Posts Tagged ‘Arizona’

Why You Aren’t Really Limited to $14,000 in Gifts Each Year

APRIL 27, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 16

There is so much misinformation (and misunderstanding) around gift taxes, that we thought we would take a few moments and try to straighten out the confusion. Let’s start at the end: if you live in Arizona, and are not fabulously wealthy, you probably don’t actually care very much about gift taxes. Now let us explain why.

Arizona doesn’t assess any gift tax, estate tax or inheritance tax, so those of us living in The Valentine State only have to understand federal estate and gift tax systems — unless, of course, we own property in one of the states that does impose a tax on such transfers. Meanwhile, a basic understanding of the federal gift tax is practically embedded in our DNA: you can make a gift of up to $14,000 per year, but anything over that is prohibited.

The problem with that basic understanding is that it is wrong. The magical $14,000 figure is just the number that Congress has set as being too small to even bother thinking about. Nonetheless, it has a strong hold on the public imagination — even though the number has only been set at $14,000 since 2013. The “don’t even think about it” number was $3,000 for four decades before rising to $10,000 in 1982; it started increasing in $1,000 increments in 2002 and will probably rise to $15,000 within the next couple of years.

In calculating whether you have made gifts of over $14,000, by the way, the federal government gives you three important additional benefits:

  1. The $14,000 figure applies to gifts to each person, not the total amount of gifts in a year. Do you have three children you want to make gifts to? No problem. You can give each of them $14,000 this year, for a total of $42,000, without having reached the threshold.
  2. Are you married? It’s simple to double the numbers — even if you (or your spouse) are actually making the full amount of the gift. A married couple can give away $28,000 without having to do anything more (though if all the money comes from one spouse there is one more step required — more about that later).
  3. Will the gifts be used for medical or educational expenses? The lid just got taken off. So long as you make your gifts by paying directly to the college, or hospital, or other provider, there is no $14,000 limit. You can pay your favorite granddaughter’s tuition and books directly, and still give her another $14,000 (double that if you’re married) without having to do another thing.

Does all that mean you are generally limited to giving $14,000 (each) to each recipient? No. That’s just the level below which you don’t have to do anything else but sign a nice card and make a notation in your check register. Want to make a $50,000 gift to your son, or your daughter, or your mailman’s nephew? No problem — you’re just going to have to file a gift tax return.

That sounds scary, but it’s really not. You won’t actually pay any gift tax unless the total amount you give away (over and above the $14,000 + tuition + medical expenses each year) exceeds $5.43 million dollars in your lifetime. And even that number is going up each year.

The bottom line: if you live in Arizona, don’t own property in a state that imposes a gift tax, and are worth less than about $5 million, you are simply going to be unable to pay a gift tax over your entire life, no matter how hard you try. That is also true, by the way, for estate taxes — you are going to have a very hard time incurring an estate tax in those facts, even if you want to do so.

So imagine that you want to make that $50,000 gift to one person (or two $50,000 gifts, or three) in 2015. How hard will it be to prepare and file the gift tax return? Not very. If you ask your tax preparer to do it for you, we predict that you will get charged a couple hundred dollars. You can almost certainly figure out how to file it yourself — just look for information about the federal Form 709. Things can get a little more complicated if you are giving away an interest in your business, or a fraction of a larger asset — you really will need to get professional help in such a case. But there’s no rule that says you simply can’t give away more than $14,000, or that you’ll pay any taxes or penalties if you go over that amount.

By the way, there’s a common misconception about other tax effects of gifts, too. There is no income tax deduction or adjustment for your gifts, and the recipient pays no gift tax on receipt of the gift. Of course, if you give away an income-producing asset the future income will be taxed to the new owner, but the only immediate tax effect of a gift in Arizona is the (almost nonexistent) federal gift tax.

Does all this mean we advocate making large gifts? Not necessarily. There are some secondary tax consequences of giving away larger assets — especially those that have appreciated in value while you owned them. Before making a gift of real property, or appreciated stocks, get good legal and tax advice. And there are plenty of non-tax reasons you might not want to give away a significant portion of your assets. But the federal gift tax shouldn’t be much of a disincentive for most people.

Even With No Estate Tax, Some Tax May Be Due on Inheritance

JUNE 9, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 21

Our clients are often confused about whether their heirs will owe any taxes on the inheritance they are set to receive. We don’t blame them — it’s confusing. Let us try to reduce the confusion.

The federal estate tax limit was raised to $5 million and indexed for inflation in 2011. That means that a decedent dying in 2014 can leave up to $5.34 million to heirs with no federal estate tax consequence at all. It is easy to double that amount for a married couple. And in 2006, Arizona eliminated its state estate tax — so there is no Arizona tax to worry about. That means that there is simply no tax concern for anyone not worth $5 million or more, right? The 99% can pass their entire wealth to their children without fear of tax consequences, right?

Of course that’s not right — it would be way too simple if that were the case. The world — at least the political world — seems to dislike simplicity as much as the physical world abhors a vacuum. Even if your estate is modest, you need to be aware of the tax consequences of leaving money to your heirs. Here are a few of the more common ways your estate might be subject to taxes on your death:

Living, and dying, somewhere other than in Arizona. About half the states, like Arizona, have no estate or inheritance tax. But that means that nearly half of the states do have a tax; some states tax the estate, and some the recipient of an inheritance. Before federal estate tax changes in 2006, it was possible to generalize about those state estate tax regimens — they tended to look alike. But no more. You need to worry about state estate taxes if you live in one of those states with a tax, if you own real estate in one of those states, or if you have heirs who live in one of those states. The details can be mind-bogglingly complex, and they are beyond our scope here. There are plenty of online resources to look up state-by-state rules — we tend to favor this 2013 article from Forbes magazine, partly because it is engagingly titled “Where Not To Die in 2013.” The information is already a year old as we write this, but not that much has changed, and it will give you a good head start.

