Understanding Estate Sales - What Can You Sell?

March 14, 2014,

Most legal matters have built-in complexities. Anyone who has purchased a home, for example, can appreciate the mountain of paperwork will dense legalese that must be filled out . Things are only made more challenging where there are significant emotions tied up in the dealings--like when the home was owned by a loved one who just passed away.

One common example of a process that many New York residents face with a mix of intense emotions and legal complexities is an estate sale.

No two families are the same. Some wish to go through with a sale as soon as possible to settle the matter and move on. Others take more time to process the situation before handling matters like an estate sale. In all cases, however, it is critical to proceed with an understanding of the legal requirements.

The Basics
Most importantly, one must understand what can be sold, when, and by whom. It is not as simple as adult children automatically being able to do whatever they want with their parents possessions. Answers to these questions will hinge on what estate planning was done beforehand. Use of tools like a living trust, for example, would likely streamline the process. On the other hand, those without any planning at all will have to wait for court resolution before anything can be done.

In general, all property can be labeled either as a probate asset or non-probate asset. Probate assets are those that must be collected and distributed through the court. When a will is used to pass on assets, then virtually all property in the decedent's name (individual who passed away) will be required to go through probate. Alternatively, non-probate assets pass to another automatically, or at least outside of the court's purview. This may include property held jointly with a right of survivorship, certain insurance benefits, or assets held in trust.

Those assets that do not need to pass through probate can be dealt with almost immediately. There will be a new owner or trustee who can do whatever they wish with the items, including sell them in an estate sale. Alternatively, probate assets cannot be immediately handled. Instead, the family must go to court and either present the will or have the court deal with the resolution per state intestacy laws. The court will appoint a "fiduciary" whose job it is to collect the assets and distribute them as necessary. This may include arranging a sale of a home. In more complex cases, like when the home is part of a cooperative, the same formal requirements must be met, including approval by a Cooperative Board.

Estate planning attorneys appreciate that on top of all of these legal details are very real emotional pressures. When it comes to an estate sale it is common for disputes to arise between grieving family members regarding what to sell and when. The stress and confusion is far more likely the less preparation and professional support is available. Feel free to contact our NY estate planning professionals for guidance on streamlining this process for your family.

What if a Beneficiary Dies First?

March 12, 2014,

Of the many estate planning lessons pulled for the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York last month is the need to properly update your documents. Hoffman's will was drafted nearly ten years earlier. It had not been changed to reflect his new life circumstances, particularly the birth of two more children. While his first son was left assets in trust, there was no mention of his two daughters.

This is a common problem when an estate plan is outdated. In addition, the opposite problem can also arise. Instead of failing to account for a new birth, a plan can also miss the fact that one has died. Many New York residents may have questions about what happens when someone set to inherit per the terms of a will or a trust beneficiary is not alive.

"Anti-Lapse" Statute in New York
Residents have been grappling with the issue of inheritances to deceased individuals for centuries. In the past, the general rule was always that the gift could not be given to one who was deceased. However, state law has addressed the issue by passing what is known as an "anti-lapse" statute. The rule seeks to balance the wishes of the testator or grantor with the need to pass on assets fairly.

Under the law, if the beneficiary dies while the testator is alive, then the inheritance instead goes to the deceased's "issue" (children or grandchildren). For example, consider a will that splits everything between the testator's two siblings (perhaps he had no children). At the time of the testator's death, one of his siblings may have predeceased him. Per the terms of the law, the bequest to the dead sibling would not lapse. Instead, the gift would go to the sibling's own children or grandchildren. If the sibling did not have children, then the bequest would in fact go back to the estate and likely all be given to the one surviving beneficiary.

However, there is a very important caveat to this anti-lapse rule. The law only applies to the testator's own issue or their siblings. In other words, if a bequest is made to the testator's friend, and the friend is not alive at the time, then the friend's own children would not be able to take advantage of the anti-lapse statute.

