Category Archives: Estate Planning

Federal employees soon will have more options to withdraw money from their retirement accounts

July 1, 2019

courtesy NAELA eBulletin:

By Eric Yoder   May 30

Current and former federal employees and military personnel soon will have more options when it comes to withdrawing money from their retirement accounts.

The Thrift Savings Plan is on schedule for a September launch of new account withdrawal options that will remove restrictions that have long been a sore point for many investors, TSP officials said Wednesday at a meeting of the program’s governing board.

Those changes — most applying to those who have left the government but some applying to those still working — result from legislation enacted in late 2017 that gave the TSP two years to carry them out. The Thrift Savings Plan is a 401(k)-style retirement savings plan for federal employees and military personnel, with 5.9 million account holders who had $591 billion on investment as of the end of April.

Although those who leave the government for retirement or other reasons may leave their accounts in place, the limited withdrawal choices have been cited as a main reason so many transfer the money to an individual retirement account or other tax-favored savings plan instead — 36 percent do so within a year.

In the most recent investor satisfaction survey, in 2013, withdrawal choices ranked the second-lowest among the seven features of the program that were rated.

Account holders are “going to have a lot better withdrawal options. They’ve been very limited in the past and I think it’s going to be very beneficial,” said board chairman Michael Kennedy, a managing director in the Atlanta office of Korn/Ferry International, a management consulting firm.

Although the Thrift Savings Plan is a federal agency, it is self-funding and operates much like a corporation, with a chief executive officer overseen by a governing board.

Currently, account holders who leave federal employment or active military duty have three basic withdrawal options that they can use alone or in combination: take a lump-sum cashout or transfer to another account, purchase an annuity, or draw out equal monthly payments.

However, only one partial withdrawal is allowed, and any second withdrawal choice must apply to the entire remaining balance. Further, for those who have both traditional pretax balances and “Roth IRA” after-tax balances, withdrawals must be taken proportionately from both.

Under the new policies, to be effective Sept. 15, those who separate from the government will be allowed to take partial withdrawals as often as once every 30 days, and those with both types of balances will be allowed to take the money from one or the other in addition to prorating.

Further, installment payments could be taken quarterly or annually in addition to monthly, and the amounts could be changed at any time rather than just once a year.

One change will affect current employees and active duty military personnel who are over age 59½ . They may now may take a one-time “age-based” withdrawal without a tax penalty, which forfeits the right to take a later partial withdrawal. Instead, up to four age-based withdrawals per year will be allowed, with no impact on post-separation withdrawals.

Ravindra Deo, executive director of the board, said the changes could motivate some investors to decide to stay with the Thrift Savings Plan since “they want more flexibility and this will give it to them.” He said that by transferring out, investors are passing up advantages including investment fees that are much lower than those charged by mutual funds and other investment vehicles.

However, some investors still may have good reasons to move their money out of the TSP, he said, including those with only small accounts they wish to close out and, by contrast, those with substantial savings plus other investments that they want to consolidate. For them, “I don’t know if this will make enough of a difference” to motivate them to stay, he said.

“This is going to be a great benefit for the program and the participants,” said Clifford Dailing, secretary-treasurer of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association. “This is a request that we’ve been hearing from our members for some time. Many of them have been putting their money in other investments where they could have better control.”

“I think some have been making bad decisions because of a misunderstanding that once they retire they need to withdraw the account and reinvest it, which is inaccurate,” added Dailing, chair of a separate advisory board of federal employee organizations that met jointly with the TSP’s board.

At the meeting, officials outlined plans to inform account holders about the new options through electronic newsletters, webinars and other communications. Investors will be encouraged to make any changes through a feature being developed for the TSP website, although new paper forms also will be offered.

“We’re trying to make sure we implement it and roll it out the right way,” Kennedy said. “We’ll have to do a real good job of educating people.”