Owning retirement accounts. You sort of knew this one already, right? You have an IRA, or a 401(k), or a 403(b) retirement plan, and you’ve named your children (or your spouse, or your helpful neighbor) as beneficiary. But keep this in mind: if you leave, say, $100,000 in an IRA to your children, they are going to receive something more like $70,000 of benefit. With careful planning, they can delay the tax liability — but they will pay ordinary income taxes on what they withdraw. Income tax will be paid by anyone receiving the retirement account (except a charity, of course — they pay no income tax), and at their ordinary tax rates. You might have arranged to minimize your own withdrawals, and pay a very low tax rate on the income you do take out — but your daughter the doctor and your son the architect might pay a much higher tax rate and have to start taking money out of the account immediately after your death.

What can you do about that issue? If you have charitable intentions, you can name a charity as beneficiary of your retirement account. You can leave it to grandchildren, who might pay a lower tax rate (and have more immediate use for the money). You can create a trust that forces your heirs to take the money out very slowly. But at the end of that process, some significant income tax is going to be paid by the recipient of your IRA or other retirement account.

Having income-producing property at your death. Arizona does not have an inheritance tax, so there is no tax cost to receiving an inheritance. Except that sometimes there is a small cost. If you leave an estate including, say, stocks and bonds, or mortgages secured by real estate, or anything else that receives income, your estate may incur a small amount of income tax liability during its administration. That can be true even if you create a revocable living trust, since it will typically take 6-12 months to settle even simple estates. But rather than your estate paying the income tax liability, it usually is passed out with distributions to your heirs. So when your daughter hears that there is no tax on her inheritance, she may be surprised when her accountant tells her she owes income tax on a few hundred — or thousands — of dollars of that inheritance.

Having property that has appreciated since you received it. Income tax is usually due on the gain in value of an asset during the time you held it. Most people realize, however, that when you die most or all of your property receives a “stepped-up” basis for calculation of capital gains. That means that your heirs usually do not pay any income tax on the increase in value during the time you owned property.

But be careful — that is not always true. If you gave the property away before your death, or you inherited it in a trust (like a spousal credit shelter trust), it might not get a stepped-up basis. That can mean that the property your heirs receive carries a significant built-in income tax liability. It might not be due immediately on your death, but it might limit their choices about when to sell or give away the property. This is much more of a problem today than it was just a few years ago — with the proliferation of A/B (credit shelter, or survivor/decedent’s) trust planning in the past three decades, a lot of property is now held in trusts and will not get a stepped-up basis on the surviving spouse’s death.

Owning an annuity. You might have done some clever tax planning by buying a tax-sheltered annuity five years ago. But if you die holding that annuity, your heirs might have to pay the income tax on the income accumulated during the years you have held the annuity, and they might have to pay it immediately. Note that tax-sheltered annuities are not called tax-free annuities — they are just a mechanism to delay the income tax liability to a later date when, one presumes, your tax rate might be lower. If your currently-employed children step into your shoes, that assumption might turn out to have been incorrect.

Planning options.  What can you do if you fit into any of these categories? If we are preparing your estate plan, we will talk with you about the issues. Any capable estate planning attorney should be able to see whether you have issues to be concerned about. But that is why we always ask you for detailed information about your assets, your family and your circumstances. Yes, the estate tax regimen has gotten simpler — but that doesn’t meant that the decision-making is necessarily simple.

Do-It-Yourself Will May Not Save Costs After All

APRIL 7, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 13

From time to time we devote our weekly newsletter to a story about estate planning gone wrong — often (but not always) because of an individual’s decision to forego the help of a lawyer in drafting a will or trust. Lawyers also make mistakes, of course, but they are trained and paid to anticipate most of the kinds of issues that might arise. Untrained individuals may not have the skill or luck to foresee problems.

Consider Diane, who decided to write her own will. She bought a pre-printed will form at a bookstore, and opened up the package. In the middle of the form was a big open space with the language:

“I direct that after payment of all my just debts, my property be bequeathed in the manner following:”

Below that awkward introductory sentence, on the lines in the form, Diane wrote in:

“To my sister Mary Ann, my BigBank Checking and Savings Account, my house at 123 Poplar Street and its contents, my 2010 Dodge Truck and my Friendly Investments IRA. If Mary Anne dies before me, I leave all listed to my brother John.”

Diane completed the form properly, signed it, had it witnessed by two people and had the entire document notarized. She felt pleased that she had accomplished this task efficiently and inexpensively.

Do you already see what was wrong with Diane’s will? If you are a lawyer, you probably do — but you might not if you are not a lawyer.

Three years later Mary Ann died — before her sister, and before Diane’s will could leave anything to her. In fact, Mary Ann left her own home and bank account to Diane. Diane took the $120,000 she inherited from her sister and opened a new brokerage account at Friendly Investments (the same brokerage house where her IRA was located). Then, two years after Mary Ann’s death, Diane died.

Diane’s brother John did survive her. So did the two daughters of her other, deceased brother Jim. So who inherits what?

