A complete financial plan has many moving parts, many of which are handled by separate financial professionals. A financial advisor likely does not sell property and casualty insurance, but she’ll want to know and understand that a client’s home and property are protected. An advisor does not sell mortgages, but she’ll need to understand a client’s debts and liabilities in order to create a better plan. An advisor also does not create will, trusts, or other estate planning documents, but he or she needs to understand what the client’s plan looks like since so many of a client’s priorities can be gleaned from a look at their “end-game.”
But for financial advisors, it can be much larger than that. Not understanding a client’s estate plan can (and does) result in big losses . . . to relationships, to families, and to an advisor’s bottom line. Let’s look at three easy ways to lose clients by ignoring estate planning:
Loss #1: Not funding the client’s revocable trust.
If a client already has an estate plan or has planning performed because of an advisor’s recommendation (a good recommendation, generally), the client may end up with a probate-avoidance tool called a revocable trust. A revocable trust more or less adds beneficiary designations to assets that would not ordinarily have them — real estate, cars, boats, furniture, personal property, etc. Because of this, the assets held by the trust avoid the probate process (and all of the probate-associated expenses, heartaches, and inefficiencies).
But this only works if the client’s assets are actually held in trust. Too often a client will have their revocable trust created, and then never actually add anything to it. This creates problems because if the assets aren’t held in the trust, then the assets are not controlled by the trust document and will likely have to go through the probate courts. Meanwhile, the client has paid for an estate plan which has become useless.
The attorney will do his or her best to give the client the proper tools to get these assets transferred. For example, the attorney will create and file the necessary real estate deeds and will draft assignments of closely-held business interests. But it’s the financial advisor who will be meeting with these clients regularly. By working with the client to make sure assets are titled correctly (including that beneficiary designations are accurate and valid), the advisor ensures that the plan works. When a client passes away, the advisor is the one often holding the bulk of the assets . . . if the advisor has involved himself in the estate plan, the family transition will more likely happen smoothly and without a hitch. This gives the advisor a chance to work with the family closely and, hopefully, gain their trust and confidence for another generation. For advisors who are less inclined to work with estate planning, a rough and frustrating legacy transfer can be a deal killer for retaining assets.
Loss #2: Not considering the effects of income taxation on estate planning.
We know and understand that estate taxes can be a problem when a client passes away. But what about income taxes?
When a client dies, their appreciated assets receive a step-up in cost basis. Briefly, this means that if that any stock, real estate, or other asset that would ordinarily get sold and have capital gains tax liability will instead transfer to the beneficiary with a new cost basis determined on the client’s date of death. The beneficiary can then sell these assets without incurring capital gains taxes. This is a really big deal for assets with substantial appreciation. Note that this only happened for transfers on death — if the client were to gift appreciated assets to a family member during the client’s life, the family member would take the client’s original basis and any sale could result in the realization of any capital gains tax liability.
What this means is that appreciated assets are a great thing to pass on to family members after death rather than during life. It also means that if a client is considering making charitable gifts, perhaps there are other assets that might make better sense to give. A great example is qualified money.
As you are aware, qualified IRA and 401K dollars are taxed as ordinary income when distributed to a beneficiary. This is also the case for beneficiaries of the next generation. If a client’s child has the choice between taking stepped-up, tax-free appreciated assets or assets that are taxed at the child’s effective income tax rate, you can guess which they would likely prefer. If there is one class of assets that are perfect for charitable donations, it is those assets that are taxed the highest — qualified money.
A client’s family member who realizes these savings is much more likely to want to work with the professionals who helped to make these savings a reality. Likewise, a huge, unnecessary tax hit will help to ensure that the client finds new professionals when creating their own family legacy.
Loss #3: Not considering tax-deferral for minor children: IRA trusts.
First, it’s important to understand that minor children can’t own property, which means they can’t inherit property. This makes most beneficiary designations to minors invalid. There are some beneficiary designation forms which allow for a custodian to be appointed, but even these fall short because the child will typically get a full distribution of the funds at age eighteen (thereby creating a while other set of problems).
This problem is solved using a minor’s trust, which can be written directly into a will or revocable trust plan. A trustee is appointed who can accept property on a child’s behalf — the client then names the trust as the account beneficiary on the relevant beneficiary designation forms.
The big red flag with these trusts is that they must be written in a very specific way if they are going to be receiving qualified retirement assets. The trust must be a “see-through” trust for IRS purposes — it must be able to use the child’s life expectancy when calculating the required minimum distributions which all beneficiaries of inherited IRAs must take. If the trust does not meet IRS requirements for see-through trusts, or if a beneficiary of the trust is a non-human entity (like the estate or a charity), then the IRA must be cashed out within five years. Not only does this destroy the opportunity for tax-deferred growth, but the cash-out will likely be taxed at the trust’s astronomical tax rate (a trust hits it’s maximum tax rate at less than $15,000 in ordinary income per year).
Fortunately, the advisor is the ideal professional to make sure minors are not named directly as IRA beneficiaries. For those who miss this planning opportunity, a client’s tax hit may be all that is needed to ensure the next generation goes elsewhere for their planning needs.
A team-approach is the best approach to any financial plan. Financial advisors, CPAs, attorneys, banking specialists and insurance brokers all have an important role to play. Ensuring the plan is a cohesive one is a surefire way to make the client’s legacy a powerful and effective one — and to ensure a client’s family sees the value your firm adds for generations to come.
Philip J. Ruce creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees, available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!). He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.