Posts Tagged ‘community property with right of survivorship’

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.

 

This is Huge: Feds Publish New Rules on Gay Marriage

SEPTEMBER 2, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 33

Just a few weeks ago we wrote about some of the uncertainties facing legally married same-sex couples living in states (like Arizona) that refuse to recognize the validity of their marriages. If a legally-married couple moves to Arizona, we wondered, would their ability to receive some of the tax benefits available to married couples change just because their new state did not recognize or approve of their marriage? We suggested that same-sex couples ought to be aware of the problem, but assume that they should be able to enjoy the same benefits (and burdens, for that matter) available to their married heterosexual friends.

Well, the United States government weighed in on the subject this week, and the positions taken by two different federal agencies made it clear that a valid marriage is a valid marriage — at least in the federal government’s eyes. The result? Same-sex couples still need to pay extra attention to their estate planning choices, but their choices will be much more palatable.

On August 29, 2013, the Internal Revenue Service released Revenue Ruling 2013-17. Its bottom line: if you are legally married, even though your current state of domicile does not recognize it, you will be treated as married for all tax purposes. Period. Income tax, estate tax, gift tax — it makes no difference. You are married.

In our earlier newsletter we talked about a couple, married in Massachusetts, who had moved to Arizona. Could they file their federal income taxes as “married, filing jointly”? Could they list one another as beneficiary on their IRA or 401(k) accounts, relying on the ability of a spouse to roll those benefits over into a new IRA? Would they get the benefit of a full step-up in basis for income tax purposes, just like other married couples holding community property? It was not clear a week ago. Today it is clear. The answer in each case is “yes” — though perhaps a qualified “yes” in one or two of those cases.

Why a qualified yes? Mostly because community property titling is a special case. Yes, there are federal income tax benefits for married couples titling their assets as community property — but the availability of that option is governed by state property law. Arizona is one of the handful of states recognizing community property designations at all, and it limits the option to couples it thinks are married. If a same-sex couple, legally married in another state, attempts to title, say, real estate as community property (or community property with right of survivorship), will Arizona recognize that title?

We are not sure, and so suggest that the safe approach is to create a trust (probably a joint, revocable trust), provide that all the assets in the trust are held as community property, and title most assets to that trust. That does mean that same-sex couples will end up paying somewhat more for their estate planning than their married heterosexual friends — but they will get the same result at a relatively modest cost.

The other notable change on the federal level involves long-term care arrangements for Medicare recipients. It is far less expansive than the big IRA announcement, but reflects the same general approach: married same-sex couples are to be accorded the same benefits as married heterosexual couples, at least on the federal level.

An August 29, 2013, announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services affects Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. It is not very far-reaching, but it is nonetheless important. In cases where one spouse is already admitted to a skilled nursing facility (what most of us call a “nursing home”), when the second spouse requires placement he or she must be permitted to choose the same facility. In other words, Medicare Advantage plans must have rules supporting spouses’ ability to stay together. And those policies must apply to same-sex married couples, too — even if their marriages are not recognized in the state where they live.

Why is this modest change important? Because, like the IRS declaration, it indicates that the federal government will be extending protections to validly married same-sex couples regardless of their state of residence.

Legal rights and responsibilities are evolving quickly for same-sex marriage. The first few states permitting same-sex marriages debated whether to even permit out-0f-state couples to marry. In the next wave of legal developments, it seemed clear that couples living in Arizona probably would not benefit from traveling to, say, Canada or Iowa to get married, only to return to Arizona and have their marriages all but invalidated. This week’s announcements make it clear that a committed same-sex couple should seriously consider whether they want to get married in a friendlier jurisdiction, even if they intend to return to Arizona to live.

The federal pronouncements also make it that much more difficult for states like Arizona to continue to resist the pressure to change. If a legally married same-sex couple, living in Arizona, wants to get divorced, do they have access to the Arizona court system? The current legal thinking in Arizona is that they might be able to seek annulment of their marriage (which, in Arizona’s legal view, never validly existed), but not a divorce (or dissolution).

Consider, for instance, the dilemma facing Phoenix-area resident Anne Armstrong (not her real name) earlier this year. She and her partner Roberta Reynolds had been married in California, but Anne wished to end the marriage. She filed a petition for annulment of the marriage in the Arizona Superior Court in Phoenix. Roberta did not respond, but the Judge Eartha K. Washington nonetheless refused to annul the marriage. Because same-sex marriages are invalid in Arizona, ruled the judge, there was nothing she could do to help Anne end her California marriage.