Those are essentially the facts of a recent Florida Supreme Court case, Aldrich v. Basile, (March 27, 2014), except that we have changed the names and a few of the details. In that case, the probate judge decided that Diane intended to leave everything to her brother John, and ordered that her nieces would receive nothing. The Court of Appeals ruled that Diane had died without a complete will, and that her nieces would receive a share of the undesignated part of her estate — the home and account she had inherited from her sister. The Florida Supreme Court had to decide between those two views, and ultimately sided with the Court of Appeals. Diane died “partially intestate” and the unspecified part of her estate would pass to her living brother and her late brother’s children. Her nieces received a share — a small share, to be sure — of her estate.

Now you can more easily see what was wrong with Diane’s will. She did not include a “residuary clause” providing for assets not listed in her will. If she had added a few short words to the end of the dispositive language she could have provided for distribution of “all the remaining assets I might own” or something similar.

Perhaps Diane actually did want to leave her inheritance to all of her relatives, and the failure to provide for it was not oversight but intentional. Well, there are more facts in the Florida case that we haven’t shared with you yet. After Mary Ann’s death, Diane grabbed a note pad (ironically, with the pre-printed heading “Just a Note”) and wrote out her additional instructions: “I reiterate that all my worldly possessions pass to my brother” John. She signed it, dated it, had it witnessed by one person (John’s daughter) and put it in the envelope with her will. Her wishes were pretty clear: she wanted to leave everything to John. That wasn’t what happened, however.

Diane’s will would actually have worked in Arizona. Unlike Florida, Arizona recognizes “holographic” (handwritten) wills even when they are not properly witnessed. Her “Just a Note” note would probably have been treated as an amendment or codicil to her will, and would probably have been admitted in Arizona probate court.

What is the lesson to be learned from Diane’s story (and case)? Even if you think your estate is small, and you want a “simple” will, you should see a lawyer. As we said at the beginning of Diane’s story, we’re trained and paid to think of how things might go wrong, or at least change, if circumstances change, and we’re familiar with the rules for wills, trusts and probate proceedings. Ultimately, Diane’s estate would have saved a lot of legal fees for the very modest cost of a lawyer at the outset — and what she wanted could actually have happened.

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship, or Community Property?

MARCH 24, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 12

Which is better? How should we take title to our house? How about our brokerage account?

These questions are really common in our practice. The answer is actually pretty straightforward, but we do need to lay a little groundwork.

Arizona is a community property state. That means that property held by a husband and/or wife is presumed to belong to them as a community. That presumption does not apply if the property existed before the marriage, or was received by a gift or inheritance. There are special rules for property you owned in a non-community property state before you moved here. It’s also possible for a married couple to enter into an agreement that changes the nature of community property, but those agreements are relatively rare.

Historically, there was one great disadvantage to community property ownership, and one great advantage. That is, there was one advantage and one disadvantage if you assume that the couple would never get divorced. If you have substantial separate property and are considering turning it into jointly-held property, is that advisable? That question is beyond our short essay today, and the answer depends on your comfort level with your spouse and marriage. We’re not particularly accomplished marital counselors, and we don’t have any facts for your personal situation.

But assuming you and your spouse live together more-or-less-happily until  one of you dies, here are the competing considerations to holding property as community property:

Advantage: Income taxes. Upon the death of one spouse, property held as community property takes on a new “basis” for calculating future capital gains. If you have stock that you bought at $1,000 and that you now sell for $10,000 (congratulations!), you have “recognized” $9,000 of gain and will pay income taxes based on that amount. But if you held that property in joint tenancy with your late spouse, it got a step-up in basis to his or her date-of-death value; assuming the stock was worth $10,000 on that day, your income tax is only on $4,500 of the total gain. But if you had held that stock as community property with your late spouse, there would be no capital gains tax on the sale at all.

Disadvantage: Probate. Until 1995, community property could not pass automatically to the surviving spouse. That meant that a probate was often required to transfer the deceased spouse’s community property interest to the surviving spouse. Since no probate was required for property held in joint tenancy (the “right of survivorship” part of joint tenancy means the surviving joint tenant receives the property without having to go through the probate process), most married couples opted for joint tenancy rather than community property.

In 1995, the Arizona legislature made the disadvantage to community property disappear — they created a concept of “community property with right of survivorship.” That means a married couple can have it all: they can get the full stepped-up basis for income tax purposes, but avoid probate, on the first spouse’s death.

Does that mean that all property should be titled as community property with right of survivorship? Almost, but not quite. There are a handful of problems that occasionally crop up and have to be considered:

