Congress shocked everyone by letting the estate tax lapse in 2010. What I’ve found most interesting about this state of affairs are the unintended consequences:
First, no estate tax in 2010 is great news for the super rich, like George Steinbrenner’s heirs, but bad news for the moderately wealthy, people who have assets between $1.3 million and $3.5 million. For these families dying in 2010 likely means higher taxes. This is a federal tax issue only Congress can address.
Second, no estate tax in 2010 could lead to the unintended disinheritance of widows and widowers, which could in turn lead to expensive legal fights among family members. Potential inheritance litigation caused by Congressional inaction is a state-law issue that state legislators can step in and fix. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.
As reported by Forbes in States Race To Clean Up Congress’ Estate Tax Mess, state legislators have been busy passing legislation aimed at avoiding the unintended disinheritance of widows and widowers caused by the unforeseen lapse of the federal estate tax in 2010. Florida has now joined the club with passage of two new pieces of legislation: 733.1051 (governing wills), and 736.04114 (governing trusts). This White Paper does a good job of explaining the reasoning behind the new legislation.
Most states enacted simple one-size-fits-all statutes. The upside to this approach is that it’s less expensive to implement. Here’s how these statutes were described in the Forbes piece:
Most of the new emergency laws would set a default rule for interpreting wills and trusts while the federal estate tax is repealed, if the document itself doesn’t spell one out. The rule: Any tax terms or formulas should be read as if the estate tax law of 2009 were still in effect. The proposed emergency laws also typically include a backstop provision allowing any potential beneficiary or executor to go to court, within a year from the date of death, if he or she doesn’t think that this default is what the deceased really wanted.
The downside to the one-size-fits-all approach is that saving court costs is given priority over ensuring the testator’s intent is followed. Maybe the testator knew exactly what would happen if he died in 2010 and intended that outcome? A one-size-fits all statute could essentially strip this testator of his testamentary freedom.
Florida didn’t adopt a one-size-fits-all statute, opting instead for a more nuanced approach aimed at determining the testator’s probable intent from all of the facts and circumstances. If your primary goal is effectuating testator intent, Florida’s approach makes sense. But it comes at a cost: Florida’s legislation makes it impossible to avoid the time and expense of a judicial construction proceeding. Here’s how the Forbes piece described Florida’s approach:
One renegade state–Florida–is proposing to send folks with ambiguous documents to court from the start to determine the deceased’s intent, instead of assuming the deceased wanted to follow the estate tax law of 2009. The court could consider outside evidence, such as the estate attorney’s testimony. The proposed law would allow estate assets to be used to pay for this proceeding and says that heirs might have to wait for distributions pending the outcome of the court’s decision.