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Which Bills Should You Pay First When Serving as the Executor or Administrator of an Estate?
The Executor (when there is a Will) or Administrator (when there is no Will) of an Estate has several responsibilities. One of them is to pay off the debts and expenses of the Estate.
But what happens in those situations where the estate has very few assets but a whole lot of debt (i.e. potential creditors of the estate who have valid claims against the Estate to get paid back for monies owed by the decedent during the decedent’s lifetime)?
In such situations, it is important to point out that not all creditors stand on equal footing. Some have higher priority than others, which means they should pay paid first. So, the first most important advice we can give you is to consult with an attorney immediately. This means, don’t feel the need to immediately write out checks to different companies or individuals whom you may think needs to get paid just because a bill came your way. All parties know that an Executor/Admin needs time to (1) get appointed; (2) take care of funeral arrangements; (3) marshal up the assets and liabilities in the estate, including tax burden if any; and (4) finally start paying off the liabilities. If you start to pay the bills as you receive them, instead of in order of priority, you run the risk of running out of funds, and then being sued by a higher priority creditor because you mismanaged the Estate.
Each state has its own rules on what priority each creditor has. In New Jersey, our statute NJ Rev Stat § 3B:22-2 (2013) states that the order is as follows:
- Reasonable Funeral Expenses
- Costs of Estate Administration
- Debts for the reasonable value of services rendered to the decedent by the Office of the Public Guardian for Elderly Adults
- Debts and taxes with preference under federal law or the laws of this State. Medicaid liens fall in this category as well
- Reasonable medical and hospital expenses of the last illness of the decedent, including compensation of persons attending him or her
- Judgments entered against the decedent according to the priorities of their entries respectively
- All other claims
Sometimes, it is not obvious which creditor has the superior claim. For example, if the decedent owned a house, and the house had a mortgage, then the mortgage company would have a superior claim to the house than the Office of the Public Guardian, even though mortgages are not on the above list. Similarly see footnote 2.
Finally, not everyone seeking money from the Estate has a valid claim. Just because you are asked to pay does not mean that you should. If you are unsure if a debt is valid, you should request to see supporting documentation.
Conclusion: If you are the Executor/Administrator of an Estate, and you are having trouble determining which creditors have a valid claim or how to prioritize the claims you know to be valid, you should consult an attorney for assistance. Any payments made to the attorney/law firm should be covered under the Estate assets, so you do not have to use any of your personal funds to engage the attorney’s services.
 At this time, our office offers a 30 minute complimentary consultation with our team where you can present your issues, and we can guide you on whether or not you can handle matters on your own or if you need a professional to assist you in moving forward.
 But be very careful here, because certain Medicaid liens trump all others so, please consult with an Elder Law firm before paying debts of someone who was on Medicaid before he or she passed.
What to Know if You Are the Executor
The executor of an estate has an important job. He or she has been entrusted to follow the wishes of the deceased, and it is important that the executor understands the expectations set in the will, understands the law in the presiding state, and is able to adhere to both as much as possible.
The executor has eight main tasks:
- Introduce the will into court for probate
- Notify the next of kin and the beneficiaries
- Locate all assets
- Identify all debts and obligations
- Pay the obligations in the order of priority
- Filing income and/or estate tax returns, where applicable
- Distribute the remainder to the beneficiaries
- Close the estate
How to Introduce the Will
Every county has a procedure for introducing the will into the local surrogate’s court.
Typically, the executor must provide the original will, an official death certificate, the required information about the deceased, the names and address of the next of kin and the beneficiaries, and the required identification information about the executor.
If the court accepts all the documents, then it will issue the Letters Testamentary and the Executor Short Certificates. This documentation establishes that the executor can act on behalf of the estate, and it will be needed when interacting with different fiduciaries or institutions on behalf of the estate.
Notify the Next of Kin and the Beneficiaries
Once the court accepts the will into probate, the executor must notify the next of kin and the beneficiaries. The executor must also make a copy of the will available to them upon request.
New Jersey requires that notice be sent through certified mail. New Jersey also has a time limit for notifying beneficiaries. The clock starts once the will has been accepted into probate.
An attorney can help make sure that the executor meets any statutory deadlines. An attorney can also help if a beneficiary’s address is unknown or cannot be found.
Once the necessary parties have been noticed, the executor must turn over to the court proof that the beneficiaries received proper notice and that they received the notice in time.
Locate all Assets
The executor must find all assets that the decedent owned. If these are probate assets, the executor must get control of them so they can be used to pay off the decedent’s debts. The rest can be distributed in accordance with the will.
Unless the decedent had prepared his or her estate planning documents through a specialized estate planning firm that prepared a comprehensive asset spreadsheet as part of the estate plan, it is hard to know what the decedent owned or how to get control of it. Moreover, the decedent could have lived in different states or countries having different assets in different places. Sometimes, the custodian of the property is not cooperative. An attorney can be helpful if you are having trouble locating the decedent’s assets or getting estate assets released.
Identify All Debts and Obligations
New Jersey has specific rules about the order of priority when it comes to paying the decedent’s debts. It is important that the executor pays the bills in the correct order because if the funds run out, and the executor paid lower priority bills before higher priority bills, the creditor could sue the executor for its loss. Additionally, the executor has to be aware of whether or not federal or state death taxes are due from the estate and must review the will to see who (the estate or the individual beneficiaries) are responsible for payment.
