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[1], 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.” [2]

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”[3].  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.”[4]

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[5].  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[6]. 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[7].

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.

 

Contributing Authors:

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.

 

[1] 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

[2] 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]

[3]  Id. at 2(A)(2.2).

[4] Id. at 2(B)(2.3)

[5] 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.,

https://s3.amazonaws.com/documents.lexology.com/6edb5a5b-1308-4947-bfac-5f69d1f58278.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAVYILUYJ754JTDY6T&Expires=1650889871&Signature=dfN8XJOf4BRwSKqO3v4VdBueUbE%3D

[6] Id.

[7] 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:

  1. No descendant or parent of the decedent survives the decedent; or
  2. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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!

 

TAKEAWAYS

  • 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!!

Do Your Children Know Where Your Assets Are? The Importance of proper Estate Planning!

There are several reasons why it is important to have an estate plan. However, by far, one of the overarching reasons people have told us why they want an estate plan in place is because they want to see their loved ones inherit the full benefit of their hard-earned assets, in a smooth hassle-free manner.

When you pass away, it is the job of the Executor (after he or she gets appointed by the Court) to marshal up all of the assets in the estate, pay off all debts and expenses before distributing the remaining assets in accordance with your Will. To do this, the Executor needs to know what assets you owned at the time of your death.

A good estate plan will include a separate list of assets which the Executor can then refer to and use to make sure the beneficiaries receive what is due and owing to them. If your estate plan does not have such a list, you run the risk of certain assets going unclaimed and subsequently escheated over to the State.

Example, John dies in 2017 and his brother Bill is the named Executor. Bill starts searching through all of John’s desks, drawers and filing cabinets to see what, if any, documentation he can find about John’s assets.  During his search, he uncovers bank account statements from Wells Fargo, so he contacts Wells Fargo to inform them of his brother’s death and has the accounts turned over to an Estate account.  From this account, Bill uses to pay for John’s funeral and other expenses/debts before distributing the rest of the money to John’s children.

What Bill did not know, however, is that John also had an account with Bank of America that was worth $25,000. John had requested these statements to be sent to him online so there was no record of this account among John’s paperwork.  Moreover, John had last used the account in 2015, so in 2018, after three years of inactivity, Bank of America, per its internal policies and state rules, turned over the account to the state.

Once the state has unclaimed property, the owner has a limited amount of time to claim the property before the state can claim the property for itself. Each state has its own rules as to how long owners have to reclaim his or her property.  According to the New Jersey Department of Treasury, approximately 1 in every 10 individuals, has unclaimed property.[1]  Common examples include unpaid life insurance benefits, forgotten bank accounts, utility deposits and unused rebate cards.

In this case, if Bill never learns of the Bank of America account (or if he does not learn of it in time to claim the money for the Estate), then John’s children will be out of luck.

A good estate planning firm should offer as part of their fee, an asset list that incorporates every single asset/account you own along with recommendations on how to retitle ownership into trusts (should you decide to establish one or more) as well as how to properly update your beneficiary designations. These firms would also be mindful of overseas assets that are particularly susceptible to escaping the notice of an otherwise diligent Executor.  Not all estate planning law firms offer detailed spreadsheets prepared in conjunction with the estate plan. Therefore, it is extremely important when choosing a law firm to assist with your estate plan to not only pick one that specializes in estate planning but can also offer these important (yet hidden) value-adds as a normal and commonplace part of its overall fee package. Ultimately, a good law firm’s objectives must be aligned with your own and which can help set up a proper estate plan for you to ensure your loved ones inherit the full benefit of your hard-earned assets.

 

[1] As a fun exercise, check out this link to see if you or a loved one may have unclaimed property right now that may have escheated to New Jersey State: https://unclaimedfunds.nj.gov/app/claim-search

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.

Revocable Trusts – Common Misconceptions

A few days ago, I was explaining the concept of “funding” to clients who were new to the world of estate planning, and I was struck by the fact that what I’d always thought were commonly understood concepts were actually the cause of significant gaps in the clients’ understanding of what trusts do and how they operate. The two main areas of confusion appear to be in: 1) figuring out exactly how trusts differ from wills; and 2) the mechanics of how accounts are transferred into trusts, which make the trust the “new owner” of those accounts. This article hopes to shed light on these two seemingly simple (or so I thought!) concepts: trusts and trust funding.

