Steps to Estate Planning Success

Steps for Estate Planning Success

Estate Planning: An Introduction

By definition, estate planning is a process designed to help you manage and preserve your assets while you are alive, and to conserve and control their distribution after your death according to your goals and objectives. But what estate planning means to you specifically depends on who you are. Your age, health, wealth, lifestyle, life stage, goals, and many other factors determine your particular estate planning needs. For example, you may have a small estate and may be concerned only that certain people receive particular things. A simple will is probably all you'll need. Or, you may have a large estate, and minimizing any potential estate tax impact is your foremost goal. Here, you'll need to use more sophisticated techniques in your estate plan, such as a trust.

To help you understand what estate planning means to you, the following sections address some estate planning needs that are common among some very broad groups of individuals. Think of these suggestions as simply a point in the right direction, and then seek professional advice to implement the right plan for you.
Over 18

Since incapacity can strike anyone at anytime, all adults over 18 should consider having:

A durable power of attorney: This document lets you name someone to manage your property for you in case you become incapacitated and cannot do so.
An advanced medical directive: The three main types of advanced medical directives are (1) a living will, (2) a durable power of attorney for health care (also known as a health-care proxy), and (3) a Do Not Resuscitate order. Be aware that not all states allow each kind of medical directive, so make sure you execute one that will be effective for you.

Young and single

If you're young and single, you may not need much estate planning. But if you have some material possessions, you should at least write a will. If you don't, the wealth you leave behind if you die will likely go to your parents, and that might not be what you would want. A will lets you leave your possessions to anyone you choose (e.g., your significant other, siblings, other relatives, or favorite charity).

Unmarried couples

You've committed to a life partner but aren't legally married. For you, a will is essential if you want your property to pass to your partner at your death. Without a will, state law directs that only your closest relatives will inherit your property, and your partner may get nothing. If you share certain property, such as a house or car, you may consider owning the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. That way, when one of you dies, the jointly held property will pass to the surviving partner automatically.
Married couples

For many years, married couples had to do careful estate planning, such as the creation of a credit shelter trust, in order to take advantage of their combined federal estate tax exclusions. A new law passed in 2010 allows the executor of a deceased spouse's estate to transfer any unused estate tax exclusion amount to the surviving spouse without such planning. This provision is effective for estates of decedents dying after December 31, 2010.

You may be inclined to rely on these portability rules for estate tax avoidance, using outright bequests to your spouse instead of traditional trust planning. However, portability should not be relied upon solely for utilization of the first to die's estate tax exemption, and a credit shelter trust created at the first spouse's death may still be advantageous for several reasons:

Portability may be lost if the surviving spouse remarries and is later widowed again
The trust can protect any appreciation of assets from estate tax at the second spouse's death
The trust can provide protection of assets from the reach of the surviving spouse's creditors
Portability does not apply to the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, so the trust may be needed to fully leverage the GST exemptions of both spouses

Married couples where one spouse is not a U.S. citizen have special planning concerns. The marital deduction is not allowed if the recipient spouse is a non-citizen spouse (but a $143,000 annual exclusion, for 2013, is allowed). If certain requirements are met, however, a transfer to a qualified domestic trust (QDOT) will qualify for the marital deduction.
Married with children

If you're married and have children, you and your spouse should each have your own will. For you, wills are vital because you can name a guardian for your minor children in case both of you die simultaneously. If you fail to name a guardian in your will, a court may appoint someone you might not have chosen. Furthermore, without a will, some states dictate that at your death some of your property goes to your children and not to your spouse. If minor children inherit directly, the surviving parent will need court permission to manage the money for them.

You may also want to consult an attorney about establishing a trust to manage your children's assets in the event that both you and your spouse die at the same time.

You may also need life insurance. Your surviving spouse may not be able to support the family on his or her own and may need to replace your earnings to maintain the family.
Comfortable and looking forward to retirement

If you're in your 30s, you're probably feeling comfortable. You've accumulated some wealth and you're thinking about retirement. Here's where estate planning overlaps with retirement planning. It's just as important to plan to care for yourself during your retirement as it is to plan to provide for your beneficiaries after your death. You should keep in mind that even though Social Security may be around when you retire, those benefits alone may not provide enough income for your retirement years. Consider saving some of your accumulated wealth using other retirement and deferred vehicles, such as an individual retirement account (IRA).

