For more than a decade, estate planning has harkened back to the “wild, wild west,” a time when even the best hired guns didn’t know what would happen next. Now, finally, there’s more certainty, thanks to the estate tax provisions in the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA). The new law, signed as the country teetered on the brink of the “fiscal cliff,” extends several favorable tax breaks, with a few modifications.
Before we explore ATRA’s main provisions, let’s recap the events dating back to 2001, the year the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA) was enacted. Among the changes, EGTRRA gradually increased the federal estate tax exemption from $1 million to $3.5 million in 2009 while decreasing the top estate tax rate from 55% to 45%. It also severed the unified estate and gift tax systems, creating a lifetime gift exemption of $1 million unrelated to the estate tax exemption. Then the law repealed the estate tax completely, but just for 2010. After that year, the estate tax provisions were scheduled to “sunset,” restoring more onerous rules that had been in effect before EGTRRA, unless new legislation dictated otherwise.
The Tax Relief Act of 2010 generally postponed the sunset for two years. It hiked the estate tax exemption to $5 million (indexed for inflation), lowered the top estate tax rate to 35%, and reunified the estate and gift tax systems. That law also allowed “portability” of exemptions between spouses.
Now, at long last, ATRA brings permanent clarity. Here are the key estate changes:
The estate tax exemption remains at $5 million with inflation indexing. For 2013, the exemption is $5.25 million. Also, portability of exemptions between spouses is made permanent, so a married couple can effectively pass up to $10.5 million tax-free to their children or other non-spouse beneficiaries, even if the exemption of the first spouse to die isn’t exhausted.
The top estate tax rate is bumped up to 40%. Not as low as the 35% rate in 2011 and 2012, but still better than the 55% rate slated for 2013 prior to ATRA.
The estate and gift tax systems remain reunified. This means that the lifetime gift tax exemption is equal to the estate tax exemption of $5.25 million in 2013. (That’s now the maximum exemption for combined taxable lifetime gifts and estate bequests.) Other provisions, including the generation-skipping tax that applies to most bequests and gifts to grandchildren, are coordinated within the system.
As a result of these changes, now is a good time to examine wills, trusts, and other aspects of your estate plan. Depending on your situation, revisions may be required or you might create a new trust to take advantage of the current estate tax law.
The odds that you’ll suffer a disabling injury or illness are far greater than the likelihood of you dying prematurely. A disability income (DI) insurance policy, used to supplement life insurance coverage, could help protect you from loss of income if you’re unable to work. Indeed, a DI insurance policy might provide even more benefits than you expect.
Typically, a private DI insurance policy can pick up some of the slack if you’re disabled for an extended time. Should you no longer be able to work, you will begin receiving a monthly disability benefit. Normally, the benefit is a predetermined amount, unlike employer-provided coverage, in which the benefit equals a percentage of compensation.
As with life insurance, DI terms can vary widely from policy to policy. Some key variables include the amount of the benefits you’ll receive; the length of the coverage; the requirements for receiving full benefits; the definition of “disability”; the length of the waiting period before benefits begin; any cost-of-living adjustments; availability of partial benefits; and possible non-cancellation features. Naturally, the cost of the premiums also will vary, depending mainly on those variables.
But don’t assume that you must be bedridden to collect any benefits. Frequently, a DI insurance policy will provide “residual benefits” in the event you can work some of the time or if you’re slowly getting back on your feet. Some policies even offer benefits after you’ve returned to work if you are earning less than you did before your disability.
The residual benefits generally kick in when the loss of income is greater than 20% of previous earnings and the decline is due to the medical condition underlying the disability. This feature could be especially valuable to small business owners, including self-employed entrepreneurs, and professionals in fee-based practices, such as physicians, attorneys, and accountants.
For example, suppose a surgeon recovering from a severe illness returned to practice but was able to see fewer patients. If the surgeon’s income was reduced from $50,000 a month to $30,000, the residual benefit could restore income to 80% of the pre-disability level—in this case, $40,000 a month. Similarly, if the side effects of chemotherapy make it too hard for a litigator to appear in court or for a CPA to handle a company’s books, the residual benefits can soften the economic blow.
To see what your coverage may or may not include, take a close look at existing DI policies or any new policy you’re considering and have your insurance agent explain the residual benefits section. The policy might be more valuable than you imagined or the residual benefits may be too restrictive. Those provisions could be a key component of your DI insurance coverage.