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.

Probate Code's One-Year Nonclaim Statute Protects Estates

In Utah, a creditor of an estate must present their claim within one year from the decedent's death or be forever barred. A court-appointed personal representative has the option, but not the obligation, to publish notice and give known creditors affirmative notice of the decedent's death and a shorter, three-month window to present claims. However, if no probate proceeding is commenced, the option for the three-month creditor window is not taken, and the one-year mark from the decedent's death is approaching, a creditor in Utah must file its own probate petition together with its claim.

Last year, the Utah Supreme Court clarified this statute in the case of Huitron v. Kaye, 517 P.3d 399 (2022), holding as follows:
[T]he Nonclaim Statute acts as a complete bar to claims against an estate that are not presented by the applicable deadline. This means that the presentment deadline is not waivable, and the one-year period cannot be tolled. And in an untimely suit against an estate for the sole purpose of collecting insurance proceeds, it means that the estate’s assets are not at risk as a matter of law. 517 P.3d at 404 (citations omitted).
This statute raises the possiblity that successors of a decedent may attempt to avoid payment of known claims by delaying administration until the one-year nonclaim period has run. However, the drafters of the Uniform Probate Code deemed this unlikely because:
[U]npaid creditors of a decedent are interested persons... qualified to force the opening of an estate for purposes of presenting and enforcing claims. Further, successors who delay opening an administration will suffer from lack of proof of title to estate assets and attendant inability to enjoy their inheritances. Finally, the odds that holders of important claims against the decedent will need help in learning of the death and proper place of administration is rather small.
Similar reasoning was used by the Colorado Supreme Court, interpreting another state's Uniform Probate Code nonclaim statute, in In the Matter of the Estate of Ongaro, 998 P.2d 1097 (2000). In that case, the court stated:
We are aware that the firm deadline for presenting claims... occasionally will work a hardship on claimants who do not receive actual notice of a decedent’s death. The General Assembly, however, has determined that the burden on those claimants is outweighed by the interest in the speedy and efficient settlement of estates.... A personal representative who decides not to provide known creditors with written notice of a decedent’s death and of the deadline for filing claims must forfeit the shorter nonclaim periods... in favor of the one-year period... 998 P.2d at 1104-1105.
In summary, the Uniform Probate Code balances the due process rights of creditors with the need for efficient administration of estates by including the one-year nonclaim statute. This limitations period cannot be tolled because "the personal representative is a trustee of the estate for the benefit of its creditors and heirs, and as such cannot by his conduct waive any provision of a statute affecting their substantial rights." Crowley v. Farmers Bank, 123 P.2d 407, 409 (1942). Anyone owed money or otherwise possessing a claim against an estate must make a formal claim against the estate in the manner prescribed by statute within one year of the decedent's death in order to protect their interests. 

Transfers Not Subject to Gift Tax

United States taxpayers pay an estate or gift tax on wealth transfers to the extent that the aggregate value of the transfers, whether upon death or during lifetime, exceeds $12,920,000 in 2023. On January 1, 2026, this exclusion amount is scheduled to be reduced roughly in half. Because of this, many taxpayers are considering utilizing this high capacity to give without taxes by utilizing their exclusion before it is reduced.

In general, any gratuitous transfer is reportable, and will reduce a taxpayer's capacity to transfer wealth without tax, but there are important exceptions. One important exception is the annual exclusion, which I discussed in a prior post, which currently allows each taxpayer to gift up to $17,000 per year per donee. This is perhaps the most widely known mechanism for transferring wealth without any gift or estate tax impact, but there are others as well.

Any taxpayer may make unlimited tuition payments on behalf of any individual without needing to report the gift, pay gift tax, or use their lifetime exclusion. Any such payments must be made directly to the educational institution. Similarly, any amounts may be paid to educational institutions for their general charitable purposes, just as any amounts may be paid to other charitable organizations free of gift or estate tax.

Any taxpayer may generally make payments directly to medical providers for medical payments or medical insurance premiums for others. Not only are such payments free from gift or estate tax, an income tax deduction may be available for the taxpayer, just as a charitable deduction may be available for gifts to charities for the benefit of the public. Finally, gifts to political organizations are generally exempt from gift tax. Using the tools described herein can be effective ways to mitigate gift and estate taxes.