Wealthy and worried

Depending on the size of your estate, you may need to be concerned about estate taxes.

For 2013, $5,250,000 is effectively exempt from the federal gift and estate tax. Estates over that amount may be subject to the tax at a top rate of 40 percent.

Similarly, there is another tax, called the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, that is imposed on transfers of wealth made to grandchildren (and lower generations). For 2013, the GST tax exemption is also $5,250,000, and the top tax rate is 40 percent.

Whether your estate will be subject to state death taxes depends on the size of your estate and the tax laws in effect in the state in which you are domiciled.
Elderly or ill

If you're elderly or ill, you'll want to write a will or update your existing one, consider a revocable living trust, and make sure you have a durable power of attorney and a health-care directive. Talk with your family about your wishes, and make sure they have copies of your important papers or know where to locate them.

FAQ: What are the Hope credit and the Lifetime Learning credit?

Answer:

The Hope credit (renamed the American Opportunity credit) and the Lifetime Learning credit are tax credits for taxpayers who pay certain higher education costs. These credits depend on the amount of qualified tuition and related expenses you paid in a given year, as well as the level of your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). The credits are available for qualified education expenses that you, your spouse, or your dependent incur at an eligible educational institution. The IRS has provided specific guidance regarding the definitions of eligible educational institution and qualified expenses.

The American Opportunity credit is worth up to $2,500 per student for qualified tuition and related expenses incurred during the first four years of post-secondary education. The credit does not apply to graduate or professional-level courses. To qualify, you must be enrolled in a degree or certificate program at least half-time, and you must not have a felony drug conviction. The credit is available for each eligible student in the household. The credit is calculated as 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses, plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 of such expenses. A portion of the credit may be refundable, which means you may be able to have a portion of the credit refunded to you if total tax credits exceed total tax liability.

The Lifetime Learning credit is worth up to $2,000 per year for qualified tuition and related expenses incurred for course work at eligible educational institutions. You need only be enrolled in one or more courses to qualify. The credit is also available for graduate and professional-level courses. Furthermore, courses related to sports, games, or hobbies may qualify if they are part of a course of instruction to acquire or improve job skills. The Lifetime Learning credit is equal to 20 percent of the first $10,000 of your qualified tuition and related expenses, up to a maximum credit of $2,000 per tax return.

The maximum American Opportunity tax credit is available to single filers with a MAGI below $80,000 and to joint filers with a MAGI below $160,000. A partial credit is available to single filers with a MAGI between $80,000 and $90,000 and to joint filers with a MAGI between $160,000 and $180,000. For 2014, the maximum Lifetime Learning tax credit is available to single filers with a MAGI below $54,000 and to joint filers with a MAGI below $108,000. A partial credit is available to single filers with a MAGI between $54,000 and $64,000 and to joint filers with a MAGI between $108,000 and $128,000. These credits are not available to you if your filing status is married filing separately.

Be aware that you cannot claim both credits for the same student in the same year. For additional information, see IRS Publication 970 or consult a tax professional.

FAQ: Now that my child is in college, am I entitled to any education tax credits?

Answer:

You may be. There are two education tax credits--the American Opportunity credit (formerly the Hope credit) and the Lifetime Learning credit. To claim either credit in a given year, you must list your child as a dependent on your tax return. In addition, you must meet income limits.

For 2014, the maximum American Opportunity credit is available to single filers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below $80,000 and joint filers with a MAGI below $160,000. A partial credit is available to single filers with a MAGI between $80,000 and $90,000 and joint filers with a MAGI between $160,000 and $180,000. For 2014, the maximum Lifetime Learning credit is available to single filers with a MAGI below $54,000 and joint filers with a MAGI below $108,000. A partial credit is available to single filers with a MAGI between $54,000 and $64,000 and joint filers with a MAGI between $108,000 and $128,000.

Now, what credit might you be eligible for? The American Opportunity credit applies to the first four years of undergraduate education and is worth a maximum of $2,500. It is calculated as 100 percent of the first $2,000 of your child's annual tuition and related expenses, plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 of such expenses. To qualify for the credit, your child must be attending college on at least a half-time basis.

