Major Issues for Minors: Protecting Minors in Trusts and Estates

While growing up, many children express a desire to receive adult rights and responsibilities long before they are ready for them or are legally permitted to have them. In an estate planning context, a properly executed estate plan does it’s best to slowly shift the benefit and burden of managing funds from an adult fiduciary to a minor or younger adult beneficiary. Where actual minors are involved and there is no estate plan to guide this transition, both the courts and financial institutions have their mechanisms to protect children and their assets.

In the New York Surrogate’s Court, a minor child who becomes a party to estate administration as a beneficiary, legatee or other role will often have court appointed representative known as a guardian ad litem.   Guardians ad litem are typically attorneys or other competent adults who stand in for the minor child or children and represent their interests. In an estate administration, the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) assures that decisions made by adult fiduciaries are fairly handled as it relates to the children.

As the GAL’s representation draws to a close, he or she will right a report for the court of their findings. When there is a question about an aspect of estate administration, the GAL may intervene or object on the child’s behalf in the same capacity as an adult beneficiary. The GAL is compensated for their work and those funds often come directly from the assets left to the minor children.

On the financial side of things, financial institutions also seek to protect minors who have money set aside for them. This is regulated in New York by the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) and allows an adult (a parent or guardian) to serve in a custodial role over a minor’s account. Each account must benefit a single minor and pooled accounts for multiple children are not allowed.

During the period of minority, the custodian of the account is entrusted to ensure the monies are protected. The custodial role terminates at one of three times: at age 18 if the account creator dictates that the account is to terminate at the age, at age 21 if the account creator is silent on termination or upon the death of the minor before termination. If the custodian dies prior to the termination of the custodial account, a new custodian will be appointed.   Successor custodians are often not named, so a court appointment is often necessary.

These fail safe protections do not take the place of an estate plan; in fact, relying on them can cause extra costs, waste due to a child receiving funds at too young an age or extra administrative time and costs. Protecting minors and their assets is best done by a minor’s parent and they have the power to do so in a more effective, efficient and inexpensive manner.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

You Don’t Need An Angel, You Just Need a Guardian

One of the key decisions families with minor children have to make when setting up an estate plan is who will serve as the guardian of those children if both parents die prior to the children reach 18 years old.   The probability of a guardianship provision being enforced is rare, but not impossible. For that reason, it is essential that such a decision be made long before it can become an issue.

Guardianship can mean different things depending on who the ‘ward’ or person needing care is and why they need such care.   For persons with mental or physical disabilities or who lack capacity to care for themselves, an interested party will typically petition the court to allow them to take control of another person’s life. Guardianship for minors differs on several fronts. First, it has an expiration date built in (when the minor turns 18). Second, depending on the type of guardianship sought, it can affect a minor’s entire life or just the assets they may have. Finally, the proof needed to establish guardianship is significantly less than a guardianship based on incapacity or disability.

A guardian of a minor may be appointed to care for the minor’s person, property or both.   Guardianship of a person deals with the care of the actual minor. In most situations, the minor would live with the appointed guardian and the guardian would be responsible for ensuring the proper care of the child. Guardianship of property is specific to assets that are set aside for or owned by a minor child. This can include inherited property, gifts or other assets that require adult supervision. Guardians of property serve alongside the Surrogate’s Court as being responsible for the assets of the minor. On a minor’s 18th birthday, the assets become the direct property of the former minor.

The selection process for choosing a guardian can be fraught with familial issues, concerns about making the correct choice and anxiety about whether anyone can care for a child the way their parents can.   As mentioned above, it is a rare occurrence when these provisions actually get enforced.   When choosing a guardian, some factors to consider include the potential guardians values and beliefs and how they compare to your own; financial stability and responsibility; availability to care for a child; and if the guardian has their own children, whether the care of additional children would create an undue burden on your selected guardian.

It is not easy to think of someone other than yourself or your spouse/partner raising your child and many clients delay completing their estate planning work because of their anxiety over this issue. The alternative is relying on the state to name the right person as guardian without any guidance from the minor’s parents. It is far better to go through the small discomfort yourself than to leave your children with potentially greater issues if the wrong guardian is chosen.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

 

Where There is No Will, Kin Controls. But, Who is Your Kin?