Other changes ahead, officials said, include making mandatory the now voluntary use of two-factor authentication to access an account, offering target-date investment funds in five-year increments rather than the current 10 years, and increasing the default investment for newly hired employees from 3 to 5 percent of salary. The first of those is targeted for later this year, while the other two are projected for July and October 2020 respectively.

Tips on Creating an Estate Plan that Benefits a Child with Special Needs

July 1, 2019

Parents want their children to be taken care of after they die. But children with disabilities have increased financial and care needs, so ensuring their long-term welfare can be tricky. Proper planning by parents is necessary to benefit the child with a disability, including an adult child, as well as assist any siblings who may be left with the caretaking responsibility.

Special Needs Trusts
The best and most comprehensive option to protect a loved one is to set up a special needs trust (also called a supplemental needs trust). These trusts allow beneficiaries to receive inheritances, gifts, lawsuit settlements, or other funds and yet not lose their eligibility for certain government programs, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The trusts are drafted so that the funds will not be considered to belong to the beneficiaries in determining their eligibility for public benefits.

There are three main types of special needs trusts:

  • A first-party trust is designed to hold a beneficiary’s own assets. While the beneficiary is living, the funds in the trust are used for the beneficiary’s benefit, and when the beneficiary dies, any assets remaining in the trust are used to reimburse the government for the cost of medical care. These trusts are especially useful for beneficiaries who are receiving Medicaid, SSI or other needs-based benefits and come into large amounts of money, because the trust allows the beneficiaries to retain their benefits while still being able to use their own funds when necessary.
  • The third-party special needs trust is most often used by parents and other family members to assist a person with special needs. These trusts can hold any kind of asset imaginable belonging to the family member or other individual, including a house, stocks and bonds, and other types of investments. The third-party trust functions like a first-party special needs trust in that the assets held in the trust do not affect a beneficiary’s access to benefits and the funds can be used to pay for the beneficiary’s supplemental needs beyond those covered by government benefits. But a third-party special needs trust does not contain the “payback” provision found in first-party trusts. This means that when the beneficiary with special needs dies, any funds remaining in the trust can pass to other family members, or to charity, without having to be used to reimburse the government.
  • A pooled trust is an alternative to the first-party special needs trust. Essentially, a charity sets up these trusts that allow beneficiaries to pool their resources with those of other trust beneficiaries for investment purposes, while still maintaining separate accounts for each beneficiary’s needs. When the beneficiary dies, the funds remaining in the account reimburse the government for care, but a portion also goes towards the non-profit organization responsible for managing the trust.

Life Insurance
Not everyone has a large chunk of money that can be left to a special needs trust, so life insurance can be an essential tool. If you’ve established a special needs trust, a life insurance policy can pay directly into it, and it does not have to go through probate or be subject to estate tax. Be sure to review the beneficiary designation to make sure it names the trust, not the child. You should make sure you have enough insurance to pay for your child’s care long after you are gone. Without proper funding, the burden of care may fall on siblings or other family members. Using a life insurance policy will also guarantee future funding for the trust while keeping the parents’ estate intact for other family members. When looking for life insurance, consider a second-to-die policy. This type of policy only pays out after the second parent dies, and it has the benefit of lower premiums than regular life insurance policies.

ABLE Account
An Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) account allows people with disabilities who became disabled before they turned 26 to set aside up to $15,000 a year in tax-free savings accounts without affecting their eligibility for government benefits. This money can come from the individual with the disability or anyone else who may wish to give him money.

Created by Congress in 2014 and modeled on 529 savings plans for higher education, these accounts can be used to pay for qualifying expenses of the account beneficiary, such as the costs of treating the disability or for education, housing and health care, among other things. ABLE account programs have been rolling out on a state-by-state basis, but even if your state does not yet have its own program, many state programs allow out-of-state beneficiaries to open accounts. (For a directory of state programs, click here.)

