Michael Jackson’s Estate

The circus surrounding Michael Jackson’s death and estate will, no doubt, continue for months, possibly years. No matter what you may think of Michael Jackson personally, we can all learn some lessons from the way that Michael set up his affairs.

For starters, Michael took the time to consider the matter of guardianship for his children.  Some believe that his choice is unwise – naming his 79 year-old mother, Katherine, as guardian and 65 year-old singer Diana Ross as contingent guardian.  The important thing to remember is that Michael obviously gave this considerable thought and wanted to make sure that his wishes were known.  It’s very important that all parents of minors do the same thing and take the responsible step of putting their wishes in their will.

Michael’s will was relatively straightforward — have a look for yourself  – http://www.docstoc.com/docs/8016703/Michael-Jacksons-Will. The will is a pour-over will which basically says that all money or property that has not already been transferred into a trust should be transferred into a trust at the time of death.  For medium or large estates, a pour-over will with a family trust is an excellent way to avoid probate and to maintain some privacy since details of a trust are, in most states, not a matter of public record.

Sorting out the details of Michael’s financial situation will take quite some time.  One of the reasons is that much of Michael’s estate was not liquid.  The value placed on his main asset, a 50 percent interest in the Sony/ATV music catalog, has been reported to be worth anywhere from $500 million to $1.5 billion.  In addition, the estate is burdened by personal debt in the neighborhood of $500 million.

One lesson to be learned from this example is that if you have assets that are hard to value and not terribly liquid, you should consider life insurance.  If set up correctly, the life insurance proceeds would be tax-free and could be used to pay debts of the estate and taxes on the estate.

Finally, a piece of advice in the event that you leave behind a 401(k) plan.  While little is known about Michael Jackson’s estate planning, let’s assume that he got good advice and had set up a 401(k) plan.  If the 401(k) plan was left to Michael’s children, they could make a Roth IRA conversion of that plan in 2010.  They would pay income tax on the plan now, but all future growth of the plan would be income tax-free.  Considering the ages of Michael’s children, the difference would be measured in millions of dollars over their lifetime.

One interesting side note – if Michael had put his money into an IRA instead of a 401(k), his children would not have the option of making a Roth IRA conversion of the inherited IRA.  The ability of heirs to make a Roth IRA conversion is just one of the potential benefits of keeping your money in an existing 401(k) plan instead of doing a rollover to an IRA.

These lessons taken from Michael Jackson’s estate just scratch the surface.  There is much to be learned in the way Michael dealt with his estate while alive and we have put together a more in-depth article which you can access through our homepage by clicking on articles.  We will also be including this piece in our next newsletter.  If you aren’t receiving our newsletter, it’s easy to sign-up.  Go to the homepage of this website and click on e-newsletter sign-up on the left-hand side.

Tax Issues With Job Loss

Despite the fact that there have recently been encouraging economic signs, the national unemployment rate continues to inch higher. At the end of April, the unemployment rate was 8.9%. By the end of May, it stood at 9.4% and in a June interview with Bloomberg News, President Barack Obama predicted that the country will soon see a 10% unemployment rate.

As shocking as it is to lose a job, it’s even worse when you suddenly realize that there are also tax consequeneces to deal with.  Be aware that severance pay and unemployment compensation are taxable.  Payments for accumulated vacation or sick time are also taxable.  Make sure that enough taxes are withheld from these payments or arrange to make estimated payments.

There is one bright spot — you get a bit of a break this year thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  This new law temporarily excludes up to $2,400 of unemployment compensation from a recipient’s gross income.  Remember, this is for 2009 only and anything over $2,400 is fully taxable.

Sometimes unemployed individuals resort to withdrawing money from their IRAs and qualified retirement plans.  This creates another tax issue and is not a course of action that we recommend.  Generally speaking, if you withdraw money before you reach eligible age and don’t roll it into another plan within 60 days, that amount must be reported as taxable income.  One exception allows an umemployed individual to take penalty-free distributions from an IRA to pay health insurance premiums.  This exception does not apply to qualified plans.  In addition to possible taxes, your IRA or qualified plan withdrawal may be subject to a 10% tax on the early distribution.