The Lifetime Learning credit is worth a maximum of $2,000 per year. It is calculated as 20 percent of the first $10,000 of your child's annual tuition and related expenses. Unlike the American Opportunity credit, the Lifetime Learning credit is available even if your child is enrolled on less than a half-time basis.

One important rule to know is that you cannot claim both credits in the same year for the same student. As a result, you will need to determine which credit offers you the most benefit in a given year. In this analysis, there is an important distinction between the two credits. The American Opportunity credit can be taken for more than one child in a given year, provided each child qualifies independently. For example, if you have two children in college, one a freshman and the other a sophomore, you can take a $5,000 credit on your tax return. By contrast, the Lifetime Learning credit is limited to $2,000 per tax return, even if you have multiple children who would qualify independently in the same year.

Finding the Funds to Pay for a College Education

Finding the Funds to Pay for a College EducationFinding the funds to pay for your child's college education is like filling a test tube. The length of the tube represents the cost of education at any one school--tuition, fees, books, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses.

The first ingredient is what you'll have to contribute from your own pocket: the expected family contribution (EFC), which is determined by the federal government's financial aid formula.

Your EFC is the same regardless of the college your child chooses. The difference between your EFC and the cost of a particular college equals your child's financial need, which is a variable.

To meet this financial need, your child might be eligible for financial aid in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and/or work-study funds from the federal government, the college itself, and/or independent organizations. (In some cases, a family's EFC may be enough to satisfy all college costs.)

Your child may not receive all the financial aid he or she needs. If so, you'll have to top off the tube with more of your own funds, which are in addition to the EFC.

This illustration represents one possible financial situation. Actual percentages vary from student to student.

ABCs of Financial Aid

These days, it's hard to talk about college without mentioning financial aid. Yet this pairing isn't a marriage of love, but one of necessity. In many cases, financial aid may be the deciding factor in whether your child attends the college of his or her choice or even attends college at all. That's why it's important to develop a basic understanding of financial aid before your child applies to college. Without such knowledge, you may have trouble understanding the process of aid determination, filling out the proper aid applications, and comparing the financial aid awards that your child receives.

But let's face it. Financial aid information is probably not on anyone's top ten list of bedtime reading material. It can be an intimidating and confusing topic. There are different types, different sources, and different formulas for evaluating your child's eligibility. Here are some of the basics to help you get started.

What is financial aid?

Financial aid is money distributed primarily by the federal government and colleges in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, or work-study jobs. A student can receive both federal and college aid.

Grants and scholarships are more favorable than loans because they don't have to be repaid--they're free money. In a work-study program, your child works for a certain number of hours per week (either on or off campus) to earn money for college expenses. Obviously, an ideal financial aid package will contain more grants and scholarships than loans.

Need-based aid vs. merit aid

Financial aid can be further broken down into two categories--need-based aid, which is based on your child's financial need; and merit aid, which is awarded according to your child's academic, athletic, musical, or artistic merit.

The majority of financial aid is need-based aid. However, in recent years, merit aid has been making a comeback as colleges (particularly private colleges) use favorable merit aid packages to lure the best and brightest students to their campuses, regardless of their financial need. However, the availability of merit aid tends to fluctuate from year to year as colleges decide how much of their endowments to spend, as well as which specific academic and extracurricular programs they want to target.

Sources of merit aid

The best place to look for merit aid is at the colleges that your child is applying to. Does the college offer any grants or scholarships for academic, athletic, musical, or other abilities? If so, what is the application procedure? College guidebooks and individual college websites can give you an idea of how much merit aid (as a percentage of a general student's overall aid package) each college has provided in past years.

Besides colleges, a wide variety of private and public companies, associations, and foundations offer merit scholarships and grants. Many have specific eligibility criteria. In the past, sifting through the possibilities could be a daunting task. Now, there are websites where your child can input his or her background, abilities, and interests and receive (free of charge) a matching list of potential scholarships. Then it's up to your child to meet the various application deadlines. However, though this avenue is certainly worth exploring, such research (and subsequent work to complete any applications) shouldn't come at the expense of researching and applying for the more common need-based financial aid and/or college merit aid.

Sources of need-based aid

The main provider of need-based financial aid is the federal government, followed by colleges. States come in at a distant third. The amount of federal aid available in any given year depends on the amount that the federal budget appropriates, and this aid is spread over several different financial aid programs. For colleges, need-based aid comes from a college's endowment, and policies may differ from year to year, resulting in an uneven availability of funds. States, like the federal government, must appropriate the money in their budgets.