The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back to the judge for further proceedings to annul the marriage and divide the couple’s property. Atwood v. Riviotta, May 16, 2013. While Anne’s legal problems were addressed, the decision left two huge issues unresolved: (1) what about same-sex married couples who don’t want to end their marriages, and (2) why should the legal process for ending same-sex marriages be different in the first place? Furthermore, the Court of Appeals resolution was by an unpublished decision, meaning it could not even be cited as precedent for other, similar cases as they arise.

What about resolution of child custody issues, or property divisions? What about bigamy laws, or other societal norms affecting married couples? If a couple is permitted to file income tax returns as married under federal law, why should it be different for state income tax returns? The pressure on Arizona (and other resistant states) is intense: it is time for our legal system to deal with changes sweeping across the country, and the federal government’s pronouncements this week will add to that pressure.

Simple Estate Planning for a Married Couple

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

We Take a Stab at Some Of Our Common Legal Questions

FEBRUARY 21, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 6
We get asked plenty of general legal questions. We try to give helpful answers, recognizing that we can not give specific legal advice to non-clients (and particularly to questioners from outside Arizona, where we are licensed to practice law). Often our best answer is “check with a local lawyer familiar with the appropriate area of law.” Unsatisfying, but it really is the right answer in many cases.

Still, we want to get general legal concepts out to the public. Why? Because we think it makes non-lawyers recognize when the legal problem they face is too complex for self-help, and it even helps make the questioner a better client when they do get to the lawyer’s office.

What kind of legal questions can we answer? very general ones. Like these, which are some of our most common questions:

Does my living trust need a new tax ID number? The best way to answer this is probably to explain when a trust doesn’t need its own “Employer Identification Number” (EIN — even if the trust isn’t an “employer,” that’s the kind of tax ID number it will get).

General rule: every separate entity requires its own TIN, whether that is a Social Security number (for you) or an EIN (for your corporation, trust, LLC, or whatever). First major exception to the general rule: if your trust is revocable, and you are the trustee, for tax purposes it is not a separate entity at all — you don’t need an EIN and, in fact, you shouldn’t get one.

Now let’s make it a little more complicated. If your trust is irrevocable, or you are not the trustee, the rules are a little harder to parse. The key question is whether your trust is a “grantor” trust. If it is, and if there is only one grantor (or one married couple), then it does not need an EIN. If it is not, or if there are multiple grantors, it must have its own EIN.

Note that whether or not the trust needs (or is even permitted to get) an EIN is not the same question as whether it has to file a separate tax return. That one is more complicated, and we’ll save it for another day.

Can a revocable trust be named as beneficiary of an IRA? Yes, but be careful. This is something you should discuss with your attorney or your accountant (or both).

Before we talk about naming your trust as the beneficiary, we have a question for you: what are you trying to accomplish by naming the trust as beneficiary? If your trust divides equally and distributes outright among a fairly small number of beneficiaries upon your death, why not just name those beneficiaries on the IRA as well as in the trust? Then you don’t have to figure out the rules on naming a trust as beneficiary, and you don’t have to keep wondering if you’ve done it right.

Maybe you have a child who is ill, or a spendthrift, or needs to have his inheritance placed in trust. In that case — and in a few other cases — it can make sense to name your trust as beneficiary of your IRA. Now you need to become familiar with the difference between what lawyers usually call “conduit” trusts and “accumulation” trusts. The former require distribution of any money received from the IRA’s minimum distribution requirements each year, and the latter allow (but do not require) the IRA distributions to accumulate. The distinction is important; the accumulation trust will require distributions on the basis of the oldest possible beneficiary of the trust. That is the result in most cases where a trust is named as beneficiary.

These same rules apply, by the way, for other tax-qualified accounts, like 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Some advisers will tell you it is not even permitted to name a trust as beneficiary of an IRA or qualified plan. They are wrong, but the rules are a little difficult to figure out in individual cases. Also, some account custodians (that is, the bank or financial institution where the money is held) may limit or even prohibit trusts as beneficiaries.

