Posts Tagged ‘Survivor’s Trust’

Some Questions We’re Being Asked a Lot Lately

APRIL 29, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 17
You probably have read that Congress has made big changes to the estate tax system. More accurately, Congress has made “permanent” the big (but piecemeal and temporary) changes introduced over the past decade. We hear a lot of questions from our clients about what those changes mean. Here are some of the more common questions we get asked:

Should I revoke the living trust I signed a few years ago? The answer is almost certainly no, but it might require some explanation.

Trusts (and here we generally mean revocable living trusts) have been useful for the past few decades, and help address a number of concerns. They can make it easier for you to avoid the necessity of probate of your estate. They can provide more efficient and clear-cut management of your assets if you become incapacitated. They can spell out any limitations on your heirs’ access to your estate after your death. And (especially for married couples) they can help minimize estate taxes — or at least they have traditionally been useful for that purpose.

The federal government’s change in estate tax limits means that very, very, few estates of decedents will pay any estate tax whatsoever. But does that mean that your trust will no longer be helpful?

Even though your estate will likely not be subject to any estate taxes, the other benefits provided by your living trust will continue to be available. Probate avoidance is still easier with a trust. So is protection of your assets in the event you become incapacitated. So is control over your children’s inheritance.

If you had not already created a living trust, the recent changes in tax law might make it less compelling for you to sign a trust today. But if you have already created your trust, there is little likelihood that you will be better off by revoking it. The only real downside to creating a trust (in most, nearly all cases) is the cost (our fees) and the difficulty of transferring assets into the trust (the “funding” process). You’ve already incurred both of those, so it probably makes little sense to undo your trust now.

Do my spouse and I still need a two-trust arrangement? It has been common in Arizona (and other community property states) for a husband and wife to create a single, joint trust that divides into two trusts upon the first death. Those trusts are sometimes called “survivors” and “decedents” trusts, or “family” and “marital”, or more simply A and B trusts. Many practitioners think they are outmoded now — and they might be right.

The recent tax law changes make permanent the concept of “portability” of the estate tax exemption. That means that when one spouse dies, the surviving spouse gets to keep the deceased spouse’s $5 million estate tax exemption (it’s actually even better than that, since the $5 million figure is indexed for inflation and has already risen to $5.25 million). No fancy trusts are necessary to allow a combined estate of up to $10.5 million (or more) to completely escape federal estate tax.

For a number of reasons, though, some lawyers favor keeping the two-trust split in place. There might be a state estate tax to consider (there isn’t in Arizona, but perhaps you have property in another state where there is an estate tax). There is still the generation-skipping tax issue, if you are putting money in trust for your children (which we favor) or leaving money directly to grandchildren.

This issue takes a lot of individualized consideration. The answer may depend not only on the size of your estate, but also who you intend to leave your money to and whether you will be leaving it in trust. Suffice it to say that married couples with combined estates of well under the $5 million threshold probably don’t need the two-trust arrangement, while couples worth more than twice the $5 million figure likely do. But even those generalizations are uncertain — your mileage definitely might vary. Talk to your lawyer.

What if my spouse died several years ago, and an irrevocable trust was set up — do I still need to keep it going? It might well turn out that you don’t, but you may not have control over the question.

For couples worth more than a few hundred thousand dollars a decade ago, the division into two trusts was commonplace. If one spouse has already died the division might well have already taken place. If so, the irrevocable trust files separate tax returns, has its own EIN (Employer Identification Number — the trust’s equivalent of a Social Security Number) and has requirements that some form of accounting information is provided to the ultimate beneficiaries. Would it be advisable (or even possible) to terminate that trust?

It might, particularly if the total value of the irrevocable trust and the living spouse’s own estate does not exceed $5 million. Recent changes in Arizona law might make it easier to terminate the trust and save the cost and hassle of administering it. But it is not always easy to terminate the irrevocable trust, and there may be some costs associated with doing so. Talk to your lawyer. You might find yourself discussing merger, termination or “decanting” of the irrevocable trust.

