Estate planning is a vital step in not only ensuring that your assets are distributed according to your wishes upon your death, but it also prevents conflict that could arise among your survivors if they are left to make decisions about your estate themselves.
If the cost of estate planning has you thinking twice, consider the possible issues that could arise without it. Young children could be left without guardians, and irreparable rifts could develop between adult children trying to split assets themselves. You would leave a lifetime of assets in the hands of others with no say in where they go next. But if you have an estate plan, your survivors will not have to worry about making decisions about your estate while they are grieving.
Here’s a breakdown of fees associated with estate planning.
Online vs. In-person
While the Internet can be a great source of information, it’s not where you want to spend your money on estate planning. You’ll find plenty of do-it-yourself estate planning kits online (for a fee) that will allow you to create a simple will online, but don’t fall for their easy approach and low costs. This type of planning may work for someone with no beneficiaries and few assets, but everyone else should hire a professional.
The best use of the Internet in estate planning? Using it to do initial research into the field and come up with smart questions for your professional estate planner.
The costs of estate planning will vary according to the professional’s fee and how complex your property is. The cost for a simple, straightforward will could be a low as $150, while a complicated estate may require thousands of dollars.
Estate planning professionals, who can include attorneys and financial planners, typically will charge flat fees or an hourly rate.
Estate planning professionals using this pricing system will charge a set price, often based on their experience and the work that they offer. If you are offered a flat fee, it’s important to ask the attorney or finance professional what that fee covers, as it may not include extras such as a notary fee, and how they expect payment. Some professionals require the entire flat fee up front, while others may ask for only part of the fee before they start on your plan.
Other professionals charge an hourly rate; this will cover all the time that the lawyer or planner spends working on your estate. In some cases, the professional also may ask for an initial retainer fee, which you will pay before work begins.
This fee schedule often applies to more complex estates that will require additional work.
Your first meeting with the professional, which can take place in-person or virtually, typically won’t include a consultation fee. During this meeting, which can last up to an hour, you’ll talk to them about your situation and figure out the extent of estate planning you will need. While this meeting may be free, expect to pay for future consultations.
As you meet with estate planning professionals to determine which one you will work with, be sure to ask each how much they charge, what fee schedule they use, and what services they provide for that cost. This information will help you choose both an affordable service and one that can handle your estate.
Can My Bill Increase?
Yes. Even if your financial professional has given you a rate and detailed list of services that rate covers, it’s still possible they will run into work outside of that scope once they delve into your estate. To offset any surprises, talk to them up front to understand when and how much they charge in extra fees.
Managing Your Estate Planning Costs
To keep your estate planning in your budget, you can take steps in advance to minimize the costs.
- Prepare your questions: Before you start shopping for an estate planner, know what you need. Read up on basic estate plans, which documents are required, and what you need to know more about.
- Shop around: Don’t work with the first person you talk to. Take time to learn about various firms, read their reviews, and compare what they offer. You also can schedule consultations with each one to gain more points of comparison.
- Ask about costs: To avoid unexpected fees and costs, talk frankly about money during your consultation. Ask questions about their fees, rates, and scope of work so that you’ll know what you’re paying for and what could become an extra cost.
- Sign a contract: This is not the time to take a business on its word. Have the firm draft a work agreement, including costs, that both of you sign.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people take financial actions like postponing retirement and to re-evaluating their estate plans. When it comes to the latter, an issue many grapple with is how—and whether—to equally allocate their assets to their children.
While dividing one’s estate into equal parts seems fair, often children have made different life choices, have different characters, and aren’t in equal life circumstances. A survey conducted by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Age Wave in 2018 found that many Americans don’t want to distribute inheritances to their adult children equally.
For example, 25 percent of respondents said they believed an adult child with their own children should receive more of an inheritance than an adult child with no children. About two-thirds said they believed an adult child who provided care for them should get more that those who did not provide care.
“How do you define equity?” Lisa Hanks, a California-based estate planning lawyer, recently told the New York Times. “It is different for different families.” For many, equity and equally are two different things.
As you consider how you will divide your own estate, you may find that issues of equity are complex and sensitive. For example, you may have one child who you believe will always need extra help, while your other child has a high-paying job in a stable industry. Or, you may have an adult child with special needs who will need expensive care after your death.
However, even in cases where one child may clearly benefit from extra inheritance, other siblings may not always be on board. Unequal inheritances can lead to conflict between siblings when the estate is divided. Some fights become so unmanageable that siblings take each other to court. In some cases, siblings who receive less believe that siblings with a larger share of the inheritance must have manipulated or influenced the parent to leave them more. This can lead to bitterness, distrust, and broken relationships after a parent dies.