  • Not every married couple intends to leave everything to one another. You can still get the full stepped-up income tax basis and leave your share of community property to someone else — your children from a prior marriage, perhaps, or another family member. In such a case it might make sense to hold the property as “community property” (with no right of survivorship) but have a will or trust to make provisions for each spouse’s share.
  • The income tax benefit does not always appear. Note that the benefit is not a direct tax savings, but only a potential savings. If you get a full stepped-up basis on property that you then hold until your own death, you haven’t really saved any tax money. But the community property benefit just might give you flexibility — you can decide to sell property after your spouse’s death on the basis of good investment advice, rather than the tax effect.
  • The option only applies (this is obvious, but we need to say it) to married couples. “Community property” is not available to anyone else. Is it available to same-sex married couples? We think so (see our articles on the subject over the last few months here, here and here), but we might turn out to be wrong about this.
  • The benefit may not even be necessary for some assets. No growth in your brokerage account? No benefit. You invest only in municipal bonds and certificates of deposit? Minimal to no benefit. But here’s the big one: most people’s biggest growth asset is their home — and there’s already a substantial ($250,000) exemption from capital gains taxes for a single (widowed) person selling their home.
  • Have you already established a trust as part of your estate plan? You may not need to go through the analysis, since the practical effect of your plan may be the same as the benefit of community property with right of survivorship — or better. Ask your estate planning attorney to review this with you.
  • There are sometimes costs to making the change. For real estate, you will need someone to prepare a deed (you can probably get it right on your own, but it makes sense to hire a professional). In addition, there are modest costs to record the new deed.
  • This only applies to Arizona property. No problem with your brokerage or bank account — they are Arizona property if you live here. Your vacation cottage in Montana, or your Mexican condo held in a land trust, are a different matter. But if your vacation cottage is in Alaska, or California, Idaho, Nevada or Wisconsin, you might be able to do something similar. Ask a local lawyer about the possibility.
  • We need to reiterate: if you have separate property and transfer it to community property with right of survivorship to take advantage of income tax benefits, you may have made a gift of half of your separate property to your spouse. Be careful, and make sure you know what you’re doing.

What’s your bottom line? Should you change everything you own from joint tenancy with right of survivorship to community property with right of survivorship? Maybe, but your home is the least urgent thing to tackle. Your brokerage account? Absolutely. Your summer cottage in another state? Check with your lawyer and ask her (or him) to find out whether the other state has community property with right of survivorship.

Note that none of this really helps you deal with retirement accounts, IRAs, 401(k) accounts, separate property you brought from another state or your complex estate planning intentions. For those, you really need to talk with your lawyer. Also, please be clear: we do not know the correct answer if you live in a state other than Arizona — talk to your local lawyer about that.

 

Same-Sex Married Couples Should Pay Attention to Income Taxes

MARCH 10, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 10

Income tax filing season is upon us, and so it’s an appropriate time to turn our attention to what’s new (or little-known) in the income tax world. We’re particularly interested, of course, in income tax issues that affect our clients, who usually are more interested in estate and gift taxes than income taxes. But there’s one subset of our clientele that really does need to focus on new income tax rules: same-sex married couples.

What’s new this year, of course, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That federal law had said that even if a state chose to recognize same-sex marriages, the federal government would not accept that state recognition. After the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor on June 26, 2013, that principle was reversed. Later interpretations by the Internal Revenue Service (along with other agencies of the government) have expanded that reversal.

In the wake of the Windsor decision, the executive branch of the federal government has adopted a new approach to determining the validity and effect of same-sex marriages. The short version: if the marriage was recognized as valid where and when it was solemnized, it will be valid for federal (including income tax) purposes. That has been referred to as the “place of celebration” rule. It is sometimes called the “state of celebration” rule, but it is not limited to states — a marriage valid in a foreign country will work, too. Like, for one example, that of Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were married in Ontario, Canada, in 2007, but lived in New York.

We still see a lot of confusion about the effect of the new IRS rules, though. Our gay and lesbian clients often believe that they are not married because Arizona does not (yet) recognize the validity of their marriage. Sometimes same-sex couples were married years ago and have since drifted apart — believing, perhaps, that they did not need to do anything to end a marriage that their home state stubbornly refuses to acknowledge. The new rules will require a rethinking of those relationships.

Here’s the bottom line for same-sex married couples: if you were legally married in another state or country, you need to file your federal income taxes this year (and for future years) as if you were married — because you are. That may mean that some couples actually pay more in total income tax — the well-known “marriage penalty” in the federal tax code will now apply to same-sex couples in the same way that it has long applied to opposite-sex couples. But it is not optional — a married couple, regardless of gender, can not decide to simply file as two single individuals regardless of what Arizona thinks of the validity of their marriage.

Does that mean that married couples who are no longer together need to file a joint income tax return? Yes — or they have to file as “married, filing separately.” Does that mean separated — but still married — couples have to communicate with each other, and share financial information? No, but if they file separately they are likely to pay more total tax, and it makes sense to talk through the options with a qualified income tax preparer.

Arizona also has a state income tax, of course, and it still refuses to recognize those same sex marriages. Since your state income tax filing starts with your federal tax return, a “married filing jointly” federal return is bound to confuse the state tax folks. So they have come up with their own form to make adjustments: it is called Arizona Schedule S and it is available on the Arizona Department of Revenue website. There are instructions for the Schedule S, and a version for 2012 taxes as well as 2013. (It could be worse: some states are requiring same-sex couples to prepare a federal return as if they were unmarried, just to attach it to their state tax return.)

Why is there a 2012 version of Arizona’s Schedule S? That leads to another point worth considering: if you were married before 2013, you may be eligible to (but you are not required to) amend your federal income tax return to file as a married couple. If you do, you will need to amend your Arizona tax return as well. You clearly have the right to amend your 2012 return, and you may be eligible to amend for 2011 as well — but note that if you amend for 2011 you will also need to amend for 2012 at the same time. Amendment rules are confusing, but the IRS has attempted to make them understandable on their generally excellent website.

There are other tax-related issues concerning same-sex marriages, and more opportunities for federal and state tax law to diverge.One we saw in our office this month: a surviving partner visited with us after the death of her long-time partner. She never mentioned that they had been married, thinking (as she later told us) that the marriage was not valid in Arizona. But when it came time to look at her partner’s Individual Retirement Account (IRA), it made a difference — even in Arizona. As a surviving spouse she had the ability to simply roll over her spouse’s IRA and continue to defer withdrawals until she reaches 70 1/2. If they had not been married she would have been required to begin withdrawals immediately, and faster. The lesson: don’t assume that Arizona’s failure to recognize your marriage means that it has no effect.

