Domestic Partnerships & Gay Marriage in Washington State

Registered Washington State Domestic Partners

If you currently have a Washington State domestic partner, here are some key points you should know:

  • If you decide to marry your partner, your domestic partnership will be dissolved on the date of your marriage.
  • If  both of you are younger than age 62, and you decide not to get married – your domestic partnership will be automatically converted into a marriage as of June 30, 2014. An exception exists if you’re in the process of a dissolution, annulment, or legal separation as of that date.
  • If one of you is 62 years of age or older, your relationship will not automatically be converted into a marriage. You can choose whether to get married or to leave your domestic partnership as is. You should seek legal advice when making this choice, to make sure that getting married would not negatively impact you in terms of pension rights, Social Security benefits, etc.

Ability to Access Washington State Marital Deduction

If you have a Washington domestic partnership or gay marriage, and you have tax planning mechanisms in your Will such as a disclaimer trust or a credit shelter trust, the new law will enhance your ability to minimize or avoid Washington estate tax. Specifically, prior to the passage of Referendum 74, Washington domestic partners were scheduled to be able to utilize these tax planning mechanisms, just like Washington heterosexual married couples can, as of January 1, 2014. The good news is that, if you decide to get married, these tax planning benefits can be available to you right now! You don’t need to wait.

If you have any questions about these changes in Washington law, and how they might impact any estate planning documents you presently have in place, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

Federal Marital Tax Deduction

Please note that changes are afoot on a federal level as well! In the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision of United States v. Windsor, Edith Windsor lawfully married her partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada. The couple resided in New York. Upon Ms. Spyer’s death, Ms. Windsor discovered that she owed significant federal estate tax obligations because the federal government did not recognize their relationship for federal estate tax purposes. Ms. Windsor filed suit. Ultimately, the U.S Supreme Court ruled in her favor, determining that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) was unconstitutional in its limitation of the terms “spouse” and “marriage” to heterosexual unions. This decision creates new opportunities for gay and lesbian married couples to do significant federal estate tax planning.

Our office represents gay and lesbian couples in providing comprehensive estate planning services. Our work is designed to reduce the stress and expense of a probate proceeding, and to make sure the intentions of the couple are fully realized.

Washington State Domestic Partners Registration Form and additional information

Gold Mining, Mystery, and … Estate Planning?

What lessons can a novel about gold miners in 19th-century New Zealand teach about estate planning? Quite a few. In The Luminaries, which was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013, author Eleanor Catton sets her story in a rough-and-tumble frontier town in the midst of a gold rush, spinning a complex yarn of dead bodies discovered under decidedly

Luminaries_Coversuspicious circumstances, prominent citizens disappearing without a trace, and a large and colorful cast of characters.

A reviewer in the New York Times described the book as “not even a novel in the normal sense, but rather a mass confabulation that evaporates in front of us, an astrological divination waning like the moon, the first section 360 pages long (or are those degrees?), the last a mere sliver. But it’s a sliver that delivers.” How many estate planning books carry that level of praise?

The tale unfolds after the body of Crosbie Wells, a hermit, is found in his cottage in a remote area upriver from town. Love, death, and deception play monumental roles in the narrative, but so do the laws of intestate succession, property, and contract. Wells died without a will and, because he was a hermit with no known family to inherit his claim, his property was quickly sold. Weeks after his body is discovered, however, his widow Lydia sails into town (literally – the town is primarily accessible to the outside world by sea) and reveals her claim on the estate as Crosbie’s spouse. Meanwhile, a fortune in gold is discovered in the hermit’s cottage, along with an unsigned deed transferring a sum of money equal to the fortune from Emery Staines, a wealthy prospector, to one of the town’s members of the oldest profession. A complex cast of characters attempts to unravel the mystery.

There wouldn’t have been much of a story had the characters consulted an attorney instead of creating such a delightful mess for the reader, but for those who prefer their drama to be in fiction, here are a few estate planning lessons from the book:

  • Make a will. The plot in The Luminaries grows out of a man dying without a will. His property is sold and, had his wife not appeared, the proceeds would likely have escheated to the state.
  • Don’t ignore your spouse. The book reveals it was unlikely that Crosbie Wells would have wanted his estranged wife to inherit anything from him, but instead she was in line to inherit his entire estate. Under Washington law, when a will fails to provide for a spouse, the spouse is entitled to at least as great a share of the estate as the spouse would have received had the person died without a will.
  • Have a durable power of attorney. Emery Stains disappears at the beginning of the book’s narrative and his whereabouts are unknown for weeks, during which his business interests and mining claims are in limbo. The state eventually sells off his claims. If he’d had a durable power of attorney, an attorney-in-fact would have had the legal authority to continue his business transactions in his place until he could be located.

