Posts

Rows of 100 dollar bills

There’s that pragmatic, and slightly depressing saying that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But what about taxes on death? Just like you can’t escape taxes in life, they government can tax your estate at death. Indeed, it’s often referred to as the “death tax.”  And, just like taxpayers file both federal and state income taxes, there are both federal and state estate taxes.

People having a meeting at a desk with papers

What is an Estate Tax?

When a U.S. resident dies, an estate tax may be levied against the gross estate, which includes the fair market value (FMV) of all owned property, as well as any assets the deceased had interest in (e.g. assets like life insurance). Think of it like the gross income figure you calculate for income tax returns.

Federal Estate Tax

Let’s start with federal estate taxes. Because this is a federal tax, this applies regardless of what state you die in.

Not too long ago, I reviewed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) impact on estate planning. (Why? Because smart estate planning accounts for taxes and employs strategies that minimize said taxes.) One of the most significant changes from the “new tax law” was with the estate tax exemption. This is the figure subtracted from an estate’s gross value in order to calculate federal taxes.

For tax years 2018 through 2025, the exemption from estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes was raised from $5.49 million per individual to an approximated $11.2 million. (Why do I say approximated? Because the exemption base is indexed, so the base for the 2017 tax year was $5 million; for the 2018 tax year, the base is now $10 million and indexed for inflation.) In plain terms, this means each individual should be able to pass over $11 million to their heirs before any estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes apply.

If you’re married, this means your estate exemption now equals $22.4 million. (Or, you could think of it like each couple now has an additional $11.2 million in assets available to gift or make a testamentary transfer with thoughtful estate planning.)

The bottom line: if your estate is worth less than the federal exemption rates, it will be free from the estate taxes after you die. If you have an estate valued at more than the exemption threshold (and smart estate planning strategies are not appropriately implemented to shield assets from being counted in your estate’s gross value), your taxable estate will met with a tax rate of up to 40 percent.

State Estate Taxes

The caveat (and good news for residents of the majority of states) is that not all states have a state estate tax…including Iowa! Currently, 12 states and D.C. also impose an estate tax on residents. It’s important to note that the exemption rates for these state estate taxes are much lower than the federal exemption rate. For instance, our neighbors to the east in Illinois have an exemption rate of $4 million and a graduated marginal tax rate of of o.8 to 16 percent.

Here’s an incredibly helpful map from Tax Foundation that illustrates this.

estate tax map

Note: figures may have changed since time of publication of this map.

Is there any reason an Iowan would need to account for state estate taxes in their estate planning? Only if they own real estate in another state. Let’s consider a hypothetical example to explain this better.

Alice with her Minnesota Lake House

Alice is an Iowa resident. She died in March 2018 owning a vacation home on her favorite lake in Minnesota. Alice’s gross estate totals $2.8 million. What estate taxes will Alice’s estate be responsible for?

Iowa’s Inheritance Tax

While Iowans largely escape the state estate tax, there is a state inheritance tax. The inheritance tax is different than the estate tax (although they they are often incorrectly used interchangeably). The estate tax is based purely on gross value and regardless of who inherits what; the inheritance tax is only charged against the share of inheritance of certain estate beneficiaries.

There’s a lot to note about Iowa’s inheritance tax, so I’ll do a deep dive into that here on the GoFisch blog later this week!

Questions about how taxes (and other fees) may affect your estate plan? Need to revise your current plan after changes to the tax code? Don’t hesitate to contact me via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone (515-371-6077).

GoFisch blog

Mark Twain famously said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Life insurance is a little like that. Everyone needs it, but we don’t like to talk about it much.

Life Insurance as Key Estate Planning Tool

Life insurance is an amazing estate planning tool. I cannot stress enough the importance of life insurance. I, of course, don’t sell it, so I have no economic stake here. It’s just that life insurance is generally reasonably and affordably priced, yet still so helpful with so many financial goals. Replacing a breadwinner’s earnings is one of the most commons ways it is utilized. But, it can also provide liquid assets for a small business when a key partner dies.  Life insurance can also cover costs that you might forget about, like funeral costs or unpaid taxes.

A great resource for learning more about life insurance is an interview I did with insurance agent and industry expert, Christa Payne. (If you are an Iowan, you can just email Christa – she’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.)

While there are many advantages to life insurance, and you most definitely need it, life insurance can also create estate planning issues.

