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.

There have been sweeping changes to both the federal and New Jersey tax laws for the first half of 2018.  At the federal level, the elimination of the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, which for decades allowed people to itemize and deduct state and local income and property taxes from their federal bill is now being capped at $10,000.

It has been widely publicized that residents of states with high SALT such as New York and New Jersey will pay much more in overall taxes than those residents of states with no income and/or low property taxes. Northeast states attempting to counteract the impact of recent federal tax laws by forming associations to sue Washington or disguising property taxes as charitable contributions are seemingly ineffective solutions.  To compound the impact of the SALT limitation, New Jersey has recently increased its highest marginal rate to 10.75% for those families with income in excess of $5 million, enacted laws to impose a surtax on carried interests and increased corporate business tax rates.  For more details concerning New Jersey recent tax law changes, see our previous blog post here.

As the 2019 tax season gets underway, high net worth residents of New Jersey and New York will find significant increases in their annual state tax bills. Accountants should be the first to anticipate client questions as to whether a change in residency to states such as Florida could alleviate this increased state tax burden and to what extent state tax savings can be achieved while continuing to own a residence in New Jersey or New York.

The short answer is yes. A well counseled client who becomes a permanent resident of Florida can spend significant time in New Jersey and/or New York and maintain a residence here, but successfully avoid state taxes on non-New Jersey and New York source income. On the other hand, snowbirds, spending three to five months in Florida and the balance of their time in New Jersey / New York face serious exposure, including an audit resulting in an additional assessment of tax, interest and penalties by filing a non-resident return or no state tax return without meeting the statutory requirements for non-residency status.

There are many considerations in changing permanent residence from New York or New Jersey to a tax friendly state such as Florida in an effort to escape the harsh effects of these new tax laws. Aside from feasibility issues — such as whether telecommuting is a viable option and whether children and spouses are amenable to relocating — there needs to be a thorough tax analysis before making that decision to relocate as to whether: (i) changing residence will necessarily reduce state income tax (i.e., is the income sourced in New Jersey or New York); and (ii) if so, to maximize the level of preparedness in anticipation for what will likely be a residency audit from the New York and/or New Jersey tax authorities.

New York has one of the most sophisticated residency audit programs in the country.  New Jersey is also expected to ramp up its program in light of the most recent changes to its tax laws.  The purpose of a residency audit is to determine whether you correctly filed your non-resident or part-year resident income tax return or if no return is filed in the years immediately following a move outside of the state.  The likelihood of a residency audit is particularly high during the first year in which an individual files a non-resident tax return or no return at all.

Once audited, in making the determination of whether an individual is resident of New York or New Jersey, the auditor will first determine whether an individual is domiciled in New York or New Jersey.

If the auditor is persuaded a taxpayer has successfully changed his or her domicile from New York or New Jersey to a different state, that person can still be taxed as a “statutory resident” if he or she maintains living quarters in New York or New Jersey for substantially all of the year and spends more than 183 days in that state.

In a residency audit, the auditor will request EZ-Pass records, cell phone records, calendars, credit card and bank account statements along with travel records.

In addition, the auditor may also request utility bills, vehicle registration and voting registration in an effort to determine how strong your ties are to a specific location and whether you sufficiently abandoned your former domicile.

More intrusive steps may be taken when the auditor is not satisfied with the information that he or she has received and can even subpoena your records from third parties or depose you and/or your family members. If it is determined that you are a resident of a New York or New Jersey and you did not properly file a resident return, in addition to an assessment of unpaid tax, there can be substantial penalties and interest.  For example, in New York, the penalty for late filing is 5% of the tax due for each month (or part of a month) that the return is late, up to a maximum of 25%.  And the penalty for late payment is 0.5% of the unpaid amount for each month (or part of a month) it is not paid, up to a maximum of 25%.  New Jersey also imposes similar penalties for failure to file and failure to pay tax along with interest charges.