Most of the other changes, however, are considerably more arcane; the requirement that same-sex married couples file their federal returns as married (whether separately or jointly) is not arcane, and will have a big impact on those pioneers who got married in another state or country. Ask for advice, and share your marital status with your lawyer and your tax preparer.

Some Thoughts About Guardianship and Conservatorship in Arizona

NOVEMBER 14, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 39
Let’s talk about guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Before we do, though, let’s remember a couple of important principles:

  1. We only know about Arizona guardianship or conservatorship. Well, OK — we might know a thing or two about other states’ rules and procedures — but we only practice in Arizona. Our observations are not universally applicable. They may not even be universally applicable inside Arizona’s borders.
  2. As always, we simply can’t give specific case-based legal advice here, and you should not rely on this newsletter (or anything you read online or in books) to resolve your case. This is big-picture stuff. We can and do write about how the system works, what the rules look like, and what you might expect if you are involved in a guardianship and/or conservatorship matter in Arizona. Don’t expect to print out our articles, take them to court and argue with the judge, though. She won’t appreciate it, and neither will we. Plus it won’t work. Get good legal advice.
  3. One thing we’ve learned from years of law practice: people think they understand their own cases, but they get blinded to the nuances (or maybe they aren’t told everything about the contrary evidence or opinions) and tend to overgeneralize. We don’t think that means they are stupid, or liars — they are just trying to put the best face on their case, and that’s human nature. But it also means that if you say “aha — he hit the nail on the head and that’s exactly what my worthless brother is trying to do” we’d be likely to tell you (if we were your lawyer): “slow down. It’s not that clear.”
  4. We have written a lot about guardianship and conservatorship. Here’s one of our better (and most comprehensive) articles, a White Paper on guardianship and conservatorship. But it’s a difficult and confusing topic, with lots of information — and misinformation — out there.

Disclaimers aside, let’s talk about guardianship and conservatorship. Let’s start with some definitions of terms.

In Arizona, the word “guardianship” is applied to the court proceedings instituted to acquire legal control over another human beings’ person. In general terms, a guardian is authorized by the court to make placement and health care decisions for that other human being. Not every state uses the same word. Not every state has the same process to get a guardian (or whatever they call the office) appointed. But every state does have some kind of court proceeding in which a person can be appointed to manage the health care and living arrangements of another person.

In Arizona, the word “conservatorship” is applied to the court proceedings instituted to acquire legal control over another human beings’ finances. A conservator usually is authorized by the court to handle checking accounts, real estate, brokerage accounts, businesses, vehicles, horses, airplanes, family photographs, oil and gas leases — you name it. Just to keep the confusion level high, not every state calls this type of court-appointed person a conservator — some, in fact, call them guardians. But in Arizona, the person managing property and finances is a conservator.

Neither guardians nor conservators are “powers of attorney.” In point of fact, powers of attorney are pieces of paper, not people at all. But now we quibble. The person named to manage your property and/or your person in a power of attorney is properly called your “agent” or your “attorney-in-fact.” A guardian or conservator is neither an agent nor an attorney-in-fact. They usually have authority over agents and attorneys-in-fact, though it may require separate court action to make that clear, and it may be possible for the court to determine that the agent (or attorney-in-fact, if you prefer hyphenated names) still has authority even after appointment of a guardian and/or conservator.

Who can have a guardian appointed? Someone who is incapacitated. Their incapacity can be based on their age (minors — those under age 18 — are automatically incapacitated under Arizona law unless they are “emancipated”) or their circumstances. Generally speaking, parents are the natural guardians of their minor children, so they do not need to go to court to secure guardianship. The same is not true for any class of adults. So if your 18-year-old child has a lifelong disability that makes him unable to make responsible decisions, you do not automatically shift from being his natural guardian at 17 to being his legal guardian at 18. A court proceeding is necessary. Same thing if your husband or wife becomes incapacitated — you may need court proceedings to become guardian (if there is no power of attorney and there are things that need to be taken care of). “Incapacity” for adults requires a court showing of (a) a mental, medical or other condition that (b) affects the ability of the person to make and communicate responsible personal decisions and (c) makes it difficult or impossible for them to provide their own food and shelter without assistance. It is also necessary to show that (d) the appointment of a guardian will actually help accomplish that goal.

Appointment of a conservator is based on similar, but slightly different, grounds. First, minority is always considered a legally disabling condition, but parents are not the natural conservators of their children in the way that they are natural guardians. That means if a minor child comes into money, even if they live with both parents and all are harmonious and responsible, there is no way to manage that money without going through the conservatorship process. If an adult becomes unable to manage their money in order to prevent its waste or dissipation, they may have a conservator appointed, as well. Frankly, the definition of when a conservator can be appointed is a great deal less precise than that for guardianships, which can sometimes lead to problems.

An important reality for family members and friends to understand: if a guardianship and/or conservatorship proceeding is initiated, the court has been invoked and will not later simply step aside to let concerned — even appropriately concerned — family members take over. Once the courts are involved, they tend to stay involved.

That means that the cost of securing guardianship and conservatorship can be high. In Arizona, a lawyer is automatically appointed to represent the person who is alleged to be in need of a guardian or conservator. A medical report is required. A court-appointed investigator must go to the residence, conduct an investigation and file a report. There are significant court costs involved. Plus the process is complicated enough that the petitioner is almost always going to hire an attorney. That attorney’s bill is likely to approach half the total cost of getting the guardianship or conservatorship set up.

