Estate Planning

The Ohio legislature has approved a repeal of the Ohio estate tax, but the tax will remain in effect for another 18 months.  The new law removes the Ohio estate tax obligation for any person who dies on or after January 1, 2013.  Governor Kasich signed the provision into law on June 30, 2011 as part of the state's budget package.  The final version of the repeal differed from the language proposed earlier this year in H.B. 3, which proposed ending the estate tax as of January 1, 2011 (see our earlier post).

A bill introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives proposes a complete repeal of the Ohio estate tax.  Representatives Grossman and Hottinger introduced H.B. 3 on January 11, 2011. The bill is simple:  it amends the estate tax provisions currently in Ohio law to state that the tax provisions apply only to estates of persons who died before January 1, 2011. Regardless of when the bill would become effective, persons dying after January 1, 2011 would not be subject to the estate tax. The bill also removes the estate tax return filing requirement for estates of persons dying after the January 1, 2011 date. 

The Ohio estate tax is a graduated tax on a person's gross taxable estate, less deductions and exemptions.  An estate valued at less than $338,333 pays no tax due to credits and exemptions included in the law.  Estates between the value of $338,334 and $500,000 pay a 6% estate tax while estates over $500,000 in value owe a 7% estate tax.  The state receives 20% of the estate tax revenue and the local government of the decedent's residence receives the remaining 80% of the tax.  Ohio is one of 17 states that have an estate tax.

How is agriculture affected by the Ohio estate tax?  It's not uncommon for a farm estate to be valued at the taxable threshold of $338,334.  However, qualifying farm properties that elect the special use valuation option in the estate tax law can further reduce the taxable amount of the estate up to an additional $500,000.  The special use valuation election provides that qualifying farmland will be valued at the lesser Current Agricultural Use Valuation amount; qualifications for the election relate to keeping the farm in the family.  Sound planning and proper use of special use valuation thus can reduce the Ohio estate tax burden for farms that intend to continue the farm business after the loss of an active farm family member.

The idea to repeal the estate tax is not a new one; several prior attempts have not met with success.  A bill identical to current H.B. 3 was proposed last year, but the bill never made it out of the House Ways and Means committee.   Will the change in Ohio's elected officials yield different results?  The current House Ways and Means committee will hear sponsor testimony on the H.B. 3 at its hearing on January 26, 2011.View H.B. 3 here.

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Since 2000, Ohio law has allowed property owners to avoid the probate process with a transfer on death deed, a deed that automatically transfers real property to a designated beneficiary upon the death of the property owner.   Under a new Ohio law, such transfers now require the preparation of an affidavit rather than a transfer on death deed.  The new law also allows those who hold "survivorship rights" in property to transfer their rights upon death, which the previous law prohibited. 

The changes occurred in S.B. 124, which became effective upon the governor's signature on December 28, 2009.  The Ohio State Bar Association's Real Property Law Section proposed the changes to simplify the transfer on death process and remove confusion over the rights of those holding survivorship deeds. 

See the bill and its changes to Ohio Revised Code Chapter 5302  here.     The Legislative Service Commission's analysis of S.B. 124 is available here.   Visit this website for a good summary of the law.

One “trust mill” is on its way out of Ohio, thanks to a recent ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court.  On October 14, 2009, the Court issued a hefty $6.4 million penalty against American Family Prepaid Legal Corp. and its affiliate, Heritage Marketing and Insurance Services, Inc.   The Court barred the companies from doing business in Ohio. The California-based companies targeted elderly Ohioans by offering a full array of estate planning services that would allegedly minimize estate probate costs.  Non-attorney salespeople contacted elderly persons and marketed a $1,995 prepaid estate plan, which essentially amounted to one living trust.  Upon delivery of the living trust to client homes, the salespersons also marketed insurance products.  The sales were high-pressure, according to the Court.  Credit must be given to the Columbus Bar Association for pursuing the case.  After receiving repeated complaints about the companies, the CBA investigated and determined that the companies were condoning the unauthorized practice of law.  While an attorney in California drafted the trust documents, non-attorney salespersons interacted with the clients, provided legal information, and answered legal questions. The Supreme Court had no sympathy for the companies and their sales scheme, and accurately described the “trust mill” issue that causes much frustration and concern in the legal profession.  Said the court:

"A living-trust package is often not needed and may even be harmful for persons who are without significant assets, who have simple estates, or whose estates may need court supervision.  A basic living-trust package...may even be insufficient and completely inappropriate for those having more substantial assets and who may need specific legal advice and even tax advice to meet their needs. ... [t]hese enterprises, in which the laypersons associate with licensed practitioners in various minimally distinguishable ways as a means to superficially legitimize sales of living-trust packages, are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law...by facilitating such sales, licensed lawyers violate professional standards of competence and ethics."

A misfortune of the case is that the companies have declared bankruptcy and ceased operations.  The Columbus Bar Association is exploring whether it can collect the fine from another insurance company owned by the father-son team behind the defunct companies.  The CBA hopes to distribute any amounts it collects back to victims of the trust scam.  To read the court's opinion, visit here.

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