2021 Is A Critical Year for Estate Planning—A Trust Is A Great Start

Real estate investors were thrown a few curveballs last year, to say the least.

The stress and uncertainty of 2020 motivated a lot of you to stop procrastinating and get your financial affairs in order. Trust me ... Financial planners and asset protection attorneys have been working overtime.

On top of an unprecedented global pandemic, another election cycle brought the prospect of legislation that could change how our businesses (and our estates) are taxed.

With the current estate credit set to end in 2025, proactive business owners were calling us before COVID spread throughout the globe. But the events of 2020 have even more of you thinking about the gloomy prospects for recession, disability or death.

Whatever happens with the pandemic and the fallout for landlords, 2021 is shaping up as a critical year for estate planning because of President Joe Biden's proposal to lower estate tax exemptions. Biden proposals include limits to the gift, estate, and GST exemption amounts a taxpayer can take. According to The National Law Review, it is now more important than ever to create an estate plan or review the terms of an existing one.

Worried yet?

Don't be. As with many things in life, a little preparation goes a long way. You have a lot of options.

For example: Setting up a trust, which allows a third party—or trustee—to hold assets on behalf of your beneficiaries, can offer you valuable peace of mind. With a trust in place, your heirs will not have to go through the time and expense of probate. A trust also allows you to protect your assets, maintain privacy, and reduce estate and gift taxes.

Even if you have an estate plan in place, it is critical to update it each year to allow for life’s many changes, including births, deaths, weddings, divorces, illnesses, and children reaching the age of majority.

In this article, we'll examine one of the primary components of estate planning—selecting who will serve as your personal trustee. But first, let's look at the changes that 2021 could be bringing to the way estate planning attorneys like me handle our clients' affairs.

estate planning: biden changesWhat Estate Law Changes Will 2021 Bring?

Changes that impact the way we leave assets to our families are afoot.  These include:

  • When he was running for president last year, Biden proposed raising the top rate for the estate tax to 45%. Currently, the first $11.58 million of an estate is exempt from federal estate taxes (a cap set to expire in 2025). Candidate Biden proposed reducing the exemption to $3.5 million per individual ($7 million for a married couple)—a change that would subject more estates to higher taxes.
  • The new Biden administration may also eliminate a current tax policy called "stepped-up basis," where a person who sells an inherited asset has to pay capital gains tax on its appreciation only from the date of the estate owner’s death—not from the time it was originally purchased.
  • Although Biden's proposals would only apply to those making $400,000 (Biden pledged not to raise taxes on people making less than that), the changes will strip away a big benefit to those who inherit real estate.

The world is changing. Your family and your needs are changing. Estate plans should be updated every year to reflect these shifts, to give you peace of mind and preserve your wealth for your loved ones.

Creating a Trust Is A Great Start

Updating your estate plan for 2021 means finding ways to control where your assets will go should you die or become otherwise incapacitated. Establishing a land trust or another kind of trust can do exactly that.

Determining who will serve as your trustee is a key step. This individual acts as a fiduciary, overseeing the management of property owned by the trust. The person (or persons) you choose must have a clear understanding of the role. The primary expectations of a personal trustee include:

  • acting in honestly and in good faith
  • working with due care, skill, and diligence in the best interests of beneficiaries
  • avoiding conflicts of interest
  • not profiting from the trust

While those duties align with moral responsibilities, the position also comes with distinct hands-on tasks such as paying bills, reporting taxes, fulfilling obligations to beneficiaries, and following all compliance requirements. Making investments may also be part of the job.

Particularly with large estates, the trustee may be exposed to legal action by the beneficiaries of the trust. As you can see, the position or the offer of the position should not be taken lightly. You'll want to make sure the person fully understands the responsibilities and isn't blindsided with them after your death.

In addition to being a trusted friend or family member, a trustee can be a professional (such as your attorney) or an institution (like a bank). You also can to have an individual and an institution serve as co-trustees. A professional trustee can help shift the legal liability of the position away from the personal trustee while keeping them informed and part of critical decision-making.

How is a trustee compensated for their time?

Choosing who will serve as your personal trustee is an important decision. It should be someone who knows you well and who gets along with your family members. It's more than an honor; it's a serious commitment to you and your heirs.

Both personal and professional trustees are entitled to payment for their work. As you might expect, the compensation depends on the size of the estate and the amount of work the position requires.

There is no set fee for a trustee, and most trust documents and state laws state that trustees should earn a "reasonable" amount for the work. What is a reasonable amount? Here are some guidelines:

  • Check your state's rules on executor compensation. Since a trustee's work is similar to that of an executor, state rules can serve as a guideline. Typically, fees are determined as a percentage of the total value of the trust's assets or a percentage of the actual transactions made.
  • Choose an appropriate flat or hourly rate. If it is hourly compensation, the trustee should keep a careful log of the time spent handling trust business. And keep in mind that most individuals should not charge the same rate as lawyers or financial advisors.

In some cases, a trustee may not want to receive financial compensation for their work. One consideration is that a trustee's remuneration is taxable as income. But family relationships also can enter into the picture.

For example, a relative may choose to forego payment for their time as a trustee because they view the position as a family responsibility. Others may think that accepting payment could cause friction or strain within the family.

curve ballThe Takeaway

With the rate of COVID vaccination increasing, many of us are looking forward to returning to some semblance of normal life in 2021. However, we would be wise not to ignore the wake-up call that the pandemic has given us to get our affairs in order. And thanks to legislative changes, investors are faced with a whole new ball game going forward. 

None of us knows what the future holds. No matter the size of your estate, you'll gain valuable peace of mind when you create or update your estate plan in 2021.

Last Updated: 
March 10, 2021

Scott Royal Smith is an asset protection attorney and long-time real estate investor. He's on a mission to help fellow investors free their time, protect their assets, and create lasting wealth.

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