Estate planners suggest that when parents create unequal inheritances, they should have a conversation with each child to explain their reasoning. Families also can hire mediators to facilitate discussions about inheritances to help siblings understand their parents’ decisions.
For example, one mediator described to the New York Times a situation where she helped a father and two of his sons, who were financially successful, discuss the father’s desire to leave more money to his third son, who had issues with his finances and health. In the end, the two financially successful sons decided they would prefer for their brother to receive a larger inheritance because they wanted to have a good relationship with him and were concerned that they might otherwise become financially responsible for him later in life.
Navigating an Unequal Inheritance
Here are several situations a financial planner can help you work through if you are considering an unequal distribution of your estate between your children.
- Factoring in an “Early Inheritance”
Some parents provide one child with extra financial support early on, such as paying for graduate school or helping a child with a down payment on a house. To balance out their gifts, parents often want to factor in this type of “early inheritance” into their will.
Experts recommend that parents discuss the early inheritance with their children and document the gifts in their estate plan. If parents have loaned a child money, the will should include a promissory note outlining the amount and terms of the loan, how much has been repaid and whether the balance should be deducted from that child’s share of the estate.
While including past gifts may complicate your estate plan, not acknowledging them in your will can create resentment in children who did not receive substantial financial help from you while you were alive.
- Repaying a Care Provider
In some cases, one adult child served as their parents’ primary caregiver at the end of their life and parents want to reward this child. However, siblings may not be on board with the inequity it could cause in their parents’ estate.
To avoid real or perceived inequities, when the estate is drawn up to compensate a caregiving child, financial planners often advise families to create a personal caregiving agreement that defines the caregiving services and the value of their contribution in the estate, such as extra money to buy a house or more of the estate. As always, parents should also talk about these decisions with their children.
- Taking Care of Stepchildren
Blended families can create added complications when drawing up an estate, as research has found that parents with no stepchildren are much more likely to treat their children equally than families with stepchildren. To ensure assets are distributed as the deceased intended, financial planners recommend being specific in how the estate is set up.
For example, a husband with children from a previous marriage may want to create a trust that provides for his spouse and bequeaths his remaining assets to his biological children after she dies. Alternatively, the husband could specify that certain amounts of his estate should go directly to his children rather than leaving everything to his spouse or name his children beneficiaries of a life insurance policy.
Regardless of careful estate planning, however, inequities can creep in. To best preserve sibling relationships, parents should always lay out detailed estate plans in advance and talk to their adult children frankly about their estate and the reasoning behind their decisions.
The first major legislation of Joe Biden’s presidency could be a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that Democrats are fast-tracking through Congress to get relief to Americans quickly. Called the American Rescue Plan, the bill could impact individual Americans far beyond relief checks.
Here’s how the legislation could affect you:
1. Another Round of Relief Checks
Sending money directly to individuals has been discussed in Congress throughout the pandemic, but in the past year only two rounds of stimulus checks have made it to Americans. Most recently, some Americans received $600 checks starting in late December.
The American Rescue Plan calls for a third stimulus payment at the set rate of $1,400. Not everyone will receive a check—the relief funding is aimed at low earners and could also include adult dependents and families with mixed-status citizenship. While the rules of who qualifies as a mixed-status family aren’t entirely clear, we do know that the bill could extend eligibility to millions of families where one person isn’t a U.S. citizen. Many of these families didn’t qualify for the first two stimulus checks.
For now, it’s unknown whether eligibility will be based on your 2019 tax return or if your 2020 tax filing also will be taken into account. Generally, stimulus check eligibility considers your age, marital status, tax status, and adjusted gross income. Current proposals end eligibility for single taxpayers earning $100,000 or more, a head of household making $150,000 or more and married couples filing jointly making $200,000 or more. This round of stimulus checks could set the government back more than $420 billion.
Democrats hope to have the bill on President Biden’s desk in mid-March, when unemployment benefits and other pandemic aid ends. Checks could be sent out within weeks.
2. Increased Tax Breaks for Families with Children
Now, taxpayers can deduct as much as $2,000 per dependent child from their federal income tax bill. The American Rescue Plan could raise that deduction to $3,000 for every dependent child age 6 to 17 and to $3,600 for every dependent child who is younger than 6.