Although it may be easy to set up an ABLE account, there are many hidden pitfalls associated with spending the funds in the accounts, both for the beneficiary and for her family members. In addition, ABLE accounts cannot hold more than $100,000 without jeopardizing government benefits like Medicaid and SSI. If there are funds remaining in an ABLE account upon the death of the account beneficiary, they must be first used to reimburse the government for Medicaid benefits received by the beneficiary, and then the remaining funds will have to pass through probate in order to be transferred to the beneficiary’s heirs.

Get Help With Your Plan
However you decide to provide for a child with special needs, proper planning is essential. Talk to your attorney to determine the best plan for your family.

Protecting Your House from Medicaid Estate Recovery

July 1, 2019

After a Medicaid recipient dies, the state must attempt to recoup from his or her estate whatever benefits it paid for the recipient’s care. This is called “estate recovery.” For most Medicaid recipients, their house is the only asset available, but there are steps you can take to protect your home.

Life estates
For many people, setting up a “life estate” is the simplest and most appropriate alternative for protecting the home from estate recovery. A life estate is a form of joint ownership of property between two or more people. They each have an ownership interest in the property, but for different periods of time. The person holding the life estate possesses the property currently and for the rest of his or her life. The other owner has a current ownership interest but cannot take possession until the end of the life estate, which occurs at the death of the life estate holder.

Example: Jane gives a remainder interest in her house to her children, Robert and Mary, while retaining a life interest for herself. She carries this out through a simple deed. Thereafter, Jane, the life estate holder, has the right to live in the property or rent it out, collecting the rents for herself. On the other hand, she is responsible for the costs of maintenance and taxes on the property. In addition, the property cannot be sold to a third party without the cooperation of Robert and Mary, the remainder interest holders.

When Jane dies, the house will not go through probate, since at her death the ownership will pass automatically to the holders of the remainder interest, Robert and Mary. Although the property will not be included in Jane’s probate estate, it will be included in her taxable estate. The downside of this is that depending on the size of the estate and the state’s estate tax threshold, the property may be subject to estate taxation. The upside is that this can mean a significant reduction in the tax on capital gains when Robert and Mary sell the property because they will receive a “step up” in the property’s basis.

As with a transfer to a trust, if you transfer the deed to your home to your children and retain a life estate, this can trigger a Medicaid ineligibility period of up to five years. Purchasing a life estate in another home can also cause a transfer penalty, but the transfer penalty can be avoided if the individual purchasing the life estate resides in the home for at least one year after the purchase and pays a fair amount for the life estate.

Life estates are created simply by executing a deed conveying the remainder interest to another while retaining a life interest. In many states, once the house passes to the remainder beneficiaries, the state cannot recover against it for any Medicaid expenses that the ife estate holder may have incurred.

Trusts
Another method of protecting the home from estate recovery is to transfer it to an irrevocable trust. Trusts provide more flexibility than life estates but are somewhat more complicated. Once the house is in the irrevocable trust, it cannot be taken out again. Although it can be sold, the proceeds must remain in the trust. This can protect more of the value of the house if it is sold. Further, if properly drafted, the later sale of the home while in this trust might allow the settlor, if he or she had met the residency requirements, to exclude up to $250,000 in taxable gain, an exclusion that would not be available if the owner had transferred the home outside of trust to a non-resident child or other third party before sale.

Contact your attorney to find out what method will work best for you.

Maximizing Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

June 4, 2019

Social Security survivor’s benefits provide a safety net to widows and widowers. But to get the most out of the benefit, you need to know the right time to claim.

While you can claim survivor’s benefits as early as age 60, if you claim benefits before your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced. If you claim benefits at your full retirement age, you will receive 100 percent of your spouse’s benefit or, if your spouse died before collecting benefits, 100 percent of what your spouse’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. Unlike with retirement benefits, delaying survivor’s benefits longer than your full retirement age will not increase the benefit. If you delay taking retirement benefits past your full retirement age, depending on when you were born your benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay up to age 70, in addition to any cost of living increases.