Are these changes really permanent, or will we be revisiting everything again in two years? This really looks permanent — or at least permanent for the next decade or two. Can Congress revisit the estate tax? Yes, of course. Have they done so over the past fifteen years? Yes, repeatedly. Is there any move afoot to make further changes? Yes, some politicians talk about eliminating the estate tax altogether. But even with all that said, there is little indication that any serious changes are going to be discussed in the next few years. And even if Congress significantly lowered the estate tax limit, the result would be that the tax could affect a handful more than the half-percent (or so) of people who now need to worry about estate taxes.

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Estate Planning in 2013 — Is It Time To Make Changes?

JANUARY 14, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 2
Congress acted (not just at the last minute, but after the last minute). The update to the estate tax provisions is permanent, or at least what passes for permanent in the world of taxes and politics. So does that mean you need to make changes to your estate plan?

In a word, yes. Mind you, that answer does not apply to everyone — but it does apply to most middle-class married couples and wealthy individuals and couples.

For a decade now we’ve been telling clients that they will need to revisit their estate plans once the scheduled changes in the tax law were resolved. They are now resolved. Of course Congress could act again, and make further changes — but that seems unlikely, and probably would only happen after a lot of discussion. In other words, you should treat the current federal estate tax law as likely to outlast the life expectancy of your estate plan.

What needs changing, and how do you know if you are a candidate for change? Of course we can only answer that after a consultation, and for that you need to make an appointment and bring us detailed (and, for existing clients, updated) information. But here is a preview of what you are likely to talk with us about:

Do you have an existing A/B (or marital/bypass, or survivor’s/decedent’s) trust split in your plan? You probably do if you are married, if you are worth anything close to $1 million (or more), and if you had your estate plan prepared in the past quarter-century or so. Do you still need that trust split? Likely not. Does it hurt anything to have it in your plan? Maybe — it might make your estate plan unnecessarily complicated, but it might actually have negative income tax consequences.

Does your existing trust have “disclaimer trust” provisions? If so, you might consider revising to take them out. They probably don’t hurt anything, other than to make your estate plan that much more complicated, and to distract you from your real concerns — taking care of your family, supporting your favorite charitable cause(s), or whatever is truly important to you and your estate plan.

Are you a surviving spouse, living with an already-funded bypass/credit shelter/decedent’s trust? You might be able to make changes. State laws vary, and circumstances vary even more — but at least in Arizona there might be some opportunity to simplify  your life, reduce administrative costs (like annual tax returns) and even save your heirs a few dollars in income tax liability.

Has it been more than five years since you last visited a lawyer? If so, it’s time to update your estate plan anyway — just think for a moment about where you were five years ago, what you didn’t yet know about your family, your finances or whatever has changed. Even with no congressional action it would have been time to revisit your estate plan if it’s been that long.

Have your circumstances changed very much since your last estate planning visit? Have you gotten a new child or grandchild? (Mazel tov!) Have you moved to a new state,  married or divorced, become significantly more wealthy (or less)? Bought a vacation home in another state? Become interested in a new charitable undertaking? If any of those things describe you, it’s time to talk to your estate planning lawyer.

Are you worth between about one million dollars and five million dollars (make that ten million for married couples)? Then you are in the group of people who most need to check in with your estate planning lawyer.

Is this just a thinly-disguised attempt to drum up business? No. We’re in total agreement if you have someone else doing your estate planning and you go back to them. We obviously can’t handle your estate planning if you don’t live in Arizona, and it’s difficult for you and us if you live outside of southern Arizona. We just want to encourage everyone to update their estate plans in light of the relative permanence in the federal estate tax rules.

What bad things happen if you make an appointment with your estate planning attorney? Well, you will probably have to write a check — but of course the cost of failing to plan is usually much higher than the cost of planning. You will also have to gather some information — but we are more interested in round numbers and rough conceptions about your assets than in picky details about which stock investments have done well or precise values of your family business. We strive to make your visit no more unpleasant than a routine dental checkup.

That reminds us. We need to call our dentist.