We’ve heard people use the word trusts in different settings and under different circumstances. Many mistakenly believe that all trusts offer asset protection. However, not all trusts are made equal – trusts can either be living (i.e. inter-vivos trusts set up during the lifetime of the Settlor or Grantor) or testamentary (i.e. those that become effective upon the death of an individual). All testamentary trusts are irrevocable, but living trusts can be revocable or irrevocable.

Living trusts are typically stand-alone entities that become effective immediately upon the signing of the trust agreement. Those that are revocable are called Revocable Living Trusts, RLTs, or Will substitutes. These RLTs allow a Grantor (also called a Settlor or Trustor) to set up the trust and retain full control of the trust assets as a Trustee, while enjoying the full benefits of the trust assets as a beneficiary. There are several benefits for setting up an RLT, but more notably, RLTs are meant to avoid probate upon death and the associated hassle-ridden probate process in some states.

In contrast, Irrevocable Living Trusts cannot be changed once established. The Grantor transfers assets into trust by assignment, sale, gift, or loan, and then completely gives up control over the assets. The two main benefits of irrevocable trusts are: 1) assets are removed from the Grantor’s estate upon his or her death, thereby avoiding estate taxes; and 2) assets are protected from both the Grantor’s creditors as well as the creditors and predators of the beneficiaries. Properly designed trusts may even escape Medicaid recovery and preserve assets for the Grantor’s ultimate beneficiaries should the Grantor be receiving public benefits. Regardless of which irrevocable trust is used, these trusts are typically sophisticated planning techniques established as part of an individual or married couple’s advanced planning. They should always accompany a robust foundational plan complete with a Will and/or an RLT, a General Durable Power of Attorney, and Advanced Healthcare Directive. For more information on the benefits of an RLT, check out our earlier posts on this subject.[1]

When it comes to “funding” trusts though, it is important to note that this term of art refers the act of transferring accounts into the trust or retitling assets into the name of the trusts and has nothing to do with refinancing or getting loans to trusts. The following comparison may help provide a better understanding of how RLTs[2] actually “receive” assets.

If you think of your trust as a cookie jar, then our firm would work with you to take your cookie jar from concept to design to setup. Once you sign the trust agreement, your cookie jar is now ready to be filled with assets or “cookies.” And because your trust is like your alter-ego, it can do almost anything you can do. This means that if you have five bank accounts, each at a different bank, and you want to continue to bank at these five banks, then you can open five trust accounts at these banks. Our office would then provide you with the necessary documentation you need to present to your bank representative, who will then open a new trust account and give you a new account number. Depending on the type of trust you are setting up (revocable or irrevocable), the account will either be associated with your social security number or have its own separate tax identification number (or EIN#) for income tax reporting moving forward. This process of funding may involve several back-and-forth communications with institutions and can sometimes be challenging, especially if the bank representative is unfamiliar with trusts. This is when your choice of law firm becomes critical, so the firm can coordinate with you and the institutions to see this process through to the end. Our hope is that as trusts become more and more mainstream, funding becomes less daunting on Grantors, who can then leave their organized estates to their loved ones in a smooth manner, completely free of the probate process.

This article would not be considered complete if we did not address funding in connection with real property, businesses, and accounts with beneficiary designations. Here is a quick synopsis of how these assets are funded:

  • REAL PROPERTY: Real property must undergo a title change (i.e. the deed needs to reflect the new owner as the trust) in order for this to properly avoid probate. This deed must be recorded at the county clerk’s office just like any other deed. So long as the property is being transferred into an RLT, and the Grantor continues to reside in the property, a lender holding mortgage to the property cannot trigger the due on sale clause as the Grantor is protected by statute.
  • BUSINESSES: Depending on how a business is structured (LLC, S Corp., C Corp.), a Grantor-owner’s interest could be assigned to the RLT.
  • ACCOUNTS: Accounts passing by beneficiary designations, typically retirement accounts, life insurance policies. and/or brokerage and investment accounts with beneficiaries, must be amended to ensure the RLT (or its subtrusts for the various beneficiaries) is the primary beneficiary of these accounts.

While funding is relatively straightforward and may be handled by the Grantor on his or her own, it is always best to do so under the guidance and counsel of the drafting attorney (or even let the drafting attorney’s office handle the funding process for an extra fee) to ensure the transition is completely correctly and efficiently.