You cannot take both retirement benefits and survivor’s benefits at the same time. When deciding which one to take, you need to compare the two benefits to see which is higher. In some cases, the decision is easy—one benefit is clearly much higher than the other. In other situations, the decision can be a little more complicated and you may want to take your survivor’s benefit before switching to your retirement benefit.

To determine the best strategy, you will need to look at your retirement benefit at your full retirement age as well as at age 70 and compare that to your survivor’s benefit. If your retirement benefit at age 70 will be larger than your survivor’s benefit, it may make sense to claim your survivor’s benefit at your full retirement age. You can then let your retirement benefit continue to grow and switch to the retirement benefit at age 70.

Example: A widow has the option of taking full retirement benefits of $2,000/month or survivor’s benefits of $2,100/month. She can take the survivor’s benefits and let her retirement benefits continue to grow. When she reaches age 70, her retirement benefit will be approximately $2,480/month, and she can switch to retirement benefits. Depending on the widow’s life expectancy, this strategy may make sense even if the survivor’s benefit is smaller than the retirement benefit to begin with.

Keep in mind that divorced spouses are also entitled to survivor’s benefits if they were married for at least 10 years. If you remarry before age 60, you are not entitled to survivor’s benefits, but remarriage after age 60 does not affect benefits. In the case of remarriage, you may need to factor in the new spouse’s spousal benefit when figuring out the best way to maximize benefits.

10 Reasons to Create an Estate Plan Now

May 1, 2019

Many people think that estate plans are for someone else, not them. They may rationalize that they are too young or don’t have enough money to reap the tax benefits of a plan. But as the following list makes clear, estate planning is for everyone, regardless of age or net worth.

1. Loss of capacity. What if you become incompetent and unable to manage your own affairs? Without a plan the courts will select the person to manage your affairs. With a plan, you pick that person through a power of attorney.

2. Minor children. Who will raise your children if you die? Without a plan, a court will make that decision. With a plan, you are able to nominate the guardian of your choice.

3. Dying without a will. Who will inherit your assets? Without a plan, your assets pass to your heirs according to your state’s laws of intestacy (dying without a will). Your family members (and perhaps not the ones you would choose) will receive your assets without benefit of your direction or of trust protection. With a plan, you decide who gets your assets, and when and how they receive them.

4. Blended families. What if your family is the result of multiple marriages? Without a plan, children from different marriages may not be treated as you would wish. With a plan, you determine what goes to your current spouse and to the children from a prior marriage or marriages.

5. Children with special needs. Without a plan, a child with special needs risks being disqualified from receiving Medicaid or SSI benefits, and may have to use his or her inheritance to pay for care. With a plan, you can set up a supplemental needs trust that will allow the child to remain eligible for government benefits while using the trust assets to pay for non-covered expenses.

6. Keeping assets in the family. Would you prefer that your assets stay in your own family? Without a plan, your child’s spouse may wind up with your money if your child passes away prematurely. If your child divorces his or her current spouse, half of your assets could go to the spouse. With a plan, you can set up a trust that ensures that your assets will stay in your family and, for example, pass to your grandchildren.

7. Financial security. Will your spouse and children be able to survive financially? Without a plan and the income replacement provided by life insurance, your family may be unable to maintain its current living standard. With a plan, life insurance can mean that your family will enjoy financial security.

8. Retirement accounts. Do you have an IRA or similar retirement account? Without a plan, your designated beneficiary for the retirement account funds may not reflect your current wishes and may result in burdensome tax consequences for your heirs. With a plan, you can choose the optimal beneficiary.

9. Business ownership. Do you own a business? Without a plan, you don’t name a successor, thus risking that your family could lose control of the business. With a plan, you choose who will own and control the business after you are gone.

10. Avoiding probate. Without a plan, your estate may be subject to delays and excess fees (depending on the state), and your assets will be a matter of public record. With a plan, you can structure things so that probate can be avoided entirely.