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Step-Children and Disinherited Children Might Have Rights — It Depends

NOVEMBER 12, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 41
A prospective client asks: “Can my mother cut me out of her will after my father dies? His will leaves everything to the children after her death.” That deceptively simple question comes in a number of variations (like: “My mother’s will left everything to her children, but her estate was not probated. After her husband, my stepfather, died, we learned that everything went to his children from a prior marriage. Can we do anything about that?” Or: “Our father and stepmother had a joint trust leaving everything to all of their children — my siblings and my step-siblings — when the second one of them died. After my father’s death, my stepmother changed the trust to go only to her children. What rights do I have?”

To each of those questions the answer is almost certainly the same: “It depends.” That’s the classic lawyer’s answer, but it reflects a reality that we deal with whenever we talk to a new client or prospective client. We almost never have enough information to give a definitive answer after the initial consultation, and that is particularly true with these questions.

What does it depend on? State law, sometimes. The actual wording of documents, in most cases. Titling of the property, pretty often. The cost of pursuing the issue weighed against the value of the “lost” inheritance, almost every time.

Please remember that what we describe here is based on Arizona law. It’s what we know; we don’t know enough about other states’ laws to do more than speculate about whether the same answer would be true in another state. Heck, sometimes we don’t know enough to determine whether Arizona or some other state’s laws even apply to the question. So check these answers with a qualified lawyer in your state (or the state where your parent(s)/step-parent lived and died).

Disclaimers aside, let’s look at some of the more-common scenarios:

1. Herb and Vonda signed identical wills, leaving everything to one another and, on the second death, to their three children in equal shares. Herb died. No probate was even filed, since everything was owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship. All Vonda had to do was distribute Herb’s death certificate and everything was transferred to her name. Five years later Vonda changed her will to leave everything to one of the three children.

Vonda’s will might be subject to challenge based on undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity, but it is unlikely to be set aside based on Herb’s intention that his property be divided equally among his children. He left everything to Vonda — both in his will and by the joint tenancy designations. She was probably free to do what she wanted with what then became her own property.

Herb and Vonda might have signed an agreement to keep their wills the same. Their wills might have even included a provision that promised the survivor would not change her will after the first spouse died. But such a provision would be rare (not unheard of, but rare). Even if there was such a provision it’s not completely clear that it would apply in these circumstances, since Vonda did not acquire Herb’s interest in the jointly held property by his will — she got it by operation of the joint tenancy arrangement.

2. Richard and Fern signed a joint revocable trust. It provided that on the first spouse’s death, the survivor would have complete control over the trust and the property in the trust — including the right to amend the trust. If the trust was not amended, it would leave everything to Richard and Fern’s only son, Ralph. All their assets were transferred into the trust.

After Fern died, Richard amended the trust to leave everything to a neighbor. At least that’s what Ralph suspects. The neighbor is named as trustee and refuses to even give Ralph a copy of the amended trust. Ralph wants to know if he has a right to at least Fern’s half of the joint estate, and how he can find out about the circumstances of any amendment. He has a copy of the old trust showing him as beneficiary (though the copy he has does not show that it was actually signed). The lawyer who prepared that draft trust won’t return his phone calls.

Can Ralph get a copy of the new trust? Not necessarily. If he has been completely eliminated from the trust, the trustee is under no obligation to give him anything. How does he know if that’s the case? He doesn’t. He could bring a court case to have the Judge interpret the validity of the suspected amendment, but if it is as the neighbor says he will probably lose — he probably won’t get a copy of the trust document and he may end up paying the neighbor’s legal fees in addition to his own.

To be clear, if the neighbor consulted us we would advise that it’s easier to show Ralph the amended trust and be done with it. But we would also tell him (assuming Ralph has been excluded and the document appears to have been properly prepared) that he is not obligated to do so. Ralph is likely to get further by being reasonable and friendly than by being confrontational. Oh, and he is probably not entitled to any portion of “Fern’s estate,” since she appears to have left it all to Richard.

3. Grant and Julia were each married once before they got together. Grant has two children from the first marriage, Julia has three and the two of them had one child together. They signed a joint revocable living trust and transferred all their assets into the trust’s name. It provided that on the death of one of them, the entire trust estate was to be divided into two shares — with half of the combined assets assigned to each share.

