Keep It Close or Outsource It: New York Corporate Trustees

Who you name as a trustee is possibly the most important decision that a person who decides to create a trust will make. The trustee is responsible for distributing income and principal to the beneficiaries of the trust according to the terms of the trust. This typically involves extensive recordkeeping, managing investments and property and being in contact with beneficiaries and other professionals to help manage the assets. Traditionally many people have named trusted individuals such as friends or family to administer the trust, but these days many people turn to corporate trustees for managing trust assets. What are the benefits of a corporate trustee over a personal trustee?

Personal or Corporate

No one likes discussing their own demise. The topic is generally considered taboo amongst most people and is possibly the most uncomfortable conversation topic. This is unfortunate for everyone though, because if a person is unable to discuss their own death, chances are they are unwilling to plan for it either. That is one of the worst cases possible for not just for the person who fails to plan but their family members and people who rely on them as well. Discussing death is the first step to engaging people to plan their estate and while it is a difficult topic to broach, there are certain steps that a person can take to help bring people closer to planning their estate.

  1. Do Not Put Estate Planning In Terms of Death

People looking to engage others about estate planning should not discuss death, rather they should focus on planning for incapacity. A good estate plan does not just encompass what happens when a person dies. It will also discuss plans for what happens when a person becomes incapacitated such as if they are in an accident and unable to communicate and are unconscious.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left behind a legacy of peace and understanding, but he may have been surprised by the legacy that his estate is forging. Last Friday, a Fulton County Superior Court Judge declined to make a ruling in a dispute over two items left behind by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize. Fox News reports that the case over these two items is likely to go to trial, with King’s estate, controlled by his two sons, against their sister, Bernice. This is only one of many lawsuits that have crept up in years past over the legacy of Dr. King.

Managing Estate Assets and Legacies

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s estate is not technically what many would consider an estate in the traditional sense. It is not a probate estate, with his assets being liquidated according to his will. Rather, Dr. King’s estate is the for-profit Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc. with his three surviving children being the sole shareholders and directors. As the sole shareholders and directors, his three children control Dr. King’s name, image, likeness and his possessions.

We’ve already discussed Prince’s passing previously here on the Estate Planning blog.  Prince, one of the most successful music artists of all time, passed away without leaving a will. This means that he died intestate, and the laws of the state he was domiciled in dictate who will inherit from his estate. That almost universally means that your closest living relatives, usually a spouse or child, will inherit in an intestate situation, but this can get tricky. In Prince’s case, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins and now self-proclaimed children have come out of the woodwork to lay claim to the late singer’s vast fortune and catalogue of music. Prince has no acknowledged surviving children, who would be near the front of the line in an intestate situation. So how exactly do you go about proving you’re the son of a decedent?

Acknowledged Children, Have No Fear

New York intestacy law is very clear on who will inherit when the deceased is intestate. If there is a spouse but no children the spouse inherits everything. If there are children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and children, the spouse inherits the first $50,000 plus half of the balance of the estate, with the children splitting the rest.

What’s In a Name Depends on Who You Are. It Could Be Hundreds of Millions According to the IRS

            There has been an ongoing battle in recent years between decedents’ estates and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). While it is only to be expected that the IRS attempt to collect as much as it can, their recent focus has turned to a rather contentious area in their quest for collections: intangibles. This category that includes property interests like computer software, patents, copyrights, publicity rights and literary, musical and artistic compositions can be difficult to put a price.

Most recently, the estate of former singer Whitney Houston has been fighting off an inexplicable valuation of Ms. Houston’s publicity rights, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Ms. Houston’s estate is just one of many in recent years, most notably, Michael Jackson, who are embroiled in heated tax claims over the valuation of certain assets, most contentiously the valuation of the celebrity’s public image. How exactly does the IRS come to the conclusion of the worth of the decedent’s image, and why are valuations of this intangible so hard to get right?

One of the many goals of estate planning is to limit the amount of fighting that will occur once a person passes on, and there are many ways to achieve that goal. Often this involves making sure that all the proper requirements are observed when executing documents, careful drafting of trusts and keeping estate planning documents’ terms clear and concise. None of these tools however serve as a disincentive to a disgruntled family member who feel that they were unjustly treated as beneficiary. For that purpose, many New York estate planners may turn to the ‘No Contest’ or ‘In Terrorem’ clause.

Risk All, Lose All…

A ‘no contest’ clause in a New York will states that a beneficiary who unsuccessfully challenges the validity of the will is prevented from inheriting under the will. Testators include these clauses in their wills in order to dissuade beneficiaries from taking action against the estate, the idea being that no one will want to risk losing out on their inheritance by risking an unsuccessful challenge.

