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.

The Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act

In a prior post, I discussed the trend in probate law whereby nontestamentary arrangements are increasingly favored as ways to transfer property upon death without the need for probate. One such arrangement that I have written about previously is the Uniform Real Property Transfer on Death Act. Another such arrangement is the Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act.

The purpose of the UTODSRA is "to allow the owner of securities to register the title in transfer-on-death (TOD) form," thus providing for a non-probate mechanism for transferring a security upon the death of the owner. Under the act, one or more individuals who own a security can take ownership in "beneficiary form," which simply means that ownership reflects the name of the registered owner(s), followed by the words “transfer on death”, “TOD”, “pay on death”, or “POD,” followed by the name of the beneficiary.

The UTODSRA extends to interests in private companies, including limited liability companies. This can be very beneficial because it is often families of small business owners that have the greatest need for a simple, low-cost alternative to probate.

Many buy-sell agreements restrict ownership of a business to a small group of individuals and provide for the buy-out of an owner upon death. However, depending on the terms of the buy-sell agreement and the owner's individual estate plan, the successor of a deceased business owner may need to go through probate in order to give the manager of the business assurance that the proceeds of the interest buy-out are paid to the right person. The UTODSRA provides one option for streamlining the effectuation of a buy-sell agreement upon the death of a business owner.

Allocating a Decedent's Joint Debts Secured by Jointly-Owned Property

One of the tasks that needs to be completed in the process of administering a decedent's estate is to determine what debts the decedent owed and arrange for payment of those debts. Sometimes, decedents may be joint obligors on a debt with another person, in which case the estate may be liable for a portion of the debt.

Under common law, even if the decedent was jointly obligated on a debt that was secured by property owned in joint tenancy, the estate still had an obligation to pay a share of the debt even though the underlying property passed in its entirety to the surviving joint tenant. The majority rule permits contribution by the estate to the surviving joint tenant, while the minority rule does not; however, the trend does seem to be towards the minority rule. In 1998, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island in Mellor v. O'Connor, 712 A.2d 375 (R.I., 1998), settled the issue in that state by rejecting the majority rule, holding that the surviving joint tenant was not entitled to contribution from the estate of the decedent for payment of a jointly executed promissory note secured by a mortgage on the property. For a critique of this decision, see this analysis by Patrick A. Randolph, Jr., then a professor at UMKC School of Law.

Section 2-607 of the Uniform Probate Code provides that a "specific devise [under a will] passes subject to any mortgage interest existing at the date of death, without right of exoneration, regardless of a general directive in the will to pay debts." In other words, if a decedent's will leaves a property to a beneficiary, and the property is subject to a debt, the beneficiary is not entitled to contribution from the estate for payment of the debt.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Montana in In re Estate of Afrank, 291 P.3d 576 (Mont. 2012), held that a debt encumbering property held in joint tenancy is not exonerated upon the death of one of the joint tenants, meaning that the surviving joint tenant is not entitled to contribution from the estate for a share of the encumbrance. While the property did not pass via will, the Court looked to Montana's Uniform Probate Code and applied the policy of nonexoneration to the case at hand.

This issue has not been decided in Utah, where presumably the majority rule under common law would prevail:
In a majority of jurisdictions the courts have taken the view, at least in the absence of evidence of other intention or special circumstances, that a surviving spouse is entitled to equitable contribution out of the estate of a deceased spouse, in reimbursement of the payment by the survivor of more than his equitable share of their joint obligation, even though the debt is secured by real property which was held by them as tenants by the entirety, and which, therefore, is wholly acquired by the surviving spouse as surviving tenant, leaving the estate of the deceased spouse with no interest therein. 76 A.L.R.2d 1004

Presumption of Beneficiary Designation Revocation by Divorce

When a couple gets divorced, the division of each and every asset they own must be specified in the divorce decree. Equally as important, the former spouses must update their estate plans after their divorce is finalized, including all beneficiary designations, consistent with the divorce decree. Frequently, however, this does not happen, and the family of a divorced individual who has passed away often finds a former spouse designated as beneficiary on a retirement account or life insurance policy.

In Utah, "[e]xcept as provided by the express terms of a governing instrument, a court order, or a contract [such as a prenuptial agreement], the divorce... revokes any revocable... disposition or appointment of property made by a divorced individual to the individual's former spouse in a governing instrument..." A "governing instrument" in this context includes a beneficiary designation, meaning that if an individual names their spouse as a beneficiary of a retirement account or life insurance policy, then gets divorced without updating the designation, and then passes away, the beneficiary designation is deemed to have been revoked by the divorce, barring a contrary provision in a contract or court order.

The Utah Supreme Court has interpreted this section as creating "a rebuttable presumption that a beneficiary designation... is revoked upon divorce. The presumption can be rebutted by express terms in the life insurance policy; a court order, including a decree of divorce; or a 'contract relating to the division of the marital estate made between the divorced individuals.'" Hertzske v. Snyder, 390 P.3d 307, 311 (2017).

A third-party payor, such as a life insurance company, "is liable for a payment made or other action taken after the payor... received written notice of a claimed forfeiture or revocation..." Such notice must be "mailed to the payor's or other third party's main office or home by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested, or served upon the payor." While these provisions may be overruled by federal law or a benefits plan, they are designed to ensure that a divorced spouse's probable intent in removing their ex-spouse from a beneficiary designation after a divorce is enforced even if the beneficiary designation was not actually changed. 

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.