Welcome to CPA at Law, helping individuals and small businesses plan for the future and keep what they have.

This is the personal blog of Sterling Olander, a Certified Public Accountant and Utah-licensed attorney. For over nine years, I have assisted clients with estate planning and administration, tax mitigation, tax controversies, small business planning, asset protection, and nonprofit law.

I write about any legal, tax, or technological information that I find interesting or useful in serving my clients. All ideas expressed herein are my own and don't constitute legal or tax advice.

Establishing an Unregistered Birth or Death

In Utah, an individual, an immediate family member, or a legal representative "may petition for a court order establishing the fact, time, and place of a birth or death that is not registered or for which a certified copy of the registered birth or death certificate is not obtainable." Utah Code 26-2-15(1). Such a proceeding must be brought where the birth or death occurred, where the individual currently resides, or where the individual resided upon death.

The petition must provide information regarding the date, time, and place of the birth or death and state that the vital record is unregistered or unobtainable. If all of the requirements of the statute are satisfied, the court will issue an order establishing the facts of a birth or death after a hearing.

Often, this statute is used by parents who adopt a child from a foreign country "not recognized by department rule as having an established vital records registration system." Obtaining a court order establishing the facts as to the child's birth is a prerequisite to the Department of Health issuing a birth certificate for the adopted child.

However, another situation where this statute can be very useful is for individuals trying to obtain dual citizenship in another country based on their ancestry. Proving ancestry based on official government documentation typically requires producing birth and/or death certificates. However, in Utah, a birth certificate can only be issued to a living person, and in the 1800s, it was not uncommon for births or deaths to occur without an accompanying vital record. In these cases, a court order pursuant to Utah Code 26-2-15(1) can satify the evidenciary requirement for ancestry even without an actual birth or death certificate.

Utah Recognizes the Tort of Intentional Interference with Inheritance

On July 1, 2021, the Utah Supreme Court held that the tort of intentional interference with inheritance is a valid cause of action in Utah. See generally, Matter of Est. of Osguthorpe, 2021 UT 23, 491 P.3d 894. The case involved a dispute between the children of Dr. D.A. Osguthorpe and David R. Rudd and the law firm of Ballard Spahr, LLP, with the children arguing that Rudd had "improperly influenced Dr. Osguthorpe to amend his will and trust in a manner that shifted a portion of the Children's expected inheritance" to Dr. Osguthorpe's second wife and his alma mater. The Supreme Court agreed with the children that the district court erred by declining to recognize intentional interference with inheritance as a tort and by dismissing their claim "on the alternative ground that, even if the tort were a valid cause of action in Utah, the probate proceeding would resolve all of their complaints."

While the Uniform Probate Code is intended to address and provide remedies for many kinds of trust and estate disputes, the Court concluded that "there are claims that seek to remedy other types of harms and thus are not displaced" by the Probate Code. For example, the Probate Code may not have an adequate remedy for a claim that "'the decedent intended to create a different will' which would have added a gift to the plaintiff, yet the decedent 'was prevented from doing so by the defendant.'" Similarly, in a claim that a "'defendant's tortious conduct had caused the testator to make an inter vivos conveyance... of assets that would otherwise have been part of the estate, setting aside the will" under the Uniform Probate Code would not provide an adquate remedy.

The elements for a claim of intentional interference with an inheritance in Utah come from the Third Restatement of Torts and are as follows:

   (a) the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift;
   (b) the defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong;
   (c) the defendant's purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff's expectancy;
   (d) the defendant's conduct caused the expectancy to fail; and
   (e) the plaintiff suffered economic loss as a result.

However, the claim of intentional interference with inheritance cannot be brought under any circumstance. Specifically, it "'is not available to a plaintiff who had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim' under Utah's Probate Code." For example, traditional claims of fraud, duress, or undue influence would need to be brought within the framework of the Probate Code. Nevertheless, Utah's recognition of the tort of intentional interference with inheritance will help fill in some gaps where a wrongdoing may otherwise elude a straight-forward remedy.

What is an Advancement?

In the estate planning and administration context, an advancement is a gift made to an heir prior to death that is treated as an advance on the heir's ultimate share of the estate. For example, if dad made a $50 advancement to son during his lifetime, died intestate with $100 to his name, and had three children and no spouse, the two children that had not received lifetime gifts would split the $100 equally. The $50 is treated as an advance on the son's ultimate inheritance; otherwise, the remaining $100 would be split three ways, with the son receiving in total a disproportionate share.

