Monday, June 14, 2010

Confusion Over the Dormant Estate Tax Keeps Advisers Busy


The disappearance of the federal estate tax this year has created confusion and frustration among the wealthy, even among those who stand to benefit from it. And this has sent them in droves to amend documents that they may have to change again next year.

Steven H. Goodman, an accountant and financial planner in Melville, N.Y., says he has not had a meeting recently without clients asking him what they need to do this year and for 2011, when the tax is set to return at a higher rate than when it expired. Yet for all the business this has brought his firm, the SHG Financial Group, Mr. Goodman says he is not happy. “It’s a pain in the neck,” he said. “Even though I do this for a living, no one likes to do this.”

Those who work with the extremely rich say they, too, have been exceedingly busy, but for a different reason. The wealthiest are looking to take advantage of a short-term trust that allows people to pass money to heirs tax-free — what’s known as a grantor retained annuity trust — out of fear that the federal government could change the terms of these trusts. Cheryl E. Hader, a partner in the individual clients group at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, said she set up 30 of these trusts last month, up from six in a normal month. Daniel L. Kesten, a partner in the private client group at Davis & Gilbert, a law firm in New York, said he was working nights and weekends last month setting up the same type of trusts.

How this boon to tax advisers happened is yet another chapter in the partisan gridlock common to Washington these days. At the end of 2009, Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, tried to extend for three months the existing estate tax laws, put in place in 2001. But when that motion failed, the estate tax expired for the first time since 1916.

What this has meant is that the heirs of wealthy people who die this year will owe no taxes. An extreme case, as detailed in an article in The New York Times on Tuesday, is that of Dan L. Duncan, who died two months ago with an estimated wealth of $9 billion. His heirs will inherit his estate without paying the 45 percent tax that was in effect in 2009, billions that would have gone to the Treasury.

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