Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Do the Presidential Candidates think like you do?

Category: Miscellaneous Musings

Much of what I blog about here is subject to the whims of Congress and the President, particularly in the area of Taxation and Elder Law. One of the greatest things about our country is that we have the opportunity every 4 years to say who should be the President who will represent us. All of the candidates have offered positions on a variety of issues - the question is, which candidates represent your opinion on important issues?

On Select a Candidate, you can use a non-political tool to see which candidates most closely align their positions with your desires. You may be surprised at who best represents you. If you are, use your voice to make your position heard. There will be rallies around the nation, in person and online, that give us, the voters, the opportunity to tell the presidential candidates what we want in our most important representative.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Presidential Candidates on Taxes - A look at what might be

Category: Tax Law and Planning,

A look at positions of some of the 2008 presidential candidates on taxes. Note that there is no real secret to tax laws - its like dieting where you eat less and exercise more to lose weight. Either spend less and to tax less, or tax more to spend more. Some of the proposals courtesy of the Associated Press:


_New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Tax proposals are so far focused on universal health care plan, including tax credits to make insurance more affordable. Also, tax a portion of health insurance benefits provided to workers making more than $250,000 and repeal some of President Bush's tax cuts for them.

_Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: For middle and low-income people, set up tax-free savings accounts and have government match the first $500 in savings, expand earned-income and child and dependent care tax credits, and exempt the first $250 of investment income from capital gains taxes. Raise rate on capital gains tax to 28 percent from 15 percent for those making over $250,000. Repeal the Bush tax cuts for families making over $200,000. Tax cuts to be paid for by the tax increases on wealthier Americans.

_Illinois Sen. Barack Obama: About $80 billion in tax breaks mainly for low-income workers and the elderly, including tax credit worth up to $500 a person to offset payroll taxes and elimination of tax-filing requirement for older workers making under $50,000. A mortgage-interest credit could be used by lower-income homeowners who do not take the mortgage interest deduction because they do not itemize their taxes. Raise corporate taxes and the top rate on capital gains and dividends to pay for the cuts.

_Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: Make permanent the Bush tax cuts that expire in 2010 and eliminate the inheritance tax. Also, hold the line on marginal tax rates or reduce them, and establish a permanent child tax credit. Index the alternative minimum tax to inflation. Income tax deduction of $7,500 per taxpayer to defray health insurance costs. Cost breakdowns not spelled out.

_Arizona Sen. John McCain: Opposed some of Bush's tax cuts because they were not wedded to spending cuts, now says the tax cuts should be made permanent. Eliminate alternative minimum tax.

_Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: Tax breaks to those earning less than $200,000, including eliminating capital gains, interest and dividend taxes for most. Estimated cost of $32 billion a year to be paid in part by keeping growth of non-defense spending under inflation rate. Details not spelled out. Also, make permanent the Bush tax cuts that expire in 2010 and eliminate estate tax.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Family Contracts to Make Siblings Get Along for the Care of Aging Parents

Category: Elder Law

One of the biggest issues an Elder Law attorney faces is not how to plan for their elderly clients to reach their goals, but how to implement the plan with the dynamics of the family. Gender equalization not-withstanding, daughters (and daughters-in-law) bear most of the brunt of caregiving. Often times there are large financial differences between children, and accompanying differences in financial outlook and responsibility. And all of this occurs in the context of families - where resentments from years past have lingered or even festered.

What's an Elder Law attorney to do? Many times asset protection planning for seniors involves a transfer of assets. How can assets be transferred if children, or their spouses, do not appear trustworthy to the other siblings involved? Or, if one child feels he or she "deserves" more?

One solution that I commonly employ is for a transfer to be made to a trust, not to any one or more children outright. A group of the children, or a third party, can then act as a Trustee to safeguard the assets from waste, greed, etc. during the seniors lifetime, and then distribute them evenly at death.

