What Happens If a Trust Is Invalid?

Lessons about gifting, blended families, entity formalities, trusts and estate planning may all be found in the outcome of a tax case described in The Dallas Morning News’ article “The Smaldino case: Tax court opinion leads to estate planning angst.” The case involves gift taxes, and more particularly, a gift of LLC interest to a dynasty trust. The interest started out in the husband’s trust, transferred to the wife, who then transferred them to a dynasty trust, created to benefit some of the husband’s children from a prior marriage.

You may know that taxpayers are not required to report gifts between spouses. The husband’s gift to his spouse was, therefore, not reported to the IRS. The wife did report her gift to the IRS, but she didn’t need to pay any gift taxes because the reported value didn’t exceed her own lifetime gift tax exemption. Therefore, no gift taxes were due or paid on the transfer of the LLC interest to the trust.

The IRS assessed the husband a $1,154,000 gift tax deficiency, which was subsequently held up by the tax court. What was wrong?

The IRS and the tax court found a number of red flags. For starters, the wife held her LLC interest for only one day, before transferring it to the trust.

In testimony before the court, the wife said she had committed to transferring the shares to the trust even before she received the assignment of the shares. She clearly stated that she would have not changed her mind about transferring the assets, which were to benefit her stepchildren. Her timing was too hasty, however.

The husband, who was in control of the LLC, neglected to amend the LLC documents to reflect his wife’s owning an interest in the LLC. As a result, she was never recognized formally as a member of the LLC. The LLC documents made a clear distinction between the roles and duties of an assignee and a member. He executed the assignment of the interest, but she never became a member of the LLC.

The tax court also found a number of the corporate documents simply unbelievable. Several were undated. Others had an “effective date,” but lacked the date of signing.

One could say the IRS was being picky, but the IRS doesn’t have the ability to disregard documents, for two reasons. One is the doctrine of the tax court known as “substance over form.” The substance of a transaction, rather than the form it is presented in, determines the tax determination. The second is something families need to take seriously: when transactions involve family members, the IRS uses a fine-tooth comb to be sure transactions are legitimate.

When estate planning entities are created and transactions take place, consistency in actions is needed to demonstrate intent. All of the rules and practices must be followed, and when family members are involved, those involved must go above and beyond to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

An estate planning attorney with experience in creating LLCs, transferring interests and procedures required by the IRS, does more than create documents. He or she educates clients and explain how the transactions should be carried out to ensure that proper procedures are being followed. In this case, the mistakes far outweighed any benefits from the transaction.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Dec. 19, 2021) “The Smaldino case: Tax court opinion leads to estate planning angst”

How Do You Split an Estate in a Blended Family?

Estate planning attorneys know just how often blended families with the best of intentions find themselves embroiled in disputes, when the couple fails to address what will happen after the first spouse dies. According to the article “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues” from The News-Enterprise, this is more likely to occur when spouses marry after their separate children are already adults, don’t live in the parent’s home and have their own lives and families.

In this case, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse, rather than the child’s parent. There may be love and respect. However, it’s a different relationship from long-term blended families where the stepparent was actively engaged with all of the children’s upbringing and parents consider all of the children as their own.

For the long-term blended family, the planning must be intentional. However, there may be less concern about the surviving spouse changing beneficiaries and depriving the other spouse’s children of their inheritance. The estate planning attorney must still address this as a possibility.

When relationships between spouses and stepchildren are not as close, or are rocky, estate planning must proceed as if the relationship between stepparents and stepsiblings will evaporate on the death of the natural parent. If one spouse’s intention is to leave all of their wealth to the surviving spouse, the plan must anticipate trouble, even litigation.

In some families, there is no intent to deprive anyone of an inheritance. However, failing to plan appropriately—having a will, setting up trusts, etc.—is not done and the estate plan disinherits children.

It’s important for the will, trusts and any other estate planning documents to define the term “children” and in some cases, use the specific names of the children. This is especially important when there are other family members with the same or similar names.

As long as the parents are well and healthy, estate plans can be amended. If one of the parents becomes incapacitated, changes cannot be legally made to their wills. If one spouse dies and the survivor remarries and names a new spouse as their beneficiary, it’s possible for all of the children to lose their inheritances.

Most people don’t intend to disinherit their own children or their stepchildren. However, this occurs often when the spouses neglect to revise their estate plan when they marry again, or if there is no estate plan at all. An estate planning attorney has seen many different versions of this and can create a plan to achieve your wishes and protect your children.

A final note: be realistic about what may occur when you pass. While your spouse may fully intend to maintain relationships with your children, lives and relationships change. With an intentional estate plan, parents can take comfort in knowing their property will be passed to the next generation—or two—as they wish.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Dec. 7, 2021) “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues”

How Do You Split Estate in a Blended Family?

When it comes to blended families and estate planning, there are no guarantees, especially concerning estate planning. However, there are some classic mistakes to avoid, reports this recent article from AARP titled “Remarried With Children? 5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid.”

Most people mean well. They want to protect their spouses and hope that their heirs will share in any proceeds when the second spouse dies. They want all the children to be happy. They also hope that the step siblings will still regard each other as “siblings” after the parents are passed. However, there are situations where children get shut out of their inheritance or an ex-spouse inherits it all, even if that wasn’t the plan. Here are five mistakes to avoid:

#1: Not changing named beneficiaries. People neglect to update their wills and beneficiary designations. This is something to do immediately, before or after the wedding. By changing the name of the beneficiary on your 401(k), for instance, it passes directly to the surviving spouse without probate. All financial accounts should be checked, as should life insurance beneficiaries. You can designate children as secondary beneficiaries, so they receive assets, in the event that both parents die.