The importance of having a last will and testament or a testamentary substitute has been repeatedly stated here and elsewhere. Failure to set up your own estate plan leaves the control of your estate to the default rules of the state specific intestacy statute. In some situations, the end result may not be horrible. For families with an uncomplicated family lineage, the pattern of inheritance will not likely stray from what most people put in place in a will. But, with more complicated families with children of multiple marriages, children born outside of marriage or the closest relatives being persons other than spouses and children, the path to completing an estate administration becomes much more complicated.

Children

Under the intestacy statute, children born of a marriage and those born outside a marriage are not treated the same. Marital children will automatically be considered heirs of a deceased individual.   On the other hand, children born outside of a marriage (now called “non-marital” children under the New York Estates Powers & Trusts Law) and their rights of inheritance will depend on whether the deceased parent is a mother or father.   Non-marital children of a mother, like marital children, automatically inherit from their mothers.

This is not the case with inheritance from a child’s father.   To inherit from a non-marital father, a child must prove one or more of the following: that paternity was established by an Order of Filiation; the mother and father filed an acknowledgment of paternity; the father signed another document acknowledging paternity; or paternity is established by “clear and convincing evidence”. “Clear and convincing evidence” can include genetic information or evidence that the father “openly and notoriously” acknowledged the child as his own.   The latter can be proven by a variety acts taken by the father and shown in an affidavit of an uninterested party.

It should be noted that the above applies only to biological and adopted children; foster children and stepchildren are not considered children for purposes of intestate inheritance.

More Distant Relatives

In some intestate estates, neither a spouse nor children are living or exist. The estate of such decedents would then pass to the closest class of relatives still living.   New York intestacy law considers, in order, grandchildren, great grandchildren, parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, grandparents, 1st cousins and 1st cousins once removed as possible relative classes that can inherit an intestate estate.

Once the closest class of relatives is established, the claiming relative(s) must prove their relationship to the decedent by common blood relative. A family tree showing that either all higher classes of relatives are deceased or do not exist must be created and evidence such as birth, death and marriage records must be presented. Beyond proving kinship, a claiming relative must show that no other relatives exist of a higher or equal level of relationship. If there is a dispute as to who is and who is entitled to inherit, the court may order a kinship hearing.

In a probate proceeding (an estate administration proceeding where a will is submitted to the court), most of these steps are unnecessary. Sufficient notification of all distributees (persons who would inherit property under intestacy) and those listed in the decedent’s will shall suffice the court.   The less complex nature of a probate proceeding to an intestate proceeding provides an additional benefit to preparing an estate plan rather than leaving your estate to the complexities of intestacy.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

 

Summer’s Here, And the Time Is Right, For Getting Your Estate Plan in Order!

Over the next few weeks, summer will usher in a fun-filled, relaxing three-month period where kids can say goodbye to their studies for the time being and adults can travel and enjoy everything the season has to offer. It would seem odd to think of this as the perfect time to work on your estate plan; in fact, with many companies offering summer hours and workloads generally lightening during the warm months, it is the perfect time to consider to get your estate plan in proper shape.

Where do you start? It all depends on what you’ve already done, but here are ten action items for you to consider while you’re making your vacation and travel plans:

  1. Have your initial planning documents drafted. You’ve been busy all year…and the year before that…and the year before that.   Taking the first step in getting your estate planning prepared may be the hardest, but once you begin, the process can be completed quickly and painlessly.   Initial documents include a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy/living will.

 

  1. Review your existing documents to ensure they still fit your needs. Having an initial plan in place puts you ahead of most people, but that is only the starting point of the estate planning process.   Family, assets and health changes can affect what your wishes are. If you haven’t reviewed your documents recently, take the time to speak with your attorney to ensure that your wishes and intentions are still reflected in your documents.

 

  1. Fund your irrevocable and revocable trusts. Clients often forget that setting up a trust is a two-stage process.   First, the trust document is drafted to express how it will work and who will benefit from the assets. Second, the assets must be transferred into the trust. In particular, with irrevocable trusts, transfers should be made as soon as possible to avoid the imposition of the three-year rule if you die within three years of a transfer.

 

  1. Complete and/or update your beneficiary designations. Paid on death accounts and contracts such as retirement accounts, life insurance and annuities are amongst the easiest to claim after a loved one dies. Without the need to petition the court, these assets can be transferred quickly to the proper beneficiaries. However, without proper beneficiary designations, they can pass to the estate or to the wrong persons.

