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Terror Victims' Families May Get Break on Settling Estates

By Christopher Sherman
Capital News Service
Friday, Oct. 12, 2001

ANNAPOLIS - Families settling the estates of Marylanders lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would find "fast-track" processing and waived fees at Register of Wills offices across the state, under legislation being developed by two Prince George's County lawmakers. 

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who also represents Prince George's, and Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's, are drafting a bill to provide the relief