Transcript of the podcast:
MARK RIEPE: I'm recording this just a few days before Election Day of 2022, and it seems like a good time to revisit the wisdom of a Founding Father.
In 1798, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy that contained this sentence:
"Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes."
You've probably heard about the inevitability of death and taxes before, but while fact-checking this episode, it isn't clear that Franklin was the first one to point that out.
It turns out that in 1716 a guy by the name of Christopher Bullock wrote a play entitled "The Cobbler of Preston" that contains a similar reference to death and taxes.
I have no idea whether Franklin had read or seen the Bullock play or perhaps the expression pre-dated Bullock and was already in common circulation.
It seems to me that once people reach adulthood, most people figure out the inevitability of death and taxes on their own, and that's why so many people try to avoid them both.
I'm Mark Riepe, and this is Financial Decoder, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It's a show about financial decisions and the cognitive and emotional biases that can cloud our judgment.
The premise of this podcast is that money is an emotional topic, but when you start thinking about money in the context of estate planning and taxes, the emotional dial is turned up to 11.
If you're a fan of the movie Spinal Tap, that reference will make sense.
The reason it's such an emotional quagmire is you've got to deal with:
- control issues,
- the fear of letting go,
- how to divide the money,
- fundamental issues of what's fair,
- confronting your own mortality, and finally,
- the sheer complexity of the tax code.
None of these are easy topics, and so the alternative, procrastination, seems like a good choice.
Fortunately, my guest today, Susan Bober, has been helping Schwab clients deal with these issues every day for almost 25 years. Susan is a Senior wealth strategist in Schwab's Wealth Strategies Group in Indianapolis, and she spends her days helping people with estate planning, wealth preservation, tax efficiency, business succession planning, and lifetime and legacy philanthropy. And she's also an attorney.
Joining me now is Susan Bober. Susan, thanks for being here today.
SUSAN BOBER: Good to be here, Mark. Thanks for having me.
MARK: Susan, so this show is all about the behavioral and psychological factors that can cloud people's judgment and ultimately cost them money. And we wanted to talk to you about one of those inescapable topics, taxes. It's a really big topic, of course. And so we wanted to just focus on taxes within the realm of taxes on gift and estates. And before we dive into that, where do you see that intersection between emotion and taxation pop up when it comes to people planning for, you know, passing on their wealth?
SUSAN: Sure. Well, Mark, the emotional and the psychological issues around gift and estate tax often occur when we're discussing with a client whether to give assets away during their lifetime. So for someone who has exposure to federal estate tax, they can minimize or eliminate the estate tax bill by giving assets away while they're living. So it's this giving assets away where the emotions bubble up.
MARK: You've mentioned to me before that kind of the driving force for some of that is fear and control, or issues related to fear and control. So do you got some examples of just the fear part and what does that look like in real life?
SUSAN: Sure. So, you know, sometimes clients fear, Mark, that if they give assets away while they're living, they'll run out of money. Sometimes the fear has more to do with their kids, and there's a fear around giving assets to children because clients think that it's going to spoil their kids, and maybe their kids won't want to work.
MARK: I think both of those make a lot of sense, and I think all of us can relate to that.
Let's talk a little bit about control. That's a known decision-making bias. People oftentimes will feel much more comfortable if they've got control of a process. So how does that show up in the context that we're talking about today, namely, gift and estate planning?
SUSAN: So sometimes there's a fear that a child won't manage money well if we're giving assets away to them. And the fear can arise if a child, Mark, maybe is a minor, if they're a spendthrift, maybe they're a special needs child, or a child with mental health issues, or a child in active addiction.
MARK: Those are all great examples. And I think one of the things that we see kind of in other contexts is that sometimes different types of emotions get intertwined with each other, and that can make for a pretty potent combination. Have you seen some situations where fear and control, they sort of, you know, kind of intersect with one another and kind of reinforce each other in a negative way?
