King County is increasingly a cosmopolitan area, with immigrants from all over the world making new homes here. Many of these immigrants end up marrying citizens and living happy lives as new Americans. However, marrying an American citizen does not automatically make a spouse an American citizen, and citizenship comes with certain rights that non-citizen spouses don't enjoy. Some of these may not become apparent until after one of the spouses dies.
American citizens have an unlimited marital deduction for assets they give to a spouse. This means that transfers of property from one spouse to the other aren't subject to gift or estate taxes. Many estate planning strategies are built around this deduction. However, the deduction is only available when both spouses are U.S. citizens.
The most obvious way to repair this problem is to have the non-citizen spouse become a citizen. However, doing so may not be desirable for some people and some situations. Still, there are other ways to preserve assets. One is to transfer more assets to a spouse during life. While non-citizens don't have an unlimited marital deduction, they can transfer relatively large amounts to a spouse without incurring gift taxes. This year, the exclusion amount is $145,000. One can transfer only $14,000 to a non-spouse before incurring tax penalties.
Another way to preserve assets while providing for a non-citizen spouse is through a trust. A living trust can be set up during a person's lifetime to provide for listed beneficiaries. A testamentary trust can be set up to go into effect upon a person's death. There are many different variations of each type of trust, and a Washington estate planning attorney can help people to pick one that meets their family's needs.
Source: MarketWatch.com, "Estate planning with a non-citizen spouse," Bill Bischoff, Feb. 19, 2014