Under the Uniform Probate Code, a gift made prior to death is only treated as an advancement if accompanied by contemporaneous written documentation that the gift is to be treated as such. While the concept of an advancement can only technically apply where a decedent dies intestate and left documentation of intent to treat a gift as an advancement, my will and trust form language includes a provision confirming that any prior gifts are not advancements. It is important for clients to consider the impact that providing additional support and resources to one heir during life can have on all heirs upon death.

The comments to the Uniform Probate Code provide a good example of how advancements work, which I simplify here: G died intestate, survived by his three children, A, B, and C. G’s probate estate is valued at $60, but during his lifetime, G had advanced A $50 and B $10 and memorialized in writing that such gifts be advancements. Upon G's death, the first step in calculating the children's respective shares in G's estate is to add back the advancements, resulting in a theoretical "hotchpot" estate of $120 (60 + 50 + 10), of which the three children would be entitled to equal shares.

Because A has received an advancement greater than the share to which he is entitled, A can retain the $50 advancement but is not entitled to any additional amount. This leaves $70 (60 + 10) remaining in the hotchpot estate, of which B and C are each entitled to half. B receives $25 (having already received $10) and C receives the remaining $35. Had A and B's gifts not been treated as advancements, A would have received $70, B would have received $30, and C would have received $20 from G's estate (aggregating pre-death gifts with an equal share of the remaining estate). This example illustrates why it is important to consult with an estate planning attorney prior to making substantial, disproportionate gifts to heirs.

Review of Estate Planning Documents

Reducing Estate Taxes with Annual Exclusion Gifting

Subject to new legislation passed under the Biden administration, United States taxpayers pay an estate tax on death to the extent that the value of their estate exceeds $11,700,000 in 2021; the estate tax is a tax on the right to transfer property upon death. It cannot be avoided by making lifetime gifts to heirs because most such gifts reduce this estate tax lifetime exclusion amount. If the lifetime exclusion amount is exhausted, a gift tax applies in lieu of the estate tax.

In general, any gift is taxable, meaning that the gift will either reduce the lifetime exclusion or require the payment of a gift tax by the donor if the donor's lifetime exclusion has been exhausted. However, there are a number of important exceptions to the rule that any gift is taxable. One such exception is the annual exclusion.

"If a taxpayer makes a gift to another person, the gift tax usually does not apply until the value of the gift exceeds the annual exclusion amount for the year." The annual exclusion is indexed for inflation and is $15,000 in 2021. Under current law, every taxpayer can gift up to $15,000 per year to an unlimited number of donees. Married couples can each make an annual exclusion gift from their own property, essentially doubling the annual exclusion amount. To qualify for the annual exclusion, the gift must be of a "present interest" in property, meaning a gift that the donee can access and use immediately.

An annual exclusion gifting plan can remove significant wealth from a taxpayer's estate over time, thus reducing future gift and estate taxes. For example, a couple with three children and nine grandchildren can potentially gift $360,000 ($15,000 x 2 spouses x 12 heirs) to their family every year without even the need to file a gift tax return. However, there is no requirement that the donee be a family member, meaning that the class of potential donees is only limited by the pool of beneficiaries who the donor wishes to benefit. Annual exclusion gifting should be coordinated with other gifting and tax-mitigation planning but is an important estate and gift tax mitigation tool.

Utah Adult Guardianship Appointment Procedures

Individuals who have executed an advance health care directive and power of attorney are far less likely to need a court-appointed guardian or conservator. However, those who did not execute such forms while they had capacity, and sometimes even those who have executed such forms, may need a guardianship and conservatorship. Below are the minimum requirements in securing a guardianship and conservatorship in a common scenario where a child of an elderly, incapacitated parent seeks guardianship and conservatorship over the parent. The following procedures assume that the parent is unmarried with no living parents, one of their children seeks appointment without objection from a sibling, and the incapacitated person attends the guardianship hearing and requires a full guardianship:

1. The first step is to gather the necessary information and documentation needed for the Petition for Guardianship and Conservatorship. The Utah Courts website provides a form on its website, but the form is for a petition for guardianship only. The Utah Online Court Assistance Program (OCAP) has forms for a guardianship and conservatorship.