The other big question is whether or not expenses incurred while looking for a new job are tax deductible.  Don’t rely on your peers for the answer to this question!  Check with a tax professional or see IRS Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions.  As a rule, you can deduct employment agency fees, resume preparation and travel expenses associated with job interviews.

The Lange team sincerely hopes that unemployment tax issues aren’t something you have to deal with this year.  However, if you find yourself in this situation, you can get detailed information at www.irs.gov.

We also suggest that if you are facing unemployment, but have the means to make a Roth IRA conversion, you give it serious consideration.  You would likely be in the lowest income-tax bracket of your life — the perfect time to make a Roth IRA conversion.  As always, our office is available to help with Roth IRA conversion analysis.

Review of Retire Secure!

Big thanks to Nancy Shurtz, Senior Editor of the Media/Book Products Committee of the ABA’s Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section for her in-depth review of the 2nd edition of Retire Secure! Pay Taxes Later. The entire office was thrilled when we received a copy of the June 2009 edition of Estate Planning Magazine and discovered that Nancy had rated the book highly recommended.

We appreciate that Nancy obviously took the time to thoroughly read the 2nd edition and even make a comparision to the first edition.  She noted that one of the chief differences between the two editions is Jim Lange’s discussion of the family of Roth retirement vehicles which is weighed against traditional retirement vehicles.

If you have a copy of the book and want to take a look at the comparisons between a Roth 401(k) and a traditional 401(k), turn to Chapter 3 starting on page 49.   One of our favorite chapters is Chapter 7 which explains Roth IRA conversions and the big tax law change coming up in 2010 that makes all taxpayers eligible for a Roth IRA conversion regardless of income (begin on page 127).

In her review, Nancy mentions that one of the strengths of the book is the proportion devoted to estate planning issues — including themes like charitable giving, beneficiary and survivorship issues and the role of trusts in estate planning.  She wraps up by saying, “This book is a great read, full of illustrative (and entertaining) stories, but also full of practical advice”.

It’s always nice when your hard work is recognized and we’re thankful for Nancy’s attention.  Nancy is also a chaired professor at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene and you can read her complete review on page 42 of this month’s Estate Planning Magazine.

Keep in mind that if you do not yet own a copy of the 2nd edition of Retire Secure! Pay Taxes Later:  The Key to Making Your Money Last, you can return to the home page and click the Order Now button (you’ll be directed to the order page on amazon.com).

Last Minute Tax Tips

Big thanks to Lange team member Steve Kohman for being a part of our radio show The Lange Money Hour: Where Smart Money Talks on Wednesday night, April 8th on KQV am 1410. Steve is so dedicated to his clients that we had trouble prying him away from the office to do the show.

We’re glad that Steve finally agreed because his tax advice was excellent. He’s a technical machine – answering questions off the top of his head with no notes!

So is it too late to do something about your 2008 tax return?  Not according to Jim and Steve. For starters, you can still fund an IRA for 2008.  Individuals can contribute up to $5,000 — $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.

Steve also pointed out that many tax deductible medical expenses are overlooked.  Double-check to make sure you haven’t forgotten long-term care insurance premiums, prescription expenses, Medicare insurance premiums, prescribed weight-loss programs, therapy and even miscellaneous improvements to your house (adding a wheelchair ramp, for instance).

The tax code can be tricky to navigate. This year, there are several new developments, including The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. First-time home buyers will have until December 1, 2009 to claim a new refundable tax credit for a qualifying home purchase.  There are certain restrictions, so make sure you check with your tax professional.

The Worker, Retiree and Employer Recovery Act of 2008 allows retirees to suspend their Required Minimum Distribution for 2009.  Jim and Steve believe this has created an ideal opportunity for seniors to make a Roth IRA conversion.

What should you do if you realize you’ve made a mistake on your return?  Simply file an amended return.  To make it even easier, you have three years to take care of the paperwork.

If you think you could work night and day on your return and still not get it done by April 15th, you can always file an extension. It’s important to note, though, that it’s an extension to file – not an extension to pay.  Uncle Sam still wants you to estimate your taxes and, if you miscalculate, you could be subject to a penalty and interest.

