February 05, 2014

Keeping It in the Family

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A common goal of many of the clients I serve is keeping “it” in the family. No, that’s not a south Alabama reference; I’m talking about keeping heirlooms, assets, and wealth inside the family clan. There are many financial aspects that families need to consider, and some may require complex, technical, and creative solutions to get the intended job done. My intent in this post is to scratch the surface and bring a few common issues I’ve seen to your attention.

Annual exclusion gifting- In 2014, you can give $14,000 or less to another individual, and it will be exempt from gift tax implications. This is a great way to keep assets in the family, as the transfer is exempt from gift taxes and can reduce the assets of older family members that could potentially make up an otherwise taxable estate. However, this practice can also create problems if the recipients start feeling entitled to the gifting or become dependent on it and the donor can’t bring themselves to cut off the giving if their own financial situation becomes less favorable.

Unintended Will Consequences- Leaving things to family members by will is also a great and somewhat obvious way to keep things in the family, but there can still be problems. What if you leave your residence to your two kids 50/50 and one wants to sell it and one wants to keep it? Your bequest just became a family feud! What if your will leaves all of your assets to your second wife and her will leaves all of her assets to her kids from her first marriage? If you have kids from your first marriage and predecease your second wife, your kids could be totally left out if the proper estate planning is not in place! What if you leave all of your stuff to your daughter and she couldn’t care less about your beloved coin collection that your brother would love to have? Without specifically bequeathing personal effects, the possessions that some people in your family view as treasures could be treated as trash, literally!

Forgotten Beneficiary Designations- What if you forgot to change the beneficiary designation of your company’s life insurance policy to your second husband after you remarried and the proverbial bread truck comes by? Forget you look like Wile E. Coyote - your second husband would be left without an asset he could have really benefited from while your regrettable ex-husband would be the recipient of a most pleasant and unexpected surprise! Remember, beneficiary designations trump your will!

The “Tax Bite”- There are numerous strategies that you can employ right before the end of your life (and even at death) to reduce Uncle Sam’s potential income and estate tax bites out of your estate. Less tax means more money to your charities, causes, and heirs. Uncle Sam’s share can be sizable, so tax planning should always be considered if you want to keep as much in the family as you can.

Closely Held Family Business Succession- If there is a closely held family business involved in your affairs, there definitely needs to be a clear succession plan in place to ensure the business entity stays in your family or at least compensates your family. Far too often when a business’s founder or leader passes away, a family disagreement between heirs with different objectives, expectations of the business, and degrees of interest or experience with the business comes to light. If the business just automatically goes to the spouse, that person could be forced into a position they don’t want to be in, or frankly, aren’t good at. Think of how painful it would be for the former business owner looking down to watch the value he or she painfully built up brick by brick fall apart, fail, or become a relationship strain for their family.

Annual exclusion gifting, careful will considerations, proper titling and beneficiary designations, advantageous tax planning, and thoughtful family business succession planning can help keep it in the family. Many people don’t want their heirs to know too much, and I totally get that, but I’d also counter that you don’t want your heirs to know too little either. I’ve heard it said that people spend forty years accumulating assets, twenty years trying to preserve assets, and about thirty minutes figuring out how to distribute their assets. If you want to keep family peace, leave the legacy you intend, and keep as much of your wealth in the family as possible, I’d advise getting together with your financial advisor, estate attorney, and accountant to take a look.


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