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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 1. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-2027-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency
  2. 2. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp?BillNumber=A3903
  3. 3. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp?BillNumber=A3864
  4. 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.

 

How Remote Are Remote Contingency Provisions?

As an estate planning attorney, it is my job to talk about death and taxes in a very matter of fact manner.  When I sit down with my clients to design their documents, I try to take emotions out of the conference room as we go through what should happens at first death or second death.  When we come to the final part of the Will design, I ask – “In the unlikely event that all of you (you, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids) are not around to take their share, who would you want your assets to go to?” – and I get this uncomfortable laugh and oftentimes responses like “Wow, I did not think about that!” or “Whoa, that is crazy – who thinks that far?” or at times “C’mon, that is never going to happen so do you really need me to answer that?”…but I still go through the motions until they come up with an answer and once the documents are signed, this is likely to go into distant memory hoping that it will never be addressed…ever!

 

So when I heard about the Indian family of 4 (Thottapilly family ages 41, 38, 12 & 9)¹ who went missing on April 5, 2018 in Northern California while on a road trip and their bodies were later found submerged in the river into which their SUV crashed, all I could think of is that this remote provision was not that remote after all!

 

It could have been any family, this could have been any happy vacation – all it takes is a set of unfortunate conditions -Mother Nature at her worst or a terrorist act or human error.  Whatever the case may be, it goes back to the sad truth that nothing is certain except for death and taxes…and its not “if” but “when.”  Perhaps at this point we may not really care what happens to our assets if those closest and precious to us are gone but, by putting in place a contingency plan for both predictable and unpredictable events, you at the very least ensuring that your assets don’t pass to those you who dont want them going to and this may very likely happen if you leave behind no Will and your assets pass through the laws of intestacy.

Consult with an estate planning attorney today and make sure that your overall objectives for your assets, whether remote or not so remote, are fulfilled!

 


¹https://www.cbsnews.com/news/missing-thottapilly-family-personal-items-found-mendocino-california/