Wills Insights

It has been a routinely held belief among estate planners that a Revocable Living Trust is not necessary for New Jersey residents. The purpose of this article is to identify those situations in which a Revocable Living Trust can be beneficial for residents of New Jersey.

Most commonly, we hear that assets held in a Revocable Living Trust during one’s lifetime, will, at the time of death, avoid probate. Fortunately for New Jersey residents, probate is not an onerous, time-consuming, or expensive prospect. The probate process in New Jersey, which gives legal significance to the will and clothes the executor with court-approved authority, is a straightforward process often costing less than $300 and requiring little paperwork. It takes about two to three weeks to obtain Letters Testamentary, which formally authorize the executor to transact business on behalf of the estate. Other reasons often cited as benefits of a Revocable Living Trust (RLT) are privacy regarding one’s estate, and the elimination of death taxes. These reasons do not apply in New Jersey, because our probate process does not require an inventory disclosing estate assets, nor an accounting with the court listing estate income, expenses, and distributions to the beneficiaries. As for the assertion that RLTs save death taxes, this is simply not true, as all assets in an RLT are considered to be in the control of the grantor (the person who created the trust), and therefore includible in the grantor’s taxable estate.

There are, however, circumstances where an RLT is appropriate for a New Jersey resident. For example, an RLT can be a better way to:

A number of firm clients are interested in charitable giving, whether made during lifetime or upon death. The reasons behind the differing approaches are varied.

One of the benefits of a lifetime gift to charity is the immediate income tax deduction that may be available.1 Unlike lifetime gifts to charity, deathtime gifts are not deductible for income tax purposes, although they may be deductible for estate tax purposes.2 The federal estate tax is applicable to taxable estates in excess of $12.06-million, and as a result, generally taxpayers will benefit more from a lifetime gift to charity than a deathtime transfer.

Despite the potential tax benefits available to taxpayers through life gifts, there is a reason why taxpayers might prefer to make a gift at death rather than during lifetime. During lifetime it is difficult for an individual to predict how much they will need to support themselves. For that reason alone, many clients opt to provide their charitable gifts after death.

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A recent Tax Court case, Smaldino v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2021-127 (November 10, 2021) emphasizes the need to ensure that the phases of transactions are completed properly, and certain formalities are observed in order for an estate planning strategy to be successful. It is important to be careful even (and perhaps especially) in the case of emergency planning (i.e., planning because of health scares or impending tax law changes).

In the Smaldino case, rushed planning caused a tax deficiency that may have been avoided with a team of advisors working together to ensure that Mr. and Mrs. Smaldino’s plan was properly implemented.

Mr. and Mrs. Smaldino were married in 2006. Mr. Smaldino had 6 children from a prior marriage and 10 grandchildren. Mr. Smaldino was a CPA turned real estate investor, with a real estate portfolio worth approximately $80 million. Mrs. Smaldino held a master’s degree in economics and had worked in her husband’s business for many years.

The federal estate and gift tax exemption (known as the “basic exclusion amount”) has increased to $12.06 million per taxpayer in 2022. The exemption in 2021 had been $11.7 million. The increase means that in 2022, an individual can make gifts during life or at death totaling $12,060,000 without incurring gift or estate tax; a married couple can transfer $24,120,000 of assets. The annual gift tax exclusion has also increased, to $16,000 per donee (or $32,000 if spouses elect gift-splitting).

The gift tax annual exclusion for gifts to non-citizen spouses has also increased in 2022, to $164,000.

Note that the estate and gift tax exemption is slated to be reduced to $5 million, indexed for inflation, as of January 1, 2026. With this known reduction in the exemption approaching, we recommend consulting with your estate planning attorney to discuss possible strategies to take advantage of the large exemption presently available.

