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!

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

We launched a new program!

How this program may help ensure your estate plan will never let you & your family down at the critical moment

 

We hear it all the time when talking about estate plans—“I already have an estate plan in place, so I don’t have to worry.” But there are a few major things people don’t realize about estate planning that can put them at risk of not being prepared when the time comes. Plans need to be constantly updated, monitored and maintained on an ongoing basis. What was set up many years ago may not necessarily be current today. Asset changes, law updates and family changes can cause a well designed plan to fail when the time comes to “test” the plan much later.

 

If your plan includes Revocable Living Trusts (“RLT”) that were established to avoid probate, then were the trusts fully funded (i.e. were the relevant accounts titled to the name of the trust)? If you had planned for your beneficiaries to inherit in trust upon your (or your spouse’s) death, were beneficiary designation forms updated to make the trust(s) a beneficiary? We advised you during your signing that your asset spreadsheet should be updated by you every year, but do you understand when the documents themselves must be changed by the law firm? To ensure the documents work properly, you will need to keep in mind the changes in the law, purchases of new assets, changes in family structure such as marriage or divorce, births or deaths, relocations of your fiduciaries, and more. If you met with your attorney to draft and sign documents, received a nice looking binder filled with those vital documents, but then put it away in a safe place never to be thought of again during your lifetime, you may be at risk that your documents won’t accomplish what was originally intended. Failing to address critical life or asset changes by updating your new documents will jeopardize the entire plan you put in place. The number one reason estate plans fail is because they are out of date.1

 

Many good estate planning attorneys are concerned about how to ensure clients’ objectives are fulfilled and how to address ongoing updates long after the representation with the client has ended—we’ve joined an exclusive group of firms who have come up with an answer! We understand that your estate plan isn’t completed when you sign your documents and leave our office; rather, your estate plan is completed when your heirs are able to carry out your wishes set forth in the documents after you are gone. Therefore, we, as your estate planners, need to be available to you on an ongoing basis and remain involved throughout your lifetime to ensure that we maintain the integrity of your plan. This is why we are offering our Annual Membership Program (or AMP) to continue to take on the responsibility of monitoring and tailoring the plans that we have set up for you for the duration of your lifetime.

 

So if you are an existing client of ours and you created an estate plan with us, consider calling us so we can explain the benefits of AMP and how it can ensure that your plan still functions the way you intended. Additionally, please join us at our office on February 6th, 2020 at 6:00 pm for an AMP workshop where you can get more details of this program and find out how it can help you achieve peace of mind for you and your loved ones. But if you haven’t created your estate plan as yet—we hope you will choose us as your estate planning firm, as we will not only prepare superior quality documents but also stand behind our plans long after they are first created.

 

1. Bonazzoli, V. E. (2017). How an ordinary lawyer creates and sustains an extraordinary client care program. Parker, CO: Outskirts Press.

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.

 

Revocable Living Trusts: Misunderstood

I have been, for a while now, one of “those” New Jersey attorneys who likes to recommend Revocable Living Trusts (RLTs) for my clients perhaps more often than a majority of my fellow New Jersey colleagues.  When I first started to practice in the area of trusts & estates, I spoke the same language as many of these attorneys when it came to recommending Wills over Revocable Living Trusts.  They all said: “NJ is a probate friendly state; there is really no need to set up living trusts here.  And those attorneys who are “churning” these trusts out like mills are only doing it to make a fast buck!”  And I believed them…after all, when you are new in the field, you naively treat what the more experienced colleagues are saying like gospel.

 

Fast forward a few years later and I realized that these very same attorneys had dismissed a crucial benefit (among a few others) in setting up RLTs.   Investment/brokerage accounts in a RLT do not get “frozen” upon the death of the account holder unlike those assets passing under a Will.  You see, in NJ, the State Tax Branch obligates institutions to freeze accounts of those decedent estates with over $675k (in 2016)[1] until the Executor provides a waiver from the Tax Branch showing that taxes had been paid.  These waivers could take several months to be issued after the filing of the estate tax return.  Up to 50% of the precious funds that could have otherwise been allocated to paying expenses are instead tied up for this time causing undue delays.  The RLT avoids the waiting period completely – taxes still have to be paid, but when assets are in a RLT account, the Executor-Trustee does not have to jump through hoops to get bills paid or to make other necessary expenses.

