This article was published by Deborah L. Jacobs, Forbes Staff,
featuring Bernard A. Krooks, Esq., Littman Krooks LLP
I’m in Orlando this week at the Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning, the annual Super Bowl on the subject sponsored by University of Miami School of Law. This is the fourteenth consecutive year that I have attended the conference, geared to lawyers, accountants and insurance agents who cater to high net worth clients. For many of them, it’s the end of an era.
The sea change came on New Year’s day with the passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Tax Act Of 2012 or ATRA. In less than three pages in that 157-page law, Congress put to rest much of the uncertainty that has plagued wealthy taxpayers for the past dozen years. (For a summary of the changes, see my post “After The Fiscal Cliff Deal: Estate And Gift Tax Explained.”)
That uncertainty has fueled a lucrative business for estate planners as the amount that their clients could transfer to subsequent generations tax-free kept threatening to drop, but only went up, as noted here. With the fiscal cliff looming at the end of 2012 it reached a high frenzy as lawyers worked overtime during the holiday season to set up trusts and fund them with gifts that made maximum use of what was then the $5.12 million per person tax-free amount.
As it happened, ATRA did not change how much you can pass tax-free–during life or at death. On Jan. 11 the IRS announced that, with the inflation adjustment, that amount will be $5.25 million in 2013 ($10.50 million for married couples).
As a result, far fewer people need to worry about estate tax. And that means lawyers who work in this field must plot their next career moves.
“We are tired and numb,” says Alan Gassman, a Clearwater, Fla. lawyer attending the conference who says he set up more than 20 trusts during the last three months of 2012 — more than he had done the whole year up until then.
“You go from having more work than you ever dreamed you can do to wondering ‘is anyone going to love me this year,’” says Gassman–a sentiment expressed by other lawyers at the conference. Clients are calling to ask if they did the right thing, he and others say. They’re concerned about whether they will have enough for themselves long-term and whether they gave too much away.
How to deal with donor’s remorse will be a topic of discussion later this week, and I will be reporting about it in this space. Other residual work for lawyers in 2013 will include preparing gift tax returns for 2012 gifts, which are due on April 15.
Inevitably the gift tax audits will begin in 2014, as the Internal Revenue Service challenges some of the cute text tricks used to leverage or pack even more into the lifetime exemption amount–tax tricks that dominated the program at this conference in past years. But looking ahead there is clearly less work to be done. During a panel discussion on recent developments yesterday, Dennis I. Belcher, a lawyer in Richmond, Va., said his firm plans to engage in “strategic planning.”
One potential growth area is the field of elder law, which deals not just with the subject of asset transfer, but also with the quality of life as people age over a period that, given improved medical care and increasing life expectancies, may extend for 20 to 30 years. It was the subject of a three-hour “fundamentals” program yesterday — a time slot that at past conferences has been devoted to subjects like planning for closely held businesses; and ways to achieve valuation discounts before transferring assets during life.
Yesterday’s well attended session featured two elder law trailblazers: Lawrence A. Frolik, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, and Bernard A. Krooks, a lawyer with Littman Krooks in New York. In an interview, Krooks noted that for much of his career “this was the estate planning that no one wanted to do.” Now he’s a marquee name at prestigious conferences like this one.
Afterwards, lawyers come up to him and talk about issues they’re having in their own families, Krooks says. “They might not know a lot of people who have $5 million to give away, but everyone knows someone who’s old and sick.”