Another creative solution I have been reading about is a "Sibling Contract". This came to my attention through the Louisiana Estate Planning and Elder Law Blog. In her post she cites a well done article "Caring for Pops: Put it in writing - Lawyer suggests sibling contract to avoid court case over aging parents" out of the Dallas Morning News, where Dallas lawyer Walter Hofheinz discusses how Sibling Contracts have evolved in his practice to avoid costly guardianship and probate disputes.
First came divorce agreements. Then there were prenuptial agreements. Now get ready for sibling agreements.

Dallas lawyer Walter Hofheinz knows from specializing in estate planning and probate law for 23 years that conflicts can erupt in even the most loving families when it's time to figure out how to care for an aging parent. Issues that should have been decided around the kitchen table escalate into disputes fought out in lawyers' offices and court. To manage that familial strife, Mr. Hofheinz has come up with what he calls a "memorandum of understanding" between siblings. The contract spells out each adult child's responsibilities and holds that person accountable for them.

"Ideally, an older person tells his children how he wants to be cared for, but that rarely happens," he said. Instead, the topic never gets discussed, and often something bad happens – the parent has a stroke, or his mind starts to fail. Suddenly, brothers and sisters argue over where Dad will live, how his savings will be spent and even how he will die.

"A little planning can avoid a lot of animosity and a lot of money in attorney fees on the back end," Mr. Hofheinz said.

Elder-law experts say the time is ripe for ideas like the Dallas lawyer's, because they're seeing more sibling disagreements grow into bitterly fought guardianship battles that land in probate courts and decimate families.

Read Entire Article Here

A Sibling Contract looks to be a necessary tool to get all the parties on the same page and focused on the real issue - how to best help the people who brought them into this world and raised them, instead of how to better themselves or get even for the slight that occurred 30 years ago. (guilt intended)


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Friday, September 07, 2007

Credit Crunch and the Mortgage Industry - How did this happen?

Category: Financial Planning

Courtesy of Valerie & Carolyn Messina at Millenia Mortgage (973-575-5557) an excellent summary, in plain English, about how we got to where we are in the mortgage industry today. They take us back 8 years so the lightbulb will go off about how the mortgage industry created the credit crunch of today.

The TRUTH about what’s happening in the mortgage industry today!

It seems obvious to state that much is happening within the mortgage industry of late. We get an incredible amount of emails and questions each day about the state of our industry, so we thought we would take a few minutes to try my best to break down what has occurred and focus a little on how Valerie and I are situated and going to adjust to this rapidly changing environment.

Basically, to understand what has occurred we have to go back more than 8 years. It all started in the late 90's with the crash. Following the bursting of the tech bubble, there was a filtering of funds out of stocks into other investment tools in search of higher returns. The best opportunity for a significant increase of returns was to invest in the real estate market, which remained rather stagnate since the early 90's. So, money began pouring out of the stock market to the real estate marked in record amounts. People began buying speculatively, investing in properties, holding them a few months, and selling them for a quick profit.

Then a tragic day in the history of the United States happened; after September 11th, the economy basically nose-dived into a recession. This prompted the Federal Reserve, trying to spur economic growth, to begin lowering the Fed Funds rate which ultimately leveled off at an unprecedented level of 1% in 2003. This led to the lowest rates in the mortgage industry in 40 years. What this did was further exacerbate the already rising interest in the real estate and mortgage market. Mortgage volume hit an all time high in 2003 with 3.8 trillion dollars funded, well above the original high set in 1998 of 1.8 trillion in mortgages.

We obviously know what happened next, the interest in the real estate market exploded. Mortgage rates were incredibly low, home prices were rising, and the tidal wave that was to later occur was nothing more than a ripple in the oceans current. Toward the end of the record year in 2003, spending became robust and the fear of inflation began to rise. With an overnight rate as low as 1% in 2003, an exorbitant amount of liquidity made its way to the hands of every individual and corporation who wanted to borrow money, flooding the market with dollars; the obvious risk of inflation grew.