 

But…we are now in 2018 and NJ does not have an estate tax starting this year.  This means families can just sign a self-executing waiver to release accounts over to the estate and distribute them to Class A[2] beneficiaries almost immediately.  So although I now recommend RLTs less frequently than before, I still find that certain clients can benefit from having RLTs in place for the more than the usual set of reasons.  RLTs are still beneficial to (i) avoid probate in multiple jurisdictions where an individual owns properties in other states; (ii) it allows assets of an incapacitated individual (especially a business owner) Grantor to be managed by the successor Trustee of the RLT instead of relying on the Agent’s authority under a Financial Power of Attorney; or (iii) keep things between family members where privacy is very important to the Grantor.  Moreover, RLTs are still extremely beneficial where self-executing waivers cannot be used i.e. when assets pass to beneficiaries in testamentary trusts or (2) when someone other than lineal descendants of the decedent (i.e. non-Class A beneficiaries) stand to inherit from the decedent’s estate since the inheritance tax in NJ is still alive and well.

 

In conclusion, RLTs are more expensive and there may be no need to set these up for straightforward estates.  However, for the right client, I recommend RLTs because even though both Wills and Trusts work fine in our “probate friendly” jurisdiction, RLTs work better in the long run and the client’s family’s life is made just a little (and in some cases, a lot) easier.

 


[1] The NJ estate tax exemption was at $675k for several years before going up to $2m per person in 2017 and finally disappearing in 2018.  For now, until the next legislative change occurs, there is no estate tax in NJ; but there is still an inheritance tax on assets transferring to all non-spouse and non-lineal descendant beneficiaries.
 
[2] Class A beneficiaries include parents, spouse and children of the decedent

Incapacity Planning

It’s hard to believe that the holiday season is well behind us and we are into the first week of February!  This post was originally scheduled for a January submission but due to a recent good interruption last week (my attendance at the Heckerling Conference on Estate Planning in Orlando, Florida), there was a slight delay.  Stay tuned for my musings of the conference in the coming weeks.  Thank you!


We all know that people download Wills off of Legal Zoom thinking that “some” plan in place is better than none at all; rather than incur the expense of engaging an attorney, their thought is to come up with a quick solution to ensure their family’s protection.  The problem with this approach is that one may actually be causing more harm than good.  For ex. if all a person created was a Last Will & Testament, then what happens if that person got hit by a truck and went into a coma for several months or years?  What does the family do when they need to pay bills, run the household or just take care of the incapacitated person?  Any good estate planning attorney will offer as part of the estate planning package along with a Last Will & Testament, a broad and robust Financial Power of Attorney as well as a Health Care Directive naming an Authorized Representative to make decisions upon incapacity.

 

Okay, so I know you are thinking: “Fine – I’ll just download these Powers of Attorney and I am all set.   From what you say, these documents are all I need to cover me then, right?”  Not so fast!  Drafting your own legal documents with the help of Legal Zoom or other online software tools is like trying to fix your car using a manual.  I don’t know about you but I know I will not get very far fixing a carburetor using a manual.

 

There are specific powers in a power of attorney that we look for when we help families – from the Medicaid planning perspective, I am looking for certain powers of the agent to help an aging parent or spouse set up trusts or apply for government benefits; for banks, I want to ensure that the agent has all of the proper authority under the document that banks are looking for; gift giving provisions are hugely helpful where there is a taxable estate and assets need to be transferred out of the estate when someone is incapacitated but where death may be imminent.

 

Finally, most people are clueless when you talk to them about the difference between probate and non-probate assets.  To give you some perspective – let’s talk about a widowed surviving spouse who takes it upon himself to draft all of the required documents discussed above and gets them properly signed, witnessed & notarized.  And let’s also say that this individual was savvy enough to ensure that his two minor children do not get the assets from his estate outright but rather he designed the Will to put those assets into a trust for his children until age 30.  Now let’s assume that this individual has a primary residence that he owns “joint tenants with a right of survivorship or JTWROS” with his brother and the only other asset he has is a significant life insurance policy where he has named his children as primary beneficiaries in equal shares on the designated beneficiary form.  Imagine this individual’s surprise when he is told that his beautifully designed Will cannot work as intended because at his death, these assets would bypass the Will and be handed to the named beneficiaries directly!  These are red flags that a good estate planner will point out and take it upon himself or herself to ensure that the documents are designed in a way that fulfill the Testator’s objectives.

 

It’s difficult to understand the work estate planning attorneys do on the back-end.  Although I have heard people stating this quite often, good estate planning is never about simply “copying & pasting” or using “boiler-plate” documents.  Each family’s situation is unique and even the most straightforward family situation may present nuances that are unique only to that family.  My job is to ensure that you or your family never have to spend wasted money undoing mistakes and hopefully never have to enter a court of law to contest or dispute the provisions contained within the documents.