A recent case, In re: Estate of Lois Whitten, illustrated a tricky area of the law for creditors’ claims against an estate.

When you probate a Will, the Court publishes a Notice to Creditors. Creditors have 4 months from the first publication of Notice to file their claims against the Estate. In order to benefit from the 4 month statute of limitations, the Executor must search the Decedent’s records and send a copy of the Notice to any likely creditors. The 4 month deadline also applies to any creditors that the Executor should not have expected after searching the Decedent’s records. If the Executor fails to send a copy of the Notice to a creditor whom the Executor should have known about, then the creditor has 1 year from the date of death to file a claim.

Instead of sending the Notice to Creditors in Whitten, the Executor sent a letter to the creditor with a check. The letter stated “This pays her bill in full. If not, please do not cash the check but return it to me.” The creditor rejected the check and returned it to the Executor. Six months after the Notice to Creditors had been published, the creditor then filed a claim against the estate for a larger amount. Had the Executor included the Notice to Creditors with the letter, this claim would have been disallowed. However, the court allowed the claim because the Executor did not send the required Notice.

Lessons from this case:

1. If you are a creditor of someone who dies, file your claim promptly (especially if your claim is such that the Executor may not discover it).

2. If you are an Executor, send all potential creditors a copy of the Notice to Creditors.

The Tax Relief Act of 2010 added a provision that allows a surviving spouse to use any unused estate tax exemption from his or her deceased spouse. So far, this is only available if both spouses die between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2012. There is widespread optimism that portability will be extended by future legislation.

The IRS published regulations on June 15, 2012 dealing with numerous issues regarding the regulations. There are two noteworthy items that affect short-term planning.

First, if your spouse died on or after January 1, 2011, the rules for filing your spouse’s estate tax return have been relaxed under certain circumstances. If your spouse’s estate is not required to file an estate tax return because the value of the estate is below the filing threshold, you generally do not have to report values of assets passing to the surviving spouse or to charity. You only need to report the description, ownership, and/or beneficiary of the property together with sufficient information to establish your right to the marital or charitable deduction. This means that you are not required to obtain a full-blown appraisal of these assets. However, you must use “due diligence” to estimate the fair market value of the gross estate. You are allowed to identify a range of values with the Executor’s “best estimate” rounded to the nearest $250,000. This is welcome news because expensive appraisals can be avoided. You still have the issue of determining the fair market value of the assets for purposes of establishing the income tax basis of the asset and may choose to obtain appraisals anyway.

The other good news is that the regulations made it clear that gifts by the surviving spouse first use up the unused estate tax exemption from his/her spouse (“DSUE”). If your spouse died over the last eighteen months and left you some DSUE, you should consider making a gift prior to year-end. First, we don’t know that portability will be extended. Second, if you remarry and your next spouse dies before you have used your DSUE, you will lose the DSUE from your first spouse.

As my clients age, I am more likely to encourage them to establish a revocable trust. There are several reasons for this preference.

First, if my clients become incapacitated, it is easier for the successor trustee to manage my client’s assets in their capacity as Trustee. Experience has shown that financial institutions are more suspicious of powers of attorney than revocable trusts. Second, if my client is successful in changing the title of all of his/her assets to the Trust, probate can be avoided in Tennessee.

Third, if my client owns property in another state, probate can be avoided in the other state. Fourth, my elderly clients are less likely to acquire additional assets during their remaining lifetimes. Thus, it is more likely that they will be able to keep all of their assets titled in the name of their trust. Finally, my elderly clients have a keener appreciation of the privacy afforded by a revocable trust.

I am currently establishing revocable trusts for two of my clients who are approaching their 80th birthdays. During the last few years, the husband has become incapacitated due to Alzheimers. Fortunately, when he signed his Will in 2006, he also signed a durable general power of attorney which authorized his wife to establish a revocable trust for him. She may only exercise this power if the dispositive provisions of the revocable trust after the husband’s death are consistent with his Will. This means that she will not be able to change the manner in which his assets will be distributed.