SUSAN: Oh, sure. Yeah, so, oftentimes, when we have control issues, this is where the parent has created the family wealth, and they are investing the family wealth, and they believe that no one in the family can build and grow the family wealth as well as they can. So there is a fear angle to the control issue, as well.
MARK: Susan, you mentioned these fear and control issues, and it kind of occurred to me that especially with, you know, extended life spans, and in some cases we're talking about, you know, adult children who are, you know, middle-aged at least. So do you have any kind of real-life examples or stories of people who have kind of been dealing with these fear and control issues, and how they were able to get past it and resolve the situation?
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, so, Mark, I think probably, you know, a good illustration, a good story around that, I was talking with one of our Schwab financial consultants a few weeks ago, and they mentioned to me that they had a client with, you know, $100 million of wealth, and they're 90 years old, but they're not ready to give assets to their kids yet. You know, I think that's an example, an extreme example, maybe, of where fear and also control has come in to … you know, as a detriment to the family, because, clearly, these assets have not been given away in prior years. You know, the client hasn't used the annual exclusion gift that they could have been using for the last 10 or 20 or 30 or more years. And so in the end, what's going to happen is that the estate tax bill is going to be greater than it would have been otherwise. So it's just sad to see when the emotions, the fear and the control take over a client, and they sort of take over, right, this ability to just make kind of good sound financial decisions. So an extreme example, but it happens like that sometimes.
MARK: Yeah. Well, the consequences, as you pointed out, you know, the money is going to go somewhere, and if you're not … if you don't take advantage of some of these strategies, the money is just going to end up going to the government.
SUSAN: Exactly, because, you know, when we're, you know, thinking about how to give assets away, one of the things that we talk to clients about is really there's only three places where our money can go when we're not here any longer, and we can think about them as buckets if we want to. That sometimes helps clients, I think, to, you know, provide a little bit of imagery. So we have three buckets. The first bucket is our family, people. It's our family. It's children. It's grandchildren. It's friends. It's other relatives. But people. We can give to people. The second bucket is charity. We can give to charity. But the third bucket is taxing authorities. It's the U.S. Treasury. It's the federal estate tax bill goes into that third bucket.
And so if we can get in front of a client early enough, we can help them plan out those three buckets so that the estate plan falls out the way that they intend, and the wealth transfer strategies fall out the way that they intend. Yeah, just really important to have those conversations as soon as possible.
MARK: Yeah, and I think that's kind of the essence of the planning process, is just to … using your expertise to lay out for the client what are the consequences of various decisions or combination of decisions to make it really come to life for them in a way that maybe they couldn't have imagined if they were just thinking about it on their own. Is that a fair statement?
SUSAN: Oh, very fair, yeah. Again, we're the professionals. This is what we do professionally, and we can certainly bring that to bear for our clients. If they'll, you know, just let us know that it's a conversation that they would like to have, we're certainly willing to, you know, get the conversation started with them.
MARK: So these are some, you know, real situations that people are dealing with, and we try to … you know, as much as possible, we try to focus on solutions on this podcast. And since you've been having these conversations for many years with clients, how do you fix these problems? Maybe let's start out with fear of running out of money. In other words, you avoid giving now because you're afraid of running out of money. What are you telling people when they raise that as an issue?
SUSAN: So, Mark, the fear and control issues can be neutralized so that clients are making sound financial decisions based on facts and not feelings. So to neutralize the fear of running out of money, oftentimes we'll have the Schwab financial consultant or the wealth advisor run a financial plan for the client so they can see that they can't run out of money. And seeing the math of the financial plan can help clients get comfortable with giving assets away to reduce the estate tax bill.
MARK: What about some of the control issues that you mentioned that are … really get down to it about the parent not trusting the child. What do you do about that?
SUSAN: Yes, so to neutralize the fear of spoiling a child or fear of a child not managing money well, we can gift assets to a child in an irrevocable trust. And when we have a trust, the trustee of the trust will follow the client's instructions for how to use and pay out the trust property for the child. The child doesn't get to spend trust assets, so the trustee will make those decisions. And knowing that the trustee will be in charge can help clients get comfortable with giving assets away to their kids in a trust to reduce the estate tax bill.
