BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — John Formisano’s family has been farming in New Jersey for three generations.
But Formisano, 77, knows that one day, a spring growing season for his 230 acres of lettuce, cabbage, dill and fennel will be his last, so he did some planning to pass on his estate to his son, John.
“If you don’t, the state government will take it all,” he said. “So, that’s all done.”
Formisano also wanted to make sure his family got the best tax treatment on the inheritance, the biggest reason most people turn to experts for estate planning.
“We took care of it. That way, you don’t have to worry about it,” he said.
New Jersey, and the rest of the country, are witnessing the largest transfer of wealth in United States history, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Baby boomers are in the midst of inheriting an estimated $8.4 trillion in accumulated wealth.
About two-thirds of baby boomers expect to receive some inheritance, and half will get the median of $64,000 or more, according to the center’s estimates.
All this makes estate planning especially important for families, said Michael A. James, of Ocean City, an estate planner and managing director at Glenmede Investment and Wealth Management in Philadelphia.
The federal government expanded the inheritance-tax exemption in 2010 to more than $5 million, making it less costly for most Americans to transfer their wealth to their children. But less expensive is not the same as inexpensive, James said. Inherited wealth in excess of $5 million is taxed at 40 percent.
“From a tax standpoint, the perception is there’s a disincentive to do estate planning. But it has actually become more complicated,” he said.
New Jersey has its own estate tax, sometimes disparagingly called a “death tax,” of as much as 16 percent that is assessed on inherited property outside the state, proceeds from life insurance and financial transfers made within three years of the person’s death, among others. This tax — levied on estates valued at more than $675,000 — places an automatic lien on the deceased’s property and must be addressed before the property is sold.
“Taxes are not as big a deal as they used to be now that the federal estate tax kicks in after $5 million,” said Craig Oren, professor at Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, where he teaches courses on estates and trusts. “But there’s a but. And the but is New Jersey’s estate tax, which kicks in at $675,000. That estate tax, although it’s not as high as federal taxes, can affect the planning of many individuals.”
Oren said estate lawyers do much more than simple tax strategy. They help families contend with some of the most difficult decisions a family might face — from living wills to child-custody arrangements.
“For any lawyer, it’s a very satisfying practice,” Oren said. “You have the satisfaction of knowing you helped individuals carry out their plans for what they want to see happen after their deaths.”
There is never a bad time to plan on estate disposition, Oren said. But it’s always a sensitive issue.
“It’s a topic that’s very difficult for many people to think about. So many people die without a will or intestate,” he said. “An estate lawyer has to be very delicate in talking to clients about what they would like to see happen if some sad event occurs.”
Today’s crop of law-school students probably has a bright future in estate planning if they choose it, he said. The baby boomer generation guarantees a huge surge in estate planning over the next couple decades.
“I walk in the first day of class and see all these people. ‘How many of you are simply here because estate and trusts are on the bar exam?’” he said. “As you can imagine, a lot of hands go up.”
But Oren said his advanced course in estate planning has a respectable enrollment.
Glenmede’s James said it has been a rewarding field for him. He took some estate-planning courses while working on his master’s degree in taxation.
“I’m still very passionate about it. It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
And this preparation makes a big difference when the inevitable happens, he said.
Often, clients are motivated by a health scare or the untimely death of a friend or relative, he said.
“Part of it is just an organizational process. I’m trying to get all their affairs in order and we’re struggling because they don’t know where original documents are,” he said. “At least then they won’t have to do any forensic accounting. It’s a huge saver in time and frustration.”
And he tries to carry out the wishes of his clients after they die.
“They want to make sure their daughter gets a ring that their great-great-grandmother had,” he said.
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