The New Jersey Appellate Division recently issued its opinion in Estate of Van Riper v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, No. A-3024-16T4 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 3, 2018), upholding the Tax Court’s finding that the full fair market value of a marital home transferred to a trust was subject to New Jersey Inheritance Tax.  The case highlights the importance of understanding the effect of transferring property into trusts for estate planning and tax purposes.

A husband and wife transferred their home into an irrevocable trust and retained the right to live in the home until the death of the survivor.  Any assets remaining after their deaths were to be distributed to their niece.  It appears that this trust was created in connection with Medicaid planning.  The NJ Tax Court held that, due to the fact that the couple retained a life interest in the property and delayed their niece’s enjoyment of it until both their deaths, the value of the home in the trust was subject to Inheritance Tax.  Estate of Van Riper v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 30 N.J. Tax 1 (2017).  

On appeal, the Estate argued that each spouse held only one-half ownership interest in the property at the time they transferred it to the trust, so the Inheritance Tax should only apply to one-half of the value of the home.  The appellate court upheld the assessment of the full value of the home because the couple owned the property as “tenants by the entirety,” meaning they each “held an interest in the entire estate, not fifty-percent interests.”  Van Riper, slip op. at 8-9.  This reasoning was further supported by the fact that at the first spouse’s death no Inheritance Tax was paid on the property as it qualified as an exempt transfer from husband to wife under New Jersey law.  See N.J.S.A. 54:34-2(a)(1).

This cautionary tale warns New Jersey taxpayers of the complications that may arise from retaining interest in property during one’s lifetime, even if such property has been placed in an irrevocable trust.  It is strongly advised that taxpayers seek the assistance of an estate planning attorney to better understand the tax and other consequences of certain planning techniques.