If you are a resident of New York or New Jersey and you are considering changing your residency (whether tax motivated or otherwise), it is important that you seek the advice of an experienced SALT counsel to fully understand the potential benefits, feasibility and most importantly, how to effectively prepare for what will likely be a residency audit twelve to eighteen months after you file a New York or New Jersey non-resident return or no state tax return.

While success in crypto-currency investing is far from assured, death, sadly, is.  Accordingly, it is vital that investors in Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are prepared for the unique estate planning factors that apply to digital assets.  The following are five estate planning factors that should be addressed immediately by crypto-currency investors to ensure that their digital assets are effectively passed on to their heirs or beneficiaries.

  1. Custody of Private Keys and Other Information to Access Digital Assets

Unlike bank accounts which can be accessed post-mortem, digital assets typically require a variety of private information to be accessed.  This information (and an investor’s digital assets) may be lost forever if an investor fails to record it or share it with a trusted third party before they die.  To avoid this, it is crucial that investors physically record the following private access information and provide for custody of this information in their will:

  • Private Key: Most crypto-currencies use a public-private key system to ensure that transactions are valid.  While the public key is made public every time the investor buys or sells crypto-currency, only the investor knows the private key.  Private keys are essential to verify ownership and access digital assets, and should be recorded.  Gaining access to a private key is similar to gaining ownership of a bank account, so it is vital that private keys are kept safe.  Creating a physical copy of your private key and securing it in a bank safety deposit box insulates your private key from hacking and may provide the safest means to protect it.
  • Passwords: Crypto-currencies are traded on online platforms commonly known as exchanges.  Investors that fail to secure their digital assets in hardware wallets (see below) typically have their crypto-currencies stored on default digital wallets provided by an exchange.  It is important that the username, password, and security question information for exchanges be recorded to retrieve digital assets from exchange wallets.
  • Two-Factor Authentication: Many crypto-currency exchanges also require that investors use two-factor authentication to authenticate their identity when accessing their account and transferring digital assets.  Two-factor authentication is typically accomplished via a mobile application that provides a unique code to be entered into the exchange.  Investors who use two-factor authentication should record their username, password, and security question information.
  1. Custody of Hardware Wallets

Once Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are purchased on an exchange, they are automatically stored on that exchange’s default wallet where they can be accessed electronically by the investor.  Digital wallets, especially those used by exchanges, are susceptible to hacking. Investors should transfer their digital assets to a hardware wallet.  Hardware wallets can be purchased online and are, generally, encrypted flash drives that require a password to be accessed.  Investors and their heirs may lose their digital assets if their hardware wallet is lost or damaged.  Investors should record the password and other access information for their hardware wallets, and provide for custody of the information and the wallet itself in their will.

  1. New Jersey Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

In 2017, New Jersey enacted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “Act”).  The Act generally enables individuals to appoint a fiduciary to manage their “digital assets”, broadly defined as electronic records.  Under the Act, electronic records include account information for online exchanges.  Unfortunately, while the Act authorizes a fiduciary to access a deceased investor’s exchange account, it fails to consider that the private key – the essential information to remove digital assets from a digital wallet – is not available to exchanges.  Moreover, the Act’s limited applicability to electronic records may exclude its applicability to hardware wallets.

  1. Fiduciaries under Power of Attorney and Will

Under a well drafted Power of Attorney, an agent, appointed by the principal, is given the power to manage the principal’s assets and make investment decisions on behalf of the principal.  Depending on how the document is drafted, the powers granted under the Power of Attorney can either be effective immediately upon execution or only effective upon the disability or incapacity of the principal.  Having such a document avoids the necessity of asking the court to appoint someone as the principal’s guardian if he or she cannot manage his or her own affairs.

Among other things, the executor of an estate is tasked with distributing the property of the decedent in accordance with the decedent’s will.