All families would be eligible for the full credit, regardless of how low their annual income is. Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimates that coupled with the individual stimulus checks, the increased child tax deduction could decrease the number of children living in poverty by more than 50 percent.
3. Extended Unemployment Benefits
President Biden wants $400 weekly federal payments for the unemployed that will continue through September. The bill originally called for $300 payments that would end in March.
Biden’s proposal would be extended to people who have been part of the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and have used up their state unemployment benefits as well as to people who have participated in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which benefits freelancers, gig workers and the self-employed.
4. More Generous Food Stamp Benefits
The bill would retain the 15 percent increase in food stamps, which was set to expire in June, until September. To alleviate hunger, the legislation also would authorize $3 billion in nutrition assistance for women, children and infants; $1 billion in nutrition assistance to US territories; and work with restaurants to find jobs for unemployed restaurant workers and get food to Americans in need.
5. A Minimum Wage Hike
One of the more controversial aspects of the proposed bill is legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by the middle of 2025, and then it would increase accordingly with median hourly wages. While it’s unknown at this time whether the minimum wage increase will stay in the bill, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the increase would raise about 900,000 people out of poverty. While about 17 million people would get an increase in pay, as many as 1.4 million jobs could be lost as businesses try to offset costs.
6. Additional Business Assistance
Several business sectors that have been hit hard by the pandemic would receive aid in the American Rescue Plan. Airlines would get their third stimulus boost. This time, the bill would inject $15 billion into the industry as long as airlines didn’t cut pay or furlough workers through September.
The popular Paycheck Protection Program, which provides assistance to businesses for payroll and operating costs, would be replenished with $7.25 billion. Restaurants and bars that need help could receive grants of up to $10 million to pay rent, utilities, payroll, and other operating costs.
7. Help with Rent
The plan provides assistance for people who are struggling to pay rent or are facing eviction. About $5 billion is allocated to help renters pay their utility bills, and $25 billion (in addition to $25 billion allocated in December) would assist people with rent who make low or moderate incomes and are unemployed due to the pandemic. Federal eviction moratoriums, which were supposed to expire in late January, would be extended to the end of September. People who have federally backed mortgages would also have the same window to apply for forbearance.
Two key considerations in retirement planning are ensuring that you outlive your retirement income and that your financial plan can withstand changes in the market. Pensions used to provide this assurance, but as these types of savings plans become rarer, you may have to create your own guaranteed retirement income.
Deferred income annuities (DIAs) are a sometimes-overlooked financial tool that fortify retirement portfolios and guarantee that retirees will have a cash flow, regardless of market ups and downs. While financial advisers generally will not recommend investing the majority of your portfolio in a deferred income annuity, many do advise retirees to include them in their portfolios.
Why are these financial tools such a good idea? The main reason is they provide a guaranteed income for life, whether you live to 80 or 100. While the income they generate may not be enough to cover all your living expenses, they can provide peace of mind and a reliable source of income in your retirement years.
How Deferred Income Annuities Work
Unlike other investments that produce income, deferred income annuities guarantee income as long as you are alive—no matter how long your lifespan. This works because DIAs operate on the concept of the “mortality credit,” which means that the assets from annuities whose recipients live for shorter periods of time stay in the “mortality pool” to work for recipients who live longer. DIAs are managed by insurers, who can share risk with other clients.
To build a DIA, a buyer invests a one-time amount or makes incremental payments to an insurer, who invests the money and guarantees a regular income later on. The investor can choose when to start taking payments, although most begin at age 80 or later to ensure they have an income in the last year of life.
The key to maximizing income from DIAs, which convert part of your savings into regular income, is to invest before you retire. An early start can mean a higher stream of income after you stop working. Financial advisers generally recommend DIAs for everyone except those who can’t afford to commit their money to an investment, as DIAs are not liquid.
There are several good strategies for investing in a DIA. First, make a DIA part of a diversified portfolio, since it is not impacted by market conditions. A DIA can stabilize income projections and provide assurance that your basic bills will be covered in retirement (along with other guaranteed incomes from sources such as Social Security and work pensions). Investing in a DIA incrementally long before your retirement date also is an excellent way to build your own pension fund.
You and your spouse can each buy your own DIA, or you can buy one as a couple with a joint payout that guarantees the surviving spouse will continue receiving payments. For those concerned that they will die before they receive payouts or before payouts exceed the amount of the original deposit, ask your insurer about a return-of-premium option that will give beneficiaries the original deposit back. Be aware that this option will reduce the payout amount a little.