Update Frequently
The complexity of these and similar issues makes it critical to update your plan frequently. All marriages, births, and divorces should trigger review. Even without those events, a check-up every few years is important to account for other life changes or legal alterations that affect one's planning.

Art Collections and Estate Planning

March 10, 2014,

Art Collector Disappointed Her Kids Don't want her Collection: Makes Backup Plan

A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed how estate plans protect art collections. The feature focused on a widowed woman with an art collection worth $250,000. The woman and her late husband traveled extensively and amassed the collectibles over a 50-year time frame. Now in her 80s, she wants to make future plans for the valuable collection.

Upon her death, she would like her cherished art to pass to her two daughters. However, she discussed her desires with her children and discovered that they do not want the Asian art collection. She reluctantly came to grips with the reality of her art moving beyond the family. The Asian art aficionado requested that, if possible, the art assortment stays together and be sold to one collector.

This story, and countless others, highlight the importance and necessity of pre-planning for the inevitable with a clear estate plan.

Options for Art Collections
A New York Times piece focused on both the monetary and emotional worth attached to personal collections. Because of the later, many people avoid including their prized collections in any type of estate plan. This is a mistake.

A robust estate plan prevents confusion and often times costly estate taxes. An estate planning attorney can assist and plan for the proper disposition of your property, including art collections.

Here are some options for collectors and what to do with their treasured collections:

· Pass it on to family members - this seems to be a popular 'default' for most collectors. However, in some instances, it may be a good idea to discuss your desires with your family members, or those whom you wish to inherit your valuables. Not everyone has the same taste and may not want the collection.
· Sell it - as noted above, not all family members want to inherit collections. So, one option is to sell to a buyer with the same passion as the original collector.
· Donate it - some collectors opt to donate to a museum or their alma mater. This way, the collection can stay together, which is an important factor to many collectors.

An estate plan that clearly incorporates all your desires, including how and where you want your collection to be dispersed, is central to avert any future issues.

NY Estate Planning
It is important for everyone to make an estate plan. When valuables, such as special art collections, are involved, it is imperative to create a plan and entertain a 'fallback plan' as well. Discuss and make proper arrangements for the disposition of belongings with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Secret Marriage, New Will Leads to NY Estate Fight

March 6, 2014,

It is impossible to predict exactly how every family member will respond in the aftermath of a passing. However, as experienced will and trust lawyers know all too well, there are many situations that dramatically increase the likelihood of controversy that leads to a contested estate. Mixed families, a large age-gap between spouses, and secrecy are often signs of family tension that may erupt after a death.

A high-profile New York estate feud offers an example of that very situation.

NY Photographer Bern Stern's Estate Fight
Celebrity photographer Bruce Stern is well-known for his legendary photos of Marilyn Monroe--many taken just before her death. Stern died last year at the age of 83, leaving a roughly $10 million estate behind. As discussed in a recent Post story, family members are in bitter disagreement over how the estate should be divided.

Stern had three children, all from his first marriage that ended in 1975. As far as the children knew, their father's assets were to be distributed per the terms of a 2007 will that split half the estate between the children while giving the other half to his own photography foundation.

However, just before his passing, Shannah Laumeister came forward claiming that she and Stern were married in secret in 2009. She directed a documentary about Stern in 2010 and is nearly 40 years his junior. The adult children had no idea of the union.

Laumeister produced a second will from 2010 that created a private trust with all of the assets and gave control of the trust to Laumeister. According to Surrogate Court filings, Laumeister claims that the adult children would still receive cash bequests as part of the new will, but the details of those bequests are unclear.

Psychiatry Records & Questions About Mental State
Expectedly, the adult children challenged the 2010 will. The feud is making its way through the court system. Most recently, reports suggest that the Laumeister is fighting to block sharing of information about Stern's meetings with a psychiatrist.

