Old Problems, New Solutions: Estate Planning For Non-Traditional Families. Part 3-Planning Complications For Non-Traditional Families

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”-President Barack Obama, May 9, 2012

The historic comments made by President Obama regarding his support for gay marriage marks another important step towards same-sex couples receiving the same legal treatment as heterosexual couples.  This progress was further augmented by a ruling earlier this week by 1st Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional.  As public support for these changes increases, it is likely that more progress will be made.

But as quickly as social views may be changing, the laws relating to estate planning are unlikely to change in such a rapid manner.  Additionally, other forms of non-traditional families such as domestic partnerships, single parents and parenting partners are unlikely to see their rights change.

With the optimism attached to the president’s words and the realistic knowledge that laws are slow to change, non-traditional families should be aware of the following issues related to their estate plans:

1)   Guardianship of Minor Children-The care of minor children when one or both parents die is a difficult one in any circumstance, but it becomes much more difficult when the choices may be limited or may be conflicted with other familial relationships.  For single parents and parents who have entered into parenting partnerships, it is incredibly important to determine who your child’s guardian will be if you should die or become disabled.

This issue can also become highly problematic if a former spouse is still alive or if other relatives disapprove of your relationship.  Without the fallback legal protections of marriage, who is appointed guardian after a parent dies could become tangled up in a lengthy court proceeding.

Preparing a will or a similar guardianship appointment document can ensure that your wishes as to the care of your child are known and respected.  Notifying your family members about your selection can also reduce the likelihood of a conflict after you have passed.

2)   Inheritance-Married couples, both heterosexual and same-sex, have automatic inheritance rights under the New York intestacy statute.  However, relying on this statute may cause fifty percent of your estate to pass to your children outright regardless of their age.

For other non-traditional families, no automatic inheritance rights exist.  Rather than inheriting fifty percent of a deceased parent’s estate, a child of a non-married couple would inherit the entire estate of their predeceased parent if no will exists.  Having a will in place allows a surviving domestic partner to inherit property from their deceased partner.  A will can also include a trust for the benefit of the deceased’s children, which can protect the assets from waste by a child who may be unprepared to manage an inheritance.

Alternatively, families may choose to use one or more revocable trusts to pass property to their surviving spouses, partners or children.  A revocable trust avoids the probate process for any assets contributed to it during an individual’s lifetime and can be coupled with a “pour over” will to receive any assets that remain in the deceased person’s estate.  A revocable trust should also be considered if a family believes that another family member may challenge their estate plan.

3)   Estate Taxes-The New York Marriage Equality Act allowed same-sex couples to utilize the New York state marital deduction for estate tax purposes.  Same-sex couples can now pass unlimited assets to their spouses upon their death without incurring a New York State estate tax.  However, because of DOMA, the corresponding federal marital deduction is not available to same-sex couples.

For other non-traditional families, estate taxes will apply to any assets above the federal ($5.12 million) and New York ($1 million) estate tax exemptions.  Families can reduce their potential estate tax liability by utilizing the annual gift tax exclusion of $13,000 per beneficiary per year or by contributing a portion of their estate to charity.

Families may also prepare for an eventual estate tax liability by purchasing additional life insurance to provide the necessary liquidity to their estate.  In order to avoid additional estate taxation, the life insurance should be owned and administered by an irrevocable life insurance trust.

4)   Gift Taxes-All non-traditional families must also be mindful of potential gift tax liability under the federal tax code.  While a heterosexual married couple can pass assets freely between spouses, non-traditional families may incur a gift tax if they pass assets to their spouses, partners or children above the annual gift tax exclusion of $13,000 per person.  Any excess will be credited towards their lifetime gift tax exemption.  And while that exemption is currently $5.12 million, it is scheduled to be reduced to $1 million at the end of 2012.

This gives families additional incentive to maximize their use of the annual gift tax exclusion every year.  For larger transfers, families may wish to consider the use of more advanced planning structures like sales to defective grantor trusts or GRATs to zero out the gift tax liability.  Families can also use family owned entities such as limited partnerships and LLCs to reduce the value of the assets being transferred.

For non-traditional family, estate planning is more complicated and with less advantages than are afforded to traditional families.  Nevertheless, a properly drafted and administered estate plan can provide any family with the financial protection and security that they deserve.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information about estate planning for non-traditional families.

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