As the fear of inflation, rose so did long term interest rates hedging themselves against the imminent possibility of the Federal Reserve increasing the Funds rate. As this fear of inflation rose, and with it interest rates, the record volume of 2003 declined. As the worries of declining volume spread throughout the mortgage industry, another problem began to emerge. An unprecedented pricing war began in 2004 and would eventually last almost 30 months. Amidst it the Federal Reserve, fearing an overheated economy, would begin increasing the Fed Funds rate in what would amount to be 17 times ending in mid 2006 at 5.25%.

Despite their attempt to raise long-term rates to offset the over-stimulated sector, rates remained historically low. This may have been due to an incredible surge of foreign investment in our long term treasuries helping to keep yields lower; but what really affected mortgage rates on the street was the battle of price occurring between lenders. To fight for the declining mortgage volume, lenders cut their margins, narrowed their credit spreads, and simply began losing money. There were record losses now coming from most lenders.

However, midway through 2005, an uprising began. Shareholders of publicly traded banks and owners of private institutions decided they could no longer accept this dismal level of return on investment. Mortgage prices needed to rise to sustain growth, especially as volume continued to decline. This adjustment to price was the
first step toward the eventual collapse we are currently seeing today.

As banks and mortgage companies raised their price to gain profitability, they sought a way to stay competitive. Without price to drive growth, they leaned towards credit. So what began as a price war, now became a credit war. Every bank and mortgage institution began relaxing their credit standards, some worse than others. Stated Income, No Documentation, No Money Down, Lower FICO requirements, No Reserve Requirements… the list goes on and on. Instead of gaining market share by aggressively pricing their mortgage products, they made a ludicrous, but conscious, decision to ease their guidelines. This led to the worst lending practices ever seen in the mortgage industry. All universal laws of mortgage lending were broken.

To think that our industry was going to lend a 1st time home buyer with 520 credit score 100% of the value of their home and ask for stated or no documentation regarding their income or assets was insane. To expect this borrower not to default was ridiculous. Now here we are 2 years after the credit war began. 145 mortgage lenders have disappeared since 2006, 11 hedge funds have imploded in the last several months as well as two European Banks. There are 1.7 million foreclosures expected just this year compared to 300,000 to 500,000 usually seen in a normal market.

The expectations are that the peak in foreclosures will not occur until early 2008. So the record number of defaults has led to the ominous amount of foreclosures, which has led to increased underwriting standards, a rapid change to guidelines, tightening of liquidity and on and on and on and on.


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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

House Bill to Modify Estate Tax

Category: Estate and Inheritance Tax

Courtesy of, the House has introduced a bill to modify the federal estate tax as follows:

With the estate tax set to expire in 2010, a bipartisan bill (H.R. 3170, click here. ) has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would increase the estate tax exemption by $250,000 every year from 2009, when the exemption is set to be $3.5 million, until 2015, at which point the exemption would have increased to $5 million. From 2015 on the exemption would rise at the rate of inflation.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Harry Mitchell (D-AZ) and Christopher Shays (R-CT),
would also create two tax rates: 15 percent for estates worth $25 million and
less and 30 percent for estates worth more than $25 million. Under current law,
the top tax rate will be 45 percent in 2009.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. Senate voted 51-41 to reaffirm its support for a budget resolution that establishes the current-law 2009 estate tax rules through 2012.

While this would simplify matters from a certainty viewpoint (it is very difficult to do planning for a tax code with an expiration date), my initial reaction is concern about the rates. When a person dies, capital gains are essentially eliminated through IRC Sec. 1014 where there is a "step-up" in basis - the heirs basis is date of death value; any gains accumulated during the decedent's lifetime are wiped out. If the estate tax rate of 15% is lower then the capital gains tax rate (currently 15%, but again scheduled to expire), the economic disincentive to sell stock during your lifetime continues. Perhaps if the desire is to lower the estate tax rate, it would make sense to have it match the capital gains tax rate so that death essentially becomes a realization event for tax purposes.


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