One share of the trust would continue to be completely under the control of the surviving spouse (the trust refers to this as the “Survivor’s Trust Share”). The other (the “Decedent’s Trust Share”) is held in trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse (he or she is entitled to all the income and, if he or she needs it, principal of this trust share). On the death of the second spouse, according to the trust document, the “Decedent’s Trust Share” is to be divided equally among all six children. The surviving spouse is named as trustee of the Decedent’s Trust Share, but has no power to modify or amend it.

After Grant died, Julia continued to administer both halves of the trust. She never provided any accountings to any of the children, though her oldest daughter did help her keep bank records and took documents to the accountant for tax preparation every year. None of the children wanted to confront her about how she was handling the money, and so no one every challenged her.

When Julia died (more than a decade after Grant’s death), it turned out that the Decedent’s Trust Share was empty. Julia had withdrawn most of the money in the last five years of her life, and had used it to fix up her house (it was titled to the Survivor’s Trust Share) and to make substantial gifts to two of her children (including the one helping out with the accounting). She had also incurred significant medical bills, and had even paid for in-home care for most of her last two years. Most of the children — and especially Grant’s children — felt like she should have moved into an assisted living facility to save money during that period.

When Grant’s oldest son asked for more information, Julia’s daughter (who, it turned out, had been named as successor Trustee) blew up at him and accused him of just being about the money — not caring what his father would want or what his step-mother needed. He wants to know now what he is entitled to.

Can he get account information? Almost certainly — especially for the Decedent’s Trust Share. Is he entitled to information about the Survivor’s Trust Share? Maybe, if he is still a beneficiary (or if the finances of the Survivor’s Trust Share would affect what Julia had needed from the Decedent’s Trust Share).

We always encourage clients to ask themselves one more question, though: will Grant’s son be happy with any likely outcome? Probably not. The cost of pursuing his step-mother’s estate and his step-sister will likely be high, and the resolution will not give him everything he is entitled to receive. Depending on the size of the estate and the portion at issue, it might be financially worth pursuing. Basically: “it depends.”

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Tax Identification Numbers for Trusts After Death of Spouse

MARCH 26, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 12
Here at Fleming & Curti, PLC, we keep tabs on what brings people to our website. We look at referring pages, at search terms and at a variety of other items. We are intrigued by what persistently tops the search-engine list. The most common search? It’s some variation of: “do I need a new tax ID number for my living trust?” (For those keeping score, the second-most-common question seems to be “can I leave my IRA to a living trust?“)

Why the enduring interest? Because the question is so much less complicated than people think it is. There is a surprising paucity of clear information about when you need to have a new tax ID number (an EIN, if you want to use the correct acronym). And much of the information out there is contradictory.

We have written about the question several times before. In 2009 we asked and answered the question: “Do you need a new tax ID number for your living trust?” Just last year we reviewed the question, along with some other reader questions, and provided a little more detail on when your trust needs an EIN. Since those two explanations the rules haven’t really changed — but your questions have gotten a little bit more sophisticated.

Several of those questions deal with the same basic scenario: what happens when a husband and wife have a joint trust, using one spouse’s Social Security number, and then that spouse dies? The answer will depend on what the trust provides.

First, a word about joint trusts for spouses: they are common in community property states (like Arizona), not as common in those states where community property principles do not apply. Remember, please, that we are Arizona lawyers, and so we write here about Arizona rules. Attorneys from other states are more than free to add their comments; we will post them as we receive them — but we are not vouching for the accuracy of their advice in states other than Arizona.

Let’s set up a scenario, drawn from our common experience: Husband and wife created a joint revocable trust, and their bank accounts, brokerage accounts, insurance — all of their assets, in fact — listed the husband’s Social Security number. They could do that because, as with a joint account outside of a trust, tax rules allow one owner’s identifying number to be used rather than having to use all owners’ numbers. But now the husband has died. What should the (surviving) wife do about the TIN (Taxpayer Identification Number)?