For their part, the children argue that information about Stern's mental and medical state when the contested will was created is of obvious relevance. Alternatively, the younger wife argues that release of the information would permanently damage Stern's reputation. The value of his estate is closely tied with his artistic works and reputation-damage would significantly harm the estate, she claims.

An obvious take-away lesson from this story is a reminder that an experienced estate planning attorney can point out the many red flags that suggests a feud may be likely. A legal professional can offer counsel on steps to take that may eliminate secrecy or otherwise increase the chance of a smooth, conflict-free process that is resolved fairly and efficiently.

Are You Too Young to Have an Estate Plan?

March 4, 2014,

A quick Google search reveals about 10,000 articles providing 5, 10, 15, or more reasons why everyone needs an estate plan. While that makes a catchy headline, it may not be technically correct. After all, in most instances, it is impossible for minors under 18 years old to enter into legal agreements. It is not reasonable for your five year old (or even high school student) to have a will drafted or a trust created for assets.

But realistically, when at what point is it prudent for New York resident to draft at least a minimal estate plan, including a Last Will and Testament? Perhaps more importantly, at what point does it make sense for one to invest some money in having a professional create an estate plan?

Not Age But Life Circumstances
The answer to the question is the perennially legal refrain: It Depends. It is best to view estate planning needs not by age but by circumstances. For example, even young adults should consider crafting a quality estate plan if:

1) You have children - The naming of alternative caregivers and other preferences for child-rearing is a part of all plans for parents with young children.

2) You own a home - Most young adults do not yet have sizeable assets to their name. But there are exceptions. Some have inherited sizeable wealth from parents or grandparents. Other may have saved and purchased a large asset. Ultimately, anyone with significant resources of any kind should ensure they have legal documents in place for a seamless transfer of those assets (and potential tax savings)

3) You have particular funeral/service preferences - It is only through a Will that your specific ideas about burial and funeral services can be enshrined legally. Residents of all ages with unique spiritual or religious preferences about these matters may want to ensure their wishes are explicit.

4) You have unique health challenges - Estate plans are understandably on the minds of older residents for whom death seems closer. However, all those with various health challenges should have a plan in place to name alternative decision-makers in case a disability arises which makes it impossible for one to care for themselves. This is true no matter how old you are.

In short: It may not make sense for everyone to pay for an estate plan immediately upon graduating from high school. But in some cases it could make sense. Not all 18 year olds need a detailed plan. But an 18 year old who owns a house or has children might need one.

An experienced estate planning attorney can provide straight-forward advice on what type of planning, if any, makes sense in your case. For help on these issues in Albany, Saratoga spring, Rhinebeck, Fishkill, Middletown, and many other communities through New York, please contact our lawyers today.

Marriage Matters - A Reminder of the Tax Benefit

February 28, 2014,

Earlier this week we discussed the tragic death of New York actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are many estate planning lessons to take away for Hoffman's situation, including the need to update a will after every life event. Hoffman unintentionally left out two of his children by not updating his will to include them specifically--his oldest son is named directly as a beneficiary of a trust.

Yet another lesson that fellow New Yorkers can take from the case is the role that marriage can play in these matters.

Companions vs. Spouses
According to reports, the mother of Hoffman's three children was long-time girlfriend Marianne O'Donnell. The couple was together for years, though they apparently were split in the few months before the death (allegedly as a result of Hoffman's relapse). At no point was the couple married. This is not necessarily an unusual state of affairs for couples today. Due to many personal factors, even the most intimate partners with decades together may choose not to formalize that union by way of a marriage. In the eyes of the parties, their relationship is the same regardless of whether there is official government sanction or not.

However, it is important to remember that the law does not view all couples the same. In fact, the entire purpose of marriage is to classify couples into different camps with thousands of rights on the line. Those rights have clear estate planning implications.