Much has been written, spoken and broadcast in recent years about the high cost of guardianship and conservatorship. The natural tendency of the system has been to make it more difficult to get guardians and conservators appointed, and to require them to provide more information, more frequently. Though that may be a positive development, it has the (presumably unintended) effect of making the process not only more difficult, but also more expensive.

So — guardianship and conservatorship can be difficult, expensive, even ineffective. Not always, of course, but there is a possibility and it proves to be the case too often. What can beleaguered family members do?

Most lawyers practicing in the field spend the first portion of any contact with a new client talking about how to avoid guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Did your family member sign a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney, a living will, a living trust? Are there other ways to get done what needs to be done? What bad things will happen if we (that is, the family and the lawyers acting together) simply do not file a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, even if one is warranted? Are there ways to get agreement from all the family members in advance, in order to hold down legal costs?

One important concern, at least in the case of adult guardianship and conservatorship: we will ultimately need to be able to prove that your family member has a medical, mental, emotional or other problem that prevents them from making their own personal or financial decisions. We will need medical evidence. Have you spoken with your family member’s physician, or psychologist, or other member of their treatment team? Can you get a letter from that person describing diagnosis, prognosis and any functional limitations? Without that, we may not be able to proceed. With that in hand, though, the process may be significantly streamlined.

Getting guardianship or conservatorship can be expensive, emotionally wrenching, and sometimes even ultimately unsatisfying. Sometimes, however, it is absolutely necessary. We just need to be sure you are prepared for the cost, the procedures, the limitations, and the possibilities in this type of legal proceeding. That’s why you hire a lawyer, after all.

What Is a Trust Protector? Do You Need One In Your Trust?

JUNE 27, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 23
We have written before about Arizona’s new Trust Code, and the Uniform Trust Code on which it is based. The “new” law (it became effective on January 1, 2009, so it’s not that new any more) included a number of changes to the way trusts have worked in Arizona for decades. One of the minor, but interesting, provisions is the formal creation of a position called “trust protector.”

To be clear, there was nothing prohibiting inclusion of a trust protector before the new law. So far there are no court cases to help flesh out the powers and duties a trust protector may be given. But we do now have a statute — Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-10818 — which gives clear authority for inclusion of this unusual beast.

So what is a trust protector? The person establishing a trust is permitted to include someone who would have the authority to make changes to the trust even after it becomes irrevocable — even, in fact, after the death of the original trust creator. That means you could name your sister (or your father, or your best friend from college, or your lawyer or accountant) to be the person who could make changes to the trust after your death, to protect the beneficiaries from unintended consequences — or from themselves.

There are no very serious limitations on the trust protector’s possible authority. The Arizona statute gives a handful of illustrations of the powers you might give the protector, but it doesn’t limit you to those ideas. Here are the powers the legislature thought you might want to consider:

  1. The power to remove the trustee and appoint a new one. Worried that the bank might become too bureaucratic, or too expensive? A trust protector can help take that worry off your plate. Worried that your son might not be equipped to really handle the trust after your death? Trust protector to the rescue.
  2. The power to change the applicable state law. Do you think Iowa, or Oregon, or Georgia might be a better state to allow your trust’s purposes to be carried out (or reduce state income taxes, or extend the time for the trust to continue after your death)? We suggest those states precisely because they are not now noted for especially trust-friendly rules — but who knows what might happen in the future? A trust protector could monitor those developments and make a change when it makes more sense.
  3. Ability to change the terms of distribution. What if your daughter is embroiled in a messy divorce just at the time your trust is scheduled to dissolve and pay out to her? Or if your son is just about to declare bankruptcy? Or your grandson has just been diagnosed as mentally ill, and really needs a special needs trust to handle the inheritance you have left him? A trust protector could be given the power to change the date of distribution, or to establish a special needs trust, or whatever needs to be done.
  4. Amend the trust itself. You can even give a trust protector the power to amend the trust’s terms. That might include taking advantage of future tax alternatives, or giving a larger share to a grandchild who really needs help, or reducing the inheritance of a child who doesn’t need a full share.

These powers are illustrative, not mandatory. In other words, you can tailor your trust protector’s powers and duties to your own situation and your personal comfort level.

A trust protector can be very powerful, very helpful and very dangerous. It should be obvious that not everyone will want to establish such a super-powerful position in their trust. For those concerned about the difficulty of planning for an uncertain future, however, the trust protector might just be a very comforting and useful tool.

That all begs the question asked in our headline. Do you need a trust protector? Perhaps. We think maybe the first question should be: is there someone (other than your trustee) whom you completely trust to “get” exactly what you want done with your estate after your incapacity or death? If not, your trust is probably not a good candidate for inclusion of a trust protector. But if you do have that person in mind, then let’s talk about how to use them.

Decanting: It’s Not Just for Fine Wines Anymore

JUNE 20, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 22
Imagine this tragic scenario: your 33-year-old son has a serious illness, and requires extensive medical treatment. The good news is that the treatment may well effect a cure. The bad news is that it will be horribly expensive. Right now he qualifies for government assistance with that expense — after all, he hasn’t been able to work for several years. But that eligibility is about to change.