The wife is making a change to her dispositive provisions. She is changing the bequest to her son from an outright disposition to a bequest in trust. She would like to make the same change to her husband’s revocable trust and is confident that he would approve of this change if he was able. However, she does not have this power under the power of attorney. If the husband dies first, his assets pass to two separate trusts that will benefit the wife during her lifetime and will give her a testamentary limited power of appointment over the trust assets upon her death. Therefore, if the husband dies first, the wife will be able to change the son’s bequest from her husband to a trust. She would have this power under his current Will; therefore, she is not changing anything that would otherwise happen if her husband did not change from a Will to a revocable trust.

After the wife signs the revocable trusts, she will change ownership of various assets to the trusts. This will allow probate to be avoided for both clients, will simplify the management of the assets during my clients’ remaining lifetimes, and will simplify the disposition of my clients’ assets following their deaths.

If you choose to use a Will to dispose of your estate, consider signing a power of attorney that gives your agent the ability to create a revocable trust for you after you become incapacitated.  This can make it easier to manage your assets during your remaining lifetime and simplify the dispositon of your assets following your death.   

This is the second article of a series dealing with the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (“Act”). For the first article, see: Part 1 – Charitable IRA Rollovers

The Act retroactively reinstated estate taxes to apply to decedents who died in 2010. However, the Act provided two relief provisions. First, the federal estate tax exemption for 2010 decedents was $5 million. Second, the Act allows executors to elect the carryover basis regime for 2010 decedents if that regime is preferable to the estate tax regime.

We represent several estates that plan to elect the carryover basis regime. The carryover basis regime may result in future income taxes; however income taxes are less than estate taxes. Most estates of $10 million or more will elect the carryover basis regime. This is because the estate tax regime would result in estate taxes, either now or upon the death of the surviving spouse. Estates of unmarried decedents with more than $5 million will generally elect the carryover basis regime.

Estates worth $5 million or less will stay with the estate tax regime. They will not owe any federal estate taxes and all assets owned by the estate will receive a stepped-up basis.

The Executors for married decedents whose estates were between $5 and $10 million will have to analyze the two regimes. When the available basis step-up of $4.3 million is enough to increase the basis of all assets to date of death value, the estate should elect the carryover basis regime. When the basis step-up is not enough to eliminate all pre-death gains, the executor will need to analyze whether future income taxes to be incurred on pre-mortem appreciation will be more than future estate taxes to be incurred upon the death of the surviving spouse.

The analysis of future income taxes and future estate taxes requires a crystal ball. Income taxes might be avoided if the surviving spouse gives appreciated assets to charity or holds them until death. Estate taxes might be avoided if the surviving spouse makes sufficient gifts or if the $5 million federal estate tax exemption is extended until the year of the spouse’s death.

The Act did not specify how or when to make the election to be subject to the carryover basis regime. The Act specified that the Form 706 for decedents subject to the estate tax regime does not need to be filed until September 17, 2011. I expect guidance from the IRS clarifying that the carryover basis election can also be made as late as September 17, 2011.

Some people mistakenly assume that their Will controls the disposition of all of their assets. There are several ways that your assets pass to someone outside of your Will.

Assets that are owned as tenants by the entirety with your spouse or joint with right of survivorship will pass to the other owner or owners by operation of law.

A large number of assets pass by beneficiary designation. Common examples are bank accounts, retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans and IRAs, and life insurance. See the enclosed article from Fidelity regarding important considerations in your choice of beneficiary designation.

If you transfer ownership of your assets to a trust before you die, the trust will dictate how the assets pass upon your death. A number of my clients have transferred all or a portion of their assets to a revocable trust or an asset protection trust.

Under Tennessee law, your spouse is entitled to elect against your Will and receive a share of your estate, year’s support, exempt property, and homestead. As a general rule, your spouse will elect to receive these benefits when they are better than the Will.

Even if your Will does not direct your Executor to pay your debts, your creditors will file claims against your estate and will be paid prior to the beneficiaries named under your Will.

Even if your Will does not direct your Executor to pay your tax obligations, the IRS and the State of Tennessee have priority over the beneficiaries of your Estate regarding the payment of income, inheritance, estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes, including interest and penalties. They have a “secret” lien against all of the assets of your Estate. If the Executor of your Estate fails to pay your tax obligations, the IRS and the State of Tennessee will be able to collect taxes from your Executor (to the extent that the Executor has distributed assets to the beneficiaries) or from the beneficiaries of your Estate (to the extent that they received assets from your Estate or from other methods such as beneficiary designations).