While you’re doing that, update legal directives: including the medical power of attorney and the power of attorney. That is, unless you’d like your ex to make medical and financial decisions for you!

#2 Not updating your will. Most assets pass through the will, unless you have planned otherwise. In many second marriages, estate planning is done hoping the spouse inherits all the assets and upon their death, the remaining assets are divided among all of the children. There is nothing stopping a surviving spouse from re-writing their will and for the late spouses’ children to be left without anything from their biological parent. An estate planning attorney can explore different options to avoid this from occurring.

#3 Treating all heirs equally. Yes, this is a mistake. If one person came to the marriage with significantly more assets than another, care must be taken if the goal is to have those assets remain in the bloodline. If one person owned the house, for instance, and a second spouse and children moved into the house, the wish might be to have only the original homeowner’s children inherit the proceeds of the sale of the house. The same goes for pension and retirement accounts.

#4 Waiting to give until you’ve passed. If you are able to, it may be worth gifting to your heirs while you are still living, rather than gifting through a will. You may give up to $15,000 per person or $30,000 to a couple without having to pay a federal gift tax. Recipients don’t pay tax on most gifts. Let’s say you and your spouse have four children and they are all married. You may give each child and their spouse $30,000, without triggering any taxes for you or for them. It gets better: your spouse can also make the same size gift. Therefore, you and your spouse can give $60,000 to each couple, a total of $240,000 per year for all eight people and no taxes need be paid by anyone. This takes assets out of your estate and is not considered income to the recipients.

#5 Doing it yourself. If you’re older with a second marriage, ex-spouses, blended families and comingled assets, your estate planning will be complicated. Add a child with special needs or an aging parent and it becomes even more complex. Trying to create your own estate plan without a current and thorough knowledge of the law (including tax law) is looking for trouble, which is what you will leave to your children. The services of an estate planning attorney are a worthwhile investment, especially for blended families.

Reference: AARP (July 9, 2021) “Remarried With Children? 5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

Planning Future for Nontraditional Families

Today’s non-traditional family are not just LGBTQ couples, but families undergoing gray divorces, blended families, stepchildren, multinational families and children born through assisted reproductive technologies, referred to as ART, in a recent article titled “How to Plan for LGBTQ, Blended Families, Cohabitation, Other Nontraditional Families” from Financial Advisor.

The key is having an estate plan prepared that is flexible so that last wills, trusts, and all documents reflect the non-traditional family very clearly and do not leave room for courts to make decisions. Here are a few new elements to consider:

Gendered pronouns and definitions. Ideally, your estate documents should use specific names of individuals, not pronouns. We live in a fluid society and using pronouns could lead to unnecessary complications.

Recognize ART and its implications. If there are children conceived by ART, they need to be explicitly included as children of the family. DNA testing can result in a child inheriting assets from a parent they never knew. It may be wise to exclude biological children, parents or siblings who do not have a relationship with the family.

Trust Protector/Trust Decanting. By including provisions that permit trusts to be decanted, that is, transferred from one trust to another, your estate planning attorney will create flexibility to allow a trust protector (a non-fiduciary appointment of a third party) to make changes. The selection of the trust protector is particularly important, as they could have a large impact on the overall plan.

Marriage, non-marital relationships, divorce, remarriage. An estate plan needs to prepare for future changes with precision and flexibility. Protecting the family, its privacy and dignity can be done by limiting the information in the last will, which becomes a public document. While we can’t know what the future holds, we can plan for change.

Prenuptial agreements. State laws vary on what is acceptable and procedurally necessary for a prenup to be enforceable. Typically, the agreement must be voluntary and include full disclosure of both parties’ financial situation. In some states, post-nuptials can be prepared, if the parties can’t agree on the document before they are legally wed.

Divorce creates special estate planning issues. Beneficiary designations need to be changed for life insurance, IRAs and other non-probate assets. Take affirmative steps to ensure that ex-spouses, or soon-to-be exes are removed as beneficiaries on all accounts, including pensions and insurance plans subject to ERISA.

Cohabitating couples. Marital gifts are tax free, but that is not the case for people living together. Estate planning and tax planning needs to be done, so the surviving partner is taken care of. This may include the creation of a cohabitation agreement, similar to a prenuptial agreement.

Planning for sickness and death. Explicitly stating wishes for end-of-life medical treatments, including feeding tubes, respirators, heart machines, etc., is step one in having an Advance Medical Directive created. Step two is deciding who is empowered to make those decisions. Someone who is unmarried but has a partner or a second spouse needs to be authorized. Note that when an individual is hospitalized, stepparents may attempt to deny access to spouses’ children, or children may block access to a stepparent. There should also be a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) or Physicians Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) in place with the person’s wishes.

Non-traditional families of all types need to protect the family with estate planning and documentation. Issues about protecting children, making health care decisions for a critically ill partner and control of assets must be addressed in a way that respects the individuals and their families while working within the law.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Feb. 2, 2021) “How to Plan for LGBTQ, Blended Families, Cohabitation, Other Nontraditional Families”