Estate Planning Lessons

Planned Giving

Lesson Three: Avoid Estate Shrinkage

“Sanforize” Your Estate
Many readers will remember the 1950s advertisements for “Sanforized” clothing.  Sanforizing was a patented process for reducing shrinkage in cotton or linen fabric, named after Sanford I. Cluett, the inventor.  Ads for Sanforized apparel featured tormented men and women whose obviously un-Sanforized clothing had shrunk several sizes.

Sanforizing advertisements have gone the way of roadside Burma Shave signs.  But shrinkage of a different sort remains a very real problem for many Americans.  We are talking about “estate shrinkage” – the depletion in family assets that can occur when a person dies.

For illustration, let’s look at the estate of Karen Carpenter, popular 1970s vocalist.  Miss Carpenter’s gross estate was valued at $6,110,476.  The estate was depleted by the following costs:

You can see that Miss Carpenter’s estate “shrank” by 58%.  Not only did her heirs lose more than $3.5 million, the estate also faced the task of finding cash to pay for those expenses.   Probate records indicated cash in the estate of just $2,721.  This shortfall in “estate liquidity” might have required the forced sale of estate assets.

Strategies to Avoid Estate Shrinkage
How can you protect your beneficiaries from shrinkage of your estate?  Some shrinkage is inevitable, but you can cushion its impact.

Calculate the shrinkage.  Ask your advisers to figure your estate settlement costs – taxes, administration expenses and debts – as if you were to die today.  Make the same estimate for your spouse’s estate.  Then make two more estimates assuming (1) that you outlive your spouse and (2) that your spouse outlives you.

Plan for estate liquidity.  Provide cash (or assets readily convertible to cash) to pay the expenses that will occur.  Many estates have had to sell assets at “fire sale” prices to cover taxes and other costs.  Strategies could involve a savings program, investments, life insurance or a combination of all three.  Your advisers may recommend an irrevocable trust that can make loans to your executor or purchase assets from your estate.

Look for ways to reduce shrinkage.  You can “Sanforize” your estate (or that of your surviving spouse) against tax shrinkage through lifetime gifts to family, trusts designed to reduce taxes and qualification for certain tax breaks available to business owners. See pages two and three for details.

Federal Estate Tax: A Prime Source of Estate Shrinkage
Will your estate be faced with a federal estate tax liability at your death?  If so, there are many ways that you and your advisers can act now to minimize the impact of this tax.

The federal estate tax applies to the fair market value of everything you own at the time of your death.  So let’s start by figuring out what the approximate value of your estate might be.

In filling out the table below, the first step is to value your home, your other real property and all other assets you own at fair market value – the price at which the property could reasonably be sold.

As you continue through the table, you may be surprised to see that the full face value of your life insurance proceeds are generally subject to the federal estate tax if you have any ownership rights in the policies.  This is true for all forms of life insurance:  cash-value, term, group insurance provided by your employer, accident or travel insurance, etc.

It may also surprise you that the full value of all property you own jointly with someone other than your spouse (not just a part of that total value) may be included in your gross estate.  For a quick estimate, include the full value; include half of it if the co-owner is your spouse.

IRAs, deferred compensation and many other employee benefits may also be part of your gross estate.  “Personal property” includes cars, furniture, stamp and coin collections, paintings, antiques, china, silver, etc.

Computing Your Taxable Estate
Input numbers only.

Your Home $  
Other real estate $
Life insurance proceeds $
Jointly owned property $
Retirement accounts $
Other employee benefits $
Stocks and bonds $
Bank accounts and cash $
Business interests $
Personal property $
Other $
Total assets (gross estate) $  

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