Where will my Will be probated if I own homes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Florida?
What is the impact of dividing your time between homes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida? For probate purposes, a person has one “legal” home – termed their domicile. Domicile is where you have your true, fixed, permanent home and principal establishment, and to which, whenever you leave, you have the intention of returning. The impact of the domicile location is widespread, from taxes to probate; domicile can affect many aspects of an estate plan.
One effect of domicile is the location a Will can be submitted for probate. A recent high profile case, involving Philadelphia billionaire couple Raymond and Ruth Perelman, decided by the Philadelphia County Orphans’ Court, analyzed this exact question. What state, Philadelphia or Florida, had jurisdiction to probate Mrs. Perelman’s Will?
Over the course of 15 years, her husband Raymond Perelman attempted to establish the couple’s domicile in Florida to avoid higher tax consequences in Pennsylvania. To promote this façade, Raymond established the couple’s nexus to Florida by them spending at least 6 months each year at the Florida home. They also voted in Florida, filed tax returns there and obtained Florida drivers licenses.
In the years before Ruth’s death, her relationship with Raymond began to fall apart. Publicized litigation brought by Raymond against their son was a catalyst for the deterioration. Eventually, this led Ruth to contemplate divorce and to drafting a secret Will in favor of her Son which left Raymond out.
When Ruth Perelman died Raymond fought the secret will, and among other issues, he argued that Florida not Philadelphia was the couples proper domicile for probate. In brief summary, below are the factors the court weighed in favor of Florida and Pennsylvania:
Factors Advanced in Favor of Florida
- Owned home for 15+ years
- Resided 6+ months out of the year
- Filed for Florida Homestead Exemption
- Obtained Florida Drivers License and Identification Card
- Voted past 10 years in Florida
- Claimed Florida as principal residence on tax returns
Factors Advanced in Favor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Long-term doctor patient relationship at University of Pennsylvania
- Owned home for 40+ years
- 95% of donations to Philadelphia based charities
- Buried in Philadelphia
- Had not left Philadelphia for 2+ years prior to death
- Location of Trust
- Knowledge that chosen executor incapable of serving in Florida
Ultimately, the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court ruled against Raymond. Philadelphia was Ruth’s domicile. Despite Raymond’s best attempt to paper their domicile in Florida, Ruth Perelman actions cemented her domicile in Philadelphia.
The Courts Reasoning:
Returning to the definition above, domicile is where you have your true, fixed, permanent home and principal establishment, and to which, whenever you leave, you have the intention of returning. Further, once domicile has been established, in order to change a person’s domicile there must be:
- Physical presence in the new location
- An intention to make it his or her home without any fixed or certain purpose to return to the former place of abode.
The court is telling us that actions speak louder than words. Spoken words of intention alone, including manipulating tax returns and voting records, are insufficient means of effectuating a change in domicile. Regardless of Raymond’s plan, Ruth had never truly taken the steps to become a Floridian. She never attempted to build a religious or medical connection in Florida; this caused her willingly to remain in Philadelphia during her final years to receive medical attention in the comfort of her lifelong friends.
The Philadelphia County Orphans’ Court looked to Mrs. Perelman’s recent actions, including no visits to Florida and testimony of her knowledge that her executor could not serve in Florida. All these factors weighed in favor of jurisdiction in Philadelphia. Finally, it was only the actions of her estranged husband that could have led to a Florida domicile, no specific actions of her own, or any actions at all over the past two years.
Even well thought-out, papered plans are susceptible to interpretation. If litigated, domicile is an intention versus action balancing test that can lead to uncertain results. The effects can have significant importance in estate administration. As evidenced by the Perelman’s, it is an important issue to consider if you have residences in two states.
If you need assistance with estate administration, probate or with developing your Estate Plan, please call one of our Probate Lawyers or Estate Planning Attorneys for a free consultation. We have Estate Planning Attorneys in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota and Florida.
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