Per the terms of Hoffman's will the bulk of his suspected $35 million estate will go to O'Donnell. However, both New York State and the federal government impose an estate tax. Above the exemption amount, the tax can hit as high as 40%. Of critical importance, the tax does not apply to transfers between spouses. But Hoffman and O'Donnell were not married, and so she will likely be hit with an estimated estate burden of $15 million or more. A marriage would have eliminated 100% of that burden.

The bottom line is that in cases like this, marriage saves on taxes. There are many different situations where a transfer of wealth to another would be taxed except for transfers between spouses. While no one should make life decisions regarding marriage based entirely on taxes, one should not overlook the reality that marriage matters under the law.

Basic New York estate planning principles apply in virtually all cases, no matter if you have a $35 million estate or if your main asset is a family home. To ensure you take steps to protect your loved ones for the future, be sure to contact a NY estate planning attorney today.

New York Estate Planning - No Child Left Behind?

February 26, 2014,

Some New Yorkers eschew an estate plan because they assume their wishes are very simple. "I just want the kids to split it" is a common refrain. For one thing, default rules in the state do not automatically mean that children will split a parents' assets. The only way to do that is by ensuring you have a properly updated will, or, even better, use trusts to protect assets and streamline the process.

Even when residents wish to split their assets between the children, mistakes are made all the time. Take, for example, the recent high-profile passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The 46-year old passed away tragically earlier this year inside his New York City apartment. Recently, his will was made public and problems were quickly pointed out.

Perhaps most notably, the will was written ten years prior. The provisions specifically created a trust for Hoffman's oldest son, who was then an infant. After the will was drafted, Hoffman had two additional children, but there is no mention of them in the older will. As a result, it is unclear what, if anything, they will inherit directly from their father's estate. New York law provides some protection for unintentionally disinherited children, but the law can be murky in some cases.

Forgotten Children
The "forgotten child" problem is a common estate planning blunder. There may be times when you intentionally wish to disinherit a child. But when done accidentally this usually occur in one of two situations: outdated planning or blunders with a mixed family.

1) Outdated Will - As in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman, failing to update planning documents on a regular basis can lead to oversights. Every major life event--childbirth, marriages, divorces, and others--must be follow by updates to a will and other planning tools. It is very easy to fall into the trap of "getting to it later." But the entire point of preparing ahead is because the future is uncertain. If your life circumstances have changed in any meaningful way, then ensure your planning reflects that.

2) Mixed Family Mistakes - Step-children are often unintentionally forgotten with regard to inheritance as a result of sloppy planning. Some planning documents suggest that property should go to "all my children." But no matter how close one's relationship to a step-child, unless there is a legal adoption, step-children will not be treated as "children" in most of these situations. Instead, clearer instructions will need to be included in legal documents to ensure a child is not unintentionally left behind.

For help with any NY estate planning matters, please contact our attorneys today for guidance. We work throughout New York City, Albany, White Plains, Fishkill, and many other communities throughout the state.

Using a "Life Estate" in a New York Estate Plan

February 25, 2014,

Property rights and rules are some of the most complex (and arcane) areas of the law. Of particular importance for estate planning purposes, property rules allow different individuals to each have different "interests" in the same piece of property. It is not necessarily as simple as one person owning each piece property. This presents unique opportunities for estate planning, often providing different options to structure an inheritance, save on taxes, and otherwise best protect the varying interests of all those in a family.

For example, consider the possibility of a "life estate" to pass on real property (a home or land). This tool is easiest to understand in the context of property interests in a family home. The family home is often the largest asset within one's estate. Protecting the home from potential estate taxes or being spent down to qualify for Medicaid is an important part of many New York estate plans.

Beyond simply transferring ownership to a family members or putting provisions in a will to pass it on to another. One option is the life estate. The life estate is a deed that essentially breaks up the interests in the home--at least for a time. The senior passes on ownership of the home, but they retain the right to live in the property for the remainder of their life. In other words by using a life estate deed, seniors keep some interest for themselves.

