Wide Ranging Impact of Fiscal Cliff Deal on Estate Planning

Earlier this year we touched on the possible estate planning implications of the compromise law that averted the so-called “fiscal cliff” in early January. As with many of these issues, the full implications are hard to evaluate immediately, only playing out as planners get to work crafting options for clients. In the first few months of the year, many estate planning attorneys and financial advisers have done just that, getting a better understanding of how the altered legal landscape will affect common techniques to pass on assets securely and with minimal tax implications.

For example, an “On Wall Street” article last week explored a few of these issues, noting how the fiscal cliff deal actually has widespread implications. The main issue, claims the article, is that the apparent permanent federal estate tax will limit the need for many families to engage in complex maneuvers to avoid the significant tax bite. Bypass trusts are pointed to as a tool which may be less necessary because many families will fall well below the federal estate tax exemption level ($5.25 million, pegged to inflation). Yet, one must not forget that this permanently high estate tax level has no impact on estate taxes levied by the state. New Yorkers must still pay that state rate, and it hits far lower than the federal level. In addition, these sorts of trusts are often crucial in addressing other risks, like divorce, remarriage, etc.

The article also touches on potential effects on charitable giving. The fiscal cliff law also calls for a phase out of itemized deductions and personal exemptions for all income over $250,000 annually ($300,000 for couples). This may alter some previously common charitable planning. Though the article points out that it may make charitable remainder trusts more common. These trusts are particularly useful for gifting assets which will appreciate, allowing the defference of capital gains taxes.

In addition, the permanent tax increases for high income earners may make the tax benefits of certain life insurance protections even more popular. The story notes how the fiscal cliff law “substantially enhance the benefit of investment buildup inside the protective skin of an insurance policy.”

Of course these issues barely scratch the surface of specific financial planning changes caused by the tax rules in the fiscal cliff bill. Ensure that you speak with an experienced estate planning attorney and other professionals for more tailored advice on your own situation.

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