Why DIAs Are a Good Choice
The biggest advantage of DIAs is that you don’t use them until many years after you’ve invested. For example, if you buy a DIA when you are 50 years old, but don’t withdraw income until you are 80, you’re benefiting from annuities growth after 30 years of compounding interest.
Unlike an IRA or 401(k), which also grows over time and offers tax advantages, a DIA that’s not in a retirement plan (aka a nonqualified annuity) does not require you to begin withdrawals at age 72 to defer taxes. Additionally, DIAs do not have limits on how much you can contribute each year.
DIAs also provide more flexibility in how you distribute your retirement savings. For example, if you retire at age 70 and invest part of your savings in a DIA that you won’t use until you are 85, you can use the rest of your retirement money for income during the 15 years between 70 and 85. This will allow you more freedom with your money early in retirement, because you know you have a guaranteed income planned for your later years.
When Should You Buy a DIA?
The best time to buy a DIA is five to 10 years before you plan to retire, usually between ages 55 and 65. This will lengthen the duration of your deferral period and increase the size of your payouts.
Deferring the payout also allows you to make additional investments in your DIA over a long period of time, taking advantage of potentially lower interest rates as rates fluctuate. Investing in an asset that provides guaranteed income also reduces the need to take on riskier investments or to sell your investments in a down market to generate cash flow.
A new year is a natural time for a fresh start and a new resolve, so there’s no better time to consider new ways to approach your finances in 2021—especially in light of the unusual circumstances that 2020 wrought on our finances and lives. Instead of setting out complicated resolutions that could be hard to stick with, consider adopting some of these more straightforward approaches that still can help you create a stronger, stabler financial position.
Save More Money
This resolution is the complement of the common resolve to spend less, and experts say it’s easier to follow. Rather than solely focusing on how you budget your money, try turning your attention to saving. You’ll be surprised at how much this shift can impact your finances.
First, decide now how much of your income you’d like to save every month based on your bills and salary. You may choose a percentage, such as 15 percent of your take-home income, or a dollar amount, such as $400 each month. Then, make sure you move the money into a savings or investment account or create a savings column in your budget to avoid absorbing it elsewhere, such as overspending on your credit card to compensate for the income now going to savings.
Track Your Spending
Whether your spending goals include buying a house, paying off a car loan, or spending less on groceries, keeping track of how much you spend is a vital first step to creating a budget to help you get there. When we estimate our spending, we often underestimate, which can lead to overspending and no progress toward larger financial goals.
You can figure out exactly how much you’re spending by examining old credit card and bank statements or using budget tracking software. Then, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you spend and can make educated decisions about budgeting and saving—including chipping away at those big spending goals.
2020 provided some unique opportunities for spending changes that you may want to make permanent. Many people saved money due to restrictions on travel, dine-in eating, and entertainment venues. If your budget benefited, you may want to consider making those spending cuts permanent.
Focus on the Future
Sadly, COVID-19 cut many lives short unexpectedly, and it often left these people isolated in hospitals and assisted living facilities unable to consult with family, friends, or planners who could help them with financial paperwork. Future financial planning, whether it’s outlining your wishes for your estate or solidifying your retirement savings plan, is vital.
One smart resolution is to create a detailed retirement plan and stay with it. Do you want to continue your current lifestyle after you retire? Downsize your home and lifestyle? A planner can help you figure out how much you need to save to achieve your retirement goals and show you how to organize your financial documents to keep your spending and savings up to date. With a retirement plan in place, make it your resolution to follow it.
Estate planning is another key factor in planning for your financial future. A financial planner can talk to you about your goals for your estate and help you put plans in place now.
Pay Off Debt
Aside from causing anxiety, debt can hold you back from living the lifestyle you’d like and reaching big goals like traveling the world or purchasing a house. If you struggle with debt, resolving to pay it down is vital.
Financial planners recommend approaching your debt strategically. That means paying off higher-interest debt, such as credit card balances, first. You could also take a wider approach and focus your payments on debts that carry a specific interest rate and above.
Whatever approach you choose, resolve to understand the amounts and interest rates of your debt and create a strategy for tackling them in 2021. And that doesn’t necessarily mean paying them off completely. If repaying 25 percent of your balances in 2021 is realistic, set that as your goal. The satisfaction of reaching it will only serve as a motivator to continue working toward debt-free finances.