Legal Pitfalls for Inexperienced Fiduciaries

As a simple local news search will reveal, criminal charges are regularly brought against fiduciaries who have allegedly breached their fiduciary duties. Criminal charges in the area of estate and trust administration could include unlawful dealing of property by a fiduciary and financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

The former is committed when a fiduciary "deals with property that has been entrusted to him as a fiduciary... in a manner which the person knows is a violation of the person's duty and which involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to the owner or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted." The latter is committed when anyone, among other things, "unjustly or improperly uses or manages the resources of a vulnerable adult for the profit or advantage of someone other than the vulnerable adult..."

There are obvious examples of cases where a fiduciary admits to using trust funds for personal use and criminal charges are warranted. However, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where an inexperienced fiduciary has good intentions but doesn't keep a proper accounting or invests trust funds imprudently and a vindictive beneficiary seeks criminal charges.

An inexperienced trustee should clearly be held to account and restore, but there are civil remedies and civil damages available to beneficiaries that seem more appropriate as a first resort. Any fiduciary would be well-advised to seek legal counsel to avoid civil or criminal issues arising from their service.

Petition for Essential Treatment and Intervention

As I discussed in a prior post, completing a Declaration for Mental Health Treatment can be a useful way for someone with drug abuse or mental health challenges to provide for their own care if they reach a point where they can no longer care for themselves. If a Declaration is not completed, and the person becomes at risk of harming themselves or others, seeking an emergency guardianship from a court may be considered. Such motions can be ex-parte, meaning that no notice or hearing is required, and if granted, an emergency guardianship lasts for 30 days.

A third option, however, for cases of drug abuse, is known as a Petition for Essential Treatment and Intervention, which became available in 2017 pursuant to Utah Code 62A-15-1201. This law was passed to "address the serious public health crisis of substance use disorder related deaths". The proceeding commences in court when a "relative seeking essential treatment and intervention for a sufferer of a substance use disorder" files a petition with the district court where the sufferer lives.

The petition must identify a treatment facility where the sufferer may receive treatment and a binding commitment on the part of the petitioner to pay for treatment costs. Upon receiving the petition, the court will "set an expedited date for a time-sensitive hearing to determine whether the court should order the respondent to undergo essential treatment for a substance use disorder" and provide notice of the same to the interested parties. Unless the sufferer objects or the court orders otherwise, two essential treatment examiners will examine the sufferer before the hearing and make treatment recommendations to the court. If the court ultimately finds that treatment is required, it can order treatment and subject the sufferer to a warrant of commitment if they do not comply.

A Petition for Essential Treatment and Intervention is confidential, and the Utah Courts website provides all of the necessary forms for individuals who want to proceed without an attorney. While such a petition is not a panacea, it should at least be considered as an alternative to a guardianship.

Posthumous Common Law Marriage in Utah

In Utah, like many states, marriage-like relationships that were never solemnized can be declared valid by court or administrative order. "A petition for an unsolemnized marriage shall be filed during the relationship... or within one year following the termination of that relationship", which includes termination due to the death of one of the parties. Utah Code 30-1-4.5(2)(a).

A key step in any posthumous common law marriage petition is securing the appointment of a personal reresentative over the decedent's estate because the marriage petition must be served on the personal representative. Gardiner v. Taufer, 2014 UT 56, 342 P.3d 269. A court order of a common-law marriage after death would significantly impact the rights of the natural relatives of the decedent, making a probate proceeding indispensable.

Any petitioner must be prepared to show the court that the petitioner and the decedent (a) were of legal age and capable of giving consent to the marriage, (b) were legally capable of entering a solemnized marriage, (c) cohabited, (d) mutually assumed marital rights, duties, and obligations; and (e) held themselves out as and had acquired a uniform and general reputation as husband and wife. See Utah Code 30-1-4.5(1). Consent to the marriage can be shown by "maintenance of joint banking and credit accounts; purchase and joint ownership of property; the [sharing of a spouse’s] surname by the [other spouse] and/or the children of the union; the filing of joint tax returns; speaking of each other in the presence of third parties as being married; and declaring the relationship in documents executed by them while living together, such as deeds, wills, and other formal instruments." Volk v. Vecchi, 467 P.3d 872, quoting Whyte v. Blair, 885 P.2d 791, 794-795.

There are many reasons to seek a posthumous common law marriage, such as "to claim insurance benefits, retirement benefits, survivor benefits, or public benefits, or to inherit property." The Utah Courts provide a marriage petition form on their website as well as ancillary documents. However, due to the multiple proceedings that may be required and the evidentiary requirements, seeking legal counsel in a marriage petition is strongly advised.