The federal government's aid application is known as the FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The federal government and colleges use the FAFSA when federal funds are being distributed (colleges are responsible for administering certain federal financial aid programs). When colleges distribute their own financial aid, they use one of two forms. The majority of colleges use the PROFILE application, created by the College Scholarship Service of Princeton, New Jersey. A minority of colleges use their own institutional applications. The states may use the FAFSA or may require their own application. Contact your state's higher education authority to learn about the state aid programs available and the applications that you'll need to complete.

The FAFSA is filed as soon after January 1 as possible in the year your child will be attending college. You must wait until after January 1 because the FAFSA relies on your tax information from the previous year. The PROFILE (or individual college application) can usually be filed earlier than the FAFSA. The specific deadline is left up to the individual college, and you'll need to keep track of it.

How is my child's financial need determined?

The way your child's financial need is determined depends on which aid application you're filling out. The FAFSA uses a formula known as the federal methodology; the PROFILE (or a college's own application) uses a formula known as the institutional methodology. The general process of aid assessment is called needs analysis.

Under the FAFSA, your current income and assets and your child's current income and assets are run through a formula. You are allowed certain deductions and allowances against your income, and you're able to exclude certain assets from consideration. The result is a figure known as the expected family contribution, or EFC. It's the amount of money that you'll be expected to contribute to college costs before you are eligible for aid.

Your EFC remains constant, no matter which college your child applies to. An important point: Your EFC is not the same as your child's financial need. To calculate your child's financial need, subtract your EFC from the cost of attendance at your child's college. Because colleges aren't all the same price, your child's financial need will fluctuate with the cost of a particular college.

For example, you fill out the FAFSA, and your EFC is calculated to be $5,000. Assuming that the cost of attendance at College A is $18,000 per year and the cost at College B is $25,000, your child's financial need is $13,000 at College A and $20,000 at College B.

The PROFILE application (or the college's own application) basically works the same way. However, the PROFILE generally takes a more thorough look at your income and assets to determine what you can really afford to pay (for example, the PROFILE looks at your home equity and retirement assets). In this way, colleges attempt to target those students with the greatest financial need.

What factors the most in needs analysis? Your current income is the most important factor, but other criteria play a role, such as your total assets, how many family members are in college at the same time, and how close you are to retirement age.

How does financial need relate to my child's financial aid award?

When your child is accepted at a particular college, the college's financial aid administrator will attempt to create a financial aid package to meet your child's financial need. Sometime in early spring, your child will receive these financial aid award letters that detail the specific amount and type of financial aid that each college is offering.

When comparing awards, first check to see if each college is meeting all of your child's need (colleges aren't obligated to meet all of it). In fact, it's not uncommon for colleges to meet only a portion of a student's need, a phenomenon known as getting "gapped." If this happens to you, you'll have to make up the shortfall, in addition to paying your EFC. College guidebooks can give you an idea of how well individual colleges meet their students' financial need under the entry "average percentage of need met" or something similar. Next, look at the loan component of each award and compare actual out-of-pocket costs. Remember, grants and scholarships don't have to be repaid and so don't count toward out-of-pocket costs. Again, you would like your child's need met with the highest percentage of grants, scholarships, and work-study jobs and the least amount of loans.

If you'd like to lobby a particular school for more aid, tread carefully. A polite letter to the financial aid administrator followed up by a telephone call is appropriate. Your chances for getting more aid are best if you can document a change in circumstances that affects your ability to pay, such as a recent job loss, unusually high medical bills, or some other unforeseen event. Also, your chances improve if your child has been offered more aid from a direct competitor college, because colleges generally don't like to lose a prospective student to a direct competitor.

How much should our family rely on financial aid?

With all this talk of financial aid, it's easy to assume that it will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes time to pay the college bills. But the reality is you shouldn't rely too heavily on financial aid. Although aid can certainly help cover your child's college costs, student loans make up the largest percentage of the typical aid package, not grants and scholarships. As a general rule of thumb, plan on student loans covering up to 50 percent of college expenses, grants and scholarships covering up to 15 percent, and work-study jobs covering a variable amount. But remember, parents and students who rely mainly on loans to finance college can end up with a considerable debt burden.