Legal Tip of the Week – 2/25/18!

Revocable Living Trusts Misunderstood

I have been, for a while now, one of “those” New Jersey attorneys who likes to recommend Revocable Living Trusts (RLTs) for my clients perhaps more often than a majority of my fellow New Jersey colleagues.  When I first started to practice in the area of trusts & estates, I spoke the same language as many of these attorneys when it came to recommending Wills over Revocable Living Trusts.  They all said: “NJ is a probate friendly state; there is really no need to set up living trusts here.  And those attorneys who are “churning” these trusts out like mills are only doing it to make a fast buck!”  And I believed them…after all, when you are new in the field, you naively treat what the more experienced colleagues are saying like gospel. Fast forward a few years later and I realized that these very same attorneys had dismissed a crucial benefit (among a few others) in setting up RLTs.   Investment/brokerage accounts in a RLT do not get “frozen” upon the death of the account holder unlike those assets passing under a Will.  You see, in NJ, the State Tax Branch obligates institutions to freeze accounts of those decedent estates with over $675k (in 2016)[1] until the Executor provides a waiver from the Tax Branch showing that taxes had been paid.  These waivers could take several months to be issued after the filing of the estate tax return.  Up to 50% of the precious funds that could have otherwise been allocated to paying expenses are instead tied up for this time causing undue delays.  The RLT avoids the waiting period completely – taxes still have to be paid, but when assets are in a RLT account, the Executor-Trustee does not have to jump through hoops to get bills paid or to make other necessary expenses. But…we are now in 2018 and NJ does not have an estate tax starting this year.  This means families can just sign a self-executing waiver to release accounts over to the estate and distribute them to Class A[2] beneficiaries almost immediately.  So although I now recommend RLTs less frequently than before, I still find that certain clients can benefit from having RLTs in place for the more than the usual set of reasons.  RLTs are still beneficial to (i) avoid probate in multiple jurisdictions where an individual owns properties in other states; (ii) it allows assets of an incapacitated individual (especially a business owner) Grantor to be managed by the successor Trustee of the RLT instead of relying on the Agent’s authority under a Financial Power of Attorney; or (iii) keep things between family members where privacy is very important to the Grantor.  Moreover, RLTs are still extremely beneficial where self-executing waivers cannot be used i.e. when assets pass to beneficiaries in testamentary trusts or (2) when someone other than lineal descendants of the decedent (i.e. non-Class A beneficiaries) stand to inherit from the decedent’s estate since the inheritance tax in NJ is still alive and well. In conclusion, RLTs are more expensive and there may be no need to set these up for straightforward estates.  However, for the right client, I recommend RLTs because even though both Wills and Trusts work fine in our “probate friendly” jurisdiction, RLTs work better in the long run and the client's family's life is made just a little (and in some cases, a lot) easier.[1] The NJ estate tax exemption was at $675k for several years before going up to $2m per person in 2017 and finally disappearing in 2018.  For now, until the next legislative change occurs, there is no estate tax in NJ; but there is still an inheritance tax on assets transferring to all non-spouse and non-lineal descendant beneficiaries.[2] Class A beneficiaries include parents, spouse and children of the decedent