In legal terms this means that the senior retains a "possessory interest" in the home. There are different types of possessory interests, like a lease to a rental property. But with a life estate the possessory interest is based on timing, specifically the life of the senior. These issues implicate quite complex and tricky legal matters, and so one should never pass on assets in this fashion without complete understanding of the underlying legal principles involved. Also, there is often no way to reverse this step once it is taken, eliminating much flexibility.

Be Careful
This option can come with some benefits, such as transferring the house outside of probate. However, it is critical not to take this step without professional help, because potential complications remain. Depending on your circumstances, this option may implicate different tax burdens. In addition, it may be more prudent to use living trusts for a more comprehensive planning tool that includes all of your assets, not just a single piece of real property.

For help with these and other estate planning matters throughout New York state, please contact our estate planning lawyers today.

Can Your Heirs Work Together?

February 21, 2014,

Creating a will and drafting trust documents are forms of "transactional law." That means that, unlike litigation, the purpose is not necessarily to "win" in a conflict over another. Instead, the purpose is to put plans into place that explicitly avoids conflict down the road.

When doing this work it is critical to understand the details of the law to ensure documents are crafted and structured in ways that meet legal requirements and have the intended legal effect. But, in many cases, particularly estate planning issues, knowledge of the law alone is often insufficient to help prevent conflict. That is because, these issues are wrought with emotions. The interplay of family values, personal relationships, resentments, financial stress, and other matters are all wrapped up in the process. Working to prevent conflict therefore requires consideration of all of these issues in addition to simple knowledge of the letter of the law.

Feuding Siblings
Failure to take all of those factors into account is a recipe for family feuding in the aftermath of a death. For example, this week the New York Post reported about an on-going fight between two brothers over their father's estate. The patriarch died nearly sixteen years ago (in 1998) and the mother died six years later (in 2004). The fighting is over a $13 million estate which was built from profits of a garment company which sold women's lingerie.

According to a suit filed in a Manhattan Surrogate Court, the younger brother claims that his sibling embezzled more than $2 million from the estate to fund his lavish lifestyle. The son claims that millions were funnelled out of the estate, subsequently lowering his own inheritance. For his part, the older brother argues that all of the funds allegedly embezzled were gifts signed by their own mother before her passing.

This back-and-forth is far from uncommon. The roots of the feuding may be based in resentment from childhood, unbalanced relationships between parents and children, and many other factors. It is impossible to say with certainty what could have been done on the estate planning front to prevent this fighting. But simply "splitting the assets between the two sons" (as happened here) may have been too simplistic an option. At the very least, when potential challenges of this nature arise, it is important to explicitly list assets that are to go to each child, leaving no questions about whether lifetime gifts were to be factored into the inheritances. The less ambiguity the better.

Tax Puzzle: Lifetime Capital Taxation & Wealth Transfer Taxation

February 20, 2014,

A somewhat "high brow" economic working paper has been making the rounds among estate planning attorneys, economists, financial planners, and policymakers in recent weeks. The article, viewable online in full, is entitled "Taxing More (Large) Family Bequests: Why, When, Where?"

While the paper is quite dense, the central themes are those often faced by current policymakers and affecting families as they plan their estate.

Essentially, the paper discusses a well-known taxation "puzzle." Over the past few decades tax revenues from wealth transfers (i.e. estate taxes) have decreased. This is true both in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, tax revenues based on lifetime gains have grown in recent years with no sign of stopping.

What is bringing about this change?

The article authors first discount some common arguments regarding a general "anti-tax" movements, the lobbying efforts of the wealthy, and similar claims. These arguments fail, they suggest, because they do not explain why tax revenues from lifetime wealth did not similarly decrease with wealth transfers. Put another way, those arguments may explain why global tax levels would have fallen but not necessarily why the one tax dropped and not the other.

