About nyestateomfmind

For the past decade, I have worked closely with individuals and families to prepare the right estate plan for their specific needs. My work has also included business succession planning, family charitable planning, estate and fiduciary litigation and estate administration.

When a ‘minor’ issue can become a Major Problem.

One of the primary concerns for families with minor children have with regard to their estate planning is the care, both personal and financial, of the minor children if both parents predecease the child before he or she reaches the age of majority. The appointment of a guardian (typically a relative or close friend) provides a level of comfort for parents who wish to be certain of who will take of their children if they are no longer around.

Relying on a guardianship appointment alone may not sufficiently protect your child from certain financial problems that are common with children who receive large sums of money at an early age. In New York, a child reaches the age of majority at 18. Unless the child consents to the continuation or appointment of a guardian, all monies and property held for their benefit must be released to them directly. In rare circumstances, a child can petition the Surrogate’s Court prior to reaching 18 if the appointed guardian is not fulfilling his or her responsibilities or the court finds guardianship to not be in the child’s best interest.

It is rare to find an 18 year old with sufficient financial maturity to handle the administration, investment and maintenance of large sums of money. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate establishing trusts for children under both last will and testaments and under lifetime trusts. The benefits are substantial and clear: first, by continuing to have a fiduciary (rather than the child) as the responsible party for the assets, the value of the assets have a reduced chance of being wasted or used for frivolous or harmful purposes.   Second, by retaining the assets in a trust and not in a child’s name, the assets can be shielded from potential creditors of the child.

Finally, using a trust gives the donor of the assets-the testator under a will or a grantor of a trust-the ability to structure the distributions and usage of the assets to best accommodate their wishes and the needs of the children beneficiaries. The donor is typically a parent or close relative and may have a better understanding of a child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to managing money.

There is no perfect solution that ensures that assets being inherited by or gifted to a child will not ultimately be wasted or abused. However, by relying on your own knowledge of a child rather than arbitrary deadlines, the chances of seeing the assets used for the intended purposes greatly increases.

 

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

The President has no Trust.

Following his election as the 45th President of the United States, President Trump made repeated claims that he would divest himself from his business assets to avoid any conflicts of interest. Despite numerous claims that conflicts of interest laws do not apply to a sitting president, in January, Trump finally revealed his plan to the world-he would transfer his business holdings to the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, a trust set up for his own personal benefit but controlled by his son Donald and Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, who were named as Trustees. This, he claimed, would allow him to remove any doubt with regard to any potential conflict between his acts as president and his business holdings.

Earlier this month, ProPublica published a report that in February, the terms of the Trust were changed to allow the President the ability to receive principal and income from the Trust at his request subject to the approval of the Trustees. While this appeared to be an about face from Trump, the truth of the matter is the choice to use a revocable trust as a means of divestiture was never a serious transfer of his assets and the control thereof.

For starters, a revocable trust is not a traditional trust under United States trust law. Typically, trusts are irrevocable and the person contributing property to a trust loses all direct control over the property. Additionally, in many states, the donor or grantor of a trust cannot also be a beneficiary of the trust. Finally, while not impossible, most trusts cannot be amended or changed without a court order.

A revocable trust has none of these restrictions. The grantor of the trust reserves the right to revoke the trust at any time. In most instances, a grantor of a revocable trust is also the main beneficiary of the trust. And while the trust agreement can put restrictions on the control and distribution of trust property, the grantor has the ability to amend the trust and remove and replace the trustees if they are not happy with how the trust is being administered.

The main restriction found in a revocable trust is that these powers typically disappear if the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. The trust then becomes irrevocable and the grantor loses the power to revoke and amend. It is possible that the President’s trust could have included his time as president as a further triggering event to losing these powers. The certification of trust presented by the President indicates that he retained his right to revoke the trust, so it is clear he did not do that.

Revocable trusts are often used to ensure a client’s privacy, to protect a client’s assets if they become incapacitated and to reduce the time and cost of estate administration upon their death. The idea that such a trust could be used to create any sort of separation between the president and his assets ignores the fact that the rights retained by the President are not a bug, but a feature of these trusts.  Revocable trusts are trusts in name alone and cannot be used to properly separate the President or any other government official from the conflicts associated with their business holdings.