Your mother set up a trust for each of her grandchildren before her death five years ago. Each trust provided that the grandchild would receive his or her share outright at age 35. In two years, your son will be eligible to receive about $250,000 from his trust — and you think it will probably be spent immediately on medical care that otherwise would be provided at no cost to him.

Arizona (and a number of other states — but we’re not in the business of giving advice regarding state laws we don’t know about) now allows the trustee to do something about your son’s problem. It is possible to “decant” an irrevocable Arizona trust into a new trust, so long as a few basic principles are not violated. The new trust could, for example, be a “special needs” trust, allowing your son to still qualify for medical assistance.

The Arizona law is found at Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-10819. If you read it, you won’t find the word “decant” anywhere. That’s because the term is favored among trust lawyers, but not in the law itself. No matter — “decanting” is a pretty good description of what the trustee is doing. Basically, the trust’s assets are being poured from one bottle (the old trust) into a new, similar-but-different bottle (the new trust) and gaining new vigor and complexity in the process.

Your scenario might be different. It might be your daughter who is a chronic spendthrift. Perhaps one of your children married a spendthrift. You might even be the trust beneficiary interested in extending the period of the trust, perhaps for creditor protection purposes.

The amount of money might be more or less than the story we have sketched out here. You might be the trustee, or a bank or private fiduciary might have that position. None of that makes much difference — the trustee of an irrevocable Arizona trust can, unless the trust explicitly prohibits it, usually decant to solve real-world problems that have arisen since the trust was initially created.

The idea is not brand-new, nor unique to Arizona. New York adopted a similar law as early as 1992, and almost a dozen states now explicitly permit decanting. Arguably, the power to decant is not dependent on a state law — though trustees from states where there is no statute might be hesitant about testing that theory.

One requirement for Arizona’s decanting statute to be available: the trust must be an Arizona trust. That usually means that one trustee must be in Arizona, though even that might not be necessary in every case. Another requirement: the trustee must have the discretion to make a distribution to or for the benefit of the beneficiary. In other words, if Grandma’s trust required the distribution of all income directly to Junior but did not permit the trustee to ever reach the principal, decanting might not be an option.

Could you force an Arizona trustee to decant if you were the beneficiary’s concerned parent? Probably not. What if you were the beneficiary and desperately wanted the trustee to exercise its power to decant? Probably not again. Could you decant a trust if you were the trustee and the beneficiary? Oops — we’ve run out of space and time (that’s lawyer talk for “it depends”).

Decanting trusts is an interesting and useful idea. It can help “fix” problem trusts, especially where circumstances have changed since the trust was first established. If you know of a current or looming problem with distributions from an Arizona trust, you might want to talk to an experienced trust and estates lawyer about the options available.

NAELA, NELF, CELA, ACTEC — What Does It All Mean?

APRIL 18, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 14

All you want to do is to find a lawyer to draft a simple will and powers of attorney. You ask your friends, but no one has a referral they feel unequivocally good about. A little online searching reveals that there are any number of organizations, credentials and qualifications–but how on earth do you figure out which lawyer actually knows something about estate planning, or Medicaid eligibility, or special needs trusts, guardianship and conservatorship (or whatever your elder law problem actually might be)? Let us give you a primer so you can identify the candidates.

NAELA (the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys) is probably the first place to look. Any lawyer in the country who does any significant amount of elder law (and that term is generally understood to include all the categories in the previous paragraph) probably belongs. There are about 5000 members, and the organization has been around for twenty years.

To belong to NAELA all you have to provide is proof that you are a lawyer and a $375 check each year. Even though the dues are not high, they serve as a low-level filter–those who sign up tend to actually work in the trenches of elder law. The organization has the best continuing legal education programs, the best camaraderie and the best sharing of any professional organization around.

There are actually several “flavors” of NAELA. Advanced elder law practitioners formed a subdivision of the organization two years ago; the Council of Advanced Practitioners (NAELA/CAP) is a highly selective group who meet separately once a year, exchange more sophisticated practice ideas and share much closer personal and professional connections.

Then there are the NAELA Fellows. Each year a small handful of NAELA members are selected to be Fellows, based on their reputations in the national and local communities, their hard work in the field, and their writing and speaking. The Fellows are the best-known, hardest-working elder law attorneys in the country–and there are fewer than 100 of them.

NAELA members who want to announce their availability for particular types of elder law work can sign up for the NAELA Experience Registry. Other than a certification that you are familiar with the area you sign up for, and payment of an annual fee, there is no requirement that you prove knowledge, experience or capability. Still, participation in the Experience Registry can be an indication of real interest in an area of elder law.

NELF (the National Elder Law Foundation) was an outgrowth of NAELA but is a separate entity. Its primary function is to operate an elder law certification program, and to grant successful applicants the CELA (Certified Elder Law Attorney) designation. CELAs must pass a full-day written exam (which has a famously low pass rate) and establish that they have real experience in the field.

ACTEC (the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel) is an entirely separate organization with some overlap but a significant difference. ACTEC Fellows (the name for all members) have to have been nominated by an existing Fellow; there is no application process and no way to sign up other than to get invited after a year-long vetting process. ACTEC Fellows tend to dress nicer, drink finer wines (not nearly as much beer) and belong to larger law firms than NAELA members.

There are, in addition, several for-profit organizations focused on estate planning and other elder law sub-specialties. Membership in any one of these may indicate that the lawyer takes the practice seriously, is trying to improve his or her skills through continuing education, and is committed enough to the practice to pay a (sometimes hefty) fee. Those organizations include the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys (NNEPA), the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys (AAEPA), and Wealth Counsel. Each of those organizations has its staunch partisans; even a cursory look at their websites will illustrate that their primary focus is on their membership, rather than providing public information or referrals.

