Advisors worked overtime during the last few weeks and months of 2012, trying to keep as many of their clients as possible from being sucked over the so-called fiscal cliff, when taxes were expected to rocket up across the board after January 1.
“In my last 3 months of 2012, I took in something like 100 new $10 million-plus clients,” says Steve Oshins, an estate lawyer and financial advisor with Oshins & Associates in Las Vegas. “I must have turned away at least 50 high-net-worth clients during that same period of time, and let it be known to a number of attorneys I split clients with not to send me any more.”
Many new clients who came knocking on the doors of planners and estate attorneys late last year wanted help at the eleventh hour in gifting up to $5.12 million before the gift and estate tax exemption was expected to disappear, along with a host of Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire in 2013.
Scramble for Nothing?
But thanks to the Jan. 1 deal in Congress, a lot of the scramble ended up being for naught. The New Year’s Day accord on the American Taxpayer Relief Act ended up extending the gift and estate tax exemption indefinitely -- so clients who tarried on this complex estate planning work won the high-stakes bet that they would have more time.
Even so, many clients who met the deadline now feel relieved they did what needed doing, several planners say.
“I have had had several conversations in the last week or so [in which clients have said], ‘Merry Christmas and thank you so much for all the effort in getting this done -- no matter what Congress comes up with, I feel very comfortable knowing I did the best I could do,’" says Tim Lee, managing director of Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va.
Big, Premature Giveaways
Some advisors expressed relief at no longer having to talk clients out of making bad decisions. “I was amazed at how many people wanted to give away $5 million,” says Steve Oshins’ father and partner in his practice, Richard Oshins.
The Oshins spent the waning days of 2012 trying to convince many of them not to make such a large gift rashly. “A lot of people looked at this $5 million [exemption] as if it was a coupon in their pocket and they needed to use it, even if it didn’t make sense,” Steve Oshins says.
In many cases, Richard Oshins says he advised people with less than $25 million not to give away the full gift amount and risk the security of their own retirements.
For now, Lee thinks politicians in Washington did a good job of rectifying a complex situation.
“I look at it as very positive,” Lee says. “It turned out OK ... but I always feel better knowing we got ahead of [the deadline]. If the ball had broken in the other direction, this could have turned out very differently.”
How Permanent Is Permanent?
Now, however, planners worry that clients who did nothing last year will be lulled into a false sense of security, letting inertia keep them from getting their estates in order.
The description of many exemptions as “permanent” is a misleading characterization, planners think.
“I think that [the bill] is going to cause many wealthy people to do nothing for a while, because they are going to fall into the trap of not understanding what ‘permanent’ really means,” Steve Oshins says. “What it really means is that [the exemptions are] permanent -- until Congress decides to meet on this the next time.”