For more information on trusts, please contact info@levyestatelaw.com

Estate Tax Repeal Take 2? A look at the Federal and New York Estate Tax Systems Then and Now

During the rollout of his economic plan, Donald Trump announced his intention to push for a repeal of the federal estate tax. Trump claimed to have known many families who were “destroyed by the death tax.” If this proposal and the associated rhetoric sounds familiar, there is a reason for that: the proposal and rhetoric is identical to that of George W. Bush when he took over the presidency in 2001.

It is helpful then to compare where things stand today versus fifteen years ago to see if today’s estate tax environment is comparable to that of 2001:

Federal exemption, then and now. When President Bush took office, the federal estate tax exemption sat at $675,000 per individual or $1,350,000 per married couple. The maximum tax rate was 55%. Bush and Congress passed sweeping tax cuts once he entered the office including temporary repeal of the estate tax in 2010. By the time 2010 came along, both the Presidency and Congress had switched to the Democratic Party and in order to avoid a return to the exemptions of 2001, Congress and President Obama agreed upon two compromises.

First, in 2010, the estate tax was reinstated with an exemption of $5,000,000.00 and a maximum tax rate of 35%. Second, in 2012, as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations, the reinstated exemption of 2010 was made permanent with yearly adjustments for inflation and a maximum tax rate of 40%. In 2016, the exemption currently stands at $5,450,000.00 per individual or $10,900,000.00 per married couple.

Portability. The 2010 compromise also added a new concept known as portability to the federal estate tax system. Previously, if a married individual died leaving a portion of their estate tax exemption unclaimed, the remaining exemption was lost. The advent of portability changed this to allow a surviving spouse the ability to claim the remaining portion of their deceased spouse’s exemption by filing a federal estate tax return.

New York exemption, then and now. At the time of the enactment of the federal estate tax repeal, New York’s estate tax exemption was increased from $675,000 to $1,000,000.00. In addition, New York and other states decoupled from the federal estate tax system and continued to tax estates at or above their exemption amount. This led to many estates being subject to New York estate tax but not federal estate tax.

In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted the first change to estate tax exemption in New York in over a decade. Through the end of 2018, the New York estate tax exemption would increase several times before being tied to the federal exemption starting in 2019. This change greatly reduced the number of New York estates subject to any estate tax liability.

The Tax Cliff. The changes to the New York estate tax system were not all beneficial to taxpayers. Beginning in 2014, estates valued at 5% or more of the applicable exemption would be subject to estate taxation on the entire value of the estate. Estates at or less than 5% of the exemption would continue to be taxed only on the value of the estate above the exemption.

This change created a further burden on large estates while alleviating smaller estates of any estate taxation. The New York system, unlike its federal counterpart, does not provide for the use of portability for any unused portion of a deceased spouse’s exemption. This continued discrepancy between the New York and federal systems requires individuals with estates at or near the exemption to be ever more vigilant about their planning.

Additional Changes. The changes to the exemptions and tax rates are not the only ways that the tax system has improved for taxpayers and their families. Along with increasing the federal estate tax exemption, the 2010 compromise also increased the federal gift exemption from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 and subsequently the same amount as the federal estate tax exemption. This allows wealthy families to transfer highly appreciable property during their lifetime to their heirs.

Same sex married couples have also benefited from these changes as a result of the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. With the federal estate tax marital deduction and exemptions now available to all married couples, even more taxpayers are able to protect their estates from taxation.

Then vs. Now. At the federal and New York levels, the past fifteen years have seen unprecedented growth in the amount of assets individuals can pass to their heirs estate tax free. The amount of estates owing any estate taxes have declined dramatically with only approximately .02% of estates being subject to federal estate tax.

In the eyes of the opponents of the estate tax, none of this matters. Their objections to this so-called “death tax” does not concern itself with these facts. But, regardless of one’s politics and beliefs, the reality of the estate tax system in the United States and New York is very different today than it was when we heard Donald Trump’s current policy views spoken by President Bush in 2001.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information about your and your family’s estate planning and estate administration needs.

