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Take a Cue From the Ultra-Rich on Taxes

Although the estate tax was repealed under the Bush administration, it's expected to reappear next year. The main uncertainty is whether it will apply only to estates valued at more than $3.5 million or whether the ceiling will be raised to $5 million.

The main way to avoid estate taxes -- as well as taxes on gifts of more than $13,000 -- is through trusts. Such financial arrangements mark the clearest difference between wealthy and middle-class tax planning.

"If you're a high net worth individual, trusts appeal to you," Wexler says. That's because they serve two complimentary purposes. They allow rich taxpayers to put money in other people's names, reducing their taxable income, while keeping some control over the money.

"The concept of estate planning is transferring assets in a tax-efficient manner down to the younger generation," says Wexler. "A trust allows you to control the age at which someone gets access to the assets, and also protects those assets from marital issues and creditors."

There's nothing to prevent a middle-class family from setting up a trust, too, but it's usually not worthwhile unless you're looking to safeguard a significant amount of money. "The administrative costs add a layer of complication and cost," says Wexler.

-- Reported by Elizabeth Blackwell in Chicago.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.
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