May 2010 Archives

Pitfalls of Will Planning

May 13, 2010,

will.gifBy Michael Ettinger, Esq.

So many clients are advised that they need a will. In fact, will planning is becoming obsolete for persons over sixty for many reasons.

Instead of actually solving problems, wills often create them. First, they must be proven to be valid in a court proceeding, the infamous probate, for estates in New York over $30,000.00. Court proceedings can be expensive, time-consuming and things often go wrong. Also, when the client dies, that will is usually out-of-date, having been created decades before. The executors may be the wrong persons, the beneficiaries or their percentages may be wrong or other changes in the family have not been taken into account.

Notice of the court proceeding must be given to certain relatives who may be difficult or impossible to locate. Complications arise with relatives in foreign countries who may need to go to the American Consulate for notarization or "consularization" of legal documents. If there is a disabled child, the court will appoint a lawyer to represent their interests, including preparing a report to the court, and your estate must pay that attorney's fees.

Proof problems with the will lead to delays that often prevent needed funds getting to surviving spouses or children. It is fairly common for real estate to be tied up, while the probate process drags on, causing potential buyers to be lost. In some cases, stock cannot be sold even though it may be falling in value rapidly. Law firms routinely commence probate proceedings as a courtesy for families who cannot even afford the legal fees to get the matter started. Needless to say, the cost of court proceedings today may be expected to be in the five figure range.

Two other pitfalls of will planning bear mentioning. First, since the will is filed in court, it becomes a public record. Anyone may then go into the courthouse and order a copy of your will to see what you had and who you left it to. Your privacy is out the window. Secondly, since notice must be given to the heirs you may have left out, or left less than they may feel they are entitled to, you run the risk of a will contest if your estate is distributed in anything but equal shares.

When you are in probate court, who is in charge? The judge, not you or your lawyer. Don't suppose that the Judge will always act in your best interests, as the court may have other interests to consider.

Always better to stay out of court, in our opinion. By using a living trust, instead of a will, you avoid probate court and keep control, or at least control rests with those you have chosen, if you die or become disabled. The expenses are so much less without court proceedings that you may easily save tens of thousands of dollars.

The other problem with a will? It only takes effect when you die. Today, about half of all people eventually become disabled. Since the will does not provide for disability, you risk guardianship proceedings. These proceedings occur later in life when someone becomes unable to handle their affairs and does not have an adequate plan set up. In a guardianship, the court will appoint someone to handle your affairs. Not only may it not be the person you would have chosen, it may not even be someone you know. Trusts, which take effect while you are living, are considered a highly effective tool to avoid guardianship proceedings and guarantee that the person or persons you choose will be in charge. This way, you may be certain that your best interests will be looked after.

In short, when someone tells you that you need a will, think again. It may be a living trust that you need instead.

The Stealth New York Estate Tax

May 3, 2010,

By Michael Ettinger, Esq.
In our experience, a majority of New Yorkers are unaware (blissfully?) that New York State levies an estate tax.

New York's estate tax starts on estates over one million dollars. What is your estate for tax purposes? All of your real and personal property, your bank accounts, investments, IRA's, etc. as well as any life insurance that you own. Add it all up and, if you're under a million, then no problem.

But, if you're over a million, the tax rate starts at 41% (yikes!) and gradually goes down to about 10%. Below is a New York Estate Tax schedule prepared by our firm to help you see where you stand.
Fortunately, if you have a spouse, you can avoid paying up to about $100,000 of these estate taxes by creating two estates, one for the husband and one for the wife, and get two one million dollar exemptions.

For example, let's say a couple has two million in assets. Essentially, what happens here is that each spouse sets up a trust and we put one-half of the house and other assets into each trust. Both spouses are trustees, or managers, of both trusts. Now, say husband dies. Before, everything went to wife and while there is no tax on what you leave to your spouse, when she dies her estate has the whole two million and generates a $99,600.00 tax bill. Instead, with the two trusts, husband's assets stay in his trust, wife is in charge and can buy, sell, trade and spend. But when wife dies, husband's trust goes to the children, or preferably their inheritance trusts, and "bypasses" her estate. He passes one million tax-free. Her estate is also only one million and also passes tax-free. Savings = $99,600.00. Why don't more people do this? In fact they do. Ettinger Law Firm has used this technique for over twenty years in more than 10,000 estate plans to save thousands of New York families many millions in estate taxes.

Remember, you don't get the two exemptions just because you have a spouse. You only get the two exemptions if you set up the two trusts before the first spouse other words, if your estate is over one million dollars and you have a spouse, the time is now.