The Toll of Serving as Fiduciary

I often guide clients in naming trustees and personal representatives (collectively “fiduciaries”) as part of the Estate Planning process. These conversations cover many topics including the fiduciary’s duties and responsibilities upon taking office. For example, fiduciaries marshal the assets of the estate or trust; make decisions regarding the distribution of assets to the beneficiaries; and potentially undertake litigation. Fiduciaries may have to appear in court, and certainly, they will have to liaise with the attorney handling the estate or trust. Often, the individuals nominated to serve as fiduciaries have limited or no understanding of their duties and responsibilities, one of which includes the filing of all outstanding income, gift, and estate tax returns for the decedent.

Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 6012 imposes a duty on a fiduciary to file outstanding income tax returns. Treasury Regulation Section 25.6019-1(g) imposes a duty on the fiduciary to file any outstanding gift tax returns for a deceased donor. Finally, Code Section 6018 requires the fiduciary to file an estate tax return if the decedent’s estate exceeds the basic exclusion amount. The Code holds the fiduciary responsible for filing all outstanding tax returns. That the fiduciary may have no independent knowledge regarding whether the decedent was diligent in filing their returns does not matter. For this reason, it’s vital for the fiduciary to prioritize filing of the tax returns and as the rest of the article demonstrates, the payment of any tax liabilities.

Code Section 6321 gives the United States Government (U.S.) a general tax lien on all estate and trust property upon assessment of the tax. In addition, Code Section 6324 provides two special liens for estate and gift taxes that arise upon death, or at the date of the gift, as appropriate. In addition, federal priority statutes provide that the fiduciary must use assets in their custody to pay the U.S. before making other distributions, including distributions to beneficiaries. If the fiduciary fails to pay the government first, he or she may end up personally liable to the IRS for amounts paid to the beneficiaries or any other creditors. Three factors in combination trigger personal liability under the federal priority statute: the fiduciary controlled the assets and distributed the assets to others aside from the U.S.; the fiduciary knew that the U.S. had an unpaid claim; and the fiduciary paid others when the estate was insolvent or the payment made the estate insolvent.

Code Section 2202 and Treasury Regulation Section 22.2002-1 require the fiduciary to pay the estate taxes, even if the fiduciary never had control of those assets. This lack of control causes both a liquidity problem and an unsatisfied tax liability which can be a dangerous combination. The duty to pay taxes extends beyond estate taxes to include unpaid gift taxes, even if the gross estate no longer contains those assets. Many tried and true Estate Planning techniques involve the use of lifetime trusts or planned payment of life insurance proceeds to a beneficiary other than the decedent’s estate, for example, a surviving spouse or an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust. Estate Planning during life could cause both a liquidity problem along with an unpaid tax problem at death, something that clients and attorneys alike should consider.

Of course, the fiduciary does not remain liable forever. The fiduciary may apply for and receive a discharge from personal liability for estate tax by written application and early determination by the IRS of the amount of tax owed. The IRS must determine within the later of nine months after the executor files the return or nine months after the executor makes a written application. Upon determination and payment of the tax, the IRS will discharge the executor. Code Section 2204(a) allows the executor to receive a discharge if such fiduciary furnishes a bond after determination of the tax. The IRS may issue the notice of discharge later, thereby relieving the executor of personal liability.

If the fiduciary knows that the trust or estate has an unpaid tax liability, then the fiduciary should consider the following steps: ask the IRS to enter into an agreement allowing the fiduciary to make distributions without personal liability; make the IRS aware of each proposed distribution and give the IRS opportunity to object or accept said distribution; maintain current records on solvency; if a court controls the assets, then determine whether the custodian will make distributions pursuant to court order; and finally, consider requesting a private letter ruling to determine whether a distribution may be made without personal liability. If you have concerns about any of the parties that you have named in your documents, reach out to me about your concerns and update your documents. If you have been named as a fiduciary and need help understanding your duties, you can always seek my help to guide you through this complicated process.

The Power in Powers of Appointment

To do my best job, I need to understand each client’s family dynamic, identify areas of concern, provide advice regarding the best course of action and consider potential tax ramifications while protecting beneficiaries from themselves. All that occurs before I ever put pen to paper. I need to create documents that accomplish these competing goals while considering facts and circumstances that may impact the effectiveness of the plan in the future. Sounds impossible, right? It’s not. It just takes careful consideration of all the tools I have at my disposal. A power of appointment is one of those tools. In simple terms, an appointment provides flexibility. Powers of appointment allow the holder to direct his or her share of property held in Trust to another individual or entity, either outright, or in continuing trust. Powers of appointment exist in two types, general or limited, sometimes called special.

