Settlors often ask whether they can change the beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust because life circumstances or relationships have changed. Often, the answer is no. However, in a recent case in New York, the trustee was able to accomplish the settlor’s desire to disinherit one of his children through a decanting. Read more >>
As the old song by Paul Simon contemplates, there are fifty ways to leave your lover, and there are also fifty ways to plan, administer and litigate estates and trusts. I have recently become aware of various situations in which attorneys assume that because things are done a certain way in the state in which they practice, they are done the same way in other states.
I am licensed in three states, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and deal regularly with the significant differences between them. For example, Colorado tends to use “by representation” in dealing with passing assets down the generations, but Utah and Wyoming both use “per stirpes.” Read more >>
As long as I have been a probate paralegal, and even prior when I worked in financial services, I have spoken about assets with beneficiary designations, including life insurance, retirement accounts and annuities passing outside of probate as if they were a foregone conclusion. Period. End of Story. However, some recent situations have reminded me that the plot of the story may indeed have a surprise ending.
First of all, it bears reminding to our clients, that documents with beneficiary designations do not pass in accordance with the general instructions in the Decedent’s Will. I recently worked with a client that became concerned when we learned that an estranged family member received a portion of an IRA account due to the beneficiary designation. It was very confusing and upsetting to her that this family member received assets in addition to those provided for in the Will.
Secondly, there are situations where the beneficiary designation needs to be reviewed and confirmed, both at the time the designation is made and at the time of the claim. Read more >>
As regular readers of this blog know, one of our favorite topics is digital assets, including estate planning for digital assets. Today, we’re taking a slightly different focus and discussing developments in digital estate planning, more commonly known as electronic wills.
One of the more recent developments in estate planning is the concept of electronic wills. In general, an electronic will is one that is signed and stored electronically. Instead of signing a hard copy document in ink, the testator electronically signs the will, and it is also signed by witnesses and notarized electronically. Not surprisingly, companies like LegalZoom are very interested in this topic.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently upheld a ruling that has required the Personal Representative of an Estate to take the necessary steps to transfer the deceased spousal unused election (DSUE) to the surviving spouse. The case stems from the rights created by the federal gift and estate tax laws regarding portability. More specifically, beginning in 2010 one spouse was allowed to transfer, at death, his or her unused gift and estate tax exemption to the surviving spouse. Prior to 2010, each spouse had his or her own gift and estate tax exemption, but any portion of that exemption which remained unused by the spouse at death could not be transferred to the surviving spouse.
In In re Estate of Vose, 390 P.3d 238 (Okla. 2017), the Personal Representative of the Estate, one of the children of the decedent by a prior marriage, had refused to make the required election for transfer even though the surviving spouse agreed to pay the cost required to prepare the necessary Federal Estate tax return to do so. Read more >>
Does the fact that a husband and wife create “mirror-image” wills or trusts mean that they have entered into a contract with their spouse to maintain the dispositive provisions in the document? The law in Colorado is very clear that no contract exists merely because the documents are “mirror-image” or reciprocal.
Pursuant to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-514, a contract to make a devise may be established only by:
(i) provisions of a will stating material provisions of the contract, (ii) an express reference in a will to a contract and extrinsic evidence proving the terms of the contract, or (iii) a writing signed by the decedent evidencing the contract. The execution of a joint will or mutual wills does not create a presumption of a contract not to revoke the will or wills. (emphasis added).
We are seeing an increase in the number of lawsuits in which people are challenging or trying to circumvent estate plans. The claims traditionally include lack of testamentary capacity and those involving improper actions by family members, agents under powers of attorney or conservators.
A challenge to an estate plan often involves a claim that the testator was not of sound mind. Under Colorado law, a sound mind includes the presence of the Cunningham factors and absence of an insane delusion that materially affected the testamentary instrument. The Cunningham factors are as follows: the testator must (1) understand the nature of the act, (2) know the extent of his property, (3) understand the proposed testamentary disposition, (4) know the natural objects of his bounty, and (5) that the testamentary instrument represented his wishes. Cunningham v. Stender, 255 P.2d 977 (Colo. 1953).
