Estate Planning Tips for Individuals and Families Building Wealth for the First Time

With new wealth comes new priorities, new problems and a new importance to estate planning issues.  Below are eleven estate planning tips for individuals and families building wealth for the first time.

1. Estate Planning Is Not All About Tax Planning.

A common misbelief is that estate planning is only for the very wealthy and that an estate plan is only created to reduce estate taxes.  This is not true.  Tax planning is merely one piece of the estate planning process and the estate tax exemption is so high that it is not a concern for many estates.

The goals of the estate planning process are the preservation of wealth, providing for the care of yourself, providing for the care of your family, ensuring your assets are distributed as you instruct, and ensuring that decisions made when you are incapacitated or near the end of your life are made according to your wishes.

These goals are true regardless of the size of the estate but certain goals (such as preserving wealth) increase in importance as the value of the estate increases.

2. Take Care of Your Kids First.

Every parent, regardless of the size of their estate, should have a will for one simple reason: to appoint a guardian for their children should both parents pass away.   The birth of a child alone should cause new parents to create an estate plan.

When your family begins accumulating wealth, your planning for the care of your children should expand as well.  This might include the use of contingent trusts to provide for the management of any assets that might pass to your children when they are minors or young adults.

You should also make sure that you provide a mechanism to finance the care of your minor children.  Many people appoint a guardian but fail to recognize that raising your child will impose a significant financial burden on that guardian.  Providing a method of easing that financial burden is important to ensuring that your children live a life full of opportunity should you pass before they are grown.

As your children grow you should make sure that you include them in your estate planning.  I’ll discuss that more below in tip #8.

3. Evaluate Whom You Choose As Executor Carefully.

As your wealth increases, so will the complexity of your estate.  No longer just a bank account and a house, your assets may include various investment accounts, retirement accounts, and businesses.  This means that you must honestly evaluate whether the individual you selected to serve as executor under your will is truly capable of performing that task competently.  This means the common default appointment of your spouse as executor may be inappropriate.

Be honest about the complexity of your estate.  Be honest about the abilities of anyone you are considering for the role of executor.  Make sure you understand the duties, responsibilities, and potential liabilities of anyone you appoint as executor to oversee the administration of your estate.  You created this wealth to provide for the safety and security of your family, not to add to their stress or expose them to liability trying to administer an estate they are not capable of managing.

For many estates or estates with unique income producing property, it may be appropriate to consider a corporate executor with relevant expertise.

4. Consider Incorporating an Asset Protection Strategy Based On Your Risk.

Wealth = Risk.  Its a simple fact of life that those who have wealth are often targets for those who do not.  When an accident happens, the victims will look to those with the deepest pockets to make them whole.  Insurance companies will look for reasons to avoid paying on a policy.

This means that you too must look at asset protection strategies to protect your new wealth in a worst case scenario.  There is nothing morally, ethically, or legally wrong with asset protection planning – but it must be done in advance.  This is especially important for business owners active in the management and operation of their business.

You worked hard to grow your wealth and you have every right to protect it.  You do not want years or decades of hard work to disappear in an instant because of one simple mistake.  The use of trusts or various combinations of business entities can help make sure that you and your family do not lose everything in an instant.

5. Consider Splitting Your Savings Between Pre and Post-Tax Accounts.

It is important to distinguish between wealth and income.  Wealth is money or assets you already own.  Income is new assets or money you acquire.  You can be quite wealthy yet not be in the top income tax bracket or at the top of your current income tax bracket.

In these situations, you might consider converting pre-tax retirement accounts (such as a traditional IRA) into a post-tax account (such as a Roth IRA).  These conversions can be staged over time to avoid pushing you into higher income tax brackets as you will increase your tax bill for the years you make any conversion.  The idea is to pay less tax now then you would pay in the future.

Converting your accounts to post-tax accounts allows you to hedge against two risks.  The first is the risk that your income will continue to increase as you age, pushing your retirement distributions into a higher tax bracket than you would pay now.  The second risk is that Congress will increase income taxes in the future.  Remember, current income taxes are much lower than they were historically and the Federal government’s debt is increasing at rapid rates.  Higher income taxes in the future are a near certainty.

6. Consider A Philanthropic Trust.

For those who have a charitable inclination, you should consider forming an irrevocable charitable trust.  The trust allows an instant deduction for your contributions while allowing you to grow and distribute the trust funds to various charitable endeavors over time.  This provides a short-term financial benefit and a long-term philanthropic benefit.  A charitable trust could also be created in such a way as to allow its management to pass on to your children allowing your giving to have a positive impact on society and your family for generations.

7. Consider Transferring Ownership of Your Life Insurance Policy(ies).

This is something that is easy to overlook.  Life insurance proceeds are not considered taxable income so most people do not consider them in their estate plan.  However, they are considered part of the estate for estate tax purposes which means an estate that is below the estate tax exemption amount could find itself subject to the estate tax because of life insurance proceeds.

Worse yet, those life insurance proceeds may be a sizeable amount that passes outside of probate leaving only the other estate assets to satisfy the estate tax.  This can create unfair and unintended consequences for your asset distribution plan by burdening some beneficiaries with the estate tax while others are not.

Life insurance trusts are available to avoid this issue by transferring ownership of the policy prior to your death to avoid its inclusion in your estate.

8. Make Sure to Involve Your Children and Beneficiaries in the Planning Process.

As your children and beneficiaries get older, it is important that you include them in your estate planning process for a number of reasons.  They need to understand your plan and your intentions.  This goes a long way in avoiding any misunderstandings or disputes after your passing.

There are also certain benefits that you can take advantage of by involving them early.  For example, if you setup a trust for their benefit and your children are in a lower income tax bracket, then those trust funds could be used to help them during your life and obtain some tax savings.  Also, it may be to your advantage to take advantage of the annual gift tax exclusions to begin transferring some of your wealth to them prior to your passing.

For business owners, it is important to bring your children into the business to familiarize them with your succession plan as well as your advisors and employees if you intend to have them take control of the business.

9. Make a Plan For Your Business.

Many people grow through wealth through business ownership.  If that is the case with you, then you must prepare a business succession plan as part of your estate plan.  The details of a business succession plan are beyond the scope of this article but it should address a number of issues including transferring ownership on your death, management if you become incapacitated, as well as the distribution of proceeds if you intend for the business to be sold.

10. Don’t Forget to Take a Holistic View.

It is important to make sure that someone takes  a bird’s eye view of your estate plan.  It is not uncommon for many professionals to handle various parts of your estate planning, such as an investment advisor handling beneficiary designations on your investment accounts, a banker handling designations on your bank accounts, an attorney drafting your estate planning documents, or a CPA or employer representative handling other matters.

Your estate plan should be comprehensive and integrated.  This means you must make sure that each part of your estate plan complements the others and designates beneficiaries in such a way that your estate plan as a whole is implemented according to your wishes.

11. And Don’t Forget the Other Documents.

Your will is just your starting point as there are important ancillary documents you should execute.  These include a Power of Attorney, to appoint someone to act on your behalf in business, financial, real estate, and money management.  A Medical Power of Attorney, to appoint someone to make decisions regarding your medical care should you be unable to do so.  An Advance Directive, to make your wishes regarding end of life care known.  And a Declaration of Guardian, to designate whom you would or would not want appointed to see to your physical well being in the event you become incapacitated.

David B. Willis

David B. Willis

Bryan Willis is a Tyler lawyer providing legal services across Texas in the areas of business law, litigation, probate, and estate planning.
David B. Willis

Leave a reply