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Reminder: More Estate Planning Opportunities for Couples After Windsor v U.S.

A JDSupra post from last month offers a helpful reminder of the changing legal landscape for New York same sex couples who are married.

As virtually everyone knows, in late June the U.S. Supreme Court declared the main portion of the federal law known as the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) unconstitutional. The crux of the particular case, Windsor v. United States, related to the estate tax. Windsor, a New York resident, was forced to pay over $350,000 in estate taxes following the death of her wife, Thea Spyer. The couple’s marriage was legally recognized in New York, but the federal government treated the pair as strangers.

Estate Planning Options
With the Supreme Courts ruling, issued by Justice Kennedy, the federal government is now required to treat all couples the same who are properly married under state law. This opens up a large number of new estate planning tools for married same sex couples in New York.

Most obviously that includes claiming the marital deduction on gift and estate taxes. As pointed out in the article, this deduction applies both to assets that pass directly (in a will) and those transferred via a trust. In these cases a trust known as a QTIP is common. QTIP refers to “Qualified Terminable Interest Property” trust and is often used to allow a surviving partner to benefit from asset before they eventually pass to another, like an adult child.

In addition, same sex couples can now take advantage of each other’s exemption amounts when making gifts and transfers. For example, the partners can “split” gifts to third parties and double the annual tax-free exclusion amount for federal purposes. Similarly, married same sex couples can now elect portability. This is a legal tool that allows the spouse of one who is deceased to essentially borrow the “unused” exemption amount of the spouse who has passed away. In essence, it is another way that partners can jointly pass on assets to loved ones with as small a tax burden as possible.

As we have previously pointed out, other legal details, like the increased Social Security benefits and the filing of joint tax returns, are also open to same sex couples married in New York.

Critically, the article makes the unique point that as a result of the unconstitutional ruling, section 3 of DOMA is deemed to have been void from the outset. In other words, those adversely affected by the law in the recent past (usually three years), may be able to file amended tax returns and recoup some of their overpaid tax.

Following the Windsor decision, it is critical that all New York same sex couple visit with an estate planning attorney to update their current documents or have new plans created to account for the new legal options open to them.

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