In the context of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, it may be necessary for the agent under a Power of Attorney or the executor of an estate to have control over these assets.  As such, it is critical that an owner of crypto-currency have a well drafted Power of Attorney and Will, specifically providing the agent with authority over the crypto-currency assets and the necessary information to access such assets.

  1. Estate Planning with Crypto-Currencies

The federal estate tax is based on the value of one’s assets less liabilities at one’s date of death and is imposed at a rate of 40%.  One important exception that is critical to understanding how the federal estate tax works involves the estate and gift tax exemption.  This exemption is the amount that one can transfer to anyone during one’s lifetime or at death without incurring a gift or estate tax.  In 2018, the exemption is $11.18 and this amount will be indexed annually for inflation until 2026, when the exemption amount is scheduled to revert to $5.49 million, with an adjustment for inflation.

For wealthier owners of crypto-currency assets, implementing certain estate planning techniques in order to remove the value of these assets from his or her estate could be highly beneficial.  One such technique would be the creation of a limited liability company (“LLC”), funding the LLC with crypto-currency assets, and then gifting most of the economic value of the LLC to a family trust.

The gift would use a portion of the owner’s federal gift tax exemptions and thus no federal gift tax would be due.  Additionally, if the LLC is created with voting and non-voting membership interests and only the non-voting interests are transferred to the family trust, the value of the gift could be discounted for gift and estate tax purposes.  Moreover, all future appreciation on the value of the LLC interests gifted would accrue outside of the transferor’s taxable estate.

Investors in crypto-currencies are at risk of losing their assets at death unless they plan ahead.  Following these five factors and speaking to an estate planning attorney versed in crypto-currencies will help ensure that digital assets are effectively passed to heirs or beneficiaries.

The New Jersey Tax Court recently released its opinion in Estate of Ruth Oberg, NJ Tax Court, Docket No 000240 (October 24, 2017), upholding the Division of Taxation’s assessment of additional New Jersey estate tax.  The case provides some important reminders about doing proper estate planning.

The estate in this case had a date of death value of $3.1 million and an alternate valuation date value of $2.1 million.  The estate claimed the alternate valuation date on its New Jersey estate tax return.  Unfortunately for the estate, however, the return was filed almost four years after the decedent’s death.  The judge agreed with the Division of Taxation that the return was filed too late to be able to claim the alternate valuation date.

The decedent also had made an undocumented loan to her daughter.  The estate claimed that the loan was a self-cancelling installment note (“SCIN”) and therefore was cancelled at death.  The court, emphasizing the difficulties of proving that an undocumented loan was actually a SCIN, found that the decedent had an interest in the loan at her death, and it was includible in her estate.  The court also found that the Division of Taxation was not bound by the IRS closing letter issued in the estate where the federal estate tax return was accepted as filed.

This is a classic “failure to plan” case.  If the decedent had properly documented the loan, and if the estate tax return had been filed on time, the additional estate tax assessed in the case could have been avoided.

The IRS has withdrawn the controversial proposed regulations under Code §2704 that would have significantly affected the use of discounts in US estate planning.

Code §2704 provides that certain “applicable restrictions” on ownership interests in family entities – that is, entities where the transferor and family members control the entity – should be disregarded for valuation purposes.  The proposed regulations created new rules relating to a lapse of a liquidation right.  They also created a class of restrictions known as “Disregarded Restrictions” that included many common types of restrictions in business entities and would be ignored for gift and estate tax valuation purposes.  See our prior blog post on this topic.

The effect of the proposed regulations appeared to be that they would eliminate or greatly restrict minority interest and lack of marketability discounts that are commonly applied in gift and estate tax valuations (resulting in higher valuations).  The regulations were very controversial from the moment they were issued.  Among other things, commentators said the regulations were unclear and unrealistic.

Treasury and the IRS have stated that they now believe that the approach of the proposed regulations to valuation discounts is unworkable.  The IRS issued a notice (Notice 2017-38) that it was reviewing the proposed regulations as unduly complex or overly burdensome, and has now withdrawn the proposed regulations.