 

[1] Benefits of Revocable Living Trusts: https://estateelderplanning.com/2020/09/01/why-revocable-living-trusts-should-not-be-getting-such-a-bad-rap-in-new-jersey/ and Revocable Living Trusts Misunderstood: https://estateelderplanning.com/2018/02/26/legal-tip-of-the-week-22518/

[2] Our focus in this article is to address funding challenges with Revocable Living Trusts and only briefly discusses Irrevocable Living Trusts in passing.

Per Stirpes, Per Capita, and By Representation – What does this all mean and why this may impact your estate planning!

Per Stirpes. Per Capita. By Representation. Have you come across any of these terms in your (or a family member’s) estate planning documents? If you have, did you truly understood what they meant? Chances are you may have glossed over these terms of art, never giving much consideration, knowing they sounded strange, or assuming they were typos. Whatever the case, you might have put those thoughts aside, not reading into it further.  However, in certain circumstances, these terms may have a large impact your estate planning.

When the recipient of property under a will (or by intestate succession) dies before the death of the person leaving the property, a determination must be made as to who will receive the property. [1]

Per Stirpes (which means “by way of the stems or stocks” in Latin) and Per Capita (Latin for “by way of the heads”) are the two most commonly used methods to divide property.  In some states, there is also a third hybrid method known as “Per Capita at Each Generation” or “By Representation.” New Jersey, like the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), has adopted this hybrid approach.

These terminologies rarely make a difference when all of your named beneficiaries are alive at the time of your death. However, they may make a significant impact when one or more beneficiaries have predeceased you, and have left behind children themselves. This could leave your fiduciaries in a bind if the document does not clearly spell out who should receive the property.

Here is an example which may help understand the concepts better:

Facts: A, the Testator, has 3 children, C, D, and E. C died two years ago leaving behind 3 children – P, Q, and R. D died last year leaving behind 1 child – S. E is alive with no children of her own. If A dies, the terminology specifies how the asset divisions would play out:

  • Per Stirpes: C, D, and E would each get 1/3 share. Since C is predeceased, his children, P, Q, and R would equally share 1/3 of this share (1/6 each); S would get the full 1/3 share of D; and E would get her full 1/3.
  • Per Capita: Here, there would be 5 shares for the total of 5 heads: 3 shares for C’s children, 1 share for D’s child, and 1 for E. Everyone, including E, would get 1/5 of the estate.
  • Per Capita at Each Generation or By Representation: In this method of distribution, each surviving child (or the generation nearest to the designated ancestor) gets a share, and all of the remaining shares are divided equally among the surviving descendants of the deceased children. Therefore, in the above example, E would keep her 1/3 share and the 4 grandkids (3 children of C, and 1 child of D) would get to equally share the remaining 2/3.

Key Takeaway

If you would like your estate to be divided in a specific way, it is important to have a discussion with your estate planning attorney, who can choose the right terminology to help fulfill your objectives.

[1] Robert B. Fleming & Lisa Nachmias Davis, Elder Law Answer Book, Q 4:25 (4th Edition, 2021-2 Supp. 2016)

My special needs child is about to turn 18 – What should I do?

Children with special needs, who are under the age of 18, are considered minors in the state of New Jersey. Until then, parents have full authority to act on behalf of their child(ren) when it comes to making important decisions. But once the child turns 18, parents are often caught off guard when they discover that although the child continues to be dependent on his or her parents long after they turn 18, parents no longer have the same authority as before, as the children are now deemed adults under the eyes of the law. Financial, legal, and healthcare decisions can no longer be made as before, and in the unfortunate situation when one or both parents pass away, assets passing to the child as an inheritance could trigger adverse consequences if the child has been receiving critical government benefits.

So what can you do now to avoid a disaster from occurring?

As a first step, you will need to begin the process of a guardianship (typically, this should be started a few months before the child turns 18). This involves filing a Verified Complaint with the courts, requesting your (and your spouse, where applicable), appointment as legal guardian of your child.  While it is rare for a judge to deny guardianship to a parent, the formalities of the guardianship process still need to be adhered to. 

The application must include, among other things, certifications from two physicians (one of these could be made by a licensed psychologist). The court will then appoint an attorney to conduct an investigation of the interested parties and then prepare a report for the judge, either confirming or rejecting the appointment of the Petitioner. Finally, a hearing is conducted before the judge, so all relevant parties can appear and be heard in court. Once the judge approves the appointment, a final judgment containing the decision is circulated to all parties. 

