Articles Posted in Estate Planning and Documents

The estate tax, commonly referred to as the “death tax,” affects only certain estates with a taxable value beyond a set figure. For 2023, any estate exceeding a taxable value of $12.92 million is taxed at a rate of 40.00%. While this does not give cause for concern to the vast majority of individuals, these figures can and do change. The estate tax is often a topic of discussion in political debate and frequently changes. As recently as 2017, the amount to trigger estate tax was just under $5.5 millon. In 2008, the amount was $2 million. Future years could see a reduction in the presently-set amount, which could encompass individuals currently exempt from estate tax liability.

This variability poses concern from an estate planning perspective. While a relatively modest estate may be exempt from estate tax one year, it may very well be subject to the tax in another year. Thus, the higher the value of an estate, the more at-risk it is over time of owing an estate tax. To account for this, estate planners have utilized numerous strategies to reduce an estate before death and minimize potential estate tax liability. One such strategy is gifting property away on an annual basis during the testator’s life.

Individuals may gift a set amount of money each year without triggering any tax consequences. The federal government sets an annual exclusion that allows for a certain amount to be gifted tax-free each year to individual recipients. For 2023, the annual exclusion is $17,000 per recipient. In other words, if a mother gives $17,000 to each of her seven children in 2023, then $119,000 is removed from her ultimate estate tax-free. If such gifts are made on an annual basis (subject to each year’s gift tax exclusion amount, which may vary from year-to-year as the estate tax might), the mother can reduce her taxable estate substantially during her life, saving potentially millions of dollars in estate tax upon her death.

Earlier this year, actor Anne Heche passed away as the result of a fiery car crash. While at first it appeared she might recover, her condition continued to decline, and she remained in a coma for roughly one week after the crash. Soon thereafter, she was declared legally dead and removed from life support. Her date of death was August 11, 2022.

While this tragic passing in and of itself was surely traumatic for her loved ones, headlines began to spin once more when news of a messy estate battle broke. Her passing has since been followed by a very public battle over her estate due to a lack of proper estate planning on Ms. Heche’s part.

Ms. Heche had her first son, Homer, in 2002 with her then-husband Coleman Laffoon. She later had another son, Atlas, in 2009 with her then-boyfriend James Tupper. Now, after Ms. Heche’s death, her first son Homer and her ex-boyfriend Mr. Tupper are the primary individuals fighting over her estate.

What to do with 23 and me?

Recent years have seen the rise in ancestry services such as Ancestry.com and 23 and Me. After performing a simple DNA swab, these services provide the subscriber with hereditary and genealogical information that can unlock family history, medical information, and perhaps even long-lost relatives. While these services provide substantial value for our personal lives, they may be problematic in the world of estate planning.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical. A man donates to a fertility clinic when he is 20 years old. Many years later, the man is happily married with three adult children. The man then creates a will that reads in part as follows: “I hereby leave my personal savings account, valued at $1,000,000, to my biological children to be divided equally.” This language creates a class gift to a particular class of people, his children, as opposed to naming specific individuals to benefit. While the man’s three children are included in this class gift, as was intended, so too is a fourth biological child resulting from the man’s fertility clinic donation years prior, whom the man never knew existed. Genetic information services can have both intended and unintended consequences, as the three children will find out if the fourth child identifies his father through an ancestry service and later seeks a distribution from the man’s estate under the class gift in the will.

When Packing for Back to College, Don’t Forget Your Estate Plan! 

With Back to College season in full swing, students are getting their last-minute packing in—shower shoes, mattress toppers, textbooks. . . the list goes on. But is there something missing from this packing list? According to estate planning attorneys and professionals, yes! Estate planning might seem like only a necessary precaution for older individuals, but this is far from the truth. Everyone can benefit from a well-crafted estate plan. This is especially true during major life events, such as graduating high school and beginning secondary education.

Will. To begin, you might want to consider a will—depending on your circumstances. In the extremely unfortunate event that you were to die, a will would protect your interests in passing your assets to whose whom you want to have them. While there are default rules of succession when you die without a will, it is best practice to avoid dying intestate (i.e., without a will) because these default rules may not accurately reflect your true wishes. Accordingly, a will is suggested—even as young as 18 years old—to provide peace of mind that your wishes will be honored and your loved ones will not have additional worries if you were to pass away at a young age.

Estate planning 101 from the late Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

            Tony Hsieh was the CEO of Zappos for over twenty years before retiring and taking up a series of different business ventures. Zappos is an online retailer that deals specifically with shoes and clothing on an international sale. Hsieh was an early investor, and then CEO, for this online clothing empire. On November 27, 2020, Tony Hsieh succumbed to his injuries resulting from a house fire at his residence, leaving behind assets worth over $700,000,000. Quite a large sum.

