Celebrities and business tycoons with multimillion-dollar estates in Connecticut are getting some unwelcome news: Their state has become the most expensive place to die in the U.S. because of hefty new fees for settling estates, according to state officials.
In fact, probate officials are warning that some invoices they will be sending out shortly could top $100,000 or even $1 million in a few cases, when the maximum fee in the past was $12,500.
The fees took effect July 1 as part of the new state budget approved by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Democrat-controlled legislature. They're also retroactive to all deaths dating back to Jan. 1.
The budget cut all state government funding to the probate court system, a total of $32 million over two years. To make up for the loss of that money, Malloy and lawmakers eliminated the $12,500 cap on probate court fees and doubled the fee on estates worth more than $2 million to 0.5 percent of the value. They also increased fees for most probate court filings from $150 to $225.
"It's outrageous," said Westport attorney Amy Day. "We always had a cap on probate fees of $12,500. Now it's not going to be unusual for people to pay upward of $50,000."
The probate court system surveyed all 50 states and determined that the 0.5 percent fee on the value of estates of at least $2 million was the highest in the country, surpassing the 0.4 percent fee charged by both New Jersey and North Carolina, said Vincent Russo, a spokesman for the state probate court system. New Jersey also has no cap on probate fees, while North Carolina has a maximum fee of $6,000, he said.
Russo said many states don't charge fees based on total estate value. He said it was difficult to determine which states have the least expensive probate costs because of differences in law and policy.
The very wealthy often protect their assets by forming trusts, which helps them avoid some probate costs.
Connecticut also has an estate tax on all estates worth more than $2 million, with rates ranging from 7.2 percent to 12 percent.
Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia said Tuesday that the probate fee increases were among difficult budget decisions that had to be made this year.
Judge Paul Knierim, Connecticut's probate court administrator, said if the new fees were applied last year, two estates worth more than $200 million apiece would have paid more than $1 million in probate costs and about a dozen worth over $20 million would have paid more than $100,000.
"I think the fundamental problem is that the change in decedents' estate fees imposes the burden of running the probate court system on a very small portion of the population," Knierim said.
Knierim and some state lawmakers say they plan to urge the General Assembly next year to dump the new fees and go back to the old system.
Vincent Carissimi, a Philadelphia lawyer who is executor of his uncle's estate in Westport, Connecticut, said the new fees will increase probate costs for the estate by about $2,000, bringing the total to over $8,000.
"You usually expect to pay a nominal or moderate fee but you don't expect to get soaked," Carissimi said. "The most surprising thing is it's a function of the funding being cut. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I've never heard a state not providing funding to its courts."