Handling Bank Account Funds in an Estate

How you handle bank accounts, like any other asset owned by a deceased individual, depends on how they were owned. Here are a few scenarios in which funds are handled and how one may go about handling them under certain circumstances. 

Handling Bank Funds in an Estate

Solely Owned Bank Accounts 

If the deceased individual owned the account in his or her own name and did not identify a payable-on-death beneficiary, the account will certainly be subject to probate. Probate is the legal process that takes place after the death of an individual to make sure that their assets are properly collected and distributed to the appropriate beneficiaries by the appointed executor. If the deceased left behind an estate plan, identifying their beneficiaries is as simple as reading the will; if not, their assets will be distributed according to New York’s intestate succession laws. However, if the total amount of probate assets is low enough to count as a "small estate" under state law, the rightful heirs will be allowed to claim the money using either streamlined probate processes or an affidavit.

Accounts with a Payable-on-death Beneficiary

These are the straightforward ones: because the money is still not part of the deceased person's probate estate, you do not have any control over it as executor. 

The money can be claimed by the beneficiary specified by the deceased individual by visiting the bank with a death certificate and identification. The paperwork in which the account owner chose the POD recipient should be kept with the bank.

Jointly Owned Accounts 

In most situations, if a deceased individual has a joint account with another individual, the surviving co-owner becomes the account's owner immediately. To be transferred to a survivor, the account does not need to go through probate.

The Right of Survivorship

There are, however, exceptions to this general norm. The "right of survivorship" applies to most accounts that are held in the names of two individuals, but not all. In other words, if one of the co-owners dies, the money immediately passes to the surviving co-owner. (It typically works in the same manner with retirement funds.) 

Sometimes it may be obvious that the account has a right of survivorship. Suppose the account is named "Lisa Johnson and William Johnson, JTWROS." (Joint tenants with right of survivorship is the acronym.)

It's likely still a joint tenancy account if the account registration document at the bank only includes two names without mentioning joint tenancy or right of survivorship. In Texas, for example, in order to establish a joint tenancy account, the account owners must sign a separate contract in addition to the bank's registration card.

Disputes About What The Deceased Intended 

When two people—say, a married couple—open a joint account, no one will argue that when one of them dies, the assets in the account go to the survivor. When an elderly person adds someone else's name to an existing bank account, the situation may be different.

This is frequently done to avoid probate in the event of the original owner's death. However, the second name is often added only for the sake of convenience—that is, so that the other person may write checks on the account and assist the original owner. Alternatively, the arrangement is meant to provide simple access to the assets to the second person following the original owner's death, so that the funds may be utilized for the burial or other expenditures.

When the original account owner dies, the person whose name was added to the account legally becomes the outright owner of the money. Unless it’s in writing, any previous agreement about how the money should be spent is unenforceable. The money belongs to the new owner, who can spend it on anything he or she wants. If family members are certain that the deceased individual desired a different outcome, they will have a hard time getting the money back from the surviving joint account owner if they go to court.

Bank Accounts Held In Trusts 

Many people put their significant assets in a living trust to avoid having to go through probate later. You'll be able to tell if the deceased individual had a bank account in trust based on the account statements, which will reveal who the account was owned by for example, "Lisa Johnson, trustee of the Lisa Johnson Revocable Living Trust dated September 9, 2003.”. The account, like other trust assets, is managed by the successor trustee, who takes over once the original trustee passes away. The funds will be transferred to whoever inherits them under the provisions of the trust deed by the successor trustee.

The Law Office of Inna Fershteyn can assist you in handling bank account funds in an estate. Please contact us at (718) 333-2394 for an experienced and diligent estate attorney who is familiar with the probate and trusts process.

Passing Assets to Grandchildren Through a Generation–Skipping Trust

While there are numerous ways in which one can pass assets to family members or following generations, a generation-skipping trust allows a beneficiary—or otherwise called a trustor or grantorthe ability to pass all assets onto the next generation by "skipping" the consecutive generation tax–free. This form of trust is most often utilized for relatives who are at least 37.5 years younger than you. They often include a beneficiary such as a friend, grand–child, or niece/nephew (excluding a spouse or ex-spouse).

