Wills Insights

After someone passes away, their estate must be administered. This is true whether the person was worth $10,000 or $10 million. The process of administering the estate is often the same regardless of its value. This article discusses the basic process of estate administration and the duties of the executor, who is the person or persons responsible for the process.

Appointment to act on behalf of the estate

The first step for an executor (or administrator, if there is no Will) is to be appointed by the local Surrogate’s Court as executor. In New Jersey, this is a simple process where the Will and death certificate are presented to the court, along with the names and addresses of the next-of-kin and beneficiaries named in the Will. Assuming everything is in order, the Surrogate will admit the Will to probate and issue a Certificate of Letters Testamentary to the executor, which serves as his or her official appointment to act on behalf of the estate. The executor is then responsible for notifying all heirs and beneficiaries that probate has been completed.

Grantor trusts can provide substantial estate and income tax savings to those who establish them.  The grantor of a “grantor trust” is treated as the owner of the trust assets for federal income tax purposes. The grantor continues to pay the income tax generated by the assets contributed to the trust and receives the benefit of all deductions and credits. Whether the grantor trust property is excluded from the estate of the grantor, and thus escapes estate tax, is dependent on the drafting of the trust. The rules regarding grantor trusts can be found in Sections 671 through 679 of the Internal Revenue Code. [1]

It is beneficial for the grantor to be treated as the income tax owner of a trust because trusts have more compressed tax brackets than do individuals. For example, in 2022, individuals were taxed at the highest marginal rate of 37% on income over $539,900, or $647,850 for married taxpayers.[2] Trusts, however, reached the top marginal rate of 37% at income above $13,450.[3]

In general, the following provisions  in a trust will create a “grantor trust.”

Divorcing parents of minor children are faced with many hard decisions that must be addressed while separating. These considerations include resolving custody, parenting time and support for their children, which are often much harder and more emotionally charged than the issues involving dividing assets and calculating financial support between spouses. When there’s a child with special needs in the family, there are additional decisions to be made surrounding their continued care, often well past the time that other children would be deemed to be emancipated, and the finances surrounding the support they’re receiving. Special needs children are best served when their parents fully address these issues during the divorce proceeding and are able to focus on the best interests of the children, and the divorcing parents are best served by attorneys who fully understand the issues and can offer practical solutions based on the specific circumstances.

Child Support

In any divorce involving children, the parties need to resolve custody, which involves both the legal and physical sharing of their children. In most cases, parties will agree or a court will order that the parties share joint legal custody of their children. Joint legal custody generally means joint decision making for all major decisions in a child’s life. These major decisions typically fall into three larger categories, which are the child’s: (1) health, (2) education, and (3) well being. For example, both parties would need to participate in the decision-making process and agree on whether the child will attend public or private school or whether the child will have their tonsils removed on a nonemergency basis. If parents are unable to agree on these decisions, they can enlist the help of attorneys, mediators or the court, who will help decide these issues with or for them. For parents of a child with special needs these decisions may involve the continuation of certain therapies or treatments or their continued care if they’re no longer able to reside at home.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, New Jersey has the second strictest gun laws in the nation behind California. As demonstrated this past summer, that legal landscape is ever-changing. While much attention was paid to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 23rd ruling expanding the right to carry concealed handguns outside the home, many families have given little thought to the implications raised by the transfer of a firearm following a death. This article will discuss the appropriate way to bequeath and inherit firearms in New Jersey and help current gun owners continue their legacy of responsible ownership beyond their passing.

Is a Firearms ID Card or Handgun Purchase Permit required?

Under typical firearm transfers, the receiving party must be a federally licensed dealer (“FFL”) or have a valid Firearms Purchaser Identification Card (“FPID”) and the parties must complete a Certificate of Eligibility. In the case of handgun transfers, the receiving party must obtain a Handgun Purchase Permit (“HPP”). These requirements exist even in transfers between family members.

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Whether a Testator can compel beneficiaries of an Estate to arbitrate potential disputes regarding the enforcement, interpretation, and administration of a Last Will and Testament by including a mandatory arbitration provision is a novel legal issue which, until recently, had not been considered by the courts in New Jersey. For those hoping that an arbitration provision could be used when drafting a Last Will and Testament to bar litigation in court and thereby reduce the possible time and expense of estate disputes, a recent New Jersey decision dashed such hopes and held that arbitration provisions in a will are unenforceable.

In the case of In Re Estate of Hekemian, the plaintiff, Richard E. Hekemian, one of the Decedent’s four sons and a beneficiary of his Estate, filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from two of his brothers, Peter S. Hekemian and Edward G. Imperatore, in their capacities as Co-Executors of their late father’s Estate. Upon notice of the litigation, the defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration based on an arbitration provision in the Decedent’s Will. In turn, the plaintiff opposed the motion claiming that the arbitration provision in the will is invalid under New Jersey.

While noting that the State of New Jersey, as a matter of public policy, generally favors arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism, the New Jersey Superior Court determined that an arbitration provision in a Decedent’s Last Will and Testament was unenforceable. The court began its analysis by noting the hallmark principle that a testator’s intent should be honored and upheld. To wit, the court cited to the statute at N.J.S.A. 3B:3-33.1 which states that “the intention of a testator as expressed in his will controls the legal effects of his dispositions”.

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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