Estate planning can be tough and very challenging, especially if you're a high-net-worth individual. Not only are the nuances of estate planning fairly complicated, but things in the industry are also constantly changing, which often makes it difficult to keep up.

From tax laws to tax liabilities to other issues that affect the family, there are so many things you have to consider. Some of the goals of high-net-worth individuals include protecting inheritances for heirs, minimizing estate taxes, avoiding the probate process, and appointing the right trustee. But how do you navigate this complex process? This article serves as a quick guide to planning your estate.

Key Takeaways

  • Make sure you hire someone to take care of your best interests when you're ready to plan your estate.
  • Be sure to minimize your estate taxes by knowing your gift, estate, and generation-skipping transfer tax limits—the gift and estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per individual for 2021 ($11.58 million for 2020).
  • Make sure you make provisions like a power of attorney, a living will, or revocable trust if you become incapacitated.
  • Check with your estate planner on the best way to avoid probate.

Choose the Right Trustee

First things first. Make sure you hire someone to take care of your estate planning needs. Unfortunately, there are some professionals out there who don't act in the best interest of their clients. They will sometimes opt for a route that provides them with the most income opportunity, not what will reduce costs and guarantee that assets end up in the right hands. But how do you know whether you can trust your trustee?

Do your research and find someone who will work for and with your needs. Be sure to ask questions, seek out and read reviews, and discuss all your estate planning goals with the person you choose to represent you. The information below should be seen as a starting point for choosing the right estate planning attorney or trustee.

Minimizing Estate Taxes

One of the many goals working people have is to save up for retirement and to build wealth to leave their loved ones after they die. But doing so often comes at a price. There are taxes to consider, which—if you don't make the right choices—can deplete the amount in your estate.

While planning your estate, you should consider every kind of tax scenario. This includes income taxes, gift taxes, estate taxes, and generation-skipping taxes. When you exclude income taxes, the remaining three are referred to as wealth transfer taxes. For each type of tax within that group, federal taxes are 40% of the value of whatever is being measured.

Keep in mind, it is possible that your state also imposes taxes, so you should check with your state to find out.

Gift and Estate Taxes

The passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2017 increased the exemption for the gifts and estate taxes—together, called a unified credit. For the 2021 tax year, that exemption is $11.7 million per individual ($11.58 million for 2020) or $23.4 million for married couples ($23.16 million for 2020). Anything above that amount is taxed at 40% of the gift’s value.

The gift and estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per individual or $23.4 million for married couples for the 2021 tax year.

You are allowed to give a gift of $15,000 per year per person, and there is no limit to how the number of recipients you have. But if you give someone $30,000 in one year, the first $15,000 is exempt—referred to as an annual exclusion gift—while the remaining is subject to a gift tax.

The same rules apply to estate taxes, but the $11.7 million estate tax exemption for 2021 is reduced by the value of the gifts you give throughout your lifetime. So if you gave $3 million worth of gifts using the lifetime gift tax exemption, then your estate tax exemption will now be $8.7 million.

Generation-Skipping Transfer Taxes

Generation-skipping transfer taxes are paid any time you give property to a grandchild or great-grandchild. Once again, tax paid is based on 40% of the value of the gift(s), and there is a tax exemption of up to $11.7 million. In case you’re wondering, this tax exists so grantors (creators of a trust) don’t bypass the next generation in order to avoid tax obligations. 

Incapacitation Planning

If you worked your entire life to save for retirement and to pass on an inheritance, you'd be furious if that inheritance dwindled or was wiped out. Let’s avoid that situation. In case you become incapacitated whether because of an accident, an illness, or from aging during your lifetime, you want to make sure you:

  • Provide care for dependents
  • Appoint a trustee
  • Guarantee the orderly management of your property
  • Specify your end-of-life treatment if in a permanent vegetative state

To accomplish these goals, you will need to make sure certain steps are taken.

First, appoint a durable power of attorney. This kind of POA allows the agent to take charge of financial and legal matters, along with those involving any property after you become incapacitated. By doing so, you can ensure your agent can:

  • Manage your bank accounts
  • Buy and sell property
  • Manage other assets
  • Open your mail

Next, consider a healthcare power of attorney (HCPA). This document and allows your agent to:

  • Determine medical treatment including doctor and hospital selection
  • Determine long-term care
  • Determine specific courses of treatment

Appoint a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release agent to:

  • Access your protected medical information

Complete a living will—also referred to as an advance directive. It:

  • Indicates if you would want a feeding tube removed
  • Stops treatment to allow for a natural death

Create a revocable trust, which is designed to:

  • Appoint successor trustee

Finally, draw up a guardianship declaration to:

  • Determine who will take care of any children who are minors

Avoiding Probate

As hinted at above, many estate planning attorneys will try to lead you toward a traditional will. Why? Because they will benefit more from it than they would if you had a living trust. Be wary of estate planning attorneys who try to sell you on the idea that a living trust is more expensive and not a better option than a will. A living trust is more expensive upfront, but not over the long haul. If you want to avoid unnecessary financial and time costs, you need to avoid the probate process.

In order to accomplish this goal, you simply need to opt for a living trust instead. Since it’s a trust, not everything will be in your name, which means you can bypass probate. Despite not everything remaining in your name, you still have control of your assets while you're alive. Remember, you can appoint a successor if you become incapacitated.

A living trust offers other advantages as well. If it’s a revocable trust, then it can be amended, modified, or revoked at any time. A revocable trust also qualifies as a grantor trust, which allows you to move assets in and out of the trust without paying taxes.

If you’re concerned with how a potential beneficiary will behave with his or her inheritance, you can set limitations. For example, you can set a limitation that the beneficiary will only be able to use the inheritance for health or education purposes. You can also appoint an independent trustee who will have to approve all distributions.

To guarantee your assets end up in the right hands, be sure to create a specially designed trust where the shares of the trust will remain in the trust's name and transfer to each heir when you die. This will disallow a spouse from transferring assets to his or her children from a previous marriage. It will also disallow that spouse from transferring assets to a new spouse. Additionally, this kind of trust will protect your heirs from creditors and bankruptcy.

The Bottom Line

Now you know the basics about how to minimize estate taxes, plan for the event of incapacitation, avoid the probate process and protect your intended beneficiaries from immoral intentions. This information should be helpful when hiring an estate planning attorney.