Inheritance: What You Must Know About Federal and State Laws

The 2019 mystery-comedy Knives Out, which starred Daniel Craig and an ensemble cast of veterans hysterically portrayed both familial bond and intra-family conflict over the inheritance. In this whodunnit movie, what was at stake was $60 Million, a publishing firm, and a mansion. In another movie entitled Greedy, a wheelchair-bound business magnate Uncle Joe played by veteran actor Kirk Douglas pretended to be sick to see who among his relatives would care for him the most. Later in the movie, he pretends to have lost the $25 Million inheritance money that he was supposed to leave behind after he passes away. The movie comically portrays how the relatives try to outdo each other in “sucking up” to their rich uncle. The tycoon then realizes who among his family really cared for him, with or without his wealth.

The ‘reel’ versions of fighting over inheritance are certainly wacky and surreal, although they still contain bits of truth. As they say, humor is funny because they reflect reality. In real life, however, there are many legal issues to wrestle with. For those who have much to gain, and those who risk losing much, a battle in court may be the next logical step.

“Will of Fortune”

Inheritance is always a touchy issue for families and, most especially, for those who belong to the so-called One Percent, the elite of the elite. When a patriarch or a matriarch of a wealthy family passes away, a lawyer is often the one to call the members of the family to explain and execute the last will and testament. The lawyer might even go over the details of state estate taxes and recommend ways to get a significant property tax cut.

After hearing the contents of the will, many things could happen, such as a sudden break in the family ties, or a clustering of cliques that will fight for the family fortune. In some cases, peace remains, and only grateful smiles come from all who expect to receive a hefty share of the wealth.

These unpleasant scenarios are definitely avoidable and unnecessary. To prevent needless contention and family discord, it is better to be informed about federal and state laws pertaining to inheritance of property, cash, and other assets.

Federal and State Laws

Key Points of US Inheritance Law

In the United States, the foremost information that must be known about inheritance is that each State follows either one of these two approaches: Common Law or Community Property.

In a Common Law approach to inheritance, it is vital to understand that the surviving spouse is not automatically entitled to 1/2 of all properties acquired during the time of marriage. It is the Title Deed that reflects true ownership of a certain property, regardless of who paid for it. The surviving spouse, however, is protected by law from being disinherited. Another important detail to know is that unless it is specified in the will, the surviving spouse can go to court to legally request to inherit a third and up to half of all the properties left behind by the deceased.

In states that implement a Community Property approach, there must be a legal and formal written agreement between the spouses in order for the surviving party to inherit property. States that implement this inheritance law include Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington. During the marriage, properties that will form part of the “community” includes any income, acquisition, and even gifts and inheritances.

Many states now also recognize the need to lend assistance to a surviving spouse that is financially in need. What termed as “minimum elective share” of the financially needy spouse is typically set at $50,000.

Inheritance of Children and Other Complex Issues

In general, children have a right to have a share in the inheritance.  Advancements in reproductive technology, however, had led to questions on legality and definitions of a legitimate child. In states like New Jersey and Massachusetts, a child born after the death of the father is still legitimate even if said child was conceived using artificial methods such as posthumous conception using frozen sperm. Other states have allowed a child to inherit from a parent even if they were conceived via artificial insemination, surrogacy, and egg donation.

There are still remaining social and legal issues that are still being discussed in court in various jurisdictions across the United States. For example, some states recognize same-sex marriage, but there are still no new laws that define who is a legitimate surviving spouse in such types of marriage. In many states, the surviving spouse is still defined based on the traditional set-up of a marriage between a man and a woman.

As legal frameworks and definitions change, people will still continue to be interested in the issue of inheritance. While the loss of a loved one is truly devastating, the assets that were left behind by the deceased can truly help assuage the grief of the survivors. Given the emotionally vulnerable condition experienced by survivors in the wake of a loved one’s passing, it is best to set aside potential misunderstanding in the family by always getting sound legal advice.

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