Build up Your Emergency Fund
If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that life can change drastically, and sometimes that comes with unexpected financial ramifications such as a job loss or hospitalization. While financial experts recommend shoring up at least six months’ pay in savings for such situations, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority found that almost half of Americans don’t have enough in an emergency fund. Without savings set aside, you are risking financial disaster.
Savings like this doesn’t happen quickly, so plan to build it gradually by committing to a monthly contribution to your emergency fund. Additionally, set this money aside for true emergencies—don’t dip into it to pay bills or offset extra spending if you can help it.
While the end of the calendar year often elicits tax and estate planning questions, the political uncertainty in 2020 has led to an increase in inquiries on the subject. One real estate appraiser in Manhattan told a news outlet before the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election that he had fielded three times as many calls about estate planning than usual, and other financial advisors reported a similar increase in questions.
Now, with the Democratic Party poised to control the U.S. House of Representatives and the presidency in January, it’s possible that estate planning rules could change. Here’s a look what you need to know:
Tax Cuts and Jobs Act
Signed into law in late December 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act represented the largest revision to the federal tax code in 30 years. Many viewed the overhaul as favorable to wealthy individuals and corporations, as it reduced the top corporate tax rate to 21% and doubled the amount of assets that an individual could transfer before federal estate and gift taxes take effect to approximately $11.6 million in 2020 for individuals and about $23 million for married couples. Any assets transferred over those amounts can be taxed at a rate as high as 40%.
While Joe Biden, the winner of the 2020 presidential election, has not yet taken office, he has given some indications as to changes to the estate tax rules that he will support. The 2017 exemptions will expire in 2025, and they will decrease to an individual maximum transfer amount of around $5 million, although it appears that under Biden they could end sooner.
According to the Tax Policy Center, Biden’s plan will reduce the amount of assets an individual can transfer tax-free when they pass away to $3.5 million and cap individual gifts at $1 million. Estate taxes on gifts and estates also could increase to 45%.
Biden also has suggested he is interested in eliminating a tax code provision known as “step-up basis” that would exempt heirs from paying taxes on gains accumulated before the estate holder’s death. This means that an heir could sell an asset immediately after the estate holder dies and likely pay no or few capital gains taxes on it.
Overall, Biden’s potential changes would mean that people could transfer fewer assets without paying estate taxes.
How to Respond
Tax advisors and financial planners are providing plans and advice for maximizing an estate during these uncertain times.
Take advantage of current rates—For clients concerned about potential changes to estate tax provisions in 2021, one option is to transfer assets now before the high exemption rate potentially drops. One drawback to early gifting, however, is that your own net worth will decrease as you begin transferring large amounts to your heirs. For example, if you’re worth $16 million, then transferring $10 million now to avoid estate taxes could have an adverse effect on your own finances. Financial experts advise considering whether you can actually afford the gift now, and if you do transfer the assets, how that will impact your life. It may be worthwhile for your heirs to pay more in estate taxes in order to maintain your current financial situation. “Giving these assets away could leave you financially vulnerable, and this is so important to consider—especially now, in the time of COVID, when there is so much uncertainty,” Stacy Francis, a financial planner based in New York City, recently told Kiplinger. “While saving on taxes is extremely important, it’s not the sole reason to give money away to charity or family members.”
Worry less about step-up basis changes—While eliminating step-up basis could help to fund Biden’s initiatives and proposals, in actuality it could prove to be a logistical nightmare. Financial experts say that while the idea has been circulating in Washington for several years, changes to the tax law have never been enacted because of the amount of paperwork that it would require and its potential impact on taxpayers. Easier and more traditional changes that also could increase revenue include expanding capital gains taxes and reducing the estate tax exemption.
Be patient—While the fate of the current estate tax exemptions is uncertain, you can begin distributing your estate tax-free to your heirs through smaller gifts. The current rules allow individuals to give away $15,000 tax-free each year to individuals. This means that you could gift each of your children and grandchildren that amount with no tax penalty, and your spouse could do so, as well. You may also opt to move your estate to a trust, which could provide greater stability for your assets. Regardless of how you manage estate planning, financial advisors recommend choosing a strategy that fits your needs and long-term plans. Most importantly, they say, people should work with a financial advisor on estate planning and avoid panicking when times become difficult.
President-elect Biden will need the support of Congress to enact major changes to the federal tax code. That means that he’ll likely need a Democrat-controlled Senate, and that hangs in the balance right now. Both of Georgia’s Senate seats will be decided in run-off elections in early January, and the outcome will determine the balance of power in the Senate. If both of the Democratic candidates win, the Senate will be evenly split, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would break the tie.