 

  1. Create or revise your assets list. Most estate attorneys, financial planners and other advisors will compile a list of your assets during the planning process, but the most accurate lists usually are self created. Updating or creating such a list will give you a better idea of where things stand with you and your family and can reveal that your assets have grown to the point where additional planning is needed.   Alternatively, in the event of your death, it can provide your heirs with a good roadmap of what assets need to be transferred and retitled.

 

  1. Review your life insurance. The amount, type and ownership of life insurance can change as you grow older and expand your family/assets. Many insurance agents provide audits of policies at no additional cost. Additionally, because life insurance is taxable only for estate tax purposes, changing the ownership of the policy to a life insurance trust is a great way to reduce the size of your taxable estate.

 

  1. Protect your family or small business. Business owners are often focused on the here and now and don’t take the time to consider what will happen to their business if and when they are no longer running it.   Many businesses lack the proper buy-sell agreements or even a proper organizational document to give co-owners and the owner’s family guidance over what happens to the business once the business owner leaves, retires or dies.

 

  1. Create a gifting plan. With the large increase to the federal estate tax exemption and the increased New York exemption, it might seem less important to consider gifting strategies. This is not true. For starters, individuals can now gift $15,000 (or $30,000 per married couple) to their beneficiaries every year. Additionally, through the use of trusts, the monies given to minors can be protected from waste and be available for usage for education and other expenses.   Finally, for those with estates nearing New York’s “estate tax cliff,” the lack of a New York specific gift tax continues to keep gifting as an important tool to reduce estate taxes.

 

  1. Consider Charitable Giving. For those with estate tax issues and philanthropic goals, setting up a structure to maximize your giving takes time and many state and federal approvals before you can begin giving. Summer gives you ample time to get the process started so that you can hopefully be ready to make contributions before the end of 2018.

 

  1. Understand your planning goals. Estate Planning attorneys and other advisors provide suggestions and advice based on what we know about the law and what others do.   But, without the input and understanding of what our client’s goals are, any plan we put in place will be incomplete.   With more time to contemplate your planning goals, you can help your advisors craft the right plan for you and your family.

 

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information

The New York/Federal Estate Tax Divorce Becomes Permanent (for now)

In the final month of 2017, President Trump and the Republicans in Congress agreed upon a massive change to the federal tax system. Amongst the changes was significant increase to the federal estate, gift and generation skipping transfer tax exemptions. Beginning in 2018 and continuing through the end of 2025, each individual receives a $11.2 million exemption (adjusted annually for inflation) and each married couple receives a collective $22.4 million exemption. This leaves the vast majority of estates able to pass free of federal estate tax.

In New York, however, this change brought about an end to the hope of both tax professionals and clients alike that the New York state and federal exemptions would once again be equal. This hope has now been extinguished as New York’s exemption will remain $5.25 million through the end of 2018. On January 1, 2019, the exemption will be determined based on a base exemption of $ 5 million adjusted for inflation over the course of the last ten years. Furthermore, two major differences from the federal estate tax system will complicate New York estate planning even further.

First, under federal estate tax law, if one spouse dies leaving a portion of their exemption unused, the surviving spouse may ‘inherit’ the remaining exemption through the concept of portability. New York, on the other hand, does not recognize portability and without additional planning, the unused exemption would not be preserved. Secondly, under federal estate tax law, the taxable portion of an estate is the value of the assets above the decedent’s exemption. This is also true in New York unless your estate exceeds 5% of the exemption. Once an estate exceeds this amount, the entirety of the estate is taxable, not just the excess amount.

The New York/Federal Exemptions historically

For many years, New York conformed it’s estate tax exemption to the state death tax credit under the federal estate tax system. In 2001, this changed due to the tax legislation passed by President George W. Bush which increased the federal estate exemption over the course of the next decade leading to a temporary repeal in 2010. In order to preserve the revenue that it was receiving from estate taxes, New York and other states which had a state-specific estate tax decoupled from the federal system and set their own exemptions. In New York, the exemption remaining $1 million for well over a decade.