Because there are so many ways to receive assets that are not dependent on the terms of your Will, it is very important to make sure that you account for all of these potential non-testamentary transfers when planning for the disposition of your assets.

 I currently represent an 88 year old widower whose wife died less than 9 months ago. The wife’s estate is approximately $1.6 million. The husband’s assets, including a $1 million brokerage account that had been owned jointly with his wife, are worth approximately $1.8 million. Because the husband’s estate exceeds $1 million, his estate will owe more than $300,000 of estate taxes if he dies after January 1, 2011 and Congress does not change the tax laws prior to his death.

In an effort to reduce or eliminate his potential federal estate tax liability, I have recommended a disclaimer of the husband’s one-half survivorship interest in the brokerage account. If the husband chooses to file a disclaimer, his children will receive one-half of the brokerage account now, rather than following his death. Under federal law, the disclaimer will not be treated as a gift by the husband. This means that no federal gift or estate taxes will be charged on the $500,000 passing to his children.  The disclaimer will reduce his federal estate taxes by more than $200,000.

Tennessee treats a disclaimer of a joint brokerage account as a gift. The husband will have to pay $36,000 of Tennessee gift tax on April 15, 2011. Upon the husband’s death, the inheritance taxes imposed on his estate will be reduced by $36,000 as a result of the disclaimer. Therefore, the net effect of the disclaimer is to accelerate the payment of $36,000 from 9 months after the husband’s death to April 15, 2011.

The husband has a modest lifestyle and feels comfortable that he will have sufficient assets for his remaining lifetime after he executes the disclaimer. He also likes the idea of getting assets to his children sooner.

If we knew that Congress would change the federal estate tax exemption to $2 million or more prior to the husband’s death, it would be unnecessary to make the disclaimer. Unfortunately, the disclaimer must be filed within 9 months after the death of the wife. Congress has been in a stalemate for more than 9 years regarding the “estate tax fix.” Because the 9 month deadline will occur in a few weeks, the husband will have to make the disclaimer decision prior to finding out whether Congress changes the law.

 It is very typical for a Will to direct the Executor to pay the Decedent’s valid debts. When my clients own real estate encumbered by a mortgage, they often want the successor owner of the real estate to continue paying the mortgage. For these clients, I place a provision in their Wills giving the Executor the discretion to continue paying the mortgage until the successor owner takes over the payments.

When the successor owner of the real estate is also the residuary beneficiary of your estate, it may not matter whether your estate or the successor owner pays the mortgage. If your estate pays the mortgage, the residuary estate passing to the successor owner will be less. Nevertheless, it provides more flexibility for the successor owner if you allow the mortgage to remain in place. The successor beneficiary can pay off the mortgage early if there is not a need to maintain the mortgage.

Things are not as easy when the successor owner of the real estate is not the residuary beneficiary of your estate. Now it makes a big difference as to whether your estate or the successor owner pays the mortgage.

If you decide that you want the successor owner to pay the mortgage, there is another consideration. The bank may file a claim against your estate and require the Executor to pay the mortgage. Depending upon whether the successor owner was jointly liable on the debt, your estate may have a claim against the successor owner to pay at least a portion of the debt. If you do not want your Executor to be in the position of having to sue the successor owner of the house, you should condition any bequest to the successor owner on their agreement to assume the mortgage. If you take this approach, the bequest to the successor owner will be reduced to the extent, if any, that your estate is required to make payments on the mortgage.

There are 2 methods by which the successor owner can acquire the property.

First, when you own the property, your Will simply devises the property to the successor owner. You can make the devise conditional on the devisee’s assumption of the mortgage.

Alternatively, when you own the property as tenants by the entirety with your spouse or jointly with right of survivorship, the successor owner will acquire the property by operation of law. Your Will cannot require the successor owner to assume the mortgage. However, if your Will makes a bequest of other assets to the successor owner, this bequest can be conditioned upon the successor owner’s assumption of the mortgage. If the bequest is less valuable than the mortgage, the successor owner might forfeit the bequest rather than assume the mortgage.

In summary, you need to decide who you want to pay your mortgage and draft your Will accordingly.

