Most parents I talk to want to divide their estate equally among their heirs, but sometimes things just don’t work out that way. That’s especially the case when one child needs more help than another. Therefore, what parents will often do is count the gifts they make during their lifetime as advances against a child’s future inheritance. This doesn’t always go smoothly, says the article “Lifetime advances of inheritances” from California’s Lake County News.
Equalizing distributions to some children to offset any substantial distributions made to offset the total distribution can lead to trouble, if certain legal requirements are not addressed. Virginia law doesn’t spell out a lot of rules on this. Parents can decide how to equalize their estates (or not) in their estate planning documents. Some states are more specific, howver. In California, for instance, there are three different approaches in which lifetime distributions are counted as advances of inheritances at death:
- The instrument provides for deduction of the lifetime gift from the at-death transfer
- The transferor declares in a contemporaneous writing that the gift is in satisfaction of the at-death transfer or that its value is to be deducted from the value of the at-death transfer and
- The transferee acknowledges in writing that the gift is in satisfaction of the at-death transfer or that its value is to be deducted from the value at the at-death transfer.
In the first example, the decedent’s will, or trust expressly says that lifetime distributions are to be counted against the future inheritance. This could state a specific dollar amount or may refer to a ledger that tracks ongoing lifetime gifting. The ledger approach is often used when a child is dependent upon a parent for ongoing support, paying off school loans or paying a mortgage.
The second example, which involves a written record of the gift, was the subject of a recent state appellate court decision. The deceased father kept track of all monetary gifts to his children. The father’s bookkeeper maintained a spreadsheet and was told by the father that the list was important, so that the payments would be deducted from inheritances. At the father’s death, the son had received more than $450,000 more than the daughter. The son contested the daughter’s request for equalizing the inheritance based on the ledger. The appellate court stated that the ledger met the requirements to serve as a contemporaneous written record. The court also found that the permanent ledger was property authenticated and entered into evidence, based on the daughter’s testimony that she found the ledger among her father’s papers and that it was written in her father’s handwriting.
In the third scenario, where there was a written acknowledgment by the person receiving the “advance” that the money was in satisfaction of the at-death transfer, the court found that the requirement was satisfied and the son had acknowledged that the assets given to him were advances on his inheritance.
A better scenario, and one that would have prevented some, if not all, of the litigation described above, would be to have estate planning documents that clearly state whether any disproportionate lifetime gifting to beneficiaries is to be offset with equalizing payments to the other beneficiaries at death. And don’t overlook how insurance or IRA disgnations will impact your overall distribution plan. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the best plan if your heirs need financial support, following the laws of your state.
Reference: Lake County News (March 14, 2020) “Lifetime advances of inheritances”