The Luminaries is a fantastic book, an old-fashioned page-turner so engrossing you probably won’t even realize you’re reading about estate planning.

Trust and Estate Administration: Strategies for Minimizing Stress and Maximizing Results

By Stacey Romberg

“A trustee shall administer the trust solely in the interests of the beneficiaries.”
-RCW 11.98.078(1)

Non-professional fiduciaries serving as personal representatives or trustees often assume their new duties with apprehension. How much time will it take? Will the work be difficult? What if estate heirs or trust beneficiaries start fighting?

This article offers 10 straightforward strategies to help you tackle your fiduciary duties in an efficient, legally sound and effective way.

Take Your Fiduciary Responsibilities Seriously

Washington law requires personal representatives, prior to appointment by the court, to “take an oath, … that the duties of the trust as personal representative will be performed according to law.” Similarly, RCW 11.98.078(1) provides, “A trustee shall administer the trust solely in the interests of the beneficiaries.”

Serving as a fiduciary is serious business. If you commit errors, fail to promptly fulfill your obligations or engage in inappropriate conduct, you may find yourself in court attempting to justify your misdeeds before a judge, opposing counsel, and disgruntled heirs and beneficiaries.

Keep Meticulous Records

Carefully track all financial transactions related to the estate or trust. Keep copies of all receipts, checks, bank statements, etc. Additionally, keep detailed time records, especially if you expect compensation for performing your duties.

If you serve as a personal representative, you will need to prepare an inventory of all assets owned by the decedent. You also may be required to provide a detailed accounting of all estate-related financial transactions. Similarly, as a trustee, you are required to provide detailed reports concerning trust transactions to “all persons interested in the trust.”

By understanding this obligation from the start and meticulously keeping records on an ongoing basis, you will make your job easier down the road.

Use Your Calendar

Serving as a fiduciary takes time. You can do your job more efficiently and effectively if you schedule sufficient time on a monthly basis to perform your duties. Otherwise, you may find yourself dealing with missed deadlines and those angry heirs and beneficiaries.

Communicate Proactively with Your Attorney and Accountant

Your job description includes engaging with an attorney and an accountant on an ongoing basis to make sure all legal, financial and tax requirements are being met on a timely basis. If you have questions, ask.

Seek to do it right the first time, rather than expending the time, money and needless aggravation involved in fixing errors.

Communicate Frequently with Heirs and Beneficiaries

Heirs and beneficiaries tend to be anxious. They want the money they are entitled to receive, as soon as possible. They may be nervously checking their email inboxes, voice mail and mail boxes on an ongoing basis, waiting to hear from you.

Take good care of them by initiating positive and professional, ongoing communications, developing a sense of rapport and trust. By communicating often, you maximize the likelihood that your fiduciary duties can be performed without accusations and negativity.

Minimize Opportunities for Disputes

Treat all heirs and beneficiaries in a neutral, impartial manner. Whenever possible, communicate with everyone as a group rather than individually. If you notice tensions developing, immediately inform your attorney.

Seasoned estate planning attorneys can provide guidance to resolve disputes quickly and painlessly. Washington’s Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act (TEDRA) offers a roadmap for minimizing the time and attorneys’ fees involved in determining disputed matters.

Set Apart Trust or Estate Assets from Your Own Assets

Never commingle trust or estate assets with your own assets. Immediately upon your appointment as a trustee or personal representative, work with your attorney to obtain a federal tax identification number for the trust or estate and open a separate bank account.

If you expend your own funds on behalf of the estate or trust, be certain you have all your receipts and can fully support any reimbursements.

Respect Confidentialities

Keep all trust and estate information confidential, outside of communications that further trust interests. Confidentiality is a part of your fiduciary responsibilities; careless communications can come back to haunt you.

Avoid Self-Dealing

Any transaction between you and the estate or trust, such as your purchase of real estate from the trust, is self-dealing. Consult with your attorney prior to entering into a transaction of this nature.

Review “The Fiduciary’s Handbook”

You can purchase this helpful resource for a nominal fee from the Estate Planning Council of Seattle: www.epcseattle.org.

Stacey L. Romberg, Attorney at Law, focuses her practice on estate planning, probate and business law. Reach her at: www.staceyromberg.com.

Reprinted from the King County Bar Bulletin – July 2013