As reported by Forbes in States Race To Clean Up Congress’ Estate Tax Mess, several states – including Florida – aren’t waiting around for Congress to get its act together on the estate tax front.

While Congress dilly dallies, the states are racing to come to the aid of families whose estate plans have been thrown into disarray by the Jan. 1 lapse of the federal estate tax. That lapse could, among other things, lead to the unintended disinheritance of spouses, which could in turn lead to expensive legal fights among family members and, ultimately, the impoverishment of some widows or widowers. It could also, ironically, force some families to pay extra state estate taxes.

Legislators in a handful of states, led by Virginia [click here], have already introduced legislation to try to head off such bad results. Virginia’s House of Delegates passed its “emergency” bill unanimously Tuesday and the state’s Senate is expected to take it up immediately [click here]. Similar bills are pending in Maryland, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington. Other states, including Florida and New York, have somewhat different legislation pending.

By the way, Forbes has a very cool interactive map showing state-level estate tax laws for 2010 [click here].

Florida’s Statutory Fix

At this year’s Heckerling conference one of the giants of the Florida trusts and estates bar, Bruce Stone, reported on Florida’s statutory fix (CS/HB 361) in an excellent presentation entitled The Clock Struck Midnight: Now What Do We Do?  You can track the status of CS/HB 361 here. Full text of the bill is here.  The following is the proposed trust-code provision as reported by Bruce:

The following is a draft as of noon Monday, January 18, 2010, of a statute to be proposed for adoption in Florida, addressing the uncertainties and potential liabilities of fiduciaries caused by repeal of the estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes. The proposed statute may be submitted to the Florida legislature for its regular session which convenes on March 2, 2010.

Section I – section 736.04114 shall be created as follows:

736.04114 Limited judicial construction of irrevocable trust with federal tax provisions.–

(1) Upon the application of a trustee or any qualified beneficiary of a trust, a court at any time may construe the terms of a trust that is not then revocable to define the respective shares or determine beneficiaries, in accordance with the intention of the settlor, if a transfer occurs during the applicable period and the trust contains a provision that:

(a) includes a formula devise referring to the “unified credit”, “estate tax exemption,” “applicable exemption amount,” “applicable credit amount,” “applicable exclusion amount,” “generation-skipping transfer tax exemption,” “GST exemption,” “marital deduction,” “maximum marital deduction,” or “unlimited marital deduction;”

(b) measures a share of a trust based on the amount that can pass free of federal estate tax or the amount that can pass free of federal generation-skipping transfer tax;

(c) otherwise makes a devise referring to a charitable deduction, marital deduction, or a similar provision of federal estate tax or generation-skipping transfer tax law; or

(d) appears to be intended to reduce or minimize federal estate tax or generation skipping transfer tax.

(2) For the purpose of this section:

(a) “applicable period” means a period beginning January 1, 2010 and ending on the earlier of (i) December 31, 2010, or (ii) the date that an act becomes law that repeals or otherwise modifies or has the effect of repealing or modifying Section 901 of The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of2001.

(b) a “transfer occurs” when an interest takes effect in possession or enjoyment.

(3) In construing the trust, the court shall consider the terms and purposes of the trust, the facts and circumstances surrounding the creation of the trust, and the settlor’s probable intent. In determining the settlor’s probable intent, the court may consider evidence relevant to the settlor’s intent even though the evidence contradicts an apparent plain meaning of the trust instrument.

(4) This section does not apply to a transfer that is specifically conditioned upon no federal estate or generation skipping transfer tax being imposed at the time of the transfer.

(5) Unless otherwise ordered by the court, during the applicable period and without court order, the trustee administering a trust containing one or more provisions described in subsection (1) may (a) delay or refrain from making any distribution, (b) incur and pay fees and costs reasonably necessary to determine its duties and obligations (including compliance with provisions of existing and reasonably anticipated future federal tax laws), and (c) establish and maintain reserves for the payment of these fees and costs and federal taxes. The trustee shall not be liable for its actions as provided in this subsection made or taken in good faith.

(6) The provisions of this section are in addition to, and not in derogation of rights under the Florida Trust Code or the common law to construe a trust.