Are you married?

Estates of married individuals dying after 2010 must file an estate tax return to pass along their unused estate & gift tax exclusion amount to their surviving spouse.

Available for the first time this year, the new portability election allows estates of married taxpayers to pass along the unused part of their exclusion amount, normally $5 million in 2011, to their surviving spouse. Enacted in December, 2010, this provision eliminates the need for spouses to retitle property and create trusts solely to take full advantage of each spouse’s exclusion amount.

Last month I blogged about “Intentional Interference With Expected Inheritance“.

A new article written by two Harvard Law School professors is about to come out entitled “Torts and Estates: Remedying Wrongful Interference with Inheritance” which takes the opposite view.

Here is the abstract of their paper which is forthcoming in the Stanford Law Review:

A study conducted by Consumer Reports magazine concluded that consulting a lawyer is important, especially in more complex situations, when it comes to choosing between wills prepared by on-line services or documents drafted by lay persons. “Unless your needs are simple–say you want to leave your entire estate to your spouse–none of the will-writing products is likely to entirely meet your needs.”

Consumer Reports evaluated three services commonly used to prepare legal documents including estate plans consisting of living trusts, wills, durable powers of attorney and advance health care directives. Those three services were LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer.

The outcome of the study found that in some cases, documents programmed by the software of these three companies aren’t specific enough or contain language that could lead to an unintended result.

A new tort in California law.

Forbes online reports California joins majority of states in recognizing tort — Intentional Interference With Expected Inheritance. Here’s what the article says:

In Beckwith v. Dahl (May 3, 2012), the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, joined the majority of states in recognizing the tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance (IIEI).

In November, 2010, a court action was filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, seeking a refund of the estate tax levied on a married same-sex couple, which would not have applied to a married straight couple and which arguably violated the United States Constitution. The plaintiff in that action, Edith Schlain Windsor (“Edie”) challenged the constitutionality of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) which required Edie to pay federal estate tax on her same-sex spouse’s estate.

Edie met her late spouse, Thea Clara Spyer (“Thea”), nearly a half-century ago at a restaurant in New York City. Edie and Thea went on to spend the rest of Thea’s life living together in a loving and committed relationship in New York.

After more than forty years, Thea and Edie were finally legally married in Toronto, Canada in 2007. Having spent virtually their entire lives caring for each other in sickness-including Thea’s long battle with multiple sclerosis-and in health, Thea and Edie were able to spend the last two years of Thea’s life together as married.

Reasons for removal of a personal representative include statutory grounds of wrongdoing, neglect, or incapacity, as well as removal in favor of a person with higher priority. California Probate Code Section 8500-8505 cover this topic.

What happens if the personal representative fails to perform his or her duty?

The court may lower or deny compensation and can replace the personal representative with someone else. The personal representative may even have to pay for any damages he or she caused.

Currently, on account of the enactment of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 (the “2010 Tax Act”), the Federal estate tax exemption is $5.12 million, or twice that for a married couple.

It was and is common practice for a married person to provide if his or her surviving spouse survives to have his or her estate to be divided into two broad portions. One part is made equal to the estate tax exemption. That part is exempted from estate tax when that spouse dies on account of the so-called unified or applicable estate tax credit (which may be translated into a dollar exemption of $5.12 million). That part may be placed into a trust of which the surviving spouse is a beneficiary but need not be included in the gross estate of the survivor. Typically, that trust is called the “credit shelter trust” (because it is protected from type by reason of the unified credit), “estate tax exemption trust” or a “bypass trust” (because it “passes by” the estate of the surviving spouse for estate tax purposes).

The second part of the estate of the surviving spouse usually passes to or in a marital deduction trust for the surviving spouse and avoids estate tax when the first spouse dies by reason of the estate tax marital deduction. The property that passes to or in trust for the surviving spouse under the protection of the estate tax marital deduction is included in the gross estate of the survivor (unless consumed, given away or dissipated before the survivor dies). (In some cases, this second part of the estate is also divided by directing an amount equal to the otherwise unused generation skipping transfer tax (GST) exemption of the first spouse to die to pass into a separate qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust described in Section 2056(b)(7) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code). A QTIP trust qualifies for the estate tax marital deduction only by affirmative election.

Ethical Wills are documents designed to pass ethical values from one generation to the next. It is not a legal document and typically it is in the form of a letter written by parents to children or grandchildren. It is drafted by you, not me or any other attorney. Today it does not need to be in the form of a letter but could be an audio or video recording.

Ethical wills often contain meaningful family stories, personal values and beliefs, statements of faith, blessings, advice, and expressions of love. They may even share regrets, apologies, and final requests. There are no rules or laws about the length or content of an ethical will. It can be a few lines, or paragraphs or many pages in length.

Every ethical will is unique. And, while there is no standard format for writing one, samples of ethical wills can be found at this link.

Rights of publicity pass to the heirs of celebrities who are residents of California when they die. A hologram performance by Tupac Shakur (who died in 1996) at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is a right which passed to his mother when he was shot.

Proper estate planning in California can help direct where revenue from those rights will go long after the person died.

California Civil Code section 3344 is for the publicity rights of living persons, while Civil Code section 3344.1, known as the “Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act,” grants statutory post-mortem rights which prohibit the unsanctioned use of the “name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness on or in products, merchandise or goods” of any person.