Dear Liza, I would like to give my son $200k to upgrade homes. Can me and my wife each give $13,000 to my son, daughter in law, and two grand children? That would be $102,000, and then apply the remaining $98,000 to the unified tax credit. Can I write it all in one check for the four of them? You can write one check for your son and daughter. You can now give $14,000 per person, so you and your wife can give, together, $56,000 to them, as an annual gift, and the remainder can be reported on your gift tax return, filed in April of the following year. If your grandchildren are minors, though, you have to give them a gift into a custodial account, a trust, or a 529 educational savings plan. Children under the age of 18 can’t own property worth more than a nominal amount without a custodian to manage that money.
Dear Liza: My brother and I are dual citizens (Japan and US). We both reside in the US. Our Japanese mother recently passed away. She had some cash/ stock/ annuities/ mutual funds in the US, and some property in Japan that we will inherit jointly, with no disputes. She has a social security number and had a green card at one time, many years ago. She has not lived in the US for over 30 years. There was no will. Given that she was a non-resident foreign national, do we have to go through probate to distribute her US assets (around $650,000)? Sorry about your Mom. To settle your Mom’s U.S.-based estate you are going to need a probate proceeding to transfer the assets because your mother didn’t leave a Will. This is not because she was a non-resident alien. This is because she owned significant property in her own name. That means that you and your brother are going to inherit her property as the intestate heirs (that’s state law for who inherits when someone dies without a Will). Because she owned property worth more than a minimal amount, you will need a court order to get those assets transferred to you, which is the end result of a probate proceeding.
The issues that relate to her citizenship status is this: your mother’s estate is going to have to pay U.S. estate tax. The rules for non-resident, non-citizen owners of U.S.-based property are complex, but basically, her estate will be taxed on U.S. assets worth more than $60,000. Japan, though, has a taxation treaty with the U.S., so her estate won’t be subject to double estate taxation (in both the U.S. and Japan). Click here for a link to an IRS summary of these rules.
Dear Liza: My mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is completely mentally incompetent and living in a nursing home in Arkansas. I have only recently learned – surprise! – that she does not have a will. With my father and brother already deceased, I am her only legal heir, but I fear the difficulties in settling her estate upon her death. Is there anything I can do now to ease that transition, or I am simply going to have to bite the bullet and hire an attorney? I do hold her Power of Attorney, but I know that does not grant me the right to write a will on her behalf. I am sorry to hear that your mother is no longer able to manage her own affairs. You are absolutely correct that, at this point, you don’t have many options in terms of putting a Will in place for her. She can’t write her own now that she doesn’t understand what she would be signing, even if she’s still capable of physically signing a document.
The only legal avenues available to you both involve working with the probate court in the county where your mother lives (and, unfortunately, this also probably involves working with an attorney). You could petition the court to be named your mother’s conservator. If this petition is granted, you would then be your mother’s legal guardian, and in a position to have a Will drafted for her, but conservatorship is a long and complex process which will require court hearings, proper notice, and an investigation to determine your mother’s competence and your suitability as her conservator. If you are her only heir, you could also wait until she dies, then inherit under your state’s intestacy statutes, which would require a probate proceeding upon your mother’s death, if her assets exceed the small estates limit in Arkansas, which is currently $100,000.
Dear Liza: My adult son just passed away. I would like to know whether, when his Will is probated, I will be able to see a copy? My condolences on your loss. Your son’s Will must be filed in the probate court in the county in which he died as part of the probate process. Once it is filed, it is public record and you can request a copy from that court. I don’t know where you live, but here’s how it works in the Santa Clara County Superior Court, where I live, and the process should be similar where you are.
Dear Liza: I’ve read that I could create a trust for my children in a Will, then name that trust as a beneficiary of my retirement account. That way, as I understand it, my successor Trustee could manage those retirement assets for my children until they grow up. But if I do that, will my estate have to go through probate before that trust can be established? Yes, in order to establish a trust that’s created by a Will, your estate would have to go through probate first. What you are describing is called a ‘testamentary trust’ because the trust is created by a Will. The order issued by the court at the end of the probate will incorporate the terms of that trust.
To avoid probate altogether, you should use a living trust to create a trust for the benefit of your children, and put your assets in that trust before you die. You can name that trust as a beneficiary of your retirement account, and, after your death, the successor Trustee will work with the plan administrator for that retirement account to transfer the assets into the trust for your children. That being said, if your children are over eighteen, it’s easier to name them directly as beneficiaries, rather than work through the medium of a trust–which has a slightly different set of rules for how the required minimum distributions are calculated.
Dear Liza: My grandmother passed in May 2012 and left my mother and I as equal beneficiaries of her estate. The lawyer that we’ve been working with hasn’t been responsive to our questions or concerns. After eight months of working with him, it seems that not much has happened. My mother and I don’t feel that he is giving our case an appropriate amount of attention. Should we fire him? Probably. Certainly if you’re not happy with the care with which you have been treated you should at least have a candid discussion with your attorney about it. If you can’t come to a reasonable resolution of the issues, you absolutely have the right to seek other counsel. Your attorney is, after all, your attorney–and owes you a duty of loyatly and a duty to communicate adequately and keep you updated on the progress of the trust administration. If you do seek other counsel, you have the right to your client file as well. Good luck.
Dear Liza: My brother gave me two checks totaling $200,000 in 2012 as a gift. Who pays the tax on that? You have a generous brother! And, in the no good deed goes unpunished department, it is the DONOR of the gift (your brother) who is responsible for reporting the gift and paying the tax due, if any. You, the DONEE, receive the gift free of tax because gifts are not ordinary income under the income tax rules. In 2012, gifts under $5.12 million dollars are not subject to gift tax, but any gift over $13,000 must be reported on a gift tax return by April, 2013. Your brother must file that return, which tells the IRS that he made you a gift of $200,000. Assuming he hasn’t made other gifts that exceed that $5.12 million, though, no tax will be due. Instead, by reporting the gift, your brother has used up some of his lifetime gift tax credit–the tax that would otherwise be due on a gift of $200,000.
Dear 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.