How does community property work in Arizona? Nine U.S. states are usually listed as the “community property” states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In addition, Puerto Rico recognizes community property, and Alaska allows couples to choose community property treatment of their joint assets.

But what does it mean to have property held as community property? In Arizona, it means that the property is jointly owned, that each spouse has an equal interest, and that either spouse has the right to manage the property on behalf of the community.

When one spouse dies, his (or her) half int0erest in the community property normally passes according to his will or, if he did not sign a will, to his children (including those who are also children of the surviving spouse). To avoid that result couples are permitted to specifically designate their property as “community property with right of survivorship.” If that title has been used, the surviving spouse receives the entire community asset on the first spouse’s death. Note that the different community property states treat the right of survivorship differently, and we are only describing Arizona’s approach here.

It is also possible for a portion of an asset to be subject to community rights. This might happen, for example, if one spouse brought the property into the marriage but mortgage payments were made during the period of marriage from community income or assets. This kind of calculation is usually much more important in divorce proceedings than upon the death of one spouse.

Property received by inheritance or gift, and property owned before the marriage, are not community property — they are the separate property of the recipient or owner. Couples can choose to convert their community property into separate property, and can even agree that property acquired in the future will be treated as separate property.

Thanks. But I have a different question to ask. Go ahead — pose your question as a comment here, and we’ll try to answer it. Don’t be too surprised if we tell you that it is too specific, or requires knowledge of another state’s laws, or we can’t answer it for some other reason. But we’ll try to be helpful.

One word of caution: do not give us a detailed fact pattern and ask us for advice. We simply can not provide individual legal advice — free or even for a fee — based on unsolicited e-mails or comments. You will not have any lawyer/client privilege for your recitation of the facts, and we will not be able to help with that kind of inquiry. We do welcome your general questions that give us a chance to explain legal principles, though.

Late-Life Marriage Leads To Property Dispute in Divorce

MARCH 15, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 9

Older individuals often get married, of course, and sometimes face legal issues as a result of separation or divorce. The legal problems associated with the end of a late-life marriage are not necessarily different from those faced by younger divorcing couples. A recent Arizona Court of Appeals decision addresses one difference that often occurs.

When Norman and Judy Flower married he was 76 and she was 55. She had a son from a former marriage, and each of them owned a home. Mr. Flower promptly transferred his home into joint ownership with his new wife; Mrs. Flower’s son was already on the title to her home, and she did not add Mr. Flower.

The couple lived together in Mr. Flower’s home for six months, while they fixed up Mrs. Flower’s residence. They took out a line of credit secured by Mr. Flower’s home and spent a total of at least $32,000 on Mrs. Flower’s home. They accumulated a total of $61,000 of debt during the marriage. After the work was done on Mrs. Flower’s home they moved into it, and her son moved into the jointly-owned home that had originally belonged to Mr. Flower.

A year after the marriage, Mr. Flower decided that his wife had been interested in him only for financial reasons and he filed a petition seeking an annulment. Mrs. Flower responded by asking for a divorce, and insisted that she was entitled to a half interest in what had been Mr. Flower’s home, all of her own (now improved) home, and no obligation to repay any of the costs of improvements to her home.

Arizona law, like that of many jurisdictions, assumes that the property division in a divorce proceeding will usually be roughly equal. The legal term, however, requires that it be “equitable,” and in rare cases that can mean something other than an equal division. The trial judge decided this was such a case.

Although the trial court denied Mr. Flower’s request for an annulment, it did grant the couple a divorce. The judge also returned Mr. Flower’s residence to him, although it required him to pay the majority of the debt the couple had accumulated. Mrs. Flower was awarded her home without any claim for the improvements made during the marriage, and she was ordered to pay $16,000 of the couple’s debts. Mrs. Flower appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the unequal division of property and debts. Given the unusual facts of this case, ruled the appellate judges, the usual requirement of “substantially equal” division need not be applied. The appellate court noted that though Mr. Flower received his home, he was also required to pay most of the community’s debt incurred during a relatively brief marriage. Flower v. Flower, February 25, 2010.

Arizona, of course, is a “community property” state. Does that mean that the result in a state that did not apply community property rules would be different? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Most states apply some version of Arizona’s requirement that property division be “equitable” and assume that usually means “equal.” While Mr. and Mrs. Flowers did initially transfer his residence into “community property with right of survivorship,” the result in Arizona would not have been different if they had transferred it to “joint tenancy with right of survivorship.”