A Declaration of Interdependence

Last Monday, we celebrated the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document by which the United States of America was born.  By recognizing the need to break free from the control of England, the former colonists put forth the belief that only by gaining independence could they gain the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Nearly two and half centuries later, the world has changed dramatically, but the desire for independence and the ability to chart our own course remain key values to Americans. Running parallel to this need for freedom is our history of finding great success by relying upon each other.  The motto “E Pluribus Unim” (out of many, one) reflects that this is also a core American value.

When preparing an estate plan, it is understandable to want to rely on one person or one advisor to ensure all your wishes and desires are fulfilled.  However, in most cases, it is preferable and useful to have multiple advisors across multiple professions working with you to provide you and your family with the security you wish for.  By working together, attorneys, accountants, financial and wealth advisors and other professionals can bring their specific expertise to the table and strengthen the other advisors’ abilities to help a client reach their goals.

Family members and friends also play a part in ensuring your estate plan fulfills its goals. In their capacities as fiduciaries or beneficiaries, these most important individuals can assist both the individual and their advisors during their lifetime and beyond.  Conversely, a disgruntled family member can cause great harm to the success of an estate plan.

In the end, each individual’s estate plan should reflect their specific wishes and intentions.  It is each individual’s right to plan their affairs as they see fit.  Utilizing the people and resources available to you is best way to achieve this goal.

For more information, please contact info@levyestatelaw.com.

The Perils of Procrastinating: Six Ways Delaying Your Estate Planning Can Harm You, Your Assets and Your Family

Procrastinating is a typical and normal response to having to deal difficult and uncomfortable tasks and situations. Everyone would prefer to delay dealing with the hard decisions related to setting up an estate plan. But, for far too many people, what begins as procrastination turns into inaction. Since no one can accurately predict when any part of an estate plan will need to be utilized, this inaction can have irreparable and unwanted harm on an individual, his or her assets and their family.

Without an estate plan in place, many decisions that should have been made by an individual are left to a series of statutes and rules related to the laws of intestacy. These laws and rules dictate how a person’s estate will be managed and administered if they did not leave a properly executed will or other testamentary device when they die. While those who have an estate plan will be able to make these choices, those without will have numerous choices made for them:

Who will benefit from your estate? The laws of intestacy determine who will benefit from your estate based on a specific line of familial succession. If you are married without children, your spouse receives everything.   If you are married with children, the surviving spouse and the children split the estate 50-50.   If no children or spouse are living, the line of succession continues down all the way to first cousins once removed if no previous class of relative is alive.

This poses several potential problems. First, the statutes do not differentiate minor children from adults, leaving a potential situation where a minor child will receive potentially large sums of money. How this money is held and the level of court control over this money becomes an issue as well (more on that later).

Second, for more complicated family structures, the statutes pose significant problems.   Children born of wedlock or adopted children may face the need to prove their relationship with a deceased parent in court. Non-blood relatives who might have benefited from the deceased individual’s estate are not considered.

Finally, since New York does not recognize the concept of common law marriage, a non-married partner will be left out of the inheritance even if they had children with the deceased. It is especially important for persons in non-traditional relationships to have their wishes outlined in an estate plan if they wish to benefit persons other than their blood relatives.

Who will administer your estate? Without a will or other testamentary device, the Surrogate’s Court will look to the intestacy order of succession to determine who will be appointed the administrator of the estate. In addition to taking this decisions out of an individual’s hands, the lack of a clear choice to administer the estate may lead to higher costs, a longer administration and potential litigation from unhappy beneficiaries.

Who will care for your minor children? In the rare instances where both parents die with minor children, a will or other testamentary instrument will typically nominate person to serve as the guardian for any minor children. Without a will, the friends and relatives of the deceased may petition the court for the right to care for the children. It is then up to the judge to decide, based on his or her opinion, who the most qualified person is. The judge’s criteria may differ sharply from the parents’ criteria for choosing a guardian.

How will the assets of the estate be held and what involvement will the court have with the administration of the assets? It is often advisable to utilize one or more trusts under a will as the receptacle for the assets passing out of the estate. Asset protection, tax savings and avoidance of waste are common reasons why using trusts are preferred over outright bequests. A court is unlikely to create a trust for an individual who does not have a will or testamentary instrument. This failure to plan may expose assets to risks that a trust could easily avoid.