Instead, the authors suggest that taxes on estates being passed from one generation to the next have decreased, in part, because of the unique role of the family in these issues. They argue that other scholars are have overlooked the fact that "the distinct character of inheritance taxation where family values, intergenerational links, and relationships to (one's own) death play a crucial role" in policy determinations.

Pushing the idea further, the authors suggest that there is growing conflict between family values and social justice. Lifetime taxes speak to the idea of "social justice" with the wealthy asked to provide for the well-being of those with less means. Alternatively, inheritance taxes seem to impinge upon families and their ability to transfer property internally. In this conflict policymakers in recent years have protected the family and placed less emphasis on so-called "social justice."

In the end, the authors suggest that the best solution is to actually increase the tax burden on the largest family inheritances while, at the same time, decreasing the tax burden on lifetime transfers to family members or charity. They summarize that this approach "is the only workable measure that endeavors to reconcile arguments of family values with principles of social justice, while also taking due consideration of the sharp increase in life expectancy in most developed countries."

Naturally, all of these ideas are somewhat theoretical and philosophical. However, they do offer a good primer on many of the themes common in tax policy debates, including those that affect New York estate planning.

Continuing Legal Hurdles for Same-Sex Couples

February 18, 2014,

Each day seemingly brings news of additional states that are joining New York in allowing same sex couples the right to marry. Although the new laws and court decisions represent a monumental victory for residents seeking to take advantage of the protections and benefits afforded by same-sex marriage, same-sex couples will still face several unique legal challenges. .

Though the US Constitution requires states to give full faith and credit to judicial decrees, a marriage license does not fall under this category. Rather, a marriage license is an administrative license issued by the state or county and historically has not been subject to full faith and credit. This means that other states do not have to recognize the legal status of a same-sex marriage that was entered into in New York.

The majority of states do not recognize same-sex marriage, and 36 states currently have "defense of marriage" statutes that expressly provide that the state's government will not recognize a same-sex marriage. This presents a problem for same-sex couples looking to travel out of state. If same-sex couples travel or move to another state or country, their marriage may not be recognized.

Power of Attorney
One consequence of a state's refusal to recognize a same-sex marriage entered into in New York is that same-sex couples may not be allowed to be involved in the decision-making process should something happen to one of their loved ones while traveling. For example, a recent article explains that a hospital in a state lacking public accommodation procedures based on sexual orientation may refuse to allow visitation rights to a same-sex partner. Furthermore, a same-sex spouse may be prohibited from making end-of-life decisions for their spouse or loved one. As a result, same-sex couples should consider taking certain precautions before traveling, such as executing health care and financial powers of attorney and carrying those with them while out of state. These documents will ensure that proper procedures are in place should an accident occur while in another state or abroad.

Another legal issue that arises for same-sex couples is whether a state will recognize a legal relationship between same-sex parents and their children. A New York Times article notes that a concern among same-sex couples is that without their adoption papers, their parental rights may be questioned while traveling. Another concern is that the nonbiological parent will lose rights if the couple divorces or the family moves to a different state.

Some states may not recognize a child's relationship to a same-sex couple. Therefore, it is important for same-sex couples to adopt their children in legal proceedings. If a same-sex couple does not have a biological relationship with their child, then their relationship would rest only on a marriage certificate, which may not be recognized in all states. Since states are required to give full faith and credit to an adoption certificate, as it is approved by a judge, a same-sex couple will have clear legal rights and a recognition of their relationship with their child while out of state.

Contact an New York Estate Planning Attorney
It is important to speak to an attorney that can help you make sure that you and your loved ones are have plans in place whatever the future holds. Contact our estate planning attorneys today to see how we can help.

IRS Releases Trusts and Estate Statistics

February 14, 2014,

Discussion about the estate and trust tax issues usually centers on political debate about the rates and exemption levels or case-studies of the tax burden for famous or wealthy individuals. Far less often discussed is general information about the tax, including how much was actually collected, the total number of individuals affected, and similar details.