Is the result in the Flower case unusual based on unusual facts? Not really. The same day that the Arizona Court of Appeals decided the Flower property division issues, it also handled another, similar case. Retirees Carolyn and Lowell Inboden (the opinion does not give their ages) had married and purchased a vacant lot as joint tenants, but using $90,000 of Mrs. Inboden’s separate money from before the marriage. They then built a home on the lot, using $67,000 of her money, $46,500 of his, and a lot of sweat (they acted as their own general contractors).

When Mr. and Mrs. Inboden divorced a little less than two years after the marriage (and just a few months after the house was completed), the trial judge awarded her about three-quarters of the value of the home to reimburse her for her disproportionate contribution to its purchase and construction. The Court of Appeals reversed that result and returned it for further consideration.

In the case of the Inbodens’ property division, the appellate court was clear that the final result might well be an unequal division. The basis for any deviation, however, must be based on “equitable” principles, and not on a simple calculation to reimburse each spouse for their contribution of property that was previously separate. There is a presumption, difficult to overcome, that changes of title or transfers of assets are intended to be gifts, and those gifts can not be reversed if the marriage later falters. Inboden v. Inboden, February 25, 2010.

Why are these divorce issues “elder law” concerns? They are not, really — except that when older couples marry they are more likely to have property that they bring into the marriage, and less likely to have minor children. Consequently, if their later-in-life marriages fail they are perhaps more likely to present complicated property division issues and less likely to focus on child custody and support problems.

Of course, divorce is not the only venue for property division concerns. Even the popular press has begun to consider the possibility that later-in-life marriages might create property disputes between surviving spouses and children from prior marriages or relationships.

Arizona Community Property Is Not Always Subject To Probate

OCTOBER 9, 2000 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 15

Arizona is one of nine “community property” states in the country, and that can be the source of some confusion about estate planning, taxes and property ownership rights for married couples. Recent changes in Arizona’s law make the “community property” designation a little more friendly and understandable, and the benefits to this unique property ownership choice are now clearer.

“Community property” concepts were not part of the English common law. Under the system imported to most of the American states, property was owned by one spouse or the other, though the non-owner might acquire some rights in his or her spouse’s property. The French and Spanish, however, understood the marital community to be a separate entity from either spouse individually, and permitted the “community” to own property. Each spouse then holds an equal interest in the community’s property.

Those American states with rich Spanish or French histories tended to adopt some version of the community property concept. Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin are community property states, although the method of implementing the concept varies somewhat. Alaska also permits some trust assets to be held as community property.

In community property states a married couple is presumed to hold assets as community property regardless of the actual title on the asset. Couples may, however, choose to hold their property in joint tenancy or as tenants in common if they wish.

One important advantage to having assets titled as community property comes, oddly enough, from federal tax law. Although capital gains taxes are ordinarily due any time an appreciated asset is sold, the increased value of property held by a decedent at the time of death is not taxed. The property’s income tax “basis” is said to “step up” to its value on the date of the owner’s death, often resulting in substantial income tax savings for heirs.

Jointly owned property only receives a partial “step up” in basis. Property held in joint tenancy will usually only get half the income tax benefit on the death of one joint owner. Community property, however, is treated differently: the entire value of a community property asset gets “stepped up” to the value on the first spouse’s death, resulting in twice the income tax savings.

The main drawback to holding community property in Arizona has long been the requirement of a probate proceeding to pass the property to the surviving spouse. Although the long-term tax savings can be substantial, the probate costs are immediate and, in most people’s minds, too high. Since 1995 Arizona has permitted married couples the best of both worlds: property can be held as “community property with right of survivorship” and secure the favorable income tax treatment while still avoiding the probate process. The value of this type of property ownership is, of course, restricted to married couples.

One caveat: some commentators, relying on fairly arcane interpretations of the federal tax law, argue that the “community property with right of survivorship” designation could conceivably be found to result in no step up in tax basis at all. So far the federal government has not taken such a position, but there remains some slight possibility of a problem. In addition, the effect of titling separate property as community property (with or without the “right of survivorship” language) has more than just tax effects. In other words, you should consult an Arizona attorney before changing title on your existing assets or deciding how to title a new acquisition.

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