Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Be Careful If You Are An Executor For An Estate

I infrequently see estate returns. Granted, the fact that one does not need to file a federal estate return until one’s taxable estate exceeds $5,250,000 has a lot to do with it. Ohio has also helped by eliminating its estate tax, which used to apply with estates as low as $338,000. Some practitioners call this the “estate estate” return, as one is being taxed for owning property.

Then there is the estate “fiduciary” return. If you consider the estate return as a snapshot of one’s net worth at death, then the estate fiduciary is the income that net worth throws off until assets are finally transferred out of the estate and to the heirs.

One can have a sizeable estate and have no estate fiduciary return. How? Simple. One way is for the assets to transfer independent of a will, such as by joint ownership or by beneficiary designation. For example, a house owned jointly with a spouse will transfer automatically and without intervention of a probate judge. The same goes for IRAs with designated beneficiaries.

We have seen several times this year an estate with an estate fiduciary issue, although no “estate estate” return was required. What caused it? The deceased did not designate a beneficiary for his/her 401(k) at work or IRA outside work. The default is that the 401(k) or IRA goes to the estate. The attorney then holds up distributing cash because of other issues, such as bickering heirs.

Remember: the estate is filing an income tax return, the same as you are next month. An accountant has some discretion over picking the estate’s taxable year, but we cannot make its annual tax filings magically go away. If the estate gets that 401(k) and parks on it, it also gets the tax consequence of a 401(k): that is, there is tax due. There is no difference in tax because it goes to an estate rather than to you.

An estate – like a trust – however is an odd tax animal, as it can “give away” its taxable income. You and I cannot (for the most part) do that. It does so by distributing cash to the heirs, and any taxable income attaches to the cash like a bad cold.  

The estate wants to distribute cash the same year as it receives the 401(k). Why? To pull the income out of the estate fiduciary. Granted, this shifts the income to the heirs, but then again they received the cash.

We were dangerously close in a couple of cases where the attorney was delaying distributing cash and running out of days remaining in the estate tax year.

Then there is the worst-case scenario: the probate takes several years and the attorney holds up distributions until issues are resolved. The attorney finally sends the paperwork to the accountant, who is now reviewing transactions from years before. There is no planning possible. It is too late.

Let’s say that the estate received $700,000 of IRA proceeds in 2012.

The estate finally closed probate in 2014. Perhaps it was held up because of real estate. The attorney writes checks all around, holding back just enough money to pay the accountant.

And the accountant clues the attorney that the estate had tax on the IRA in 2012. So what, says the attorney; he/she made distributions to the heirs. Don’t distributions pull income with them?

Well, yes, but in the same taxable year. 2012 is not the same taxable year as 2014. The estate was supposed to pay tax for 2012. The heirs would like this result, as there would be no tax to them upon distribution in 2014.

But there is no cash left in the estate, says the attorney. What is the downside?

I am looking at U.S. v Shriner, a District Court case from Maryland. The facts are not complicated:

·       Mrs. Shriner passed away in June 2004.
·       She had failed to file income tax returns for 1997 and years 2000 through 2003.
·       The executors (Robert and Scott Shriner) hired a law firm to sort it out.
·       The law firm did and filed tax returns.
·       The IRS informed the law firm that over $230,000 was due in taxes.
·       The estate distributed over $470,000 to Robert and Scott, meaning that …
·       … the estate did not have enough cash to pay the IRS.

Robert and Scott were in trouble. They distributed assets of the estate, rendering it insolvent and unable to pay its taxes. They had better get the Court to believe that they did not know this would happen – and they could not have known this. They however failed to do so. The result? They were personally liable for the tax.

Wait a minute, you say. You mean that someone – let’s say you – could be liable because someone distributed estate assets to you, rendering the estate insolvent? How could you possibly know that?

No. What I am saying is that - if you are the executor and distribute assets in sufficient amount to leave the estate insolvent – you will be personally liable. You are the executor. You are supposed to know these things.

Combine that outcome with above-discussed tax due on a previous year IRA distribution. I have little doubt the attorney was writing distribution checks shortly after our conversation.

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