It seems like the world we know has been turned upside down. Whether you are a fan or foe of the Trump candidacy, the simple fact is that we are all now trying to figure out exactly what this will mean to us.
Much has been said of Trump's statements about abolishing the "Death" tax. In most circumstances, these statements are written off as red meat lines thrown out to fire up a base, but have little chance of actually seeing the light of day. We now have the House Speaker on the record as in favor of eliminating the estate tax and a Republican majority in the Senate that is unlikely to stand in the way of significant changes to this unpopular tax. If I were asked 6 months ago about the likelihood of eliminating the estate tax, I would have said that there was virtually no chance. Right now, I would say it is a toss-up.
We should have a better idea by summer what direction things are headed with the many tax questions that are up in the air right now, but right now the question should be, “what is the purpose of estate planning”?
For 99% of the broad population, this may seem like a silly question, as most people simply want to protect their assets and preserve them for the benefit of the next generation. For those families who have accumulated or created significant wealth, this is not such a simple question.
Estate planning for these families is about protecting those assets from taxes & creditors and preserving those assets for the next generations, but it is also about much more. In Spiderman, Peter Parker's grandfather teaches the young superhero "With great power comes great responsibility". To paraphrase that, for families with wealth, with great wealth comes a responsibility for great stewardship.
Success in estate planning is all about passing along the value system of the family, empowering the next generations to achieve their goals and creating a system that leads to fulfilled lives for those generations. This doesn't come easily, it requires work.
We have all seen what failure looks like in estate planning. Failure can be paying too much in tax, but the big fails are when the children or grandchildren are not prepared for the impact of wealth. Fortunes have been lost when that next generation does not understand the pressures that sudden wealth can bring, where incentive systems are turned upside down, where families squabble and sue each other over money, where the fortune that brought happiness and success to the patriarch fails to bring any sense of fulfillment to the succeeding generation.
So what does Trump's presidency mean for estate planning? In all likelihood, if there is a rollback or elimination of the estate tax, then the shift will go to generational transfer planning and education. Great care will be given to how families structure their estates so that they can align the family value system with the desire to see the family benefit from the wealth. Philanthropic strategy will take on a greater and greater role as families use charitable giving as a vehicle to keep the family acting as a central unit.
While it is impossible to predict the future tax rules, human behavior has not changed and the need for proactive estate planning is more important than ever.