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While many may be familiar with Special Needs Trusts, some are still not familiar with tax-free Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) savings accounts which were created under a 2014 federal law and currently available in New Jersey (and 46 other states). Funded correctly, ABLE accounts permit disabled individuals and their families to save money for disability-related expenses without compromising eligibility for needs-based benefits such as SSI, Medicaid, and other education, housing, health and food stamp benefits (such as FAFSA and SNAP). To establish an account, the designated beneficiary (and owner) of an ABLE account must be legally blind or have a medical disability that occurred prior to age 26. While interest earned on the account is tax-free, ABLE accounts with assets up to and including $100,000 are disregarded as a resource for SSI purposes. Distributions from the ABLE account may be made only to or for the benefit of the disabled individual for “qualified disability expenses,” which broadly include education, housing, transportation, assistive technology, health and wellness, legal and funeral expenses, etc. Starting in 2022, and for the first time in four years, annual contributions to an ABLE account increased to $16,000 (matching the 2022 annual gift tax exclusion amount). While ABLE account balances are subject to Medicaid estate recovery upon the death of the disabled beneficiary, in certain disability planning circumstances the utilization of an ABLE account, either alone or in conjunction with a Special Needs Trust, may be an integral part of smart disability planning.

Births, deaths, marriages and divorces reshape the definition of “family” for individuals on a constant basis. It’s no wonder, then, that family law and estate planning often go hand in hand. Estate planners and divorce attorneys alike are often presented with “what if” questions that span both areas of law. Here, we explore a few common questions clients may have when faced with these life transitions. The goal of this article, is to help clients make decisions that protect their loved ones and their assets.

Changing a Will

Can I change my will while getting divorced and should I? Although the last thing that many clients want to do once the divorce action has begun is to engage another attorney, it’s actually a good idea for them to review their estate plan this time.

It is very common for parents to provide funds to their children over their lifetime, but are these transfers gifts or loans? A recent ruling in the Tax Court, Estate of Bolles v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-71, 119 T.C.M. (CCH) 1502 (June 1, 2020), highlights the importance in estate planning of differentiating between loans and gifts.

Mary Bolles was a loving mother of five children whom she tried to treat equally. Her practice was to keep a record of her advances to and the occasional repayments from each child. Based on her intent and the advice of tax counsel, she treated the advances as loans. She forgave the “debt” account of each child every year to the extent of the annual gift tax exclusion amount. According to the Tax Court, her practice would have been noncontroversial had she not advanced substantial funds to one son, Peter.

When Peter ran into financial difficulties with his architectural business, Mary supported him and between 1985 and 2007 she transferred $1,063,333 to Peter or for his benefit.

It has been our hope that estate and gift tax reform would be settled by the time this article goes to print. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Revenue issues involving the debt ceiling and stop-gap spending are circulating in Congress at the same time as legislative priorities, like infrastructure, are being hashed out, and procedural steps, like filibuster and reconciliation, are being threatened. Tax reform is but one issue in the mix, and its ultimate resolution is influenced by, and dependent upon, the resolution of a number of the others which are still unresolved. This article will provide a summary of the most recent available information.

Perhaps the most significant proposal on the table is the reduction of the lifetime estate and gift tax exemption, often referred to as the “unified credit,” from its current $11,700,000 per person to $6,020,000 per person in 2022 as estimated by the staff on the Joint Committee on Taxation. The lifetime exemption was increased from $5.5-million to $11-million (with adjustments for inflation) as part of the 2017 Tax Act. The increased exemption amount is due to sunset by its own terms on December 31. 2025, but the current proposal would accelerate that timetable. Individuals looking to make maximum use of the higher lifetime exemption currently available will want to consider making gifts before any reduction becomes effective. Under the proposed bill, the provision would apply to decedents dying and gifts made after December 31, 2021.

The current proposals would eliminate the use of discounts for transfer tax purposes when valuing passive, nonbusiness assets. Discounts are generally based on concepts of minority interest and lack of control, and can reduce the value of an asset for gift or estate tax purposes by as much as 50% or more. The proposal would not affect the valuation of assets that are used in the conduct of a trade or business, which could continue to be valued at a discount. Discounts have been useful in leveraging lifetime estate and gift tax exemptions. The new rule, if adopted, would be effective as of the date of enactment.

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Elizabeth Candido Petite recently spoke with the New York Times for an article The Unequal Inheritance: It Can Work, or It Can ‘Destroy Relationships’.  In the article Elizabeth shares her insights on estate planning strategies that can be used when someone decides to bequeath different amounts to their heirs.  The strategies she shares come from her experience helping estate planning clients navigate the intricacies of early inheritance, gifting for caregiving children and second marriage families.

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