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Estate Taxes

Surprise, You've Been Disinherited

There's another possible unintended consequence of the estate tax hiatus: accidentally disinheriting your heirs. That's because one traditional way of writing wills was to specify that a sum equal to the legal tax exemption ($3.5 million last year) would go to the kids, either directly or through a trust. It was a tax-savvy way of divvying up estates. With no estate tax for 2010, however, the exemption is essentially unlimited. If the exemption is unlimited that means there's no longer any divvying up of the estate, and wills written this way could unintentionally disinherit beneficiaries. "The question is, does the will still mean what you want it to mean? Frequently, the answer is no," says Michael Gooen, an estate attorney at Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, N.J. To avoid such a fight, estate attorneys suggest that people, especially the elderly or ill, review their wills and rework them to clarify their meaning in a year without estate tax. That might mean specifying a maximum dollar amount that goes to the kids rather than relying on the exemption as the implicit amount, or making changes to the structure of the trusts. "People have to put Band-Aids on their wills," says Christopher Zander, a partner at Evercore Wealth Management.

Amy feldman photo
Feldman is an associate editor with Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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