In my last installment (Who Is Qualified to Serve as Administrator of an Estate?), I wrote about Boris and Natasha and the Big Fight occasioned by Boris dying without a will. As you may recall, Boris had two adult children from a prior marriage when he married Natasha. He and Natasha had two children before Boris died without a will. His property was substantial and all of it was acquired prior to his marriage. What happened to the property on his death?
The good news is that no one was disinherited, and the property did not escheat to the state. Nevada law provides for property to go to your closest relatives if you die without any estate planning in place. In a community property state such as Nevada, a married person’s property may be either community or separate, or some combination of the two. Separate property is property acquired before marriage, as well as property acquired by gift or inheritance during marriage. All property earned during marriage, or purchased with earnings during marriage, is community property. These characterizations can be changed by a written agreement if the couple wishes.
For Boris and Natasha, all of Boris’s property was separate property and he left no will. Nevada law provides that in such case, the surviving spouse is entitled to one third of the separate property, and—because he had more than one surviving child—the children were entitled to equal shares of the remaining two-thirds. Boris did not put any of his assets into joint tenancy with Natasha, but if he had, Natasha would have succeeded to such assets. Once the estate administration finished, Natasha received one-third of Boris’s assets; the couple’s minor children received one-third subject to a guardianship or trust until they became adults; and Boris’s two adult children received the remaining one-third in equal shares.
How you hold title to an asset affects how it can be disposed of during lifetime and how it will be distributed upon your death. Title to property affects inheritance taxes and the extent to which probate may be needed.
Community Property. Nevada is a community property state. Property acquired during marriage by the labor of either or both spouses is deemed “community property” and each spouse has an equal interest therein. It is possible to acquire or hold property as “community property” or as “community property with right of survivorship.” The additional language “with right of survivorship” ensures that the surviving spouse will receive title to the whole of the asset upon the death of the first spouse. Holding an asset as community property also creates a tax advantage, in that the surviving spouse will get a step up in basis on the asset to the date of death of the first spouse. In other words, the surviving spouse will not have to pay a capital gains tax on the increase in value from the date of purchase to the date of the first spouse’s death.
Separate Property. A married person may also hold property as his or her separate property. This includes property that was acquired prior to marriage, or property acquired during marriage by one spouse only as a gift or an inheritance. A spouse with separate property may make a gift of that property to the community by deeding or changing title of the asset to community property. If the spouse continues to hold the property as separate, upon death the spouse may will it to anyone he wishes; the surviving spouse does not have any legal right to it. However, if a spouse with separate property dies without a will, separate property will pass according to Nevada’s laws on intestate succession, and the surviving spouse will be entitled to a share of the property.
Joint Tenancy. Two persons, whether or not married, may hold property as joint tenants. Upon the death of one joint tenant, the surviving joint tenant becomes the owner of the whole of the property. In other words, the heirs of the first joint tenant to die do not inherit that person’s interest in the property; it passes by operation of law to the surviving joint tenant. For this reason, sometimes joint tenancy language also says “with right of survivorship.” For married couples, a partial step-up in basis is available if title is held in joint tenancy.
Couples should be aware of and sensitive to the manner in which they hold title. A change in how an asset is titled will change how the asset is distributed at death. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a qualified Nevada attorney.
By: Sharon M. Parker, Esq.