Individuals of modest wealth may face significant estate taxes but do not have such a large base of wealth that they can 'afford' to make major lifetime gifts or other transfers to reduce estate taxes. But there are planning techniques that can help. Individuals in the ‘modest‘ wealth category face special hurdles in estate planning. This article will assume that the ‘modest‘ wealth category includes individuals whose net worth exceeds the amount of taxable gifts that may be protected by the unified credit (the equivalent of $1 million and herein referred to as the ‘gift tax exemption‘), but does not exceed approximately $5 million. In general, people of modest wealth may not easily be able to afford to give up significant levels of their net worth during lifetime to achieve estate planning goals. However, the lifetime transfer of wealth is one of the most useful ways to reduce estate taxes. Unlike individuals whose wealth is small enough that it most likely will be protected from tax by reason of credits or exemptions (for 2007, for example, the federal estate tax exemption equivalent is $2 million) or those whose wealth is so large that an achieved lifestyle almost certainly will continue regardless of how much is transferred during lifetime, individuals of modest wealth face a real tension between opportunities to reduce taxes and protect assets from other claims which may arise, on the one hand, and the need to preserve an adequate base of wealth to ensure the maintenance of a current standard of living on the other. The advisor to these individuals should carefully consider which planning steps are most appropriate and what level of transfers the individual reasonably can afford to make. Certainly, different problems and potential solutions will arise for each individual, and the plan must be tailored to each person's unique circumstances and goals. Nonetheless, such individuals need estate and financial planning as much as anyone else does, perhaps even more so. These individuals, in a real sense, cannot afford to ‘lose‘ as much of their wealth to taxes, professional fees, claims, and costs of administration as more wealthy people can. This article will focus on estate planning techniques that may be particularly useful to individuals in the modest wealth category.
Bridget J. Crawford, Jonathan G. Blattmachr & Georgiana J. Slade, Estate Planning for Persons with Less than $5 Million, 33 J. Pension Plan. & Compliance 36 (2007), available at http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/lawfaculty/481/.