In addition, if a minor is a beneficiary of an estate, the court and their guardian will oversee their share of the estate until the minor reaches eighteen.   The guardian will be required to petition the court for any distributions that a child may need and requests for distributions are not automatically granted.

How can I avoid, delay or reduce estate, gift and generation skipping transfer taxes? Beyond using an individual’s state and federal exemptions, coupled with the marital deduction if an individual is married at the time of their death, failure to have an estate plan in place will almost completely foreclose any tax planning for an estate’s assets.   Post-mortem (after death) planning is an available option, but it may not be as effective as proactive planning.

Who will make decisions related to finances and medical care if I am unable to? The previous questions related to what happens after someone dies, but issues related to incapacity and disability are equally important.   Along with a will, a durable power of attorney, health care proxy and living will are essential components of an estate plan. Without theses documents, decisions related to finances and medical decisions may not be made by the correct person or may require court intervention to authorize. In a worst-case scenario, a dispute may arise amongst family members about these decisions that could devolve into litigation.

It is impossible to predict when and how you will need to utilize an estate plan. However, for most people, it is clear that making the decisions that will affect themselves, their families and their assets is preferable than leaving these decisions to others.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com

An Estate Planner’s Guide To Gifting

For most people, the terms gift or gifting brings to mind holidays, birthdays and other celebratory occasions. In the context of estate planning, making a gift or entering into gifting plan is a powerful tool to provide a benefit to family members, charities and other beneficiaries while also creating a tax benefit to the donor or giver of the gift. And while the intention behind giving a gift is similar to giving holiday and birthday gifts, the benefits and risks are much more significant.

Here is an introductory guide to gifting as part of your estate plan:

1.  What is a gift? When discussing gift planning, the term gift is used to describe any gratuitous transfer during a donor’s lifetime. Transfers made for consideration or some form of compensation is not treated as gifts for tax purposes (although the IRS may claim a partial gift is made if the consideration is insufficient). Transfers made at a donor’s death are also not considered gifts for purposes of this discussion.

2.  When is tax potentially due on a gift made by a donor? Under federal tax law, each individual has two distinct exemptions for purposes of making gifts. First, each individual may gift up to $14,000 to as many recipients or donees as they wish each year. Married couples can collectively gift up to $28,000 to each donee each year without any gift tax applying.

If an individual or married couple exceeds their annual exclusion amount in any                 given year, the excess is then deducted from their lifetime gift exemption.                         Currently, the lifetime exemption is $5.43 million with a maximum tax rate of 40%.             The lifetime exemption is tied to the federal estate tax exemption, so use of your               lifetime gift tax exemption will reduce the amount that can pass tax-free at your                 death.

3. Are transfers to all donees potentially subject to taxation? No. Transfers from one spouse to another spouse are exempt from all gift tax. This is helpful in planning the estates of married couples with uneven estates. The spouse with a larger estate can gift a portion of their estate during their lifetime to their spouse with no gift tax consequences and potentially large estate tax savings. However, transfers between spouses, like all transfers, are subject to the three-year look-back rule that will be discussed later in this article.

4. What is cost basis and how does it relate to gift planning? When property is transferred, the new owner of the property receives a cost basis that will be used to calculate capital gains when the property is later sold. Depending on when the property is transferred and how it is transferred, the calculation of the cost basis varies. Property that is purchased for consideration will have a cost basis equal to the sale price of that property.   For gratuitous transfers, the cost basis will either be carried over from the previous owner or stepped up to the fair market value of the property at the time it is transferred. Property that is inherited generally receives a stepped up basis to the date of death (or alternative valuation date) value. This is a significant benefit to those who sell inherited property shortly after a loved one’s death.

Property that is transferred by gift will typically carryover the basis of the donor. If the          property has appreciated since its purchase or if the property is likely to appreciate            after the transfer, the donee may be left with a significant capital gains tax upon their          sale of the property.

5. What gifting pitfalls should I avoid? Gifting property comes with certain common pitfalls that should be avoided if possible, namely:

Creating joint ownership is a gift.   It is not uncommon for older individuals to add a           child or sibling to their bank accounts and/or real property deeds. However, many             do not realize that adding someone’s name to their property ownership actually gifts         a portion of their assets to that person. In addition to unintentionally making a gift,             adding a child or another loved one to a real estate deed will cause the donee to               receive the donor’s cost basis and lose out on the potential stepped up basis in the           property if it was transferred at the donor’s death.

