Recently, I discussed the issues surrounding the estate of Aretha Franklin. From the sources that I reviewed, it appears that she did not intentionally reduce the size of her estate through gifting to her heirs before her death. It isn’t required that people reduce their estates through giving, however. . . With an annual ceiling of $15,000, affluent individuals of advanced age may prefer to distribute a portion of some inheritances before their death, to avoid taxes to both themselves as well as the recipients.
For those that choose to give before death, whatever you do, make sure your heirs cash those checks as soon as they receive them! A recent tax case (Estate of de Muth v Commissioner) determined that if a check isn’t cleared before a person dies, the checks become part of the estate, and therefore subject to estate tax. Of course, gifters can’t force recipients to quickly cash checks given to them, but if the intent is to ensure that the size of the estate is reduced, then time is truly of the essence.
I was interested in Estate of de Muth because it was always my understanding that it was the date of gifting, and not the date of cashing, that determined when a gift was given. But with the tax courts determining that the act of gift giving occurs upon cashing the check, I now have a different perspective regarding gifts and what constitutes receipt. This is why I love staying aware of the changes with the tax law: you never know what you’ll learn!
I won’t rehash all of the details of the case, however, I will highlight some key takeaways that I gleaned as I learned about the messy estate left behind by the Queen of Soul:
Destroy previously executed wills. For most people, their end-of-life planning only covers the execution of a will (if they’re proactive). Sadly, some people don’t even do that much planning: far too many people die intestate, leaving their estate planning in the hands of the state where they lived and died. But I digress . . . Leaving a will clarifies how you want your property to be distributed after your death. However, this distribution becomes unclear if you have multiple versions of your will floating around. So, consider destroying previously executed wills whenever you make a revision. The estate is currently comparing 3 different versions of Ms. Franklin’s will, and I’m sure the probate courts will have a field day trying to figure out which one is the one that will be honored.
Set up a trust. If you only have a will, you’re doing better than many people. But if you really want to simplify how your assets will be handled, a trust is what you need. Trusts can be established to distribute assets before and after death, they can help avoid certain types of taxes, and they can provide an extra level of clarity that may not be accomplished through the execution of a will alone. Consulting with a trust attorney is a great idea, even if it turns out that a trust isn’t advantageous for your specific circumstances. These attorneys can answer many of the questions you may have related to other estate or end-of-life financial issues.
Consider gifting some of your possessions while you’re still alive. The current ceiling for tax-free gifting is $15,000 per person that you choose to gift. Even if you aren’t giving everyone you know $15,000, you can certainly gift some of your possessions now, so that your heirs can avoid gift and estate taxes later.
Those are three of my takeaways from the tax agreement between IRS and Aretha Franklin. I’ll keep an eye on this case to see if any additional developments arise, and if so, I’ll be back with updates. Take care!