AUGUST 12, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 30
Last week we saw a married couple in our office. The couple had come to us for estate planning. They did not have children with disabilities, or spendthrift sons-in-law or daughters-in-law. Their assets were not unusual (some Arizona real estate, a brokerage account, several bank accounts). Their net worth was well under the $5.25 million that would have made us want to talk about federal estate tax issues. They intend to leave their estates to one another and, on the second death, to relatives and a few charities. In short, they were a pretty typical couple.
This couple already held everything they owned as “joint tenants with right of survivorship.” That, of course, means that on the death of the first partner, the survivor would receive everything without having to go through the probate process. Ordinarily we would have told them that they ought to have fairly simple wills and Arizona powers of attorney. We would have suggested that they transfer all their real estate and brokerage assets into “community property with right of survivorship.” That’s a slight improvement on joint tenancy because on the first death the survivor gets a stepped-up income tax basis on the entire value of assets held as community property. It is an option that is only available to married couples, and it’s usually worth considering.
Though our couple was married, they did have one legal issue that complicates their estate planning. They are both of the same gender. They got married in another state, where same-sex marriages are recognized, and then retired to Arizona. They are looking forward to enjoying the sunshine, outdoor recreation opportunities, and casual lifestyle of The Grand Canyon State. Though Arizona was once known as The Valentine State (do you know why?), our state Constitution expressly invalidates this couple’s marriage.
Or does it? They have arrived in Arizona at a time of legal ferment. The U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated a federal ban on same-sex marriages; is invalidation of Arizona’s ban (and those in place in dozens of other states) far behind? And, more importantly for our couple, what are legally married gay couples supposed to do in the meantime?
Reasonable minds can differ on what our couple should do. In fact, we are fond of saying that if you get ten lawyers in a room and discuss legal issues, you will get at least twenty firmly-held, well-reasoned opinions. But here is what we discussed with our clients:
- Consider creating a joint revocable trust. Declare in the trust that everything you own is community property, and file any future tax returns on that assumption. The worst that could happen would be that the IRS ultimately disagrees, and then you are back where you would be if you did nothing of the sort. BUT note that the establishment and funding of a trust is more expensive (by, perhaps, a factor of three or four), and opposite-sex married couples don’t have to go through this kind of silliness.
- At least create reciprocal wills, and guard them more carefully than opposite-sex couples need to. If a couple whose marriage is recognized in Arizona never get around to making a will, or misplace their wills, it is likely that the default rules will follow what they wrote in their wills. If the marriage is not recognized, though, a missing will could mean biological family members of the deceased spouse take in preference over the surviving spouse — or at least that litigation is required to establish the validity of the out-of-Arizona marriage.
- Critically important for gay couples, married or not, is signing of a document directing funeral arrangements and disposition of remains. Time and again we have seen same-sex partners shut out of funeral and burial arrangements, even by family members who professed affection for the surviving partner in the hours before death. The advent of same-sex marriages might turn out to have eased that kind of pain, but it may be yet another opportunity for litigation, and at a time of high emotional fragility.
- Go ahead and try putting real estate and brokerage accounts in “community property with right of survivorship.” Expect a little different experience between stockbrokers and the County Recorder; the former is probably used to same-sex community property declarations, and the latter probably thinks it has a responsibility to uphold Arizona’s misguided law. Do you want to be a little bit subversive and act as an agent for positive change, albeit a small change? Talk with us — we like both of those ideas.
- Review and update your plans more often than other couples need to. We usually counsel that estate plans have about a five-year life, and we expect to actually see clients again in about 7-10 years. Same-sex married couples ought to shorten that to 3-5 years, as there will be changes AND we want to have recent documents in the ultimate time of need (that’s a not-very-disguised euphemism for “when you get sick or die”).
We were very chagrined to have to advise this delightful couple that Arizona is so unwelcoming. We really want to help them secure the benefits of their marriage in Arizona. We can accomplish almost everything that an opposite-sex married couple can get with their Arizona-recognized marriage, except for the (admittedly small) income-tax benefit of “community property with right of survivorship” titling. But we can’t really tell our couple that they have a moral or legal duty to carry the torch for change in this arena, because the reality is that the benefit is modest for most couples. That’s because:
- Your real estate may well appreciate during your life, but if the only real estate you own is your residence then you already get a significant income tax avoidance opportunity (up to $250,000 in gain) without regard to your marital status. Be careful about relying on this as your sole tax-avoidance technique, but for most people it means that they will not ever pay taxes on increases in their home’s value anyway.
- Although capital gains in your stock holdings do not have the same partial exclusion opportunity, it is still easy to avoid paying income tax on the increased value by simply not selling the stocks. That means that an “unmarried” couple like our clients would have lost flexibility, not cash — still a negative, but not with as obvious a dollar cost.
For our part, we are looking forward to a time (we hope that it is soon) when these kinds of distinctions are no longer necessary. Meanwhile, we wish the very best for all our clients who have retired to The Valentine State.