Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Will James Brown’s Estate Finally Be Settled after 15 Years?

The South Carolina Supreme Court in June finally began sorting out the litigation that has been part of Brown’s estate since his death. The court held that Brown was never legally married to his fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, because she had not annulled a previous marriage.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Might The Battle Over James Brown’s Estate Finally Be Coming To A Close After Nearly 15 Years” explains that the court’s decision weakens her claim to the estate. The estate has been valued to be worth between $5 million and $100 million. It’s the first real move forward in years. According to The New York Times, “the Supreme Court instructed the lower court to “promptly proceed with the probate of Brown’s estate in accordance with his estate plan,” which called for the creation of a charitable trust to help educate poor children.”

South Carolina law stipulates that Hynie, as Brown’s widow, would have had the right to a third of his estate’s value, no matter what his will instructed.

Hynie was married in 2001 to Javed Ahmed, a Pakistani man who already had three wives in his native country. Her lawyers argued that since Ahmed was a bigamist, their marriage was void. South Carolina’s lower courts agreed, holding that her marriage to Brown was valid.

However, the South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed. “All marriages contracted while a party has a living spouse are invalid, unless the party’s first marriage has been ‘declared void’ by an order of a competent court,” the Court explained.

Hynie’s counsel will be filing “a petition to reconsider and rehear the decision.”

Hynie is entitled as spouse to a share of Brown’s valuable music copyrights under federal law. She has already settled part of her dispute with the estate, agreeing to give 65% of any proceeds from her so-called termination rights—copyrights that, though once sold, can return to the songwriter or his heirs after several decades—to charity.

Brown’s will had bequeathed $2 million for scholarships for his grandchildren. The will said that his costumes and other household effects were to go to six of his children, and the remainder of the estate was to go to the charitable trust for the poor, called the “I Feel Good Trust.”

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruling is significant, because Brown’s 2000 will said, “Any heirs who challenged it would be disinherited. However, several of his children and grandchildren sued after his death,” notes The New York Times.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 20, 2020) “Might The Battle Over James Brown’s Estate Finally Be Coming To A Close After Nearly 15 Years”

Should I Create an LLC for Estate Planning?

If you want to transfer assets to your children, grandchildren or other family members but are worried about gift taxes or the weight of estate taxes your beneficiaries will owe upon your death, a LLC can help you control and protect assets during your lifetime, keep assets in the family and lessen taxes owed by you or your family members.

Investopedia’s article entitled “Using an LLC for Estate Planning” explains that a LLC is a legal entity in which its owners (called members) are protected from personal liability in case of debt, lawsuit, or other claims. This shields a member’s personal assets, like a home, automobile, personal bank account or investments.

Creating a family LLC with your children lets you effectively reduce the estate taxes your children would be required to pay on their inheritance. A LLC also lets you distribute that inheritance to your children during your lifetime, without as much in gift taxes. You can also have the ability to maintain control over your assets.

In a family LLC, the parents maintain management of the LLC, and the children or grandchildren hold shares in the LLC’s assets. However, they don’t have management or voting rights. This lets the parents purchase, sell, trade, or distribute the LLC’s assets, while the other members are restricted in their ability to sell their LLC shares, withdraw from the company, or transfer their membership in the company. Therefore, the parents keep control over the assets and can protect them from financial decisions made by younger members. Gifts of shares to younger members do come with gift taxes. However, there are significant tax benefits that let you give more, and lower the value of your estate.

As far as tax benefits, if you’re the manager of the LLC, and your children are non-managing members, the value of units transferred to them can be discounted quite steeply—frequently up to 40% of their market value—based on the fact that without management rights, LLC units become less marketable.

Your children can now get an advance on their inheritance, but at a lower tax burden than they otherwise would’ve had to pay on their personal income taxes. The overall value of your estate is reduced, which means that there is an eventual lower estate tax when you die. The ability to discount the value of units transferred to your children, also permits you to give them gifts of discounted LLC units. That lets you to gift beyond the current $15,000 gift limit, without having to pay a gift tax.

You can give significant gifts without gift taxes, and at the same time reduce the value of your estate and lower the eventual estate tax your heirs will face.

Speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about a family LLC, since estate planning is already complex. LLC planning can be even more complex and subject you to heightened IRS scrutiny. The regulations governing LLCs vary from state to state and evolve over time. In short, a family LLC is certainly not for everyone and it appropriately should be vetted thoroughly before creating one.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 25, 2019) “Using an LLC for Estate Planning”

Why was Widow of Henry Ford II in a Fight over the Estate?

Henry Ford II’s heirs say that his attorney, Frank Chopin, tried to control their access to Ford’s 80-year-old widow, Kathleen DuRoss Ford.

Her daughters, Kimberly DuRoss and Deborah DuRoss Guibord, alleged that Chopin abused her, by “[forcing] pills down her throat.”

The Wealth Advisor article entitled “Ford Heirs Lose Battle to Oust Mother’s Allegedly Abusive Caregiver” explains that Chopin has power of attorney over the widow’s affair and denies the allegations.

A Palm Beach, Florida judge denied their request to have Chopin removed as her caregiver. It was a decision that left her daughters, grandchildren and even her 82-year-old sister, Sharon, distraught.

Tara DuRoss, a 23-year-old granddaughter of Ford’s, said that Chopin had restricted her time with her relatives. They were forced to scheduled conference calls and meetings away from her home. However, the calls then stopped.

“I used to call her every day. We just want to be able … to see her.”

Chopin said that it is untrue that Tara spoke to Kathleen daily. He called her an “idiot child,” and said the family was “estranged,” unless “they wanted something.”

Kathleen DuRoss Ford passed away on May 9.

Henry Ford II was also known as “HF2” or “Hank the Deuce.” He was the eldest son of Edsel Ford and eldest grandson of Henry Ford of the leading family in the American automotive industry.

After his death from pneumonia in 1987, DuRoss Ford was involved in a public fight over the fate of the estate, which was then thought to be at least $350 million. The legal battle eventually settled, and she received an annual allowance that was worth millions of dollars.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (March 31, 2020). “Ford Heirs Lose Battle to Oust Mother’s Allegedly Abusive Caregiver”

Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

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