An individual holding a general power of appointment (“GPOA”) may exercise that power in favor of anyone or any entity including themself, their estate or the creditors of either. The GPOA has no restrictions. If the holder has a GPOA over assets, that causes inclusion of those assets in the holder’s taxable estate. As a result, the assets subject to the power get a step-up (or down) in basis at the death of the holder. Sometimes, I include a GPOA to prevent another result. For example, some documents I prepare include language that permits an Independent Trustee to give a beneficiary a GPOA to avoid the application of undesirable tax consequences. If the Independent Trustee grants this power, then the powerholder’s estate will include the assets subject to the power, even if the powerholder fails to exercise the power. Holding the GPOA causes estate tax inclusion. It matters not whether the powerholder exercises the power.

A beneficiary holding a limited power of appointment (“LPOA”), by contrast, cannot appoint the assets to themself, their estate, or the creditors of either. The donor granting the LPOA may impose additional limits, but usually the beneficiary may exercise the LPOA in favor of a very broad class, including any one of the billions of people on earth. The overarching prohibition exists only as to the beneficiary, the beneficiary’s estate, or the creditors of either. An LPOA does not cause inclusion in the holder’s taxable estate and does not cause a step-up (or down) in basis if the LPOA is not retained by the grantor of the trust. The LPOA gives the beneficiary the opportunity to use the information existing at their death to direct to whom assets will be distributed, without subjecting the assets to estate tax.

Let’s review a quick example that demonstrates the power of an LPOA. Suppose a spouse establishes a trust for their surviving spouse and gives that surviving spouse an LPOA over the trust assets remaining at death to their descendants. If the spouse fails to exercise the power, then the trust assets will pass in equal shares to the couple’s children. If one of those children recently became a multi-millionaire, while another struggles to pay bills, that power allows the surviving spouse to alter the distribution pattern to account for those changes. Perhaps a third child recently had a disabling accident and now receives government benefits. The surviving spouse could use the LPOA to appoint assets for the disabled child to a newly created stand-alone trust.

Powers of appointment provide a great option to add flexibility to an Estate Plan. They give the powerholder the ability to account for changes in circumstances that were not contemplated at the time the plan was created. They allow a beneficiary to adjust a distribution pattern to ensure a more equitable distribution of assets gifted to them but left to their descendants upon their death. The trust or other instrument granting the power may provide requirements for the effective exercise of the power and it’s vital to exercise the power exactly as required.

What an In Terrorem Clause Can Do for You

Individuals undertake Estate Planning not only to ensure the smooth transition of their assets upon their death, but also to prevent certain beneficiaries from inheriting or limiting the gift or bequest to a beneficiary. A trust can limit the amount given to a beneficiary, for example, by providing one child with a smaller portion of the overall estate than another, or can impose restrictions upon the gift or bequest, for example, by imposing a trust for the beneficiary’s life and naming a third party as trustee. The decision about whether to leave a beneficiary any amount requires careful consideration. By leaving a token amount of say $1, the beneficiary has nothing to lose by contesting thereby undercutting the effectiveness of the no contest clause. Leaving the beneficiary a greater amount, say $50,000, rather than the $1 million that they would have received if they were receiving an equal distribution, may fund litigation, but it may also cause the beneficiary to think twice before initiating a lawsuit. In conjunction with the limitations on the gift or bequest, I always include an “in terrorem” or no contest clause to further evidence the testator or grantor’s intent. The use of an in terrorem clause in a Trust protects the intentions of the testator or grantor from attack by the disgruntled beneficiary by completely disinheriting the beneficiary who challenges the terms of a Trust. These clauses do not work the same in every state and some states impose additional requirements before disinheriting the beneficiary.

Importantly, neither Florida nor Indiana recognizes in terrorem clauses, but all other states acknowledge the use of the no contest clause in varying degrees. Most states construe a no contest clause strictly and narrowly and will enforce a no contest clause only when the beneficiary’s conduct falls into a category prohibited by the no contest clause. New Hampshire departs from this general rule and its statute provides expansive construction and interpretation of the no contest clause to ensure fulfillment of the testator’s intent as expressed in the trust.

Most of the states that accept the use of no contest clauses, like Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Jersey, have adopted the Uniform Probate Code rule that enforces the clause unless the contestant had probable cause to initiate the proceeding. Each state sets a different bar for determination of probable cause. Alaska statutes indicate that an in terrorem clause in a Will contest is unenforceable; however, the same cannot be said for an in terrorem clause in a Trust contest. Alaska statutes specifically indicate that the in terrorem clause purporting to penalize a beneficiary by charging such beneficiary’s interest in the trust, or any other way for instituting a proceeding to challenge the acts of a trustee or initiating any other proceedings related to the trust is enforceable even if probable cause exists for instituting the proceedings.

Arkansas and Illinois enforce an in terrorem clause unless the contestant bases the contest on good faith. Other states like Iowa, North Carolina, and Tennessee require both good faith and just cause for the contest otherwise the no contest clause will apply to disinherit the contesting beneficiary. Still other states, like California, Delaware, and New York have more complex and comprehensive rules regarding the enforceability of in terrorem clauses. Most of the states that have adopted the use of in terrorem clauses in for Trusts.