Fortunately, to fill in that gap, every year the IRS releases statistics, including those affected trusts and estates. A rather detailed list of information can be found in various spreadsheet on the IRS website. Also provided is a handy sheet offering a "snapshot" of many interesting trust and estate tax details. The most recent year's tally was just released, providing a helpful primer for those interested in how these federal taxes actually affect residents.

The Data
All statistics are culled from submitted returns on Form 1041. This is the form used is the "U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts." The snapshot explains that the form is "used to report the income, deductions, gains, and losses of estate and trusts, as well as distributions to beneficiaries and income tax liability."

All told, in the most recent data released (from 2010), a total of 3 million such forms were filed totaling $91 billion in income--the majority of that income was from capital gains ($32 billion). That accounts for about $72 billion in deductions. About 75% of those filing listed some deductions.

However, these forms were not filed just by high-income earners, as the vast majority were from those listed incomes of $100,000 or less--more than fifty percent lists less than $10,000 in income. In fact, of the 3 million filings in 2010, only 532,000 of those owed any tax burden at all. There was a clear trend year over year in regard to these income filings. In 2009, about 661,000 Form 1041 filings resulted in some tax liability. Keep in mind that these stats are from several years ago, when the country was in a far more dire economic straits.

There are many interesting takeaways from this data. At the most basic level, this is a reminder of the complex tax issues that may attach to an estate well after an individual passes. This is one of many reasons that estate planning attorneys and financial advisors can play a critical role with these matters both with preparing the plan as well as administering it. For example, it is not uncommon for attorneys to work as a trustee to help ensure all of the legal details are handled appropriately.

For help understanding these issues as they may relate to you and your family, contact an estate planning lawyer today.

Growth of Online Memorial Services

February 13, 2014,

Making preparations for funeral services, burial preferences, and other memorial issues is a natural part of New York estate plans. These details have been a staple of the mourning and remembrance process for centuries. However, if trends continue, a new form of memory may be added to many plans: professional, digital tributes.

Online Memorial Websites
The stratospheric rise in popularity of online social networks and blogs should make it no surprise that remembrances for lost loved ones are moving online. Placing an obituary in the local paper or buying a memorial ad on the yearly anniversary is no longer the only way to share information about a passing and gracefully remember those who are gone. The process has moved online.

The Wall Street Journal published a story this week that discusses many of the most common options local families are turning to when trying to craft an online memorial for their loved ones. These sites are often referred to as "virtual gravestones" that allow friends and family a shared place to mourn across the web. A few of the most common vendors:


Of the above list, Facebook and LifeStory are free. The Facebook option is simply conversion of an old account into a "Memorialized Account." This preserves many of the memories and message on the page for friends and family. Similarly, using a Facebook account, LifeStory.com provides a more formal online memorial with specific pictures, messages, and memories added.

Alternatively, Legacy.com and ForeverMissed.com are stand-alone memorial companies that offer various degrees of customization. These sites range from a $35 to $100 and vary as to whether there is an annual subscription renewal charge or if the site will remain up indefinitely.

All told, one reviewer who searched various sites in an effort to compare features and functionality argued that all of these formal online memorial sites have much room to grow. Many of the sites seem outdated and have not fully embraced the social connectivity that undergird so much online browsing today. For example, critiquing Legacy.com (currently the largest provider online memorials), the reviewer noted that the site "pages are limited to a collection of preset boxes and small photos that might have been cutting edge in 2002."

The safe bet is that more and more options will pop up in the coming years for New York residents to craft official online memorial spaces. These tools may eventually make their way into formal estate plans so that residents are able to specifically explain how they would like their online remembrance to look and feel.

Estate Battles the IRS - The Michael Jackson Example

February 11, 2014,

When most hear the phrase "estate battle" the mind immediately jumps to fighting between families. Sadly, in the tumult of a passing, it is not uncommon for even close relatives to disagree sharply over how an assets should be divided. However, estate fights can also refer to legal problems related to taxes and the IRS. Tax matters are intricately woven into estate matters, and when problems arise, you can be sure that the IRS will be ready to defend their position in court.