I recently met with a couple for whom I prepared Wills in 2006. They want to make a change to their Will because a member of their family died unexpectedly. When they went to their lockbox, they were unable to find their original Wills. Fortunately, they still have the ability to sign new Wills.

What would have happened if one of my clients had died and the survivor was unable to find the Will? It is likely that we could have probated a copy of the Will. Tennessee law allows a Court to probate a copy of the Will when there is credible testimony that the Will has been lost and that there was no intention to revoke the Will. I have successfully probated copies of Wills on 6 or 7 occasions. Every time that I have probated a copy, no one objected and a close family member was able to give credible testimony about the Will being lost.

You should assume that your heirs will be unsuccessful in probating a copy of your Will. When the original Will cannot be found, there is a strong presumption under Tennessee law that the Will was revoked. There have been numerous cases where the Court refused to probate a copy of a Will. If the Court refuses to probate the copy, the Court will choose an administrator to manage your estate and distribute your assets according to the intestate succession laws of Tennessee.

Due to the problems caused when your original Will cannot be located, it is very important that you keep your original Will in a lockbox or other safe location. You also need to make sure that one or more trustworthy persons knows the location of your original Will.

Revocable trusts do not have the same problem. The Trustee does not have to produce the original Trust Agreement in order to carry out its duties. This is another potential benefit of a revocable trust.

Short-term capital gains are taxed at a significantly higher rate than long-term capital gains. In 2010, the maximum rates are 35% for short-term capital gains and 15% for long-term capital gains. In 2011, the maximum rates will increase to 39.6% and 20%.

Prior to 2010, gains from sales of assets by an estate were automatically treated as long-term capital gains, regardless of when the decedent bought the asset. For decedents dying in 2010, this rule does not apply. It is now necessary to determine when the decedent bought the asset. If the asset is sold within a year after it was acquired, the gain will be short-term.

Tax on pre-mortem gain can be eliminated by allocating the decedent’s basis increase to the property. Every decedent has $1.3 million of basis increase that may be allocated by the Executor. Married decedents potentially have an additional $3 million of basis increase that can be allocated.

The basis increase can not be used to eliminate post-mortem gains. Assume the decedent bought a stock for $200,000 on November 1, 2009. The decedent died on March 31, 2010 when the stock was worth $260,000. If the Executor sells the stock for $300,000 on October 15, 2010, there will be a short-term capital gain of $100,000. The pre-mortem gain of $60,000 can potentially be eliminated if the Executor chooses to allocate a portion of the decedent’s basis increase to this particular asset. The basis increase cannot be used to wipe out the $40,000 post-mortem gain.

The gain could be converted from short-term capital gain to long-term capital gain if the Executor waits to sell until November 1, 2010.

I recently read that 43% of the 91,000 babies born in Tennessee in 2008 were born out of wedlock. Babies with unwed parents are now so common that the social stigma from yesteryear has largely disappeared.  Nevertheless, there are still circumstances where the law discriminates against children born out of wedlock.

When someone dies without a Will, the state of Tennessee decides who will inherit the person’s estate. The laws governing this process are known as "Intestate Succession." When the decedent has no surviving spouse or descendants, the property is distributed to the decedent’s parents or descendants of the parents if they are deceased, i.e., brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. If the parents are deceased and have no then living descendants, then the property is distributed to descendants of the decedent’s grandparents (i.e. aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins). Children born out of wedlock frequently claim to be a member of the class who inherits from an intestate decedent.

The Cleo Snapp case is the most recent of several Tennessee cases that have treated children born out of wedlock as creditors of the estate. Tennessee law requires creditors to file a claim against the estate within 1 year of the decedent’s death if they want to receive a share of the estate. Furthermore, if the executor notifies the creditor that they need to file a claim, they have only 4 months after receiving the notification. If the creditor does not file a timely claim, they forfeit their share of the estate.

The problem presents itself when inheritance rights flow through the potential inheritor’s father. There is no requirement for filing a claim when your “blood” relationship to the decedent is through your mother.

When a potential inheritor files a timely claim, he or she must still prove the identity of their father by clear and convincing evidence.

The paternity issue most often arises when there is not a Will, but can also arise when there is a Will which does not clearly specify who inherits the decedent’s estate.