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Should this couple leave their estate to kids who don’t share their values?

Estate planning documents on a table
Estate planning is tricky because people and circumstances can change. So get plenty of advice before setting up something irrevocable, such as a charitable remainder trust.
(Getty Images)

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our 60s and have two grown children. There are no grandchildren, and it’s not looking like there will be any. Sadly, our children do not share our values. We don’t want to leave them our estate because it will end up being given or bequeathed to charities of their choice. They are doing well and don’t “need” the money. However, we also don’t want to “cut them out.” I was thinking about a charitable remainder trust so they could have income during their lifetimes and the assets will go to our charities when they die. Can it be funded with what is left when we die or do we have to put some or all of our assets in it now? Is our estate sizable enough for such a trust? Our assets total about $3 million. A less complicated solution would be to leave them the house and bequeath the cash to charity. What are your thoughts?

Answer: Consider going with the less complicated solution.

Charitable remainder trusts are typically created while you’re alive. You contribute assets to an irrevocable trust and get a tax deduction for the contribution plus an income stream for life. At your death, the charity keeps the remaining assets — the remainder. Because the trusts are irrevocable, you should have careful counseling from an accountant, financial planner, the charity and an attorney before you sign away your assets, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

You could create a trust that at your death pays income to your children and then contributes the remainder to a charity when they die. Such a trust probably would have to be administered for decades, so you’d need a corporate or other institutional trustee — and those aren’t cheap.

Also, keep in mind that a lot of things could change between now and your deaths. The kids who don’t “need” the money could suffer reverses, or you could. Opinions also can change; they might come closer to your point of view, or you could decide that the issues that divide you are less important than the bond you share. An unchangeable trust may not be the best option in a world that’s constantly changing.

Homeowners of any age can exclude up to $250,000 each in capital gains on the sale of their primary residence, under certain conditions.

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Friend’s write-offs might be fraud

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is driving me crazy because she keeps telling me that I need to start a company. She claims she writes off “everything” from her two companies and a nonprofit. She says her accountant encourages this and that she doesn’t pay taxes. However, when my friend had to claim unemployment benefits during the pandemic, her weekly amount was very small. She kept complaining that she “paid into the system” but thought she should get a higher amount. Maybe she didn’t pay into the system, or isn’t paying enough?

Answer: People who write off “everything” are often committing tax fraud. Although businesses can write off a number of different expenses, those expenses must be both “ordinary” — common and accepted in the business’ specific industry — and “necessary,” or helpful and appropriate for that particular business or trade. Nonprofits, by IRS definition, are supposed to be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational or charitable purposes — not the benefit of a single individual.

Your friend could face a substantial tax bill plus serious penalties if she’s audited. She may be counting on the IRS not noticing, but all it may take to trigger an audit is a tip from a disgruntled employee or someone who hears her bragging about not paying taxes. If her accountant is in the habit of filing dubious returns, the IRS might catch on to the pattern and start looking more closely at all that accountant’s customers.

Your friend’s strategy of minimizing her taxable income has already bitten her once when she applied for unemployment and may bite her again when she applies for Social Security. If she doesn’t pay Social Security taxes, or pays only a small amount, her retirement benefits will reflect that. By the time many people realize the enormity of that particular mistake, it’s too late to fix.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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