MARK: We started this conversation out by talking about the tax benefits of giving away during one's life, as opposed to waiting afterwards. How do you bring that up into the conversation?
SUSAN: Yeah, so to neutralize control issues, we might estimate the estate tax bill for a client so that they can understand the tax savings to them and to their families of gifting during lifetime. And we can also present offers that we have here at Schwab where a child might be able to learn about investing, you know, building a portfolio, maybe asset allocation and the like, so that a parent is more comfortable giving assets away to a child if they know that they're sort of learning how to invest well.
MARK: One of the difficulties I think people have with investing, financial planning, wealth management, whatever you want to call it, is, you know, there's a whole lot of terminology around it which can be pretty daunting, and a key concept that people need to understand is this idea of annual exclusion giving. Can you explain what that's all about and why it matters?
SUSAN: So, Mark, the annual exclusion gifting is sort of our first strategy out of the starting gate for reducing any future estate tax bill. So everyone may give away as much as $16,000 in 2022. That amount increases to 17,000 in 2023. So the amount in 2022 is 16,000. Clients can give that, the annual exclusion amount, each year to as many people as they want. When clients make annual exclusion gifts, they are depleting their assets but not using gift and estate exemption. And whenever clients can deplete their assets and not use exemption, they have reduced any future estate tax bill. So, in essence, the $16,000 is free money each year per person to take off the table. 16,000 doesn't seem impactful, but it's impactful over time and powerful when the family grows, when kids marry and kids have kids, grandkids.
But the issue can become giving it away.
If we have 10 family members … let's just use 10; we can do easy math with 10. If we have 10 family members that we want to give the annual exclusion gift to. For example, maybe we've got two kids, each of our kids are married, and they each have three kids, so they each have three grandkids for us, six grandkids total. Then we can give $16,000 each year to each of our 10 family members. That's $160,000. And if we're married, our spouse can give another $16,000 each year to each of our 10 family members. That's another $160,000. So all totaled in this example, these spouses, together, can give $320,000 each year to these 10 people—the kids, their kids' spouses, their grandkids—such that if we do that year in year out, after three years, we've given nearly a million dollars free of gift and estate tax. If we do that for 10 years, we've given 3.2 million free of gift and estate tax, and so on. But there can be a lot of fear and control issues around giving away that kind of money during lifetime.
MARK: Yeah, I think that numerical example really brings that issue to home and really speaks to the importance of planning this stuff out and showing people projections.
But, you know, you've got to get people started in the process, right? And another decision-making bias we've talked about before on past shows is procrastination. You know, and, certainly, this is a topic that I think a lot of people just don't want to deal with it. And I suspect that maybe one of the reasons why people put off having these discussions with their family members or with an advisor, it could be the same reason that a lot of people don't have wills—they just don't like thinking about death. Is that something you see when you're, again, working with real people?
SUSAN: Oh, absolutely. You know, this is hard stuff. It's hard to think about. It's hard to talk about. It makes us very uncomfortable. So, oftentimes, clients are in denial. You know, the expectation is that when the day starts, we'll get tucked into bed at night, and it usually happens like that. But every now and then, the moon and stars misalign, and someone doesn't get tucked in. So often when a close family member or close friend dies unexpectedly, this prompts clients to finally meet with an attorney to create their will and maybe even start gifting. You know, if it happens to someone close to us, it becomes more real, and a client begins to change their thinking away from denial to, "If it can happen to them, it can happen to me."
MARK: I want to go back to that example you just gave earlier about, you know, if you have one kid, two kids, and they start to have grandkids. And that got me thinking, what do you do when you have situations where you've got multiple children, or let's maybe generalize it, multiple heirs, what kind of issues do you see there in terms of giving during life versus a bequest, as opposed to just the magnitude and how the dollars seem to add up?