Three Estate Planning Issues Life Insurance May Create

The major issue created by life insurance is that of the “sudden windfall” to your beneficiary. Do you really want, say, your 19-year-old to inherit several hundred thousand dollars at once? Even oldsters with experience managing finances may find a huge influx of cash to be overwhelming.

Another issue to consider: does your beneficiary receive government benefits? If so, proceeds from your life insurance policy might make your beneficiary ineligible for further benefits. By the way, don’t think that those receiving government aid are all elderly. Quite the opposite! A vast majority of Medicaid recipients are under age 44. Regardless of age, any beneficiary on Medicaid, or similar government aid program, is at risk of losing benefits without careful estate planning.

Finally, for high-net worth (HNW) individuals and families, there is the issue of the federal estate tax. Everything owned in your name at death is included in your estate for estate tax purposes. Yes, that includes the death benefit proceeds of your life insurance policy. Considering that many policies carry quite hefty death benefits (several hundred thousand dollars, or more, not being unusual), this is definitely something for those with HNW to carefully consider.

Older person looking out at water

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

In Trusts we Trust

I’ve explained trusts generally before. A quick primer: in simplest terms, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: grantor, trustee, and beneficiary. This allows a third party (the trustee) to hold assets for a beneficiary (or beneficiaries).

There are a nearly infinite variety of trusts. And, one type of trust is an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust, or ILIT.

So, what IS an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

Think of an ILIT as an “imaginary container,” which owns your life insurance policy for you. This provides several benefits. An ILIT removes the life insurance from your estate, i.e., lowers estate tax liability. Like other trusts, an ILIT allows you to decide how, when, and even why your named beneficiary receives life insurance proceeds.

Photo by Connor Betts on Unsplash

Wait, what was that about the three parties?

The grantor is you, the purchaser of life insurance.

The trustee can be anyone you, as grantor, chooses — an individual(s) or a qualified corporate trustee (like the trust department at your bank). But, note a major difference between an ILIT and other kinds of trusts – with a large number of other trusts, you can name yourself as trustee. With an ILIT, you wouldn’t want to do so, because the IRS may then determine that life insurance really hasn’t left your estate.

Who can be a beneficiary of an ILIT?

Most often, spouses, children, and/or grandchildren are the named beneficiaries of an ILIT. But really, it can be any individual(s) you, as grantor, choose.

Your beneficiary and your life insurance proceeds

The conditions under which a beneficiary receives distributions from an ILIT is up to you. You can, for example, specify that your beneficiary receives monthly or annual distributions. You can decide the amounts. You may even dictate that your beneficiary receives distributions when s/he reaches milestones which you choose. For example, you can provide for a large(r) distribution when a beneficiary reaches a certain age, graduates from college or post-graduate program, buys a first home, marries, or has a child. Or, really, just about any other condition or event that you decide is appropriate.

You also have the option to build in flexibility, so that your trustee has the discretion to provide distributions when your beneficiary needs it for a special purpose, like pursuing higher education, starting a business, making an investment, and so on.

And, of course, if your beneficiary is receiving government benefits, an ILIT can account for that, as well.

Good gosh, is there anything an ILIT CAN’T DO?

Once again, an ILIT is irrevocable. While an ILIT provides a great deal of flexibility, there’s one action for certain you can’t take — you cannot transfer a policy owned by an ILIT into your own name. So, if you think that someday you may need to access the policy’s cash value for your own purposes, you probably shouldn’t set up an ILIT.

Options for “ending” an ILIT

Now, I suppose, there’s nothing requiring you to continue making insurance payments into your ILIT. Depending on the kind of policy you have, your policy may lapse as soon as you miss your premium payment. Or, if your policy has cash value, these funds may be used to pay premiums until all the accumulated cash is exhausted. So, that’s an option for “ending” an ILIT.

I bet you have some questions. Let’s talk!

An ILIT can provide you, your loved ones, and your estate with significant benefits. To learn more, contact me at my email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, for a free consultation, without obligation. You can also give me a call at 515-371-6077.


*Yes, you’re right – ILIT is really not a word, but an acronym. You caught me. It’s just that Legal Word of the Day sounds more exciting than Legal Acronym of the Day. Also, congratulations to you for being the kind of person who reads footnotes.

**In 2017, essentially, an individual must have an estate of more than about $5 million, and a married couple an estate of more than $11 million, before they need to worry about federal estate taxes.