In New Jersey, the costs of the administration are one of the higher priority bills, which includes any attorney’s fees and the executor’s commission. New Jersey also regulates how much the executor is allowed to be paid based on the size of the estate. If the estate is large or difficult to manage, it may make sense to hire an attorney to help with the administration and ensure that the proper procedures are followed.
Filing Income Tax Returns, Where Applicable
Depending on how long the estate will be kept open, the executor has a duty to report all income earned by the estate during this time. The deadline for this filing is based on either a calendar year or a fiscal year and must be reported on a Form 1041. NJ no longer has an estate tax, but if the worldwide assets of a decedent are greater than the exemption, or if the decedent was a NY resident with significant assets, then a federal estate tax return or NY state estate tax return may be due. Finally, where the estate assets are below the threshold, there may still be a need to file an estate tax return to elect portability. In these cases, it is extremely important that the executor review the will carefully to see who can pay the taxes—the individual beneficiaries or the estate out of the residue.
Distributing the Remainder to the Beneficiaries
Once the bills have been paid, the executor is to distribute the rest of the assets in accordance with the will. Not all gifts to beneficiaries have the same priority. There is a difference between an equal distribution of estate residue to the children of the decedent and giving specific assets/bequests to specific beneficiaries.
It is important that the executor understands the difference and correctly distributes the assets, or else he or she can be held personally liable for any mistakes.
This is especially important when the executor is one of the beneficiaries. The executor has the ability to make decisions on behalf of the estate including liquidating assets and distributing the cash, he or she must act in accordance with the will. The executor cannot use his or her position to unfairly distribute assets or disadvantage another beneficiary. An attorney representing the estate can also act as a check to make sure the executor is not exceeding his or her authority. New Jersey also requires paperwork be completed before the distributions to the beneficiaries. This involves securing releases from all beneficiaries to avoid personal liability for the executor for nonpayment of taxes or for making distributions to beneficiaries with outstanding child support obligation subject to wage garnishment. An attorney can help prepare all of the needed forms and make sure everything is properly accounted for and signed.
Closing the Estate
Once the bills have been paid and the assets have been distributed, the executor should file any outstanding estate or inheritance tax paperwork, where applicable, and then close the estate by filing a final court filing.
Closing the estate is important because if the estate is left open, then the executor is still personally liable should any new creditors emerge or if any beneficiaries complain after accepting his or her share.
An estate administration will take at least nine months from the decedent’s death until the estate can be closed. In some cases, the administration can take much longer, potentially years depending on the size of the estate, the number of beneficiaries involved, the location of the assets, or any complications that arise along the way (for example. if there is confusion as to ownership of any assets or if any provisions in the will are unclear).
An attorney can help the executor by ensuring the proper procedures are filed, that the required paperwork is completed and submitted, and by acting as a buffer between the executor and the next of kin, beneficiaries, or the fiduciaries and institutions involved. All of this can ultimately help save the executor time and stress during what will be a difficult situation.
 Portability refers to the act of taking over a deceased spouse’s unused exemption which is to be added to the surviving spouse’s exemption.
Inheritance Planning: Stark Differences between U.S. Beneficiary & Indian Nominee Rights!
Certain persons of Indian descent, their progeny and spouses could qualify to register as Overseas Citizens of India giving them permanent residence rights among other things. Similarly in the United States, qualified individuals may acquire lawful permanent status in many ways including via employment or through family connections. Lawful permanent residents are popularly known as green card holders. Inheritance laws apply equally to citizens and permanent residents in these two countries. Recently, a few of us (accounting and legal professionals) from both India and the US, were researching inheritance planning issues related to “Overseas Citizens of India” and discovered significant differences in the United States and India when it comes to the succession of bank accounts from a deceased account holder to his or her ultimate beneficiaries. We will discuss these differences in this article as they apply to citizens and permanent residents.
On the US side:
Probate vs. Non-probate accounts: In the US, an account can be a probate asset or a non-probate asset, depending on how it is set up.
A probate account is an account owned in the sole name of the individual account holder, with no beneficiary designation(s) attached to it. Upon death, the probate account goes through the probate process, which is the legal route by which these accounts make their way through the Last Will & Testament (“Will”) of the deceased account holder (“decedent”) over to the beneficiaries named in the Will. Where there is no Will, the account has to pass through the intestacy laws of the State in which the decedent resided and the beneficiaries (or heirs) of the decedent are determined by State law. In either case, the probate process involves court supervision or oversight.
By contrast, if the account is non-probate, then it does not go through the same channels and instead the account passes directly to the beneficiary or beneficiaries by operation of law, by contract or by trust. Joint accounts, or accounts with a “Transfer on Death or TOD” beneficiary or a “Payable on Death or POD” beneficiary, life insurance policies or retirement accounts with beneficiary designations or assets inside of a Revocable or Irrevocable trust, are all considered non-probate assets. Except in limited circumstances (typically in matters of public policy, state law etc.), once an individual is named as a beneficiary of an account or is joint account holder with another, this individual becomes the legal owner of the account and inherits the account automatically – outside of the court system.