SUSAN: Yeah. So most commonly parents give equally to their kids during life and at death, but there can be exceptions to that.
MARK: Maybe let's talk … you know, kind of take those one at a time, maybe starting with the first one. What kind of exceptions do you see, you know, for lifetime giving?
SUSAN: Yeah. So if parents give unequally during lifetime, often they're trying to help out a child who needs help financially, maybe a child who is buying their first home, maybe a child buying a home in an expensive housing market, maybe helping a child with medical issues, or even a child who maybe has a special needs child, a special needs grandchild that needs the additional financial help.
MARK: What about after life then—what's driving parents to divide the money up equally, you know, after they've passed on?
SUSAN: Yeah, if parents give unequally at death, often they're trying to equalize kids with very divergent financial means. So maybe a child has become wildly successful financially, or maybe they married someone who has become wildly successful financially, and the other children are kind of average financially or maybe less than average. So parents might give more to the average child and less or nothing to the financially successful child.
MARK: I suspect listeners probably all have experienced some of these situations or heard about some of these situations from, you know, friends and maybe other family members, where this, you know, unequal treatment, you know, it's easy to imagine situations in which this generates some problems. So what advice do you have to prevent that and head that off at the pass, so to speak?
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, if parents give unequally, I encourage them to discuss this with their child, so that their financially successful child understands and is reassured that mom and dad love them just as much as the other siblings. I also mentioned that fortunes can be made and lost. You never really know if your financially average child might just win the lottery or the financially successful child might just lose their business or health or investments, or there might be a divorce. So the parent-child emotional bond is so strong, I'm concerned that deep down in a child's heart of hearts, if Mom and Dad give more to another sibling that it will feel like Mom and Dad didn't love me as much. Mom and Dad loved my sibling more. So, again, feelings aren't facts, but, wow, that might cause emotional pain for a lifetime for a child who received less. So I'd just caution parents about that and suggest that they really give that a great deal of thought and a great deal of discussion with the child that's receiving less.
MARK: Yeah, those are big decisions, and certainly one you don't want to make on a whim. It's certainly something you want to really think through, you know, the ramifications for that. Another good reason to plan this stuff ahead of time.
Unfortunately, another topic here I've got on my list is divorce. You know, it's fairly common these days. But what should people keep in mind in that kind of situation about giving their children assets? And what about if their kids end up getting divorced? What kind of complications does that interject into the situation?
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, so maybe a couple things there. I think if a child has not yet married that a parent, you know, they can ask their child … you can certainly ask, right? We can ask our children to obtain a prenuptial agreement prior to marriage to protect family legacy wealth from divorce. I would say if this is the expectation, then begin that conversation with your child well before they might make a decision to marry. If a child has already married without a prenuptial agreement, without a prenup, then parents might want to leave family legacy assets in an irrevocable trust for their child and then discuss with their attorney how the attorney suggests the provisions of the trust should be written to make the trust as least vulnerable as possible to divorce. And that might differ from state to state.
MARK: Most of the examples we've been thinking about, I think, implicitly, we've been talking about adult children, but what if the child or the heir in someone's estate and will is a minor? What are the options that the parents need to be considering in those situations?
SUSAN: Yeah. So, Mark, there are basically three options if we're giving to a minor, and likely the amount and the purpose of the assets will dictate. Assets can be left to a minor child in a custodial account, in a 529 college savings plan, or in an irrevocable trust. So unless the amount is small or the amount is specifically for college costs, then we're probably looking at a trust for the child. And then we direct the trustee of the trust to pay for the things we want the trustee to pay for. And, oftentimes, we might ask the trustee to pay for health, education, maintenance, support, maybe the down payment on a home after they finish college. We might want the trustee to use trust property to get the child started in a business or a profession or any other sort of purpose, you know, that the parent would want the trustee to use trust property for. The parent gets to customize the instructions to the trustee.