2. Individuals who will be subject to a guardianship need to be represented by an attorney, so the next step is to identify such an attorney. Many attorneys in Utah will charge a modest fee to represent an incapacitated person needing a guardianship; alternatively, the Guardianship Signature Program seeks to provide free attorneys for indigent incapacitated persons. To ask the court to appoint an attorney for the incapacitated person, prepare a Request to Appoint, Order Appointing Attorney, and Request to Submit for Decision.

3. All proposed guardians and conservators are required to review the Guidelines for Guardians and Conservators and take the accompanying Pre-Appointment Test. The proposed guardian will then need to sign a Declaration of Completion for filing with the court.

4. Prepare the other necessary court documents, which include an Acceptance of Appointment, whereby the guardian accepts the fiduciary role and subjects themselves to Utah law, a Cover Sheet, a private Information Sheet, a proposed Guardianship Order, and Letters. (Note that the linked Order and Letters do not include a conservatorship; see the OCAP program linked above for more comprehensive forms).

5. File the Cover Sheet, Petition, Acceptance, Declaration of Completion, and appointment forms for the incapacitated person's attorney. A doctor's letter or evaluation of the proposed ward's capacity must also be filed with the court. The court should sign the Order Appointing Attorney to represent the ward, schedule a hearing, and send notices of the hearing to all of the interested persons listed with the Petition. The attorney for the ward can agree to accept service of the Petition on behalf of the ward.

6. Five days prior to the hearing, file the proposed Guardianship Order and Letters with the court. Also prior to the hearing, ensure that the proposed ward has had the opportunity to meet with his or her court-appointed attorney. At the hearing, the judge will likely ask to hear from the proposed guardian and conservator, the incapacitated person, and the incapacitated person's attorney. Assuming that no one objects and all of the aforementioned documents have been properly completed and filed, the court is likely to appoint the proposed guardian and conservator. 

Control of Disposition of Remains

Anyone completing an estate plan should consider leaving written instructions regarding their wishes for their funeral and the disposition of their body. Section 3-701 of the Uniform Probate Code states that "a person named executor in a will may carry out written instructions of the decedent relating to the decedent’s body, funeral, and burial arrangements" prior to being actually appointed by a court. Most family disagreements over funeral-related matters that arise when a loved one passes away are resolved by negotiations amongst the family, sometimes with the assistance of experienced funeral directors and clergy. However, some disagreements, such as control over the disposition of the decedent's body, can be more serious and cannot be resolved without court intervention.

There is little uniformity among the states in this area. See generally Shawn Irwin Walker, Over My Dead Body: Preventing and Resolving Disputes Regarding the Disposition of the Dead, 43 ACTEC L.J. 385, 388 (2018). Utah is one of the states that has a "priority of decision" law, which is found in Part 6, Control of Disposition, of the Funeral Services Licensing Act. Section 58-9-601 of the Utah Code confirms the probate code concept that a decedent's written instructions concerning their funeral and manner of burial are enforceable but adds the requirement that such instructions be "acknowledged before a notary public or executed with the same formalities required of a will..."

Another interesting aspect of this law is the fact that the nominated personal representative under the decedent's will, depending on the circumstances, may not have first, or even second, priority to control the disposition of the decedent's body. The person with first priority is whoever is designated "in a written instrument, excluding a power of attorney..., if the written instrument is acknowledged before a Notary Public or executed with the same formalities required of a will..."

The person identified as "personal representative" in the decedent's will may appear to fit this description; however this section is clearly describing a distinct role because section 58-9-602(3) of the Utah Code identifies "the person nominated to serve as the personal representative of the decedent's estate in a will" as the one with third priority. Second in line is "the surviving, legally recognized spouse of the decedent, unless a personal representative was nominated by the decedent subsequent to the marriage, in which case the personal representative shall take priority over the spouse."

A few different measures could be taken in order to prevent disputes over the disposition of a body. First, individuals could specify in their will that they are designating their personal representative as the person with the right and duty to control the disposition of the body under Utah Code 58-9-602. Such designee should be aware of the scenarios under which they could lose their right of disposition and also the process for resolving disputes. Finally, individuals should leave notarized instructions to their next of kin specifying their funeral and burial wishes.