Contact your attorney to discuss your estate plan.

Be Aware of the Dangers of Joint Accounts

May 1, 2019

Many people believe that joint accounts are a good way to avoid probate and transfer money to loved ones.  But while joint accounts can be useful in certain circumstances, they can have dire consequences if not used properly.  Adding a loved one to a bank account can expose your account to the loved one’s creditors as well as affect Medicaid planning.

Once money is deposited in a joint account, it belongs to both account holders equally, regardless of who deposited the money. Account holders can withdraw, spend, or transfer money in the account without the consent of the other person on the account. Before putting anyone on a joint account with you, you need to be sure you can trust that person because he or she will have full access to the account. When one account holder dies, the money in the account automatically goes to the other account holder without passing through probate.

One problem with joint accounts is that it makes the account vulnerable to all the account owner’s creditors. For example, suppose you add your daughter to your bank account. If she falls behind on credit card debt and gets sued, the credit card company can use the money in the joint account to pay off your daughter’s debt. Or if she gets divorced, the money in the account could be considered her assets and be divided up in the divorce.

Joint accounts can also affect Medicaid eligibility. When a person applies for Medicaid long-term care coverage, the state looks at the applicant’s assets to see if the applicant qualifies for assistance. While a joint account may have two names on it, most states assume the applicant owns the entire amount in the account regardless of who contributed money to the account. If your name is on a joint account and you enter a nursing home, the state will assume the assets in the account belong to you unless you can prove that you did not contribute to it.

In addition, if you are a joint owner of a bank account and you or the other owner transfers assets out of the account, this can be considered an improper transfer of assets for Medicaid purposes. This means that either one of you could be ineligible for Medicaid for a period of time, depending on the amount of money in the account. The same thing happens if a joint owner is removed from a bank account. For example, if your spouse enters a nursing home and you remove his or her name from the joint bank account, it will be considered an improper transfer of assets.

There is a better way to conduct estate planning and plan for disability. A power of attorney will ensure family members have access to your finances in the case of your disability.  If you are seeking to transfer assets and avoid probate, a trust may make better sense. To learn more, talk to your attorney.

The New Tax Law Means It’s Time to Review Your Estate Plan

February 27, 2019

While the new tax law doubled the federal estate tax exemption, meaning the vast majority of estates will not have to pay any federal estate tax, it doesn’t mean you should ignore its impact on your estate plan.

In December 2017, Republicans in Congress and President Trump increased the federal estate tax exemption to $11.18 million for individuals and $22.36 million for couples, indexed for inflation. (For 2019, the figures are $11.4 million and $22.8 million, respectively.) The tax rate for those few estates subject to taxation is 40 percent.

While most estates won’t be subject to the federal estate tax, you should review your estate plan to make sure the changes won’t have other negative consequences or to see if there is a better way to pass on your assets. One common estate planning technique when the estate tax exemption was smaller was to leave everything that could pass free of the estate tax to the decedent’s children and the rest to the spouse. If you still have that provision in your will, your kids could inherit your entire estate while your spouse would be disinherited.

For example, as recently as 2001 the federal estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Someone with, say, an $800,000 estate who hasn’t changed their estate plan since then could see the entire estate go to their children and none to their spouse.

Another consideration is how the new tax law might affect capital gains taxes. When someone inherits property, such as a house or stocks, the property is usually worth more than it was when the original owner purchased it. If the beneficiary were to sell the property, there could be huge capital gains taxes. Fortunately, when someone inherits property, the property’s tax basis is “stepped up,” which means the tax basis would be the current value of the property. If the same property is gifted, there is no “step up” in basis, so the gift recipient would have to pay capital gains taxes. Previously, in order to avoid the estate tax you might have given property to your children or to a trust, even though there would be capital gains consequences. Now, it might be better for your beneficiaries to inherit the property.

In addition, many states have their own estate tax laws with much lower exemptions, so it is important to consult with your attorney to make sure your estate plan still works for you.

