This describes how the traditional methods of estate planning for married couples causes children or other heirs and beneficiaries to pay extra capital gains tax due to the failure to take advantage of the double step-up in basis.
In the old days (about a decade ago), the emphasis on estate planning was always avoiding estate tax. Married couples would arrange their wills and trusts so that when the first spouse died, assets were left either in usufruct or to an irrevocable trust so that the assets of the first spouse to die would not be included, for estate tax purposes, in the estate of the surviving spouse. Assets were left to trusts commonly referred to as A/B trusts, credit shelter trusts, survivor's and family trusts, QTIP trusts, or bypass trusts. The goal was to, by leaving assets to an irrevocable trust at the death of the first spouse, those assets would escape estate taxation upon the death of the surviving spouse.
However, this planning method did not have the best capital gains tax result. In community property states, all of the community property would get a step up in basis upon the first spouse's death (to the value at the date of the first spouse's death), but only the assets that the surviving spouse owned would recognize another step up in basis when the surviving spouse died. The family was forfeiting another step up in basis.
Now, for almost all families, the fact that all the assets get lumped into the estate of the surviving spouse is irrelevant for federal estate tax purposes. Each estate can exempt $11.2 (for deaths in 2018) from the estate tax. And since new portability law allows the surviving spouse to use any part of the exemption that went unused by the first spouse to die, married couples can shield $22.4 million) from the estate tax. Simply put, estate tax is not an issue for most families.
So now, married couples should consider doing the opposite. They should consider arranging their affairs to that all marital assets get included in the estate of the surviving spouse. So long as the total is less than the estate tax exemptions, there will be no estate tax but the heirs will benefit from another step-up in basis when the surviving spouse dies. Then, if the heirs sell previously appreciated assets, there will be no tax to pay.
A simple way to include assets in the estate of the surviving spouse is to leave ownership of those assets to the surviving spouse (through a Last Will), Or if a married couple has a living trust to avoid probate, they can provide that the trust does not become irrevocable upon the death of the first spouse. However, if there is a blended family situation, or the couple is worried that the survivor may attempt to leave assets to a second spouse, or if the surviving spouse may need to qualify for Medicaid upon entering a nursing home, that couple may want to reconsider whether or not to put the surviving spouse in complete control of the marital assets.
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Louisiana Estate Planning Attorney
Phone: (225) 329-2450