In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted legislation by which the New York exemption would progressively grow in size over a period of five years. By 2019, the New York exemption was scheduled to be tied to the same formula by which the federal estate tax exemption was determined. This, it was hoped, would reduce the estate tax burden on many New York families while reduces the disparity between state and federal tax regimes.

Planning for the new New York/Federal disparity

 The large disparity between the two exemptions creates new complications and opportunities for New York residents with regard to their estate plans. Wills which utilized a mandatory credit shelter trust should be reviewed and changed to more flexible disclaimer trusts to give fiduciaries more room to determine how much and which tax to pay at a decedent’s death. Additionally, because New York does not have a state specific gift tax, New York residents with estates valued between the New York and Federal exemptions should consider gifting plans to lower their New York taxable estate and to avoid the estate tax cliff.

Gifting does not come without risks. For a taxable gift to be effective, the donor must live for three years after the gift is made. If they die in the interim, the gift is brought back into their estate for purposes of calculating their estate tax. In addition, given the partisan nature of the recent changes, it is not inconceivable that the current federal exemption may be repealed or lowered by a Democratic president and Congress. Finally, even if Republicans retain control over the presidency and Congress, the change to the estate tax will sunset. It is possible that any gifts made today may be subject to a future clawback by the IRS.

The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty.

 In the sixteen plus years since New York first decoupled from the federal estate tax system, the federal exemption has changed twelve times and the New York exemption has changed five times. There is no reason to believe that these changes will suddenly end at the federal or state level. The best way to ensure that your plan reflects these changes is to remain in contact with your estate planning and tax professionals.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

Ten Year-End Tasks To Improve Your Estate Plan

The final month of 2017 will begin this Friday and with it, many will be making a mad dash to wrap up various projects that they started during the year. Finalizing things during the waning weeks of the year is complicated by other priorities including work and family celebrations, holidays and vacations. Even with so much on our plates at this time of year, there are some tasks which can be undertaken during December that will help maximize the effectiveness of your estate plan.

  1. Make annual gifts to friends and relatives. Each year, every individual can gift $14,000 individually to as many beneficiaries as they wish. A married couple can pool their gifting and give a collective $28,000 to their beneficiaries. This is a great way to reduce the size of your taxable estate while benefiting the people you care about without any tax consequences.

 

  1. Complete beneficiary designations on your paid on death assets. Life insurance, annuities and most retirement accounts allow owners to designate the beneficiaries of these assets to allow beneficiaries to claim assets without court intervention. Failure to designate a beneficiary often leaves a person’s estate as a beneficiary and then requires the formality of a full estate administration.

 

  1. Finalize your estate planning documents. If you’ve started working with an attorney and have yet to finalize your documents, finishing the process before the end of the year will provide you and your family with a sense of closure and security prior to the holidays. It will also leave you with one less goal to accomplish next year.

 

  1. Review your existing estate planning documents. Whether it’s been a year or ten, most people don’t keep the details of their estate plan front of mind for long after they’ve completed the process.   A review of your existing documents with or without your attorney’s help can help clarify if your current planning still makes sense with your current situation.

 

  1. Fund existing trusts. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is unfortunately very common. When a client executes a trust, the work is only half done. Properly funding the trust, regardless of what type of trust it is, is what keeps a trust agreement from becoming nothing more than a very expensive piece of paper.

 

  1. Prepare Health Care Proxies and Durable Power of Attorneys. Preparing for disability/incapacity is a complicated and time consuming process. On the other hand, the basic documents, a health care proxy and a durable power of attorney, can be prepared relatively quickly and cheaply. Even if you have no other planning in place, having these documents prepare before year’s end is a no-brainer.

 

  1. Speaking with your fiduciaries. Executors, trustees and guardians all have great power and responsibility with regard to your family and your assets. Regular conversations with these important people helps to ensure that they remain the right choices for these roles. Timing these conversations for the end of the year can bring a year’s worth of perspective to these discussions.

 

  1. Discussing the basics of your estate plan with your children. As children grow into adults, exposing them to the specifics of your planning is a good way to prepare them for what to expect when you are gone. Although these are difficult discussions to have, giving your children the knowledge that you have planned for situations like disability and death ultimately can provide them with the security of knowing that things will be set up now to avoid conflict and surprises later.

