NFA Firearms in an Estate: What’s an Executor (or Trustee?) to Do?

Question Mark_YellowYou’re the executor or personal representative of an estate (they’re the same thing, by the way) or a trustee of a trust. The owner of some NFA firearms has died, and you’re left to deal with the aftermath. (Of course, the real “owner” of any NFA arms in a trust is the trustee, but generally, the initial trustee is the grantor of the trust, who we on the outside looking in, view as the owner.) What can you do with the NFA firearms? If you turn them over to the decedent’s heir under the will or the beneficiaries of his trust, do you have to pay the transfer tax?

Fortunately, the BATFE has been fairly helpful on this point, though it could have been more clear. On September 5, 199, the Bureau issued a letter in which it said the following:

If there are unregistered NFA firearms in the estate, these firearms are contraband and cannot be registered by the estate. The executor of the estate should contact the local ATF office to arrange for the abandonment of the unregistered firearms.

So now you know what to do with unregistered NFA items–if you’re an “executor of the estate,” that is. Did the Bureau also mean “trustee of a trust”? Maybe. Later in the same letter, after the word “heir” has been repeated a number of times, we do see this language:

NFA firearms may be transferred directly interstate to a beneficiary of the estate.

Beneficiary. Is that the same as an heir? Though they are often used interchangeably, the two terms are not precise synonyms. Often the word heir is use to define someone who receives property under a will or via a state’s intestacy laws. Beneficiary, on the other hand, is just as often used to describe someone who receives property under trust. Again, they are also used interchangeably. How is the BATFE using the terms in this letter? Inquiring minds would like to know. Maybe this line from the letter helps,

A lawful heir is anyone named in the decedent’s will or, in the absence of a will, anyone entitled to inherit under the laws of the State in which the decedent last resided. (emphasis supplied)

Hmmm. This sounds like intestacy, but is that all? Does “under the laws of the State” mean the same thing as “operation of law” (see below)?

Well, recently, the Bureau issued the final Rule 41F, which affects so-call NFA or gun trusts, among other things:

It [the new rule] also adds a new section to ATF’s regulations to address the possession and transfer of firearms registered to a decedent. The new section clarifies that the executor, administrator, personal representative, or other person authorized under State law to dispose of property in an estate may possess a firearm registered to a decedent during the term of probate without such possession being treated as a “transfer” under the NF A. It also specifies that the transfer of the firearm to any beneficiary of the estate may be made on a tax-exempt basis. (emphasis supplied)

Such transfers are not taxable transfers because they are not “voluntary”; that is, the executor, personal representative, etc. must follow the terms of the will (or trust?) or law. He or she has no choice. That’s all fine and dandy, but are transfers from trust to beneficiaries tax exempt? Come on. Tell us BATFE. You can do it.

In the commentary on the new rule, the Bureau gets a clear as it’s probably going to get in answering that question, when it says:

Transfers of NFA firearms from an estate to a lawful heir are necessary because the deceased registrant can no longer possess the firearm. For this reason, ATF has long considered any transfer necessitated because of death to be involuntary and tax-free when the transfer is made to a lawful heir as designated by the decedent or State law. However, when an NFA firearm is transferred from an estate to a person other than a lawful heir, it is considered a voluntary transfer because the decision has been made to transfer the firearm to a person who would not take possession as a matter of law. Such transfers cannot be considered involuntary and should not be exempt from the transfer tax. Other tax-exempt transfers—including those made by operation of law—may be effected by submitting Form 5. Instructions are provided on the form. (emphasis supplied)

Operation of law would seem to include transfers mandated by language in trusts, trusts which are created under state law, laws that include fiduciary standards that compel trustees to carry out the wishes of the grantor of the trust, whose wishes are stated in the language of the trust. I’m hanging my hat on that.

There are a couple of other things I’d do to make sure that hat fits in every circumstance, but I won’t go into that here.

 

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