Category Archives: Real Property

Should We Get Married? Estate Planning for Same Sex Couples Now

wedding-91797_150Dear Liza: My long term domestic partner of 30 years and I were registered domestic partners for a few years and then she decided she wanted to be totally financially independent of me so we terminated the agreement last year.  We are still together as a couple and live five minutes away from each other.  Our intention is to leave everything we own to each other and have named each other as executors in our wills.  She owns a house that she may or may not be selling but in general our estates are pretty modest.  I am wondering since we are still a couple is there is an advantage in terms of avoiding probate in getting married versus doing a living trust? First, can I just say I love being able to have this conversation! Now, down to business. There’s a lot packed into your question. I’m going to answer on a general level, but I think it would be worth it for you and your partner to sit down with an accountant and an attorney and see how my advice addresses your particular concerns.

There are three key  estate planning advantages to getting married for same sex couples now, but I wouldn’t frame it as a living trust versus marriage. That’s kind of apples and oranges.  A living trust will still allow you to transfer your assets to each other without probate, regardless of whether or not you marry. But being married has two key federal and one state TAX advantage, all of which you’d realize with or without a living trust.

1.  Married couples get a step up in basis when one spouse dies on all community property assets. That means that the surviving spouse won’t have to pay capital gains on any appreciated assets that she sells after the first death, other than any gain that happened after the death of the first spouse.  For example, if your partner’s house has appreciated a lot since she bought it, and you marry and make that house community property, when one of you dies, that house would be valued at its date of death value, not the original purchase price.

2. Married couples get an unlimited marital deduction from federal estate and gift tax.  That means that you and your spouse can give an unlimited amount of assets to each other, at death or during life, and no federal estate or gift tax will be due for those gifts. For those with modest estates (which are most of us) this isn’t as big a concern now that the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $5.25 million, but that number may be reduced by Congress in the future, and it is a benefit that only spouses receive.  This, in fact, was the basis for Edie Windsor’s challenge to DOMA.

3. Married couples can pass real property to each other in California without a change in property tax rates.  A transfer between spouses is an exception to Proposition 13′s reassessment requirement.  Since you and your partner terminated your Registered Domestic Partnership, and it sounds like she purchased the property alone, her transfer of the house to you via a Will would trigger a change of ownership and reassessment for at least 1/2, if not all, of the property, depending on how she holds title at her death.

Change of Ownership Means Reassessment

house from momDear Liza:  I live in California. I have no children or family. If I leave my house to a friend will the property taxes go up under Prop 13? I just find information about kids and trusts, but not unrelated persons inheriting.  Yes, if you leave your house to a friend, the property taxes will be reassessed. The way Proposition 13 works is that any “change of ownership” results in a reassessment of that property based on its current fair market value, unless an exception applies.  There are exceptions to reassessment for a transfer of property from parents to children (or children to parents).  There is an exception to reassessment for a transfer of property from an individual to a revocable trust for his or her benefit.  But there is no exception for a transfer from you to your friend.

Right of Survivorship

houseDear Liza: I have been wondering if my husband dies, do I have to be on the deed to our house to have right of survivorship?  We have been married 5 yrs., his name only is on the deed, he has no ex-wife or children.  Yes, if you want to inherit that house without a probate proceeding,  you do need to be on that deed in a way that provides you with right of survivorship–which means that upon your husband’s death, you are the sole owner by operation of law alone.  Property owned in this way passes to the surviving owner without any probate requirement.   Any two people can own property with right of survivorship as Joint Tenants.  But married couples have special ways of owning property together. In Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin, they can own property as Community Property with Right of Survivorship–which combines right of survivorship with a special tax advantage available to surviving spouses who own community property. In many other states, married couples can own property in Tenancy by the Entirety, which combines right of survivorship with certain creditor protections.  Without such a form of property ownership, you would inherit the property as your husband’s surviving heir (if he has no kids), but that will require a probate proceeding, which will cost you both time and money.