 

  1. Revising or Creating a List of assets and accounts. It is my general recommendation to avoid listing accounts and specific assets in your estate documents if they are being bequeathed as part of a general gift. This is because the assets often change, get spent, sold or move to different institutions during a person’s lifetime. As an alternative, preparing a summary of the important assets, the location of the assets and other key information to keep alongside your estate planning documents provides a guide for your fiduciaries and beneficiaries to follow. By keeping it as an informal document, it allows you to frequently change it without the need to revise your estate planning documents.

 

  1. Schedule a consultation with an estate planning attorney. While it is difficult to get a new estate plan put together in a month, a consultation is a good first step towards completing an estate plan.   Starting now, and not leaving this for a new year’s task, will help avoid pushing the process down the road without any forward progress.

 

These tasks alone or collectively can provide further clarity and completeness to your estate plan. By completing these tasks, you can enter 2018 with a more secure and clear estate plan.

 

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

Estate Tax 2018-What We Know, What Trump Wants and What’s To Come

On Wednesday afternoon, after months of speculation, the Congressional Republicans released their and President Trump’s proposal for tax reform/cuts to begin as soon as 2018. Much of the general parameters of the plan have been known for months with few specifics being known. The proposal released on Wednesday didn’t add many specific although the contours of the proposal were now official. Not shockingly, a repeal of the federal estate tax was amongst the proposals presented.

With a formal bill not yet written and a strategy for passage still unclear, it is helpful to look at what the estate tax system-both federal and state-may look like next year depending on what Congress does and whether or not the estate tax factors into the eventual final bill.

Federal Estate Tax Exemption-A Tale of Two Possible Futures.

Currently, the Federal Estate Tax Exemption stands at $5.49 million per individual and a collective $10.98 million for married couples. Under the federal system, through the concept of portability, a surviving spouse may utilize any unused portion of their deceased spouse’s estate tax exemption. Since all assets pass to surviving spouses estate tax free (due to the federal marital deduction), a surviving spouse has great potential to transfer an eight-figure estate to their heirs free of estate tax.

Since 2010, the exemption has been increased annually as a factor of inflation. And although an official decision will not be made by the IRS until next month, the expectation is that the exemption will be increased to $5.6 million per person and $11.2 million per married couple. It is also projected that the federal gift tax exclusion will be increased from $14,000 per beneficiary per year to $15,000.

Under the Trump/Republican plan, the federal estate tax and the generation skipping transfer tax (GST tax) will be repealed. Beyond that, very few specifics are known. Will the repeal begin in 2018, be retroactive or phased in as it was when it was repealed in 2001? What will happen with capital gains treatment of inherited property? Since there will be no longer an estate tax, will property that previously received a step up in basis be given a favorable treatment at death and what, if any, limit on stepped up basis will there be?

Another notable omission from the plan is any mention of the federal gift tax. Given the reduction in revenue that a repeal of the estate tax will create, is it possible that the federal gift tax exemption will be reduced? Or will the system also be overhauled to deal with the reality of an estate tax federal tax system? The coming weeks and months may or may not tell the tale on this issue.

New York and other local State Estate Tax Exemptions.

 In New York, the outcome of where the Federal Estate Tax Exemption will land matters more over the next year than any time since 2000. In 2014, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature agreed to increase New York’s state exemption from $1 million to eventually re-connecting it with the applicable federal exemption. Currently and through December 31, 2018, the New York estate tax exemption is $5.25 million. On January 1, 2019, the exemption will be tied to the then in-effect Federal Estate Tax Exemption. What if there is no Federal Estate Tax Exemption? It is unclear as of now what New York would do, but it seems unlikely that New York would follow suit with a full repeal.

Our neighboring states have taken different tacts with regard to their state specific exemptions. Last year, New Jersey repealed their estate tax exemption starting January 1, 2018. They continue to have an inheritance tax for bequests to non-lineal family members and with a new governor entering office shortly after the New Year, there may be additional changes to their estate tax/inheritance tax system. Like New Jersey, Pennsylvania has only an inheritance tax, but only fully exempts bequests to surviving spouses and children under 21. Connecticut has an estate tax with a current exemption of $2 million.

Beyond 2018.

By this time next year, we will likely know what both the exemptions for both the federal and state specific estate tax systems will be. But, as with any change to a tax code, it may be many months if not years before we fully understand the ramifications of these changes.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.