Do I Need Estate Tax or Asset Protection Planning?

A difficulty for clients is how to decide what estate tax / asset protection techniques are realistically suitable or cost-beneficial, compared particularly to the super-wealthy who likely need virtually every technique available.

In other words, a client should gauge whether someone is merely trying to sell them a technique they really don’t need.   This is a legitimate question worthy of serious consideration.

Here are some key points to consider:

(1)    Don’t end up in a situation where the courts have to get involved because you became incapacitated or died without adequate documents in place. Simple examples are dying without a Will, failing to have named guardians for your minor children, ending up with a court-managed guardianship if you later become incapacitated (trusts can help eliminate these threats);

(2)   Keep an eye on your estate tax exposure. The federal tax law exempts a certain portion of your estate from estate tax. This is called the estate exemption amount. [Georgia presently has no death tax.] If your death occurs in 2012 the federal exemption is $5.0 million ($10 million combined exemption for a married couple). This exemption drops to $1.0 million beginning for deaths in 2013 ($2.0 million combined for a married couple).

The tax law in most cases allows a married couple to delay the day of reckoning for paying the estate tax until the surviving spouse’s death, regardless of the size of the couple’s estates. However, even with this postponement, the above exemptions for each spouse may require a level of estate planning in order to coordinate and make sure both exemptions are (or can be) fully used.

(3)   Asset protection is more subjective than items (1) and (2) above.  Whether you need asset protection depends on your exposure (particularly your occupation) and whether you will sleep better knowing you have in place techniques that better protect you and your family from lawsuits, judgments, creditors, and in some cases bankruptcy.  Thus, in this subjective situation an important cost-benefit factor is how much peace and repose you will experience if you put into place asset protection techniques for insulating you and your family from these types of potential threats and claims.

In reviewing whether items (2) and (3) above may warrant further action, my view is that the portion of assets a client expects to hold for the long-term, exceeding what the client likely will  spend during lifetime for food, shelter, necessities, school, vacations, medical, etc., should at least fall under consideration for potential estate tax and asset protection planning.

By contrast, for younger clients who are spending most of their income currently on raising young children, and so forth, the need for complex estate tax and asset protection planning may not be as important.  In these situations, if one spouse dies with young children the likelihood is much greater that most of the assets will be ultimately spent-down for the care of the surviving spouse and for the children while they continue to grow up and attend school, etc.   The assets ultimately may not be large enough when the surviving spouse dies to trigger estate tax exposure.  In this situation the planning might need to be minimal so as to prevent the courts from having to get involved in dealing with a spouse’s death or incapacity (such as dying with no Will).   Asset protection can also be minimal and directed at making sure a surviving spouse does not remarry and divert the assets to another spouse or children from someone else’s marriage (again, trusts can help eliminate these threats).

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