MARK: You mentioned, Susan, you mentioned the house there, and it just occurred to me that, you know, for many people, actually, the house is the bulk of their wealth. So what about giving someone, you know, the home or other property? Are there special considerations there that, you know, kind of differ from, I guess, what we might call financial assets?
SUSAN: Sure. Well, you know what? Thanks for asking that. Clients often believe that's a really good idea, and it's probably a bad idea, and for two reasons.
So kind of, firstly, you know, if there's significant appreciation in the value of the house, clients want a full step up in basis at death on the home. But if a child owns the home, too, then the portion that the child owns does not get the step-up basis at the parent's death. So a better idea is to have a child named as an agent under a durable power of attorney, the financial power of attorney, that allows the child to transact business on the house.
Also, secondly, gifting our child part or all of our home makes our home vulnerable to our child's creditors, like a judgment type creditor. So if our child is sued, the other person wins, they have a million-dollar judgment, and they go collecting the million dollars from our child, and our child doesn't really have other assets, oh, but our child owns our home, that's how our house can become vulnerable to our child's creditors.
So, again, you know, it's risky to give a child part of our house by putting them on the deed.
MARK: Yeah, those are great examples. There's a saying that getting started is half the battle, and, you know, as I've gotten older, I think that saying has just got a lot of wisdom in it and is so accurate in so many situations. So much effort takes … you know, is expended just to getting going, and then once the process starts, you know, it moves along pretty well. So do you have any advice about how to help someone who is reticent to really think about these end of life issues, to really start taking steps now to prepare their estate?
SUSAN: Sure. So, you know, oftentimes, creating an estate plan seems really big and overwhelming to our clients. It's very confusing to them because, you know, there's no reason why they would know how to do it. It's not their profession. Clients don't know what documents they need, why they need them, what the documents do. Clients don't understand their options for designing their estate plan. And sometimes clients don't even know who they want to leave assets to. So having a conversation with a member of my team, the Wealth Strategies Group, is a great way to get prepared for meeting with their estate-planning attorney. And, oftentimes, Mark, when we have those kinds of conversations with our clients, they come away feeling so much relief. You know, we hear them say things like, "Oh, thank you so much. Now I get it. I understand it. It's manageable. I can do that." And so we really can give them, you know, the confidence to get the will written.
MARK: Yeah, these are … you know, just like you said, these are situations where there's a certain amount of expertise that's required. You don't have to do it all yourself. You can get help.
I want to go back to some of the tax issues that we were talking about before. We talked about annual exclusion giving, but are there any other tax issues with planning that people can start implementing now in order to possibly reduce their tax burden later on?
SUSAN: Yeah, so the two quick ones that I would add actually go along with the annual exclusion, and they are the education exclusion and the medical exclusion.
The education exclusion allows us to pay an unlimited amount of anyone's tuition bill as long as we pay it directly to the provider, the school. And if we do that, that gets assets out of our gross estate. It doesn't use exemption doing it, so we've reduced any future estate tax bill.
Medical exclusion allows us to pay the unlimited amount of anyone's medical bill directly to the provider, doctor or hospital. If we do that, we have gotten assets out of our gross estate, not used the exemption. We've reduced the future estate tax bill.
So those three exclusions, we use them together, the annual exclusion, the education exclusion, the medical exclusion. That's kind of the first thing that we use. But there are other wealth transfer strategies that can reduce the future estate tax bill. You know, we've touched on the three exclusions, but there are a number of strategies for moving assets out of our gross estate now in order to reduce any future estate tax bill. So clients should discuss this with their Schwab financial consultant or wealth advisor who can make the referral for a conversation, again, to my team, the Wealth Strategies Group.
MARK: Susan, last question for you. As we're recording this, it's late 2022. Are there any tax deadlines that people need to be aware of and make sure they kind of get done what they need to get done before those deadlines hit?