In addition to these factors, the testator cannot be suffering from an insane delusion. An insane delusion exists if a person has a persistent belief, resulting from illness or disorder, in the existence or non-existence of something contrary to all evidence, which materially affects the disposition in the testamentary instrument.Breeden v. Stone, 992 P.2d 1167 (Colo. 2000). For example, failure to include a child in the will because the testator believes that child has been abducted by aliens and will never return to earth. Read more >>
Will the estate tax be eliminated as part of the tax reform promised by the incoming administration? Unfortunately, my crystal ball is not working well and I don’t have an answer for that question. I would, however, like to share a bit of the tortured history of the estate and gift tax since the Civil War in the hope that it might give us some perspective when wondering what the future will bring.
A series of Acts between 1862-64 created an inheritance tax which helped finance the war effort. Rates were between .75% and 5% and there was an exemption of $1,000. In 1870 the inheritance tax was repealed. An estate tax was again instituted to fund a war effort in 1916, in response to World War I. The rates were between 1% and 10% and there was an exemption of $50,000.
Last month Maryland’s highest appellate court released a narrowly-divided (4-to-3) opinion in a tax apportionment case involving the estate of celebrity novelist Tom Clancy (The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and other popular espionage novels), who died on October 1, 2013. This case once again confirms that (1) blended families, combined with (2) tax apportionment disputes and (3) ambiguity and inconsistency in estate planning documents, inevitably fuel expensive and protracted probate litigation.
In his will, Clancy gave his tangible personal property and two of his residences outright to his second wife, who survived him, and directed his Personal Representative to divide his residuary estate into three equal parts. One part, designated as the “Marital Share,” was to be (a) comprised entirely of assets qualifying for the federal estate tax marital deduction, (b) held solely for the benefit of his widow, and (c) exonerated from all tax liabilities to qualify entirely for the marital deduction. Read more >>
The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the strict privity doctrine for attorney malpractice claims by nonclients and reaffirmed that an attorney’s liability is limited to when the attorney has committed fraud or a malicious or tortious act, including negligent misrepresentation. Baker v. Wood, Ris & Hames, case number 2013SC551 (2016 CO 5).
In Baker, the dissatisfied beneficiaries sued the attorneys for their father and alleged as follows:
The attorneys failed to advise their father of the impact of holding property in joint tenancy.
The attorneys failed to advise their father that failing to sever those joint tenancies would frustrate his intent to treat his children equally with his stepchildren.
The attorneys’ actions allowed the surviving spouse to change their father’s estate plan after his death.
The attorneys drafted documents for the surviving spouse that were different from their father’s original plan.
The beneficiaries were the intended beneficiaries of the client’s plan, that the attorneys failed to advise the beneficiaries of the relevant facts, and that they had suffered damages as a result.
The beneficiaries asked the Colorado Supreme Court to adopt the “California Test” or the “Florida-Iowa Rule” and set aside the strict privity rule. The Court rejected the adoption of both tests and reaffirmed the strict privity rule. The Court also held that the beneficiaries’ claims would fail under both the California Test and the Florida-Iowa Rule.
The Court put forth the following rationales for upholding the strict privity rule in Colorado:
It protects the attorney’s duty of loyalty to the client and allows for effective advocacy for the client.
Abandoning strict privity could result in adversarial relationships between an attorney and third parties. This could result in conflicting duties for the attorney.
Without strict privity, the attorney could be liable to an unforeseeable and unlimited number of people.
Expanding attorney liability to nonclients might deter attorneys from taking on certain legal matters. The Court reasoned that this result could compromise the interests of potential clients by making it more difficult to obtain legal services.
Casting aside strict privity would increase the risk of suits by disappointed beneficiaries. Those suits would cast doubt on the testator’s intentions after his or her death when he or she is unavailable to speak.
The beneficiaries have other avenues available to them, including reformation of the documents.
A personal representative can pursue legitimate claims on behalf of a testator.
The Court held, “We further believe that the strict privity rule strikes the appropriate balance between the important interests of clients, on the one hand, and non-clients claiming to be injured by an attorney’s conduct, on the other.” As a result, the strict privity rule remains intact in Colorado.