Tax Litigation Continues to Rage Four Years After Death of Brooke Astor

December 9, 2011

New York estate planning mishaps and disputes often make headlines when they involve large sums of wealth and larger-than-life characters. Perhaps none has received more publicity recently than that surrounding the "grand dame of New York City society," Brooke Astor. Ms. Astor died four years ago at the ripe age of one hundred and five. However, inheritance and tax issues continue to rage around her estate and they show no sign of nearing a resolution. As discussed in Forbes, seven new lawsuits were recently filed by her estate refuting IRS demands that she owe an additional $62 million in taxes.

It seems that one of the key issues is the overall size of her estate. Every New York estate planning lawyer knows that the total value of an estate is a fundamental factor in evaluating the overall tax burden. A smaller taxable estate means a smaller tax. In some cases, if an estate is below a certain threshold, then certain taxes need not be paid at all. That is why most tax litigation involves dispute between the government and the individual (or their estate) about the total value of taxable assets. In this case, the government claims that the value of Ms. Astor's estate is $223 million, but representatives for Ms. Astor say the figure is around $93 million. Tens of millions of dollars in potential taxes hang in the balance depending on what sum the court ultimately decides is accurate. The tax bill could be anywhere from $35 million to $97 million. The disagreement between the parties centers mostly on charitable bequests (totaling $96 million) that the estate claims can be deducted but which the IRS disputes. In addition, the IRS claims that there was $20 million in lifetime gifts which should have been included. Part of the IRS request includes over $2 million in penalties for the failure to file and pay those gift taxes properly.

The estate admits that certain gift tax returns were not filed. However, many of those gifts were to her son, who was earlier convicted of 14 different crimes related to neglecting her care and stealing from her estate. Many estate planning attorneys have used the drama surrounding Ms. Astor's estate and her son's crimes as an example of what can go wrong when a Power of Attorney is in the wrong hands. As the Forbes article author noted, "the Astor case is a reminder to families that it's important to make sure you get these basic estate and disability planning document right."

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