Like many celebrities who have passed away with large estates, including Aretha Franklin and Prince, Hsieh did not leave an estate plan in the unfortunate eventuality of his death.  Having no plan in place governing his wishes, Mr. Hsieh’s family is now left in the unenviable position of having to deal with the administration of Mr. Hsieh’s estate and the claims of many individuals seeking a potion of same.  At least ten individuals have submitted claims for a portion of Mr. Hsieh’s estate, seeking more than $130,000,000. Many of these claims concern different specific devises listed on thousands of yellow Post-It notes. Some Post-It notes are about particular items such as artwork and furniture, while others concern ownership interests in Mr. Hsieh’s business ventures.

How can a single parent avoid homestead to protect a minor child?

            Florida homestead laws are complex, confusing, and enormously important for homeowners with or without an estate plan. Florida homestead law applies to three categories: (1) creditor protection against reaching a primary residence, (2) property tax exemptions and limitations on annual property value increases, and (3) restrictions on how a homeowner may devise property if there is a surviving spouse or a minor child.

Under this third category, Article X, Section 4(c) of the Florida Constitution states that a homestead property cannot be devised if the owner is survived by a spouse or minor child, except to the spouse if there is no minor child. This section only pertains to devises, or post-death transfers of property. A homeowner is free to mortgage, gift, sell, or deed the property freely while the homeowner is still living. If the homestead is jointly owned by both spouses, then the property can be freely transferred as long as both spouses join on the conveyance.

Est. of Pounds v. Miller & Jacobs, P.A., No. 4D21-1362, 2022 WL 39211 (Fla. 4th DCA 2022).

If a will does not specify who should serve as personal representative of an estate, parties can fight over this position through litigation. But what happens if one person obtains a settlement on behalf of an estate, and then another person is appointed as personal representative? The court answered this question in Estate of Pounds v. Miller & Jacobs, P.A., No. 4D21-1362, 2022 WL 39211 (Fla. 4th DCA 2022), giving us insight into why these situations are problematic and why good estate plans need to be carefully drafted.

The decedent died in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind his minor child as the sole heir of the estate. The child’s mother and the decedent’s mother both showed interest in serving as personal representative of the estate, which comes with certain perks, such as earning a personal representative fee, and responsibilities, including distributing estate property. The child’s mother was not married to the decedent.

What to do with 23 and me?

Recent years have seen the rise in ancestry services such as Ancestry.com and 23 and Me. After performing a simple DNA swab, these services provide the subscriber with hereditary and genealogical information that can unlock family history, medical information, and perhaps even long-lost relatives. While these services provide substantial value for our personal lives, they may be problematic in the world of estate planning.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical. A man donates to a fertility clinic when he is 20 years old. Many years later, the man is happily married with three adult children. The man then creates a will that reads in part as follows: “I hereby leave my personal savings account, valued at $1,000,000, to my biological children to be divided equally.” This language creates a class gift to a particular class of people, his children, as opposed to naming specific individuals to benefit. While the man’s three children are included in this class gift, as was intended, so too is a fourth biological child resulting from the man’s fertility clinic donation years prior, whom the man never knew existed. Genetic information services can have both intended and unintended consequences, as the three children will find out if the fourth child identifies his father through an ancestry service and later seeks a distribution from the man’s estate under the class gift in the will.

Florida’s ‘Dutiful Child’ Exception

Throughout life, relationships and priorities often change, necessitating amendment to one’s Last Will and Testament to reflect these changes. However, sometimes these testamentary changes raise questions as to the testator’s motivations for the revisions, leading to a will contest. “Undue influence” upon the testator is one basis for challenging the validity of a will, trust, or other testamentary document. While litigating the issue of undue influence can be complex, the basic concept is straightforward: an individual is accused of improperly persuading a (often vulnerable and elderly) testator to draft or amend their will for that person’s individual benefit.

Florida courts consider several factors when assessing claims of undue influence over a testator, including the beneficiary’s arranging for the testator to prepare a will, knowledge of the contents of the will, and presence during the execution of estate planning documents. On paper, these factors seem like red flags pointing towards a finding of undue influence. Yet in reality, these are common actions of adult children simply caring for their elderly parents. So, how can an adult child helping their parent with estate planning justify these actions when faced with an allegation of undue influence?

Can an Irrevocable Trust be Changed? Trust Decanting under Florida Law

You do not have to be a Sommelier to be familiar with the concept of decanting wine. “Decanting”, the pouring of wine from its original bottle into a different vessel – is a technique utilized for two contemporaneous purposes: to separate the wine from any sediment that has formed it its original container, and to aerate the wine to enrich its flavors. It may be surprising, however, to learn that a similar legal concept exists for Trusts, and is valuable for similar circumstances.

As its name suggests, “Trust Decanting” is when a trustee creates a new trust, moving all the assets from the initial trust into the second trust, to either correct a mistake or unintended result—the hypothetical “sediment” that the initial trust may have incurred, or to strengthen the original purpose of the trust.

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