Does Your Estate Plan Include Your Pets?

February 5, 2019

Have you considered your pet or pets when planning your estate? If not, you should, according to The Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization.

Pets usually have shorter life spans than humans, but people don’t always include their pets in their estate plans. If a pet owner doesn’t make plans for his or her pet, the animal can be left homeless and end up in an animal shelter.

To help pet owners ensure that that their wishes for their pets’ long-term care won’t be forgotten, misconstrued or ignored, The Humane Society has created a printable fact sheet, “Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You.” The five-page fact sheet, which is available in English and Spanish, provides sample legal language for including pets in wills and trusts, plus suggestions on protecting pets through a power of attorney.

The Humane Society says that all too often, people erroneously assume that a long-ago verbal promise from a friend, relative or neighbor to provide a home for a pet will be sufficient years later. Even conscientious individuals who include their pets in their wills may neglect to plan for contingencies in which a will might not take effect, such as in the event of severe disability or a protracted will challenge.

Key Elder Law Numbers for 2019: Our Annual Roundup

February 4, 2019

Below are figures for 2019 that are frequently used in the elder law practice or are of interest to clients.

Medicaid Spousal Impoverishment Figures for 2019

The new minimum community spouse resource allowance (CSRA) is $25,284 and the maximum CSRA is $126,420. The maximum monthly maintenance needs allowance is $3,160.50. The minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance remains $2,057.50 ($2,572.50 for Alaska and $2,366.25 for Hawaii) until July 1, 2019.

Medicaid Home Equity Limits

Minimum: $585,000

Maximum: $878,000

For CMS’s complete chart of the 2019 SSI and Spousal Impoverishment Standards, click here.

Income Cap

The income cap for 2019 applicable in “income cap” states is $2,313 a month.

Gift and estate tax figures

Federal estate tax exemption: $11.4 million for individuals, $22.8 million for married couples

Lifetime tax exclusion for gifts: $11.4 million

Generation-skipping transfer tax exemption: $11.4 million

Annual gift tax exclusion: $15,000 (unchanged)

Long-Term Care Premium Deductibility Limits for 2019

The Internal Revenue Service has announced the 2019 limitations on the deductibility of long-term care insurance premiums from income. Any premium amounts above these limits are not considered to be a medical expense.

Attained age before the close of the taxable year Maximum deduction
40 or less $420
More than 40 but not more than 50 $790
More than 50 but not more than 60 $1,580
More than 60 but not more than 70 $4,220
More than 70 $5,270

Benefits from per diem or indemnity policies, which pay a predetermined amount each day, are not included in income except amounts that exceed the beneficiary’s total qualified long-term care expenses or $370 per day (for 2019), whichever is greater.

For these and other inflation adjustments from the IRS, click here.

Medicare Premiums, Deductibles and Copayments for 2019

  • Part B premium: $135.50/month (was $134)
  • Part B deductible: $185 (was $183)
  • Part A deductible: $1,364 (was $1,340)
  • Co-payment for hospital stay days 61-90: $341/day (was $335)
  • Co-payment for hospital stay days 91 and beyond: $682/day (was $670)
  • Skilled nursing facility co-payment, days 21-100: $170.50/day (was $167.50)

Part B premiums for higher-income beneficiaries:

  • Individuals with annual incomes between $85,000 and $107,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $170,000 and $214,000 will pay a monthly premium of $189.60.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $107,000 and $133,500 and married couples with annual incomes between $214,000 and $267,000 will pay a monthly premium of $270.90.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $133,500 and $160,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $267,000 and $320,000 will pay a monthly premium of $352.20.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between above $160,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $320,000 will pay a monthly premium of $433.40.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $460.50

High-earner premiums differ for beneficiaries who are married but file a separate tax return from their spouse. Those with incomes greater than $85,000 and less than $415,000 will pay a monthly premium of $433.40. Those with incomes greater than $415,000 will pay a monthly premium of $460.50.