There are at least two national organizations for lawyers who practice in the special needs arena. One, the Special Needs Alliance, is a non-profit organization with an invitation-only membership structure. The other, the Academy of Special Needs Planners, is a membership group open to anyone who is interested enough in the field to pay its hefty membership fee.

In addition to all of that, your state bar association and/or Supreme Court may have created a legal specialty in estate planning, tax, elder law, or related fields–or in more than one of those. State specialization usually indicates a serious peer review process, a challenging written examination, and a higher requirement for continuing legal education to maintain the certification. Arizona, for example, provides certification for “Estate and Trust” lawyers as well as Tax practitioners, and also recognizes the CELA designation described above.

Should you demand that your new lawyer have one or more of the credentials described here? No, not necessarily–though you might ask further questions if he or she does not belong to any of these professional associations. The websites of each may give you some leads to locate experienced and competent practitioners in your area.

Estate Tax Reform 2010 — Is It Over Yet?

DECEMBER 20, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 39
The ink is not yet dry on Congress’s tax and unemployment insurance compromise. Signed just last week by President Obama, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 has now become law. It continues previous income tax breaks for everyone, regardless of wealth. It extends unemployment insurance coverage for an additional 13 months. It also rewrites the estate tax — it does not simply carry forward the estate tax rules adopted a decade ago.

Under the new law no estate tax will be due on estates of less than $5 million. Since there is no Arizona state estate tax, that means that only the wealthiest Arizonans (or those with significant assets in other states which do impose an estate tax) need to be concerned about estate tax rules at all. It should mean that estate planning just got easier, more predictable and lower-risk for nearly all of our clients.

It should mean that, but it may not. There are a number of details to watch out for, including:

  • If you are married and your estate plan was initially prepared a decade or more ago, you might well have a two-trust arrangement. Sometimes described by the shorthand “A/B trust” designation, such an arrangement can actually now increase the total tax paid by your heirs. How could that happen? If a separate trust is created and funded at the first spouse’s death, assets assigned to that trust will not get a stepped-up basis on the death of the second spouse. Under the new law you can get an equivalent estate tax result and still preserve the 100% step-up in income tax basis at the second spouse’s death.
  • If a loved one died during 2010, the heirs get to choose which tax regimen to adopt — either the no-tax choice originally in place for 2010 or the $5 million exemption now adopted. Since the $5 million option includes full stepped-up basis (the original 2010 structure limited the step-up to $1.3 million for unmarried decedents), it may actually be beneficial to opt for the new taxable-estate option. Hard to figure out? Yes. The good news: you have until September, 2011, to decide which option is better.
  • The $5 million exemption is now “portable.” That means that if your spouse dies without having planned to use the exemption, it is still available to you. In other words, a couple effectively gets $10 million in estate tax exemption without having to prepare any planning documents. One small caveat: if the surviving spouse remarries and their new spouse predeceases, they lose the original unused exemption amount (but still get to use any unused exemption from the second spouse). It looks like Congress has (perhaps unwittingly) created a new marriage-discouraging provision for seniors — or at least for wealthy seniors.
  • For a decade we have been saying that the most important estate tax principle would be certainty. If you are pretty sure you know what the estate tax will look like for the next five years or so, you can plan accordingly. Unfortunately, Congress and the Administration have given us only two years of certainty — and much of the certainty we have is that the issue will be politically charged and intensely debated for much of that two-year period. In fact, Vice President Biden told a national television audience Sunday morning (on NBC’s Meet the Press) that “scaling back … the estate tax for the very wealthy” would be a top priority for the Administration over the next two years.
  • The new law also increases the level at which both gift taxes and “generation-skipping” taxes are an issue. Both of those also set at the $5 million level for the next two years. If either or both returns to lower levels after 2012, that could mean an important planning issue for very wealthy individuals in the meantime. Should gifts be made now, just in case? Should gifts be made to grandchildren and later generations, just in case? Expect to see more about those issues in coming months.
  • Paradoxically, the new rules could mean that more people (at least more wealthy decedents) should be filing estate tax returns — even though no estate taxes are due. Penalties for failure to file are higher, the importance to surviving spouses has increased and the stakes involved have generally gone up.

Does all of that sound like the issues are resolved? No — but the plain fact remains that a tiny minority of Americans are wealthy enough to be worried about any of these issues. How do you know if you need to worry? Take this quick four-question quiz:

  1. Is your entire estate (including life insurance, IRAs and retirement accounts) worth less than about $2 million? Whatever happens in the next two years, it is pretty unlikely that the estate tax level is going to return to a number below about $3.5 million (the favorite number kicked around by Democrats during debates over the past year).
  2. Are you married? If so, you can double the estate value in the previous question.
  3. Do you live in Arizona (or another state with no estate tax)? There are only about a dozen states where state estate tax is important — Arizona is not one of them.
  4. Are you middle-aged or older? If so, are you comfortable assuming that your net worth will not dramatically increase in the next few years?

Depending on your answers, your estate planning choices are likely to be simplified. You should check to see whether you now have estate planning provisions that are no longer needed. You should also check whether your non-tax planning issues have been addressed. Do your documents name the right person to act as trustee, health care agent, personal representative and financial agent? Do they leave your assets to the people (and organizations) and in the proportions that you want? Do they refer to events, locations or items that are no longer relevant?

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