Transfers made within three years of a donor’s death. If a donor is attempting to               reduce their taxable estate, making a gift of property is one of the best ways to                 actively reduce their estate value. However, any transfer made within the three years         prior to a donor’s death will be included in the calculation of the donor’s taxable                 estate.

Transfers made to qualify for Medicaid. Older individuals often consider gifting as a           means to qualify for Medicaid. In New York, Medicaid can be applied for if services           are needed in the home or community (community Medicaid) or if a person needs to         move into a nursing home (nursing home Medicaid). For the former, Medicaid will               begin paying once a person reaches the appropriate income and asset limits                     regardless of when the transfer is made. For the former, however, any transfers                 made within five years of the application will be counted against the applicant. The             total amount of gifts will be divided by the current average cost of a nursing home in         the applicant’s county and the sum will be the amount of months the applicant will             have to self pay before Medicaid will cover their nursing home expenses.

Gift planning comes with many benefits and pitfalls that require careful consideration. By working with the proper advisors, you can maximize the value of your gifts to your beneficiaries and to yourself.

Please contact info@levyestatelaw.com for more information.

An Estate without Trust: An Introduction to Estate and Trust Litigation

Two of the most difficult situations that people find themselves in are the administration of a deceased loved one’s estate and an active litigation matter.   It is no surprise then that when those two stressful situations combine, the resulting conflict can result in loss of assets and the destruction of close family bonds. In order to minimize the damage that an estate or trust litigation can bring, it helps to understand how these type of matters are handled.

In New York state, litigation involved trusts and estates are handled by the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the trust or estate is situated. While there are a wide variety of actions that can be brought in the Surrogate’s Court, there are few very common actions that trusts and estates professionals see repeatedly. They include:

  1. Will Contests-If a family member or another presumed beneficiary of an estate believes that a will presented to the court is either invalid or does not express the deceased individual’s actual intent, a will contest can be brought. If the challenge is based on the intent of the Testator, the person(s) contesting the will must show that the Testator either lacked capacity when they executed the will or they were unduly influenced by another party to agree to certain provisions of the will.
  1. Construction Proceedings-A will or trust may be considered valid by all parties, but one or more provisions may be open to multiple interpretations. A construction proceeding is mechanism by which the Court can determine, based on evidence provided by each side, what the testator or a will or the grantor of a trust intended with regard to certain provisions in their documents.
  1. Discovery and Turnover Proceedings-In some instances, property that should be in the possession of an estate or trust has to be turnover to the respective fiduciaries. If the person in possession of that property is unwilling to voluntarily turn it over to the fiduciaries, the fiduciaries or other interested parties may request a discovery and/or turnover proceeding to determine if certain assets should be distributed to the fiduciaries.
  1. Contested Accountings-All fiduciaries, whether executors of an estate or trustees of a trust, have an obligation to provide their beneficiaries with a regular account of their activities.   If a beneficiary believes that the fiduciary has acted improperly, he or she may use the fiduciary’s accounting as a basis to contest certain actions that they have taken. Failure by a fiduciary to account voluntarily may lead to a mandatory accounting ordered by the court and additional relief for the beneficiaries.
  1. Fiduciary removal proceeding-If the actions of a fiduciary are so egregious that the beneficiaries believe that they can no longer serve the interests of the beneficiaries, trust or estate, they may petition the court to have the fiduciary removed.   Removal is a severe form of relief that the court is reluctant to grant unless they are presented with sufficient evidence to justify relief. If a fiduciary’s actions can be justified as being within the discretion they are granted, the court will likely seek alternative solutions rather than removing them from their positions.

Avoiding the cost and stress of an estate or trust litigation is among the most important goals an estate planner has when suggested certain planning options. Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to avoid litigation entirely. Proper planning beforehand and quality representation if litigation does occur are key to ensure the best possible outcome in these extremely difficult situations.

 

For more information on estate and trust litigation, please contact info@levyestatelaw.com