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    Does The Tax Bill Affect My Estate Planning?

    Just before Christmas, Congress passed House Reconciliation Bill 1—also known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—the largest overhaul of the Federal tax system since Reagan's comprehensive 1986 reform. Many clients are now wondering how the changes might impact them, and whether the legislation might even make their current estate plans unnecessary. 

    The tax bill’s primary impact on estate planning is a dramatic increase in the Federal estate and gift tax exclusion. Prior to the bill, the Federal estate tax exclusion for individuals dying in 2018 was set to be $5,600.000. In other words, anyone dying this year would have been able to pass $5.6M to their heirs, free of Federal estate tax. Though a wholesale repeal of the estate tax was proposed by some groups, Congress instead elected to retain the estate tax, but double the exclusion amount. Therefore, rather than the $5.6M exclusion that was previously on the books, an individual who dies in 2018 can now pass $11,200,000 free of Federal estate tax—or $22,400,000 for a married couple! The Federal gift tax exclusion has been similarly increased, and is also now also $11.2M per individual.  

    On the other hand, Washington State’s estate tax is unchanged, and Washington’s exclusion is $2,193,000 for individuals dying in 2018. Therefore, though the tax bill potentially reduces or even eliminates Federal estate tax exposure for many individuals, effective planning to minimize Washington State estate tax remains a priority. Because the strategies historically used to address Federal estate taxes still apply to Washington State estate taxes going forward, we do not foresee a significant change in the basic structure of estate planning documents for most clients. 

    Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the increase to the Federal estate tax and gift tax exclusion is not permanent. Unlike the reduction in the corporate income tax rate, the provisions relating to individual income taxes are set to expire and will revert to the old exclusion amounts in 2026 without further legislation. Therefore, it is still necessary to consider the old exclusion amounts when doing estate planning, because the lower exclusion amounts very well might return.

    Because of the ongoing need to plan for Washington State estate taxes, and because of the potentially temporary nature of the new Federal estate tax exclusion amounts, we do not believe that the tax bill significantly impacts the need for estate planning. Additionally, a good estate plan also addresses specific needs and situations, appoints crucial fiduciaries, and most importantly provides security and certainty for families—and these concerns all remain despite the recent tax legislation.



    Failed estate plans usually fall into one of two categories: either they are not kept up to date, or they are not done at all. The old saying of “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” may seem trite, but it is certainly true with respect to estate planning. There are several common roadblocks that prevent people from executing and maintaining their estate plan.

    The first roadblock is the fear of making the wrong decision.  Families often put off completing their estate planning because they cannot agree on how to answer the big questions, such as who should serve as guardians or Trustees for their children.  To resolve the resulting paralysis, we help our clients understand that once executed, Wills, Powers of Attorney, and other estate planning documents are easily changed without incurring substantially more legal fees.  Instead of putting off the whole process because of disagreement over one or two components, would it not be better to complete ninety percent of your planning, knowing it can later be “tweaked” to make it absolutely ideal?  We make updates and changes to your estate plan easy and relatively inexpensive.  This gives you the confidence to put a “mostly right” estate plan into place while avoiding the myth that it must be perfect the first time.  Keep in mind that an estate plan which is not done at all is one hundred percent wrong! 

    The second roadblock is complexity. Navigating the changes in your life is difficult, and the complexity of estate planning can be paralyzing.  After all, estate planning involves addressing issues of disability, values, family dynamics, taxes, and death.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by all the different aspects of the process.  To alleviate this roadblock, we break the process down into bite sized pieces using diagrams and easily understandable language.  We then walk our clients through the process step by step, only moving forward when there is both understanding and agreement.

    The third roadblock is the emotional difficulty of a process that is often seen as planning for death. We will help you see that an estate plan does so much more than just plan for death: it addresses many current issues, such as lifetime gifts, educational funding, and minimizing the cost of the care for a disabled family member.  Most importantly, it provides peace and security for you and your loved ones by putting you in charge.  Without an estate plan, all aspects of the administration of your estate, from guardianship of your children to distribution of your assets, will be decided by Washington’s default rules.  Why allow inefficient and unnecessarily complex procedures to compound the emotional loss with a financial one?

    Finally, many people put off completing their estate planning documents because they do not know where to go. Perhaps a traditional firm seems too large and stuffy, or you simply don’t know any local attorneys. No matter where you go for your estate planning, we hope that you can overcome these common roadblocks and get a quality plan in place.  


    A New Vision for Estate Planning

    It may surprise you to know that 50 to 60 percent of Americans do not have any form of estate plan.  Or that well over 50 percent of those who have done an estate plan have not kept it up to date. 

    As estate planning lawyers, we have always prided ourselves on our competency and expertise – perhaps even to a fault.  After all, what good is our expertise if it is not being utilized by those who need it?  Those of us who strive to be at the top of our profession as estate planning lawyers often spend too much time attempting to impress our colleagues with our technical expertise, and not enough time learning how to remove the obstacles that prevent people from establishing and maintaining an estate plan.

    This has long troubled us and is now spurring us to re-think our profession.  Yes, professional competency is necessary, but it is only a starting point.  We are discovering “again” that we really value relationships. Why not make relationships the focus of our practice?

    We have given a great deal of thought and discussion to this issue, resulting in the following vision for Phillips Estate Law:

    As estate planning lawyers, we strive to create life-long relationships with our clients as their trusted advisors. Through such a relationship, we endeavor to bring value to our clients by providing peace, security, and control before they experience an event that takes it all away.  Thus, we view a Will as the beginning of a relationship, not the end.

    Implementing this vision will involve a certain amount of risk as we attempt to provide clearer communication, better teaching, more efficient fee structures, innovative educational practices, proactive processes, and superior use of technology, all designed to help more people put into place and maintain estate plans that will reflect their values, protect and provide for their loved ones, and even pass down their legacy.

    We will be learning as we go, and we will need your feedback to help us discover what works and what does not.