Estate Administration - The 3 Stages

While each estate administration presents different facts - the terms of the Will or Trust, the amount and composition of the assets, each estate in New Jersey goes through the same 3 stages

·         Probate.  The first stage is when the Will is offered for probate at the local Surrogate’s Court.  This is a very simple process in which your executors present the Will, and then they are issued Letters of Testamentary, which will give the Executor(s) the authority to carry out your wishes as set forth in your Will.  This is done by making an appointment with the Morris County Surrogate’s Court (10) ten days after the date of your death.  Alternatively, if the Executor(s) decide to attain an attorney to assist them, the attorney’s office can often have the documents signed at their office. If there is no Will, an Administration is opened where your Administrators are issued Letters of Administration.  Letters Testamentary and Letters of Administration give your representative the power over your assets and to settle any liabilities.

·         Gather Assets; Pay Liabilities.  The second stage is gathering together all your assets, determining their value, paying any debts or liabilities (including taxes if any) and filing any necessary tax returns.  Until the tax returns are filed and approved (or a waiver is completed because no taxes are due) New Jersey has a lien on your assets and they cannot be fully distributed. 

·         Closing the Estate.  Once the tax returns are approved, New Jersey will issue a Waiver, which releases its lien on the assets.  The Executor then normally accounts to the beneficiaries what came into the estate, what went out, and what is left to distribute.  This informal accounting is coupled within a “Release and Refunding Bond” where the beneficiaries agree to their distribution, waive any claim to be entitled to more, and release the Executor from liabilities.  The accounting and “Release and Refunding Bonds” will act to close the Estate.  You should anticipate that the entire Estate Administration process will be a 14-24 month process.

The Executor/Administration has many responsibilities beyond these.  We find that since people are generally taking on the job of Executor/Administrator for the first time, it appears overwhelming.  By looking at the job in stages, it becomes more manageable and doable.  Many Executors/Administrators seek professional advice because even if they can consider the job in stages, their lack of experience in that role, and not knowing their responsibilities and questions to ask, potentially opens them up to liability and claims from the beneficiaries or tax authorities. 

Life Estates - Estate Tax and Inheritance Tax Consequences

Life estates are commonly used in elder law asset protection planning.  Mom owns a house worth $400,000.  She gives the house to her children(a "remainder interest"), and keeps the right to live in the house during her lifetime (a "life estate interest").  The gift of the remainder interest is "transfer" for Medicaid purposes, and starts the clock on the 5 year lookback period.  

The gift of the house subject to a life estate is a popular asset protection planning technique because it is easy to understand and less invasive to lifestyle than other transfer techniques. Making a gift of a remainder interest simply involves the attorney preparing a deed and associated real estate transfer documents.  There are no realty transfer tax consequences - realty transfer tax is not assessed in New Jersey for transfers without consideration (i.e.: a gift). Also, using a life estate technique not much changes from a practical perspective as the life estate holder (ie: Mom) continues to be responsible for all property taxes, maintenance and upkeep - and is still entitled to the Senior property tax rebate.  Perhaps most importantly, you don't spend your house, so it is emotionally easier to give away an interest in a house than to give away cash dollars that you may still want to spend.  For those who think they are at least 5 years away from a nursing home, a transfer of a house subject to a life estate can be a home run as the house tends to be the most valuable single asset.

But what happens from a tax perspective when the owner dies? (Assuming the death is not in 2010 when we have no federal estate tax - see my prior post on estate tax implications for deaths in 2010)

If you give away an asset and keep a life estate in that asset, the life estate acts like a "string" that pulls 100% of the value of the asset into your taxable estate.  From an estate tax perspective, this mean that (1) 100% of the value of the house is included in decedents taxable estate, and (2) the cost basis of the house is "stepped-up" to the value of the house on date of death (IRC 2036).  So, if Mom bought the house for $40,000 and it is now worth $440,000, Mom's estate includes the house valued at $440,000, and kids get the house with a $440,000 basis.  When they sell the house for $450,000 down the road, then they only have $10,000 of capital gain.  The $400,000 of appreciation that occurred during Mom's lifetime essentially disappears (you potentially pay estate tax instead).  If the total estate is less than $675,000 (New Jersey) or $1,000,000 (federal starting in 2011 - unless congress changes it), then there will be no estate tax due.  If there is a New Jersey estate tax, the rate ranges up to 16% on amounts over $675,000 - this is far less than the capital gains tax (15% federal plus 7.5% NJ) on $400,000 if Mom simply gave the house to the kids without keeping the life estate.  

In New Jersey we also need to contend with the Inheritance Tax if the remainder beneficiaries are not children - for example, Aunt gives her house to her nieces and nephews and retains a life estate.  The Inheritance Tax is a separate tax from the estate tax that is assessed against a beneficiary based on their relationship to the decedents - transfers to spouses and children are exempt, transfers to other family members are not.  For example, when Aunt dies, the life estate acts to make 100% of the value of the house subject to inheritance tax (NJAC 18:26-5 et seq).  So, nieces and nephews get the house, but they need pay an inheritance tax at the rate of 15%-16% with no exemption.  The inheritance tax is a credit to the estate tax, so you don't end up paying both taxes if the estate is subject to estate tax and the beneficiaries are not children or spouses.

The benefits of making  a transfer of a house subject to a life estate can significantly outweigh any estate tax or inheritance consequences in many situations.  The key is to get advise for YOUR situation to see if transfer of a house subject to a lift estate make sense to protect your assets from a Medicaid spend-down.