We don’t know what came over Jim and Steve, but they offered listeners who are PA residents a free tax extension!   The Lange team is offering to take care of all of the paperwork and will even deliver your return hand-stamped. Then, after April 15th (and some much needed R&R), one of the accountants will meet with you and take a closer look at your return. If you’re interested, call the office at 800-387-1129.

Jim and Steve also covered various strategies for Roth IRA conversions, ideas for 2009 tax planning, what documents your tax professional really wants you to bring to the office and which one of them has already finished his personal tax return and which one hasn’t.

If you missed any part of the show, a rebroadcast is set for Sunday, April 12th from 9-10 a.m. ET and the audio will be available on retiresecure.com early next week.

The next show is set for Wednesday, April 22nd from 7-8 p.m. ET with special guest, author and money manager, Paul Merriman. Paul promises to make his prediction on when the economy will recover and explain the common mistakes that investors make.

Tax-Free Growth With Roth IRA Conversions

With another free Roth IRA workshop coming up at the end of March, we thought it would be a good time to review why Roth IRA’s are so important – and why they are about to be even more important for wealthy seniors.

Practically all boomers can enjoy tax-free growth by taking advantage of Roth IRAs, Roth 401(k)s, and Roth IRA conversions. This article focuses on Roth IRA conversions. Two types of boomers can benefit. First are boomers who currently have less than $100,000 of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI.) The second type is most everyone else.

If your MAGI is in excess of $100,000, you will have to wait until 2010 when wealthy Americans will be granted a unique opportunity. For the first time, you will qualify for a Roth IRA conversion regardless of your income. Previously, taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income of $100,000 (or more) were not permitted to make a Roth IRA conversion. The compelling reason to pay attention is that individual IRA owners who have modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $100,000 can enjoy a huge windfall by taking advantage of this conversion opportunity.

The Roth IRA Changes in a Nutshell

For tax years after 2009, the Tax Reconciliation Act permits all taxpayers to make Roth IRA conversions, regardless of income level. If you make the Roth IRA conversion in 2010 you will be given the option to pay all the taxes on the conversion with your 2010 return, or with the returns for the two subsequent years by claiming the conversion income on the 2011 and 2012 returns.

What Happens When You Make a Roth IRA Conversion?

When you make a Roth IRA conversion, you pay income tax on the amount you choose to convert. While my standard advice “to pay taxes later” still represents my strongest recommendation for successful long-term planning, I have always made a “philosophical exception” for Roth IRAs. With respect to Roth IRA conversions, the better advice for many individuals is pay taxes now. While each case will benefit from an individualized analysis on the merits of the conversion, the critical feature of the Roth is that, once the initial taxes are paid on the conversion, income taxes will never be due on the growth, capital gains, dividends, interest, etc. This will be particularly advantageous to high-income taxpayers.

How Will the Roth IRA Benefit the Owner in His or Her Lifetime?

How much better off will you be during your lifetime? Assume you are in the top tax bracket of 35% (earning well over $100,000), you have $1,000,000 in your IRA, and you have the funds to pay the income tax on the Roth IRA conversion from money outside of the IRA. If we assess the advantage of the $1,000,000 conversion, measured in purchasing power, you would be $517,298 better off in 20 years. However, in today’s dollars, as adjusted for 3% annual inflation, this advantage is $286,416. In 30 years you are $725,616 ahead. See the graph below:

What are the benefits to the Roth IRA Owner’s Family?

For the very high income family, the long-term benefit of a Roth IRA conversion is potentially phenomenal. An estimate is that a taxpayer’s family could benefit by as much as twice the amount converted.

Please consider this scenario for the beneficiary. If you die 20 years after you make the conversion and you opt to leave the Roth IRA to your 45-year-old child, who spends it modestly, how much better off will your child be? See the graph below:

By age 85, he is $11,742,363 better off in actual dollars or $1,993,067 in today’s dollars, as adjusted for 3% inflation. This advantage is about twice the original amount converted. Clearly the potential advantages are significant, and for wealthy individuals, the legacy advantage of the Roth is difficult to beat.

For more information about our upcoming free Roth IRA workshop, check out the homepage at retiresecure.com.