For Medicare’s “Medicare 2019 costs at a glance,” click here.

Social Security Benefits for 2019

The new monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard is $771 for an individual and $1,157 for a couple.

Estimated average monthly Social Security retirement payment: $1,461 a month for individuals and $2,448 for couples

Maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security taxation: $132,900 (was $128,400)

For a complete list of the 2019 Social Security figures, go to: https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/factsheets/colafacts2019.pdf

IRS Announces Higher 2019 Estate And Gift Tax Limits

December 24, 2018


Ashlea Ebeling Forbes Staff

The Internal Revenue Service announced today the official estate and gift tax limits for 2019: The estate and gift tax exemption is $11.4 million per individual, up from $11.18 million in 2018. That means an individual can leave $11.4 million to heirs and pay no federal estate or gift tax, while a married couple will be able to shield $22.8 million. The annual gift exclusion amount remains the same at $15,000.

For the ultra rich, these numbers represent planning opportunities. For everybody else, they serve as a reminder: Even if you don’t have a taxable estate, you still need an estate plan.

The IRS announced the new inflation-adjusted numbers in Rev. Proc. 2018-57. Forbes contributor Kelly Phillips Erb has all the details on 2019 tax brackets, standard deduction amounts and more. We have all the details on the new higher 2019 retirement account limits too.

The Trump tax cuts slashed the number of estates subject to the federal estate tax, by doubling the exemption amount from a base level of $5 million per person. So, there were only an estimated 1,890 taxable estates in 2018 (according to the Tax Policy Center). That compares with 4,687 taxable estates in 2013 reflecting a base $5 million exemption, and 52,000 taxable estates in 2000 when the exemption was $675,000 (Table 2, JCT 2015 Wealth Transfer Tax System Report).

For now, death tax foes are trying to make the new doubled exemption amounts permanent; the Trump tax cuts are scheduled to expire at year-end 2025. “Permanence [of the doubled exemption] would make the score of repeal much cheaper and provide predictability,” says Palmer Schoening of the anti-death tax Family Business Coalition, noting that the ultimate goal is still to repeal the estate tax. The mid-term elections, however, put a damper on the viability of Tax Reform 2.0, the Republicans’ latest push to make that doubled exemption permanent.

In the meantime, the wealthy will continue to plan around the estate tax, whittling down their estates with lifetime wealth transfer strategies to keep below the new threshold and avoid the 40% federal estate tax. Now, a couple who has used up every dollar of their exemption before the increase has another $440,000 of exemption value to pass on tax free. For planning tips, see Trusts In The Age of Trump: Time To Re-Engineer Your Estate Plan.

What about the $15,000 annual exclusion amount? You can give away $15,000 to as many individuals as you’d like. A husband and wife can each make $15,000 gifts. So, a couple could make $15,000 gifts to each of their four grandchildren, for a total of $120,000. Lifetime gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount count towards the $11.4 million combined estate/gift tax exemption. See The Gift Tax Return Trap And How To Avoid It.

Warning: The $22.8 million number per couple isn’t automatic. An unlimited marital deduction allows you to leave all or part of your assets to your surviving spouse free of federal estate tax. But to use your late spouse’s unused exemption – a move called “portability”—you must elect it on the estate tax return of the first spouse to die, even when no tax is due. The problem is if you don’t know what portability is and how to elect it, you could be hit with a surprise federal estate tax bill.

And note, if you live in one of the 17 states or the District of Columbia that levy separate estate and/or inheritance taxes, there’s even more at stake, with death taxes sometimes starting at the first dollar of an estate. Several states were in line to match the federal exemption amount for 2018, but state legislators determined the new doubled exemption was just too high. See States Rebel, Won’t Conform To Trump’s Estate Tax Cuts. Most states haven’t announced their inflation-adjusted numbers yet for 2019, but we’ll keep you posted.