When someone dies and leaves you property in their will, by beneficiary designation, or through the intestate beneficiary laws of their state, it is possible, and sometimes wise, to reject the would-be inheritance by “disclaiming” your legal interest to it. However, there are certain procedural rules and mechanics necessary to effectively complete the disclaimer.
Someone may choose to disclaim their interest in an inheritance for a variety of reasons. They may simply not need it or would prefer another person to receive it. Disclaiming in these circumstances may be preferable to accepting the asset, then gifting it to the recipient. Disclaiming may also be warranted if receipt of the asset could lead to it being seized by creditors, impacting the person’s tax planning, or affecting their eligibility for certain government programs. For very wealthy individuals, receipt of additional assets through inheritance may prove problematic for purpose of the estate tax and later cause taxation at the recipient’s death that could have been avoided by a timely disclaimer. In fact, some types of trusts, commonly known as Disclaimer Trusts, anticipate the disclaimer process being utilized for estate tax purposes and create mechanisms to take advantage of the disclaimer process to minimize the repeated taxation of assets as they move through a family tree.
Wisconsin Statute § 854.13 governs the rules for disclaiming assets in Wisconsin. To be a valid disclaimer under the statute, the disclaimer must meet certain technical requirements. It must contain a description of the asset to be disclaimed, declare the intent to disclaim, the extent to which the disclaimer applies, and must be signed by the disclaimant. The disclaimer must be delivered within nine months after the effective date of the transfer, although extensions are sometimes possible “for cause” with court permission. The disclaimer must be delivered to the party identified under WI. Statute §854.13(5), which is typically the personal representative of an estate or the trustee of a trust holding the relevant asset. The delivered disclaimer must then be filed with the probate court with jurisdiction over the estate and, for real estate, recorded with the Register of Deeds of the county the real estate is located in. When the individual disclaiming the interest is a minor or incapacitated, the statute includes special rules which apply to ensure their guardian or agent acting under power of attorney is acting in the best interest of the disclaimant.
Importantly, the disclaimer must also be made before the individual accepts the asset or any benefit from the disclaimed asset. For example, if the contents of an investment account are liquidated and transferred to the beneficiary’s account, those funds have been accepted and the person can no longer disclaim them. Similarly, if someone is to inherit a vehicle and drives in it, they have accepted the benefit of the asset and can no longer disclaim it. Accidental acceptance of an asset can sometimes be disastrous, so if you are considering disclaiming your interest, make sure to be mindful of the management and use of the asset so you do not accidentally bar yourself from disclaiming it by accepting the asset or its benefit. The possibility of accidental acceptance is also a limitation of the Disclaimer Trust described previously, and some estate planning attorneys choose to avoid it in favor of other methods – like formula funded trusts – to avoid this risk.
To be valid for federal tax purposes, the IRS also imposes requirements for a “Qualified Disclaimer” in Section 2518 of the Internal Revenue Code, which are similar, but distinct from the Wisconsin rules.
A properly executed disclaimer is irrevocable and causes the asset to be treated as if it never vested in or transferred to the disclaimant. Assuming a divestment is effectively made, the asset passes under the rules set forth in WI. Statute §854.13(7) through (10). The general effect of the disclaimer is that the asset would pass as if the disclaimant has died before the decedent. For example, if a person dies without a will and the laws of intestacy direct that the asset would pass to the decedent’s surviving parent, who then disclaims, the asset passes as if the parent has predeceased and it passes to any living siblings of the decedent. As another example, if an individual dies with a will providing all assets would pass to their surviving spouse, and to their children if the spouse predeceases them, a disclaimer by the surviving spouse would cause the assets to pass to the children.
Despite the “general rule” outlined above, the statutes contain many exceptions and special rules for certain scenarios. Because a disclaimer is irrevocable once made, it is important to fully understand where the asset will pass before completing the disclaimer. If you have any questions about disclaiming assets from an estate, please do not hesitate to reach out to one of our attorneys.