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, so we've been talking about annual exclusion gifting, so let's start there. That needs to be done before year-end, December 31st. And a quick note about that. If we're going to be writing checks to kids and grandkids, those checks have to clear our accounts in the year 2022 for it to be considered a 2022 annual exclusion gift. If we give it in 2022 and the check doesn't clear until 2023, then it's a 2023 gift. So just something to be aware of. Charitable giving needs to be done before year-end. Roth conversions before year-end. Tax-loss harvesting before year-end. Required minimum distributions need to be done before year-end unless you turned 72 in 2022, because if you did, you have until April 1 of next year, 2023, to make your first RMD. But that's only for the first RMD. Otherwise, RMDs always must be taken by year-end.
And then I would say, also, contributions to retirement accounts. There are different deadlines for those. Most of those are a 12/31 end-of-year deadline, but some of the deadlines for a few of the different retirement plans, some of the deadlines go into 2023, and allow you to make a contribution in 2023 that would be attributable to 2022. So just check with your plan provider so that you understand what the plan deadline is for the contribution for this tax year.
MARK: Susan Bober is a member of Schwab's Wealth Strategies Group. Susan, thanks for providing a lot of great information on a complicated topic.
SUSAN: It was great being here. Thanks, Mark.
MARK: As I mentioned in the introduction to this episode, a stumbling block to getting your estate-planning affairs in order is coming to terms with the fact that, yes, you're going to die.
The contemplation of our own mortality is unpleasant to think about. It's unsettling. So what do we do when confronting unsettling tasks? We avoid them, of course. And our brains help us do that.
Here's a quote from a 2019 study on our contemplation of our own death: "The human mind has an automatic tendency to avoid awareness of its mortality."
That's interesting, but not the surprising part of this study. The authors go on to say that "these results lay out, for the first time, a plausible neural-based mechanism of death denial."
In other words, there are biological mechanisms that are wiring our brains to avoid this topic. I suspect this is also connected to the optimism bias that we've discussed on prior episodes—a bias so pervasive that an estimated 80% of the human population has it.
This bias tells us we have more positive traits than the average person and have more control over the world around us than we actually do.
In addition, and especially relevant for this episode, we think that we're less likely to have bad things happen to us.
Unfortunately, we need to deal with the way the world is and not how we wish it were. We need to break through the grip that procrastination has on us and start planning for the inevitable.
If you've like to hear more about estate planning on this podcast, check out Season 10, Episode 3, "How Can You Stop Procrastinating and Create an Estate Plan?"
More importantly, when you're ready to start thinking in detail about your own situation, you can learn more about trusts and getting started with an estate plan at Schwab.com/EstatePlanning.
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For important disclosures, see the show notes and Schwab.com/FinancialDecoder.
 Liles, Jordan, "Did Ben Franklin Pen the Famous 'Death and Taxes' Quote?" snopes.com, July 20, 2022 / https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/death-and-taxes-quote/
 Bullock, Christopher, The Cobler of Preston, a Farce. As It Is Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, London: S. Bladon, 1767. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/coblerofprestonf00bull.
 Y. Dor-Ziderman, A. Lutz, and A. Goldstein, "Prediction-based neural mechanisms for shielding the self from existential threat," Neuroimage, November 2019.
 Sharot, Tali, "The optimism bias," Current Biology, December 6, 2011, https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(11)01191-2?
 Mudditt, Jessica, "How 'Optimism Bias' Shapes Our Decisions and Futures," bbc.com, April 29, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210427-how-optimism-bias-shapes-our-decisions-and-futures
 Sharot, Tali
Taxes are a big issue for any investor. For people likely to incur federal estate tax, does it make sense to give away assets to family members sooner rather than later? The answer to that question can be fraught with all kinds of psychological and emotional issues. But it's important to contemplate the details of different lifetime gifting strategies if you want to maximize what you leave for your heirs.
To understand more, Mark Riepe speaks with Susan Bober, a director in Schwab's Wealth Strategies Group in Indianapolis. Mark and Susan discuss why the idea of giving money to family members can cause so much fear and anxiety, the annual exclusion gifting strategy, and the importance of finding an advisor you trust.
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