Therefore, in the US, upon on the death of an individual, things are relatively straightforward (especially if there is a Will in place). All probate assets in the name of the decedent pass into an estate account that is set up by the Executor named in the Will. To open the estate account, the Executor will need to appear at his or her bank of choice armed with a Death Certificate, photo ID, a Tax Identification Number or TIN# (in lieu of the decedent’s Social Security Number for taxes), and a Letters Testamentary (or Appointment Letter) procured from the Court. Similarly, if there was no Will, the same process is followed except that the individual stepping forward to serve – now called the Administrator – has to post a bond to secure the estate assets (as an insurance for the ultimate beneficiaries) before he or she can obtain the Letters of Administration from the Court.
It is pertinent to note that in either case, Courts as well as the banks do not proceed without first obtaining proper documentation from the individual stepping forward to serve and banks will likely be subject to liability if they fail to obtain the necessary documentation. More importantly, it is unheard of for banks and other institutions to transfer probate assets of a decedent directly to an account belonging to the Executor/Administrator. These accounts must be transferred to the estate account of the decedent and held there until the estate administration formalities are completed, including payment of any taxes/debts or other obligations of the estate, before money passes to the beneficiaries.
On the India side:
A bank/financial account can be held individually or jointly. Joint accounts can be held: ‘either or survivor’, ‘anyone or survivor’ or ‘former or survivor.’ Account holders are also often referred to as First Holder and Second Holder where if the first holder dies, the second holder automatically receives the beneficial interest in the account. However, all accounts (including those that are individually owned) can have nominee designations. Unlike the US where a nominee designation would be treated as a beneficiary designation, the person named as the nominee receives payment from the bank only “as a trustee of the legal heirs of the deceased depositor, i.e. such payment to him shall not affect the right or claim which any person may have against the survivor(s)/nominee to whom the payment is made.” 
So here is where things can get quite tricky, and often messy, when the nominee designations don’t match up to either the beneficiaries listed under the Will or, the account holder dies intestate i.e., where there is no Will, when the nominee designations do not reflect the lawful heirs of the estate.
Let’s start with what a bank is instructed to do – in an effort to alleviate the “tortuous procedures …[that] caused considerable distress” to family members upon the death of a deceased account holder, the RBI or Reserve Bank of India issued a circular stating that where accounts have a valid nomination, the bank has to follow a 3-step protocol, before paying out the balance directly to the survivor(s)/nominee, with full discharge of any liability against the bank for making such payments.
The three steps outlined were that the bank:
- exercise due care and caution as to the identity of the survivor(s)/nominee and valid proof of demise of the accountholder;
- make sure that there was no court order restricting the Bank/institution from making such payment; and
- makes it clear to survivor(s)/nominee that payment is being made to him or her only as a trustee of the funds and that valid beneficiaries to the funds could have a claim against the survivor(s)/nominee.
But interestingly, there is also some indication to suggest that if banks insists that the survivor(s)/nominee produce legal documentation like the succession certification, Letter of administration or probate etc., or ask for him or her to obtain a bond, that would actually “invite serious supervisory disapproval”. Where there are no nominee designations, the bank is “advised to adopt a simplified procedure for prepayment to legal heir(s)…keeping in view the imperative need to avoid inconvenience and undue hardship to the common person.”
It follows that if the nominee designation does not match the Will of the succession rights of the beneficiary, then the legal heir’s only option is to fight it out in court. In an article on the subject, S.S, Rana & Company cite Supreme Court cases where the Court has held that the nominee is only a custodian of the account. Moreover, Section 72 of the Companies Act, 2013, states that while the nominee shall become entitled to all the rights in the shares and debentures of the company immediately upon the death of the shareholder, the rightful ownership of shares remains with the legal heir and not the nominees. Courts in India have time and again reiterated that the legal heir is the ultimate, rightful owner of the property of a deceased individual, a nominee (pursuant to a nomination given by the deceased during his / her lifetime) would act only as a trustee on behalf of the rightful legal heir(s), and hold such property until the matter of succession or inheritance is decided and implemented. Even in the case of a minor being a nominee and not a legal heir, the natural or legal guardian acting on behalf of such minor nominee has to act as Trustee on behalf of the legal heirs.
Complexities increase where there is no testamentary instrument, and the personal law of the decedent provides a certain set of rules/guidelines for devolution of the estate on the legal heirs. For example, in the case of a Hindu male, Class 1 heirs (mother, children, grandson of his predeceased son and so on) who get priority over his assets, leave out the father, who is not considered an immediate legal heir and therefore has no right to his son’s assets.
Some exceptions to the above are in the case of life insurance or Relief/Savings Bonds where the nominee is also considered the beneficial owner and therefore entitled to the proceeds of the policy or the bonds.
Solution for both countries –
It is imperative for anyone with assets located both in India and overseas to execute a well thought succession plan. One must aim at erasing confusion over the nominees and his/or legatees/beneficiaries. One must not only consider setting up a Will (in all countries where applicable) clearly delineating the various beneficiaries under the Will but also to methodically and systematically go through every single account and align nominee designations in accordance with the Will. Nomination and Will must be in harmony.
Those who are US citizens/residents should understand the contrasts that exist in the two countries where a beneficiary designation trumps the Will in almost every case in the United States whereas it follows a completely different treatment in India. The easiest way to ensure a smooth and a seamless transition to your loved ones in India, is to ensure that the nominee designations mirror your intention, irrespective of a Will being made, listing the true and intended beneficiary of the account.