Several other states like Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia enforce the in terrorem cause without regard to probable cause or good faith. Vermont has no applicable statutes on the enforceability of no contest clauses. Alabama courts have not expressly ruled on the enforceability of the clauses, although several cases have recognized the enforceability of such clauses generally while holding that such clauses were unenforceable in the specific circumstances before the court.

The harsh result of forfeiture of the gift or bequest under a Trust chills potential litigants, the intended result. If the beneficiary seeks only to have the court construe the terms or a provision of the document, that alone does not work as a forfeiture. Interestingly, in 2014 Missouri enacted legislation that allowed a potential contestant to “test the water” before moving forward with a lawsuit that would trigger an in terrorem clause. Under the applicable statute, an interested party may petition the court for an interlocutory determination whether the proposed or alternative pleading will trigger a forfeiture. This legislation gave potential litigants a clear path to the courthouse by eliminating the need to plead in the alternative, as they would have had to do before the enactment of the statute. Prior to the statute’s enactment, beneficiaries would ask the court to rule on whether the counts in their proposed pleading would trigger the clause. Once the beneficiary received that ruling, then the beneficiary would ask the court to rule on whether the clause was enforceable. That process required at least two rulings before getting to the substantive claims, the opposite of judicial economy. Missouri appellate courts have addressed the statute a mere five times in the eights years since its passage which underscores the chilling effect of these clauses.

While Missouri clearly leads the way in no contest clause litigation, other states may follow suit. Even in states like Florida and Indiana that do not recognize no contest clauses, use of the clause may chill litigation and ensure that the testator or grantor’s intended plan of distribution stands.

Business Succession Planning May Be Easier than You Think

Business owners have experience running the business and managing their employees, but often seem lost when it comes to creating a plan for what happens to the business upon their incapacity or their inevitable death. Succession planning plays a vital role in continuing a business, which often provides a necessary income stream for the family and, if not properly protected, can result in disastrous consequences. Statistics show that there are over 32.5 million small businesses in the U.S., which account for 99.9% of all U.S. Businesses according to the Small Business Administration.

Individuals create businesses for numerous reasons with many common threads, most significantly, that each needs a succession plan. This article will provide a roadmap for helping clients determine and implement that plan. Family members who act as both managers and owners make succession planning particularly complex. An attorney needs to understand that the family and business interests while often similar, aren’t always the same and need to adjust their advice and approach accordingly. Here’s a step-by-step approach.

Step one:  I encourage the family to have family meetings. Family and business owners need to practice open and honest communication, if they do nothing else, they must do this. Clear communication helps set expectations and guards against future litigation and family discord. Ideally, clients should communicate regarding the family and business goals, both short- and long-term. Having annual family meetings provides the right setting for participation and reminds participants of their familial relationships, even though they have a business together. By reminding clients of the importance of these meetings, attorneys add value for their clients. An attorney’s conference room provides a formal, yet neutral, location.

Step two:  I help the decision-makers identify key relationships. When an entrepreneur begins the business, that individual has multiple relationships with individuals both inside and outside the business and knows every detail of the business. Every decision begins and ends with them. As the business grows, the creator needs to involve others, but often does so when they have little choice either because their health or business has suffered. I encourage them to identify the important relationships and the long-term role that each of those individuals will play once the entrepreneur no longer makes every decision. Inevitably, the entrepreneur will discover what relationships work and what relationships need work. It also allows me to open a conversation about the role other family members have in developing and deepening these relationships which will ease the transition from one generation to the next.

Step three:   We create a plan. The business family needs to create policies and processes to govern the relationships among the owner and business family members. Again, talking through these issues and keeping open lines of communication helps set expectations and guard against disagreements that turn into litigation, or worse, cause irreparable family rifts. The parties need to consider governance, operation, and growth and the business, practical, and educational requirements for the next generation. Individuals should consider the compensation structure, both for outgoing owners and managers and their incoming counterparts. I encourage conferences with other qualified financial and business advisors, accountants, and perhaps, therapists, to guide the family with these decisions. Sometimes the best advice is to find a qualified professional to help.

Step four:  I remind the client of the legacy their business built. Undertaking appropriate business succession planning helps protect and continue a family legacy. The senior generation built the business and by providing the next generation with the tools necessary for success continues to play a vital role in that business. The better prepared the next generation is when the transition occurs, the more successful the transition will be. Demonstrating confidence in the newer members cements the future success of the business by showing outsiders that they, too, should have confidence in the future of the business, regardless of who’s in charge.

To recap, I start by reminding business owners that they need to create a forum for open, honest, and frequent communication about family and business matters, usually by having family meetings. Next, I discuss which relationships work best, which need work, and who will manage those relationships going forward. Third, make introductions to other qualified advisors to help create a succession plan. Finally, I remind entrepreneurs that the next generation’s success depends upon the confidence demonstrated by the prior generation.