At this time, the parent(s) will need to appear at the surrogate’s office to become qualified and collect their Letter of Appointment. Be prepared to incur some expenses associated with the filing fees and legal costs, especially if you choose to go with private attorneys for both the submission of your application (as opposed to going pro se) and for the court appointment. Depending on the situation, a court may also be able to appoint an attorney from the Public Defender’s office at no charge to the parents, but this could delay things a bit. A final judgment signed by the judge at the end of the proceeding will then grant you the right to procure Letters of Guardianship.

The next step is to consider whether or not you want to set up Special Needs Trusts (SNT) for your child. Here you have an option to set up (1) a first-party special needs trust and/or (2) a third-party supplemental needs trust as stand-alone trusts. These trusts can hold assets of your child’s or assets passing from you, respectively, without jeopardizing your child’s government benefits. These assets are meant to supplement, but not supplant, any other benefits so your child can have an enhanced quality of life without concern that the critical benefits provided by the government would be denied.  

Finally, you should definitely consider setting up or updating your own existing estate plan to ensure that all of your assets passing to your child upon death are protected by either having the assets pass into the stand alone SNT that you set up (see above paragraph), or have it pass into a SNT under your Will. It is  important to consult with the estate planning attorney as to which trust should hold the inheritance.  Inadvertently naming the wrong SNT could result in having the assets inside of the trust going to the estate, instead of the family or other heirs.  

Primer on Spousal Access Trusts – What you need to know about this important estate planning technique!

Very often we meet clients looking for a more nuanced estate planning with specific assets – they may want to (1) protect assets from creditors; or (2) they would like to minimize the estate tax liability upon death. For these clients, Irrevocable Trusts are a critical piece of advanced estate planning that can accomplish these goals. It is important to remember here that these trusts are set up in addition to (and not in lieu of) their foundational planning, which typically consists of Wills or Revocable Living Trusts, as well as the Financial or Healthcare Powers of Attorney.

Irrevocable Trusts come in many flavors – insurance trusts or ILITs, gifting trusts for children, residence trusts or QPRTs, and a whole lot more in between. These trusts can either be established locally (i.e. situs of the trust is New Jersey), or a NJ resident can situs his or her trust in other U.S. states with favorable Domestic Asset Protection Trust laws (also called DAPT states).

This post discusses the popular Spousal Access Trusts or SLATs, where the spouse of the Grantor or Settlor of the trust is a named beneficiary, while the trust continues to accomplish its primary objectives regarding creditor protection and estate tax savings. It is key to remember here that if the 2-SLAT approach is being utilized (one trust each for the husband and the wife), then utmost care must be taken by the drafter of these trusts to ensure the trusts are not identical to one another, which would run afoul of the reciprocal trust doctrine.

Consider the following when establishing these trusts in New Jersey:

  • Pros:
    • There is no need to get an outside Independent Trustee who is a resident – a trusted friend would be able to serve in this role.
    • There is no need for outside counsel review.
    • You can accomplish the current asset protection goals even with the spouse as a beneficiary, but the Grantor[1] of the trust cannot become a beneficiary of the trust if the two primary objectives of creditor protection and estate tax savings are desired.
  • Cons:
    • The Grantor cannot be (or be added back later) as a named beneficiary.
    • Death of a spouse-beneficiary can make things problematic for the Grantor, who will now no longer have access to the funds in the trust.
    • If the 2-SLAT approach is being used, then there is higher probability of IRS scrutiny if both trusts are sitused in NJ.

However, if we go outside the state of NJ to one of the DAPT states[2], these trusts become more sophisticated and robust, but are also expensive – not only for set up but also in annual costs. The following are some considerations:

  • Pros:
    • The Grantor can be added back as a beneficiary after the trust is set up.
    • There are greater asset protection laws in these DAPT states, so creditor challenges are much harder.
    • With the 2-SLAT approach, situsing these trusts in two different DAPT states ensures even greater asset protection.
    • Resident Trustees can be Directed Trustees where they are only acting upon the direction of another – this keeps costs down each year.
    • This approach has potential to avoid IRS/Creditor scrutiny, especially where an independent, objective third party is serving as a trustee.
  • Cons:
    • This route is more expensive, because these are sophisticated trusts part of advanced planning.
    • Co-counsel needs to be retained to get the trusts reviewed by attorneys in that state.
    • Resident Trustees are a requirement.
    • Although trustees may be “Directed Trustees,” depending on the DAPT state, annual fees may vary between states and could become quite costly.