Generation-Skipping Trusts and Esates

What is a Generation-Skipping Trust?

A generation-skipping trust is an established trust that names a beneficiary who has to be at least 37.5 years younger than the settlor. A generation-skipping trust can be established by a settlor, as part of a complete estate plan to reduce tax obligation. 

A settlor, for example, might leave an inheritance to a grandchild without ever transferring ownership of the assets to the child's parents. The assets flow tax–free to the recipient upon an individual’s death from the consecutive generation.

How a Generation-Skipping Trust Works

Generation-skipping trust laws provide precise requirements for who can be designated as the "skip person," according to the United States Code. According to these laws, the skip person, or beneficiary, must be “a natural person allocated to a generation 2 or more generations below the transferor's generation assignment.”

Three Things to Consider when Creating a Generation-Skipping Trust

  1. First, the federal GST exemption level was raised to $11.4 million in 2019 and $11.58 million in 2020, after being adjusted for inflation. This implies that you are eligible for a lifelong generation-skipping tax exemption on property transfers up to that amount. There are twelve states who additionally have their own inheritance tax, which applies to smaller estates in some cases. When someone leaves an estate to their child, who then leaves the estate to their offspring, the estate taxes are levied twice. One of these transactions and estate tax assessments is avoided by using a generation-skipping trust.
  2. As long as the original assets stay in the trust for the deceased person, there is no restriction prohibiting the following generation from obtaining earnings on assets. The trust can also be set up for them to obtain a voice in future beneficiaries' rights and interests. When your children pass away, the assets will transfer to the beneficiaries.
  3. It is not necessary for the recipient to be blood related. A generation-skipping trust solely requires that the trust is created for a beneficiary who is at least 37 1/2 years younger than the deceased individual.

Generation-Skipping Trust and Taxes

“Congress created the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax and connected all three taxes [estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer taxes] into a single estate and gift tax,” according to the Tax Policy Center, with the objective of eliminating the estate tax loophole.

Accordingly, by moving assets to the trust that falls under the exemption amount, the trust can be established to take advantage of the GST tax exemption. If the assets appreciate in value, the proceeds can be distributed to the trust's beneficiaries. Furthermore, because the trust is unchangeable, your estate will be free from paying GST even if the value of the assets exceeds the exemption limit. This is also true for any asset appreciation because all profits are transferred directly to beneficiaries. This means you will not have to pay the generation-skipping transfer tax if the value of the trust's assets totals to an amount exceeding the exemption maximum.

The estate tax exemption was increased through 2026 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was passed into law in 2017. Because of the large barrier, most people will not be subject to the generation-skipping transfer tax. However, beneficiaries who receive assets in excess of the $11.58 million inflation-indexed exemption would be subject to a 40% top tax rate on the taxable amount.

Gift Tax

The individual gift tax for 2019 was $11.4 million. As a result, you and your spouse will be able to exchange $11.4 million over the course of your lives. Through 2025, the yearly lifetime gift tax exemption has been raised by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The gift tax increased  to $11.58 million per person in 2020.

Determining Whether a Generation-Skipping Trust is Right For You

Since a generation-skipping trust is a complex legal structure, it is a good idea to think about it as soon as possible—preferably when you are starting to plan your retirement.

A generation-skipping trust is an excellent concept for capital preservation if you have a significant estate that is likely to be affected by the federal estate tax, and where, barring any catastrophic circumstances, your children will also have to pay the estate tax. It can also prove to be a sufficient resource in preserving your personal assets to those you wish to desire. Nonetheless, you must keep in mind that trusts are irreversible.

If you are in need of a highly qualified and experienced attorney for advice on how to build a trust, please contact the Law Office of Inna Fershteyn at (718) 333-2394 to have all of your authorization questions answered.