Our goal as planners and professional advisors is to guide families to pass on their wealth to the intended beneficiaries in a clear and hassle-free manner. This means keeping families out of the judicial system and not have legal heirs bring a court action to assert his or her lawful claim over the estate assets against an unscrupulous nominee. Unfortunately, in its efforts to make things stress-free for grieving families, the Indian banking system may have inadvertently made it more difficult for lawful beneficiaries to claim what may have been theirs.
Poorvi Chothani, Esq. is the founder and managing partner of LawQuest, an employment and immigration boutique law firm. Poorvi, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania, is admitted to the bar in India and the USA and is a registered and practicing solicitor, England and Wales.
Sujatha R. Krishnaswamy is a Chartered Accountant & MBA from Georgia Tech. She is also the co-founder of Crestworth Management Partners Pvt. Ltd., management consultants & tax advisors, based in Bangalore, with a special focus on Indian and U.S. taxation for individuals.
Roopa P. Doraswamy, B.A., L.L.B (Hons), J.D., is a Co-Founder at Flywork Innovations Pvt. Ltd, a SaaS enabled marketplace for legal and compliance. She is a graduate of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore and Northeastern University School of Law, Boston
Sushma Nagaraj, B.A., L.L.B from Bangalore University, India is a qualified lawyer in India who manages an independent private law practice. Her specialty is in the areas of estate, trust and property laws in India.
Rekha V. Rao, J.D. from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University is the principal and founding member of Rao Legal Group, LLC. She is licensed to practice in New York and New Jersey and has developed her firm’s niche in the areas of estate planning, estate & trust administration, elder law, guardianship, and special needs planning.
Priya Gidwani is the CFO and founding member of Rainmaker. As a CFO with emerging, growth and mid-market companies, Priya’s experience spans everything from helping to launch start-up enterprises to managing finance for mid-size companies. Priya also has significant experience of working in the US with companies like Siebel Systems Inc. and Providian Financial Corporation. Priya is a Chartered Accountant from India and holds a Master’s degree in Accounting from Illinois State University.
 Note that not all bank accounts have or offer a POD or TOD designation but if it does (part of the contract), then such accounts will pass directly to the named beneficiary or beneficiaries and bypass probate
 Settlement of Claims in respect of deceased depositors – Simplification of Procedure; RBI/2004-05/490, DBOD. No. Leg. BC. 95/09.07.005/2004-05, 2(A)(2.1)(c),
https://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=2284&Mode=0#:~:text=Banks%20are%20advised%20to%20settle,(s)%2C%20to%20the%20bank’s [emphasis added]
 Id. at 2(A)(2.2).
 Id. at 2(B)(2.3)
 In its article, Legal heir or Nominee? Who is the rightful owner?, some cases cited to are: Shalkti Yezdani v. Jayanand Janat Salgaonkar, Smt. Sarbati Devi and Anr. V. Smt. Usha Devi, Uma Sehgal and Ors. vs. Dwarka Dass Sehgal And Ors etc.,
 Wrong Nominee and right nominee for bank A/cs, FDs, mutual funds, financial assets by Pragati Kapoor & Preeti Motiani, ET Online (2021), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/wealth/legal/will/wrong-nominee-and-right-nominee-for-bank-a/cs-fds-mutual-funds-financial-assets/articleshow/85396026.cms?from=mdr
New Jersey’s Intestate Share Title 3B:5-3: Intestate share of decedent’s surviving spouse or domestic partner
The intestate share of the surviving spouse or domestic partner is:
a) The entire intestate estate if:
- No descendant or parent of the decedent survives the decedent; or
- All of the decedent’s surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse or domestic partner, and there is no other descendant of the surviving spouse or domestic partner who survives the decedent.
b) The first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000.00 nor more than $200,000.00, plus three-fourths of any balance of the intestate estate, if no descendant of the decedent survives the decedent, but a parent of the decedent survives the decedent.
c) The first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000.00 nor more than $200,000.00, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate:
- If all of the decedent’s surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse or domestic partner and the surviving spouse or domestic partner has one or more surviving descendants who are not descendants of the decedent; or
- If one or more of the decedent’s surviving descendants is not a descendant of the surviving spouse or domestic partner.
IN PLAIN ENGLISH
If your spouse or domestic partner dies without a Will, then
- You, as the surviving spouse, can inherit the entire estate only if you and the decedent had children together, and these children were the only children from that marriage (and there were no other children from other marriages or relationships).
- If you are the surviving spouse, and you and the decedent had NO CHILDREN together AND if the decedent’s PARENTS are still alive, then you are entitled to get the first 25% of the decedent’s estate up to the first $50K and 75% of the remaining balance. The decedent’s parents get the rest!
- If you are the surviving spouse, and you and the decedent HAD CHILDREN/DESCENDANTS FROM OTHER MARRIAGES OR RELATIONSHIPS who are alive, then you are entitled to get the first 25% of the decedent’s estate up to the first $50K and 50% of the remaining balance. The other children get the rest!
- Understand the difference between probate assets and non-probate assets (check out our website for our blog posts about that) and know that the intestate estate only deals with probate assets.
- If you are (1) newly married; (2) do not have children; or (3) have a blended family, get yourself a Will now!!