Before we answer, we need to know what happens to the trust on the death of the first spouse. Let’s assume, for a moment, that it remains in one trust, that the wife now has the power to amend or revoke it in its entirety, and that she is the sole trustee. In that case, the direction is easy: tell the bank, the brokerage house and the insurance company to change the name of the trustee from the couple to the wife, and to change the TIN to the wife’s Social Security number. How do you do that? Send them a death certificate and a letter instructing them to make the changes. Assume, incidentally, that they won’t — it will often take you two or three tries, several phone calls, and some wheedling to get the task done. But that’s what should happen.

What if the wife is not the sole trustee? Let’s say, for a moment, that the oldest daughter now becomes co-trustee with her mother, but that the trust remains revocable and amendable by the wife. In that situation, we have the same answer: switch to the wife’s Social Security number.

What if the wife has the power to revoke or amend the trust, but she is now incapacitated? The oldest daughter is the sole trustee, and isn’t sure what to tell the financial institutions. The answer is still the same: the trust is still revocable (even though there may be no practical way to revoke it if the only person with power to do so is incapacitated), and the wife’s Social Security number is the trust’s TIN (expect to have an argument with the financial institutions over this one). Is a bank trust department the successor trustee instead? Same answer — but with the ironic twist that the argument between trustee and financial institution will now occur between two branches of the same organization.

Sometimes a joint revocable trust becomes irrevocable on the death of one spouse. More commonly it splits into two (or sometimes three) portions, one (or two) of which are irrevocable. What happens then? The answer, as you might expect, is a little bit more complicated — and may not be the same in every case.

Generally speaking, an irrevocable trust that does not contain the assets originally belonging to the beneficiary is likely to need its own EIN. That may mean that one (sometimes two) of the trusts resulting from the death of one spouse needs a new EIN, and one just uses the surviving spouse’s Social Security number.

Let’s use a specific example: in our earlier scenario, after the death of the husband the joint revocable trust splits into a “Decedent’s” (sometimes “bypass”) share and a “Survivor’s” share. The Decedent’s Trust is irrevocable. Wife is the trustee, and she is entitled to all the income from the trust. She may even have the ability to distribute trust principal to herself, or to decide how the Trust is divided among the couple’s children at her death. But this trust is not  “grantor” trust — it gets taxed as a separate entity. Hence, it needs its own EIN, and it files its own tax returns.

Mechanically, the process of dividing the trust is a little more complicated than in our earlier scenario. An estate tax return may be required (although it may not). A division of trust assets needs to be completed (the assistance of a competent lawyer and a good accountant is essential here). The share to be assigned to the Decedent’s Trust needs to be identified, and then physically transferred into a new account — often titled something like “The Jones Family Trust — Decedent’s Trust” (yeah, we know — your name isn’t Jones. Stick with us anyway). And that new account needs to use the Decedent’s Trust’s new EIN.

Note that we said that the assets need to be transferred into the new account. Most financial institutions will insist on opening a new account, with a new account number, rather than simply changing the name on an existing account. But when the process is completed — however you and the financial institution get there — the Decedent’s Trust should be physically separated from the Survivor’s Trust, it will have its own EIN, and it will need to file tax returns. Note: it probably will not pay any tax as a separate entity — all its income will  probably be imputed to the surviving spouse.

Meanwhile, the remaining trust assets in our example will continue to use the wife’s Social Security number. It may not be crucial to change the name on that account to “The Jones Family Trust — Survivor’s Trust” (those Joneses — they end up will all the money anyway). If you long for clarity, we would certainly support a transfer of the Surivor’s Trust share into a new account, titled as part of that sub-trust, and bearing the wife’s Social Security number — even if it is not required.

Recall, please, that there are lots of variations on this basic scenario. Be careful about generalizing from this information to your precise circumstances. Our goal here is to give you some general notions about what needs to be done — we do not think of ourselves as a substitute for good, personalized legal advice. We think, in fact, that you should get some of that, because your situation might well be more complicated than you think it is. But we hope we’ve given you some idea of what your attorney will be asking you, and what he or she is likely to tell you.

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