the various tax strategies available.”

What this lower exemption rate really means, however, is that more families will be caught off-guard when a loved one passes away and the survivors are suddenly hit with a massive tax bill.

That is unless families start planning now.

The New York Times article mentioned above suggests that “the easiest way to reduce the tax bill is to give as much as $13,000 a year each to as many people as you like — which you can do without paying gift tax;” but when you consider how little $1 million really is (especially when the value of your home, retirement savings, etc. are all included when adding up your total assets) we’re guessing that there are a lot of people out there who are over the exemption amount, but don’t feel they can afford to go handing out $13,000 every year. Much more appealing are some of the other planning strategies suggested in the article, including:

  • “Buy a one- or two-year [life insurance] term policy to cover the tax bill if the exemption amount is only $1 million.” The policy will help your heirs cover what could be a hefty tax bill, but the policy “[could] be canceled if Congress eases your estate tax concerns;” and
  • “Create a trust.” The article suggests a GRAT (Grantor Retained Annuity Trust), which is a great tool for high-value assets that are expected to appreciate during your lifetime; but for married couples simply looking for a way to protect their children from a hefty federal estate tax down the road a Credit Shelter Trust may be a better option.

There are a number of other ways you might be able to prepare for the coming estate tax upheaval—the best way to protect your own family is to plan ahead.