To minimize costs, some alternate solutions include:

  1. Staying within NJ and set up both trusts within the state, but be willing to give up some of the added benefits of DAPTs.
  2. Creating one trust in a DAPT jurisdiction and another trust in NJ, so you can take advantage of the “pros” for at least one trust, where the Grantor can be named back as the beneficiary.

 

 

 

[1] Grantor refers to the individual setting up the trust and is often used interchangeably with the terms Trustor or Settlor.

[2] As of 2020, there are at least 19 states that are now considered to be DAPT states and which have amended their statues to offer strong creditor protection and favorable treatment towards Grantors’ irrevocable trusts. http://www.actec.org/assets/1/6/Shaftel-Comparison-of-the-Domestic-Asset-Protection-Trust-Statutes.pdf

Navigating Cultural Differences in Estate Planning

For those of you who don’t know, I am of South Asian descent. I grew up in Bangalore, India and came to the United States as a young adult in the 1980s. Growing up, I was surrounded by extended family members – my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were part of my everyday world. It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I discovered that the family structure I was accustomed to was not a familiar concept in the United States. Culturally, in India the family structure is very different from that of its US counterpart  – we treat our extended family as part of our nucleus. Although less common now,  the “joint family system” was the norm for many Indian families, and some households still function like this today. In the joint family system, the oldest son typically does not leave the family home.  Instead, after he gets married, his new wife joins her husband in the family home. Children are then raised in the family home, growing up alongside their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In fact, in Indian culture, cousins are referred to as “cousin-brother” and “cousin-sister”, which I think is an excellent illustration of how close extended family members are. I was surprised to discover this term was alien in the United States!

So why does all this matter in the context of estate planning? Because at the heart of estate planning is family, and the US legal system considers family much differently than India, especially  when it comes to estate, inheritance, or gift taxes. For example, in estate planning cases US law treats extended family differently than how it treats the immediate nuclear family. As a result, I am often confronted with a situation among my South-Asian clients where uncles and aunts, who treat their nieces and nephews as their own children, are bewildered that there is a separate taxation structure if they wanted to divide their estate equally among their children, nieces, and nephews.

There is also a culture clash when it comes to attorney-client privilege. For many South Asian families, it is presumed that sons or sons-in-law who become the head of the household (when the father or father-in-law passes away) can speak on behalf of their parents or in-laws when it comes to estate planning. This is compounded when not all members of the family speak English fluently.  Many South Asian immigrants (most commonly homemaker wives) who came to the US in the mid 20th century never really became fluent in the English language and must rely on their children to serve as interpreters for them.

However, according to N.J.S.A 2A: 84A-20 (3), a client is a someone who consults with a lawyer for the purpose of getting legal advice, and any communication that is made during this relationship is subject to attorney-client privilege.  The client expects that the attorney will act in the best interests of the client at all costs and will protect the client from any undue influence. The presence of some other person could nullify this privilege and could lead to disclosure in a court of law.  Most Will contests are due to the presence of a third person (a sibling, a friend etc.) in the room  who may be unduly influencing the client to set up a Will that may be contrary to his or her initial objectives.

Therefore, for US attorneys who are not familiar with the Indian family dynamics, there is confusion and misunderstanding when they represent their Indian clientele and discover that they are not just interacting with the individual or couple who signed the engagement agreement, but often their extended  family as well! The attorneys are (and rightfully so!) concerned that: (1) there may be ulterior motives behind the children asking to speak on behalf of the entire family; (2) there is no clear understanding on who is the client really is in this situation – especially if the person who is paying the attorney fee is the child; and (3) there is destruction of attorney-client privilege due to the presence of a third party (even though the third party is an adult child).

As a lawyer of South Asian descent, I have a unique advantage when working with Indian families to create an estate plan. I understand the nuances of Indian culture enough to parse through the various family dynamics to see if there are in fact any ulterior motives that may negatively impact my clients. I am also able to communicate with an elderly client in a few of the Indian languages to see if the clients really want their child or children to speak on their behalf for the remainder of the representation. Based off my experience, one way we can circumvent the  stringent rules for attorney-client privilege to account for  the cultural differences is to have clients execute broad powers of attorney that name their children and/or extended family as the authorized representatives of the clients to communicate on their behalf.  Although this may also be of concern should there be an abuse of this power, at least for the right family situation, this can  serve as a good simple option.

 

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!