How Much Was Jackson's Estate Worth?
To understand how these IRS estate battles often play out, one need look no further than continued wrangling over perhaps one of the largest estates in recent memory. Famed entertainer Michael Jackson died in 2009. However, the estate is still fighting with the Internal Revenue Service regarding how many taxes need to be paid.

As discussed in an LA Times story this weekend, the IRS and Jackson's executors are miles apart on what is owed. The executors claimed that Jackson's net worth at the time of his death was $7 million. The IRS, on the other hand, valued the estate and exponentially higher--$1.25 billion.

As most know, one's estate tax burden is based on the total value of assets. Obviously then, the executors and the IRS have staggeringly different ideas about how much tax is owed. For their part the IRS claims that the total estate tax was $505 million. Not only that, but they claim that errors with the tax return trigger double penalties, adding an addition $197 million in penalties to a total tax obligation of $702 million. Keep in mind, this tax bill alone is 100x larger than the executors claimed the entire estate was worth.

How could the two sides be so far off? Apparently, the main dispute surrounds the value of Jackson's "image" and his rights to a valuable trust which holds rights to legendary songs (including almost the entire Beatles collection). The executors argued his likeness was worth $2,105 and that Jackson had no interest in the song collection because he had borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars against it.

Unique Assets & Appraisals
When it comes to intangible assets that do not necessarily have an obvious value, then disputes often arise between the IRS and an estate. While very few will leave an estate or assets as large (or unique) as Jackson, the issue of proper appraisals and subsequent tax burden is not uncommon among New York residents. As always, the best approach is to structure an estate so that these assets are not included at all and not factored into possible estate taxes.

New York Gift Tax Calculations May Change Soon

February 7, 2014,

This week we discussed the growing belief among policymakers that estate tax changes are on the way for New York. Governor Cuomo proposed changing the exclusion rate for the NY estate tax up to the federal level ($5.25 million now and pegged to rise with inflation). This would be accompanied by a lowering of the top tax rate from 16% to 10%. Altogether, this represents a positive step for those hoping for a simpler, smaller estate tax bite.

However, less discussed are other changes that the Governor propose be included with the tax overhaul. Specifically, as noted in a Wealth Management story from last week, taxation on gifts will be folded into these total estate calculations. The gift issue is important, because it may lead some New York resident to alter their long-term strategies immediately.

Gift Taxes in New York
Under current state law, there is not a gift tax. However, under proposed changes, estate tax will need to be paid on all taxable gifts starting in April of this year. The story summarizes the concern succinctly:

"The new provision will cause any taxable gift made by a New York resident after March 31, 2014 to incur an additional net estate tax of anywhere from 6.5% to 12%." This is only important, however, if the individual's gross estate exceeds the exclusion amount.

In short, depending on your family's specific situation, it may be prudent to make gifts now, before those gifts would be folded into the estate for tax purposes, to avoid an extra tax bite during this potential NY estate tax transition.

Tax and Planning Complexity
These gift and tax issues are quite complicated in even the best of cases, but they are made even more so when involving speculation about what might happen based on lawmaker preferences. Adding another layer of challenge is the fact that some legal issues related the the connection between state and federal estate taxes remain unclear.

For example, most assume that the tax connected to the potential New York taxable gift will be deductible from one's federal gross estate--lowering that federal tax amount. However, there is technically no clarity on this exact issue, and many suggest that past precedent suggests that this may not be the case.

As even a cursory glance at these issues makes clear, it is critical not to handle these matters alone. New York estate planning attorneys, accountants, and financial advisors are here specifically to evaluate your situation, understand the legal details, and ensure you are best positioned to lower your tax burden and pass on as many assets as possible to loved ones.