Estate Planning Is Not Just for the Wealthy!
We have this saying here at Rao Legal Group (RLG): It does not matter whether you have $10K or $10M – if you have anything of value that you would like to pass on to someone, then you need to have your proper foundational documents in place to formalize your intentions. A cornerstone of foundational documents is your Will, an important element that determines what happens to your assets upon death. The Will can answer important questions such as:
- What will you leave for your children or your favorite charity?
- Who should take care of your minor children if you are not around?
- What do you want your funeral arrangements to include?
- How will your estate taxes be paid?
Unfortunately, more than half of the adults in the United States do not have a Will, which means when those individuals die, their assets (provided they were solvent) are distributed based on the laws of the state where they lived. There will be no consideration for what the person wanted during their lifetime.
Consider this hypothetical (but not uncommon) scenario:
Bill has no children and intends to leave his estate to his brother, Tom. Bill dies unexpectedly and never executed a Will or established a Trust during his lifetime. According to the laws of his state, Bill’s estate goes to his estranged wife, Susie, whom he had not spoken to in the past three years, but from whom he had not legally divorced.
Tom hires a lawyer and goes to court, but there is nothing the Court can do to help Tom because the law is on Susie’s side.
Bill did not get around to setting up his Will, because he did not expect to die when he did. Unfortunately, many people die unexpectedly, highlighting the need for a Will. What we hear often from clients who come to us to assist them with probating the estate of a loved one is that the decedent (the person who died) had planned to set up his or her Will but never got around to it. If Bill had created his estate plan, Tom would have avoided the unnecessary emotional and financial stress of dealing with litigation against Susie and would have received his inheritance, as his brother wished.
Many people also have the misconception that they do not need a Will because their estates are “straightforward,” in that their assets will automatically pass to their loved ones because they don’t have estranged wives or children from a prior relationship. But even for these individuals, having a Will is preferable than to dying intestate (without a Will). With a Will, you can name an executor or guardian of your choice; you can ensure that your assets pass to your spouse or children in trust instead of outright, which is invaluable if you have concerns about remarriage or spendthrift children; and you can clearly identify who must pay the estate taxes and how the distributions should be made to your loved ones. To put it simply, a Will makes it easy for the people handling your estate to know exactly what your wishes are.
When there is no Will, then you die “intestate,” and the laws of intestacy of that state control what happens to your assets. This means that someone will have to be appointed as the administrator (not Executor) of the estate, who will then need to get bonded before he or she can start doing the same work as the Executor, making the process lengthier and more expensive.
By creating a valid Will, you can make it easier and less expensive for your heirs to inherit your estate, and you can ensure that the right people become beneficiaries.
In conclusion: Estate Planning is not for just the wealthy. It is nothing more than the act of getting “what you have” over to “who you want to inherit.” We at RLG will help you formalize those intentions to give you peace of mind, knowing that your wishes are being carried out properly and in a seamless manner.
Benefits of Revocable Living Trusts
As a newbie estate planner, many moons ago, I heard the “gurus” of estate planning tout the benefits of New Jersey being a “probate friendly” state. This meant that New Jersey’s court systems were easy on a family’s representative to adhere to the rules and formalities to admit the Will to probate and was also relatively inexpensive In fact, I remember an incident at a Continuing Legal Education seminar once when an older, more experienced estate planning attorney berated a young managing attorney of a boutique Trusts & Estates firm for what he called “churning out” Revocable Living Trusts (or “Rev Trusts”, as we often call them) just to make more money. The older attorney felt that the younger attorney should respect the long-standing tradition of creating the simpler and less expensive Wills, like most New Jersey attorneys were doing at the time. Boy, times have changed! Today, some of those very “gurus” have come to realize the valuable role Rev Trusts play in many a client’s life – and not just because these clients have property out of state (which used to be one of the primary reason for setting up these trusts), but because their benefits far outweigh their downsides, which we will address later on in this article.
Do not get me wrong – having a Will is still far better than not having anything at all. It is better to formalize your intentions to ensure that the people who you want to receive your assets ultimately end up getting your assets, rather than letting New Jersey’s intestacy laws determine who those assets go to. For example, many starry-eyed newlyweds (am I dating myself if I refer to them as DINKs – Dual Income No Kids?) who haven’t begun to think about death or incapacity may be surprised to know that in the unlikely event that something should happen to them or their partner, if there is no will in place, their new spouse will need to share the assets of the estate with their parents. For those who would want their assets to go solely to their spouse, setting up a Will that stipulates this is a crucial step. An added bonus for newlyweds, Wills are less expensive (note that I did not say “cheap”) than Rev Trusts, and for these newlyweds, a simple Will package may be all that they need to get their affairs in order. And keep in mind, Rev Trusts (contrary to popular misconception) do not offer creditor protection or estate tax savings. They are purely meant to serve as Will substitutes or as one client called it – Rev Trusts are just “Wills 2.0”!
So one may ask the question – “If a will is good enough for the hypothetical newlyweds, why won’t it suffice for me??”