In a previous post about healthcare and end of life decision making, we discussed the importance of the election of a healthcare proxy or agent. However, not everyone is able to make these advanced plans prior to an unexpected incapacitation. In June 2010, New York enacted the Family Health Care Decisions Act in order to address the issue of healthcare decision making for those individuals who do not have a predetermined healthcare agent or have not left instructions with a living will or Do Not Resuscitate Order.

The Family Health Care Decisions Act allows for the appointment of the patient’s family member or close friend to act as a ‘surrogate’ and step in to make medical decisions for the patient if they have become incapacitated and do not have prior designations made. Similar to a health care proxy’s ability to make decisions, this only applies when the patient is incapacitated. The Act lays out the order of priority that surrogates would be named, starting with a court appointed guardian if one exists, then the spouse or domestic partner of the incapacitated person, followed by adult children, a parent if still alive, a sibling, and then a close friend. Once elected, the surrogate is able to make all decisions regarding healthcare for the person, subject to some limitations. If the patient objects to the election, their objection prevails, absent a court finding that there is reason to override the patient’s decision. Additionally, if the patient made determinations prior to incapacitation while hospitalized, and in the presence of two witnesses, the surrogate’s consent is not needed for any life sustaining treatment, the patient’s wishes will prevail.

Adult Patients

STATE SPECIFIC PROTECTIONS

        The current aggregate value of retirement assets in America is roughly $21 trillion, with individual retirement accounts (IRAs) amounting to the largest single investment asset.  While many, if not most, types of retirement assets and accounts are protected against creditors, the IRA is not necessarily one of them.  The various protections for IRA are dependent on the amount, how long ago you put the money into your account and the state or jurisdiction you live in.  Employer sponsored plans are covered by protections found in federal law, so it is much easier to talk about what protections exist for such plans.  The Employer Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) created a large host of protections for employees, including protections against creditors, except when the creditor is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or a spouse or former spouse for debt incurred through domestic relations.  

The protections found under ERISA have expanded over time through both Congressional action and judicial interpretation of the law.  ERISA plans must provide periodic updates to the employees, information about the plan features, creates fiduciary responsibilities for the plan administrators as well as things such as an appeal process for certain decisions that the employee disagrees with.  One large collective group of accounts that are not protected, however, are IRAs.  IRAs, as the name implies, are owned by an individual and thus do not fall under the protections of ERISA.  Most protections for IRAs are found in state law.  

PROPOSAL TO MOVE BACK TO PREVIOUS TRUST LAWS

As this blog discussed in the recent past, dynasty trusts are trusts that allow for a benefactor to pass wealth on to future generations via various legal mechanisms that allow a trust to carry on for literally hundreds of years, overcoming the traditional rule against perpetuities that limited trusts to a life in being plus 20 years, thereby ending the legal life of a trust essentially at about 90 to 100 years.  In March, 2016 President Obama submitted a proposed budget that includes a provision that would effectively eliminate these state trusts at about 90 years.

Every year, the Department of Treasury prints what is called a green book which outlines proposals, which, among other things, contains suggestions that the presidential administration believes are needed and appropriate changes to the law, policy or other regulatory and legal matters.  It also contains information regarding exceptions and issues that are unique to dealing with the federal government.  Under President Obama’s proposal, as found in after page 190 in the green book, this would be done by eliminating the generations skipping tax exemption at 90 years from the date of its creation.  

AN IMPORTANT AND SOMETIMES THANKLESS JOB

There are times in life when we all will have to do or engage in a thankless job.  One such time is when a close friend or a family member asks you to be the executor of their estate.  The difference between an executor and an administrator of an estate is small but noteworthy.  An executor is someone who is appointed by the terms of the will itself to administer the estate.  If there is a trust document to convey property to heirs, they are then known as trustee.  

An administrator is the title for the person who appointed to administer the estate by the Court when someone dies intestate, or without a will, or when the appointed executor refuses or cannot complete the task.  In either event the probate Court Judge must approve of the selection.  A recent survey by U.S. Trust found that three-quarters of high net worth individuals choose a family member or close and trusted friend to be the executor of their estate and two-thirds of the same people chose a friend to be the trustee for their testamentary trust.  The process is started when the executor presents the will and a death certificate to the Surrogate Court in the County in which the deceased resided.  The Court then issues letters testamentary to the executor, which is when the hard work begins.

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