Well, planning becomes more complicated once you have children to pass on your assets to, and as your family grows you may begin to form opinions on how children ought to inherit the “gift” passing from you to them upon your death. Also, as the assets grow over time, investments also become more complex. Once you have reached this stage of life, you may begin considering how the benefits of a Revocable Living Trust apply to you, such as:
- They afford privacy (it is not a public document like the Will)
- They offer smooth succession upon incapacity
- So long as all assets are properly re-titled into the trusts, or at least have the trust named as a beneficiary, they completely avoid the courts (which may make a huge difference, especially if you have assets in multiple states some of which may have an expensive and cumbersome probate process, such as New York, California or Florida)
- They travel with you. For example, imagine that you set up a Rev Trust in NJ and transfer assets into it, and then move to New York, you can still keep the same trust (but you may want to just have a NY attorney restate the trust to make it compliant to NY law).
However, there are 2 additional important considerations that you may not have thought about:
- With the Rev Trust, the cost of probating a Will upon death is avoided (or at least minimized). If you think about the savings in probate costs down the road, you may not mind paying a small premium for a Rev Trust plan now rather than three times that amount down the road (it could be as much as $5k now compared to $15k later).
- Having a Revocable Living Trust can save your beneficiaries valuable time. Imagine you are concerned about how your children (or other non-spousal beneficiaries) will inherit your assets, and you create a testamentary trust to protect the assets passing to them. If you are a resident of the state of New Jersey and have a testamentary trust in place but no Rev Trust, your beneficiaries will be forced to wait 9-15 months (maybe more if the Tax Branch is understaffed) until they receive their full inheritance. This is because New Jersey has an interesting rule: If assets do not flow into a trust at death (such as when the decedent has a Rev Trust), then the Executor can easily sign a self-executing waiver and transfer all of the assets immediately to the estate, and then to the beneficiaries. However, if assets are to pass into a trust, then the Executor/Trustee has to file a tax return with the State of New Jersey Estate and Inheritance Tax Branch and patiently wait until the waiver is received before the full amount of assets can be transferred over.
Now for the cons of a Rev Trust. After drafting several hundred Wills & Trusts for our clients as well as assisting a similar number of families with probate upon the death of a loved one, I really and truly believe that the cons of setting up a Rev Trust boil down to just 2 compared to a Will:
- Its more expensive than a Will to set up – almost double in cost; and
- It’s a 2-step process – unlike a Will plan, which is complete upon signing, in the case of Rev Trusts, you still need to “fill ‘em up” after you sign the trust agreements and when the trusts become effective. This is an essential part of the process that leaves many clients nervous, intimidated, and downright fearful of the administrative hassles they expect to encounter. That said, like anything else that reaps huge rewards at the end (no pain, no gain, right?), in my humble opinion, the short-term hassles seem worth it in the long run.
Families (especially non-spousal beneficiaries) find inheriting assets smooth and hassle free when they inherit assets from Rev Trusts. They don’t have to run around from institution to institution trying to transfer over the assets into the estate, struggle with the court formalities to ensure all of the court’s rules & regulations are adhered to, pay large retainers to attorneys to help these families with the probate process, file tax returns when necessary, and where applicable get trustees qualified in Court once assets are ready to be distributed to the beneficiaries’ trusts. These delays and added costs (which add up in the long run) make setting up Rev Trusts more desirable – maybe not for all clients but more and more for a good number of New Jersey residents.
In conclusion – most of our clients who have shied away from Rev Trusts over these years, have really done so because of the cost factor – they said they were not quite ready to spend on a trust just yet. And while that is a legitimate concern, there are some people whose estates are too complex to be properly covered by a simple last will and testament package. Although the price tag may seem high at first glance, spending some extra effort and money on a Revocable Living Trust now can prevent one’s loved ones from dealing with a mountain of bills and paperwork in the future.
Rao Legal Group, LLC is committed to providing comprehensive estate plans which include both Last Wills & Testaments or Revocable Living Trusts. Our packages not only include the main document that will cover you (and spouse) upon death but our well designed General Durable Powers of Attorney (authorizing someone to handle financial affairs) and the Healthcare Power of Attorney (authorizing someone to handle healthcare decisions) will ensure that you are adequately protected upon incapacity as well. Call us today – we are just a phone call away!
Getting Documents Signed Amid Coronavirus Precautions
During this time of worldwide uncertainty, many of us are facing huge portions of our lives suddenly being moved online. Telecommuting has proven that we can do plenty of our daily activities from home—but there are still limitations. Historically, the signing and notarization of estate planning documents is not something that can be done without all participants sitting together at a table with the physical documents between them. In many places and for many kinds of documents, this is still true, but remote online notarization is a practice that is gaining more recognition.
In New York, Governor Cuomo recently signed an executive order amidst coronavirus precautions allowing the use of remote online notarization statewide; this is an unprecedented usage of executive orders.1 Some have called for guidance from the highest state courts regarding this action, seeking assurance that the order will be allowed to stand before its validity is confirmed. At the same time, other states are considering the option to take similar measures in order to respond to the spread of coronavirus worldwide—these orders may have even been signed by the time of this reading.
For a few weeks, New Jersey lagged behind many states who had already jumped on the bandwagon. Both houses of the New Jersey state legislature debated whether “certain notarial acts” could be performed remotely since mid-March, but it took until nearly a month later for an Act to be signed into law. On April 14, Governor Murphy signed a bill into law that allows for certain kinds of remote notarization during the Public Health Emergency and State of Emergency declared by the governor in Executive Order 103 of 2020.2 Frustratingly, this Act excludes the signing of wills and codicils. However, it is at least applicable for matters such as the creation of HIPAA waivers, healthcare directives, and powers of attorney.3 Firms have developed creative strategies to sign estate planning documents during the past month of waiting to hear whether the bill would pass; now that we have a path forward, we can use remote online notarization in conjunction with these strategies to ensure that we continue to serve our clients’ needs without face to face conference room type meetings.
Overall, 23 states have approved remote online notarization in some capacity, though the requirements and breadth of this ability differ from state to state. Efforts are underway to establish federally recognized remote online notarization.4 The SECURE Notarization Act is a proposed bill in the Senate that aims to do exactly that, legalizing remote online notarizations nationwide—possibly immediately, should it be passed. Currently, the text of the bill is not available, but a summary of the bill indicates that it will provide minimum security standards for the usage of remote online notarization as well as provide certainty for recognition of online notarization between states. States would continue to have the flexibility to implement their own remote online notarization standards above the federal baseline.
As with many other things during the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak, the status of New Jersey’s remote online notarization is still uncertain as the situation continues to unfold. If you are concerned about how best to get your documents executed within the state during this time, the best thing you can do is speak to a specialized estate planning attorney who you can trust to evaluate your options and explain what options may potentially be on the way in the coming days to look out for. Here at Rao Legal Group, LLC (“RLG”) we are utilizing phone calls and video conferences to continue to provide our clients with the outstanding service we are known for while keeping the distance necessary to protect our communities. We are available to help you—call us today to learn more about how we can help you prepare for the future at a time when it’s more important than ever to do so.
- 1. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-2027-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency
- 2. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp?BillNumber=A3903
- 3. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp?BillNumber=A3864
- 4. https://senatorkevincramer.app.box.com/s/baz8p9czm0bijkicxbeb7mb7cxby7mio
Things we still need to be grateful for in 2019…!
This Thanksgiving, there are several things that we need to be grateful for—and hey, we are after all an estate planning firm, so naturally we’re talking from the estate planning perspective.
Many of you may already know that we are currently in a taxpayer favorable environment and so it behooves us all to at least take notice, if not take advantage of, some of the planning techniques that are still around for the foreseeable future. Changes may occur in the administration a lot sooner than we all anticipated, so the “wait and see” approach is now no longer prudent—being thankful for the current environment may mean acting now rather than later. Some of the tax law changes that are being talked about will directly impact YOU. It isn’t only the wealthiest people who need to pay attention; the moderate to high net worth client may have big changes waiting around the corner [fn: our definition of moderately wealthy is anyone who has or might soon have a net worth of 3.5 million dollars and above if single and over 7 million dollars if married (and U.S. citizens)].
The current gift exemption is the highest it’s ever been—but it might be going down:
Currently, our lifetime tax exemptions for gifting are $11.4 million per person; $22.8 million for a married couple (2019 amounts). This is both an estate and gift tax exemption, which means that if you don’t gift anything during your lifetime, your estate has this entire amount as an exemption upon your death for estate tax purposes. However, there are proposals in Congress to lower this amount—some to as low as $1 million for the gift exemption and $3.5 million for the estate exemption. While this may not be an immediate concern to most of us, it might become critical for those who are in the $3.5 to $7 million range in asset net worth as planning opportunities for those in that net worth range might be extremely limited.
Grantor trusts are highly tax efficient—but they may no longer be an option:
Until now, estate planners have been able to successfully set up irrevocable trusts as an estate planning strategy; these trusts remove an asset from a client’s name while allowing them to still take advantage of the client’s income tax brackets instead of the trust’s compressed tax brackets due to certain provisions in the tax code. However, now it seems like grantor trusts may no longer be a viable planning vehicle due to ongoing talks that the grantor trust may be eliminated. If that truly is the case, planning NOW ahead of those changes may be vital to avoid paying increased taxes as part of your estate.
GRATs remove taxes on asset appreciation—but they may also disappear:
Grantor retained annuity trusts (or GRATs) are commonly used as planning techniques to minimize taxes on certain taxable estates; they allow clients to pay taxes on the transfer of an asset upfront, meaning that any appreciation in the asset’s value will pass ownership at the end of the trust’s term tax-free. However, these may no longer be around by the end of 2020. This also means that wealthier clients may not be able to sell, loan or transfer assets to these trusts either, thereby removing these popularly used techniques from the planning vocabulary.
Irrevocable life insurance trusts (ILITs) allow clients to make large lifetime gifts—but they may be affected by the annual exclusion:
Until now, we have always recommended that grantors try to utilize unlimited annual exemptions per donee trust beneficiary so large annual premiums to trust would not need to be reported as eating into a client’s lifetime gift amount. However, there’s some talk about limiting the annual exclusion amount to $20,000 per year per donee and $10,000 per year per donor in total, so that strategy may be turned on its head. Estate planners need to think about the future of such strategies and what impact these changes will have on clients who have large premiums coming out this year into the trusts.
So what does this mean?
Not much for those with estates that fall well under the estate tax threshold as of right now (or even if there’s a decrease in exemption). But for those moderately wealthy and high net worth clients, it may be wise to start planning with the horizon in mind. Taking advantage of the high gift exemptions now might be a good idea, but doing it in such a way that it is protected inside of a trust is prudent. There is a lot of opportunity for families with either less wealthy parents or more wealthy children to allow them to either utilize their exemptions or their children’s exemptions to ensure planning strategies are implemented now (well before the 2020 storm happens) for maximum benefits no matter what comes in the future. This is especially true where spouses may need to transfer assets to one another to allow for enough time to pass between such transfers (i.e. 2019-2020) so that planning strategies for both spouses’ assets can be implemented.
For those clients with irrevocable life insurance trusts or ILITs, they might want to take advantage of paying the future premiums in advance of any changes to avoid being impacted negatively by the new annual gift exemptions proposed by the Democratic party in Congress.
Finally, while there is no guarantee that any of these above changes are going to be written into law, and we certainly do not want the tax tail to wag the estate planning dog, we can be both thankful and mindful at once. We currently have in place the highest recorded exemptions in history and access to a number of crucial strategies to preserve our clients’ assets. So if any of the information above concerns you and you want to benefit from implementing some of these techniques to grandfather them into your estate plan ahead of a potentially-changing tax regime, then we hope you will call our office right away so we can put into motion a plan that you can be thankful for—in 2020 and well beyond.
Why the Sensational Administration of Leona Helmsley’s Estate Matters For You
Leona Helmsley, a hotel owner and real-estate investor known by many as “The Queen of Mean,” died in 2007, leaving behind over $4 billion in assets. At first, it would seem like she did everything to leave her estate organized the way one is supposed to; she left a 14-page Will behind with little ambiguity as to how her sizable assets would be divided upon her death, neatly packaged into individual testamentary trusts for her grandkids to be set up after her death and to be paid out over time. And yet, the final Court ruling did not conclude until earlier this year in 2019—a full 12 years since her passing—due to various disputes by disgruntled beneficiaries.1 She had a Will, so why did the probate process take so long?
The answer comes back not only to the unusual size of her Estate, but also to the language of Mrs. Helmsley’s Last Will and Testament. While it was explicit in reflecting who would receive what amount of money and how, her intentions guiding such declarations were less clear. She had disinherited two of her four grandchildren, and yet her Will’s only mention of them was as follows:
“I have not made any provisions in this Will for my grandson CRAIG PANZIRER or my granddaughter MEEGAN PANZIRER for reasons which are known to them.” 2
This declaration was in stark contrast to the $12 million dollars left to her dog, Trouble, who she wished to have buried beside her (an impossibility due to New York State laws barring animals from being interred alongside human remains). This significant apparent inequity in pay-outs caused a foreseeable Will contest by the disinherited heirs, leading to a Court settlement on this issue in 2008.3 It’s possible that despite what she thought were clear instructions to disinherit her grandchildren, the lack of clearly laid out reasons for their omission and the large bequest to her pet opened up questions on the testator’s state of mind which ultimately resulted in a favorable outcome for the disinherited grandchildren.
Better foresight by Mrs. Helmsley and her drafting attorney of an inevitable Will contest and the Court’s possible ruling in favor of family members over pets may have prevented this situation. While Mrs. Helmsley’s Will was probated in New York, both New York and New Jersey allow Wills to be contested due to incapacity or undue influence even if there is a standard no-contest provision written into the Will. Full disclosure in a Will or better yet, setting up a Revocable Living Trust to ensure the courts are not involved, may have avoided this lengthy legal battle. Furthermore, a Revocable Living Trust would have kept all this messy family drama out of the public eye.
Of course, that’s not all there is to say regarding Leona Helmsley’s Will and the Estate Administration that followed; even at the end of probate, there was another issue regarding Executor compensation that was only finalized this past August. This matter was brought before the Court in 2016, and finally in 2019 the Court awarded $100 million to be divided equally between four Executors, with an additional $6.25 million to be paid to the Estate of the fifth Executor. This was over the objections of New York Attorney General’s office, which claimed that the compensation was an exorbitant amount and suggested it be cut by as much as 90 percent, based on a third party expert evaluation.
The Court upheld the Executors’ request for the $100 million fee, explaining that their efforts could not be accurately measured by an hourly compensation and that these Executors faced extensive challenges in dealing with the administration of the Estate. This decision resulted in fees paid to the Executors five times more than the original individual bequests included in the Will.
Was this decision in line with Mrs. Helmsley’s intentions? Most likely not. Generally, statutory laws dictate how much an Executor is entitled to as compensation out of the Estate barring any specific provisions about this in the Will. Therefore, if you have thoughts on how you would like your Executors to be compensated for their work, or if you would like to provide flexibility in their fees that the law does not, a specialized estate planning attorney can advise you on the best way to include such considerations in your Will.
Leona Helmsley’s Will, though it encompasses more assets than most of us are likely to have in our lifetimes, illustrates several of the nuanced challenges faced when writing a Will. Sandor Frankel, the attorney who drafted her Will, had nearly 40 years of litigation experience, but he was not an estate planning lawyer. This outcome for Mrs. Helmsley’s estate highlights the importance of working with a specialized Estate Planning lawyer who understands how to effectively deter Will contests and draft documents with the end goal of avoiding court intervention. Ensure that your Estate does not face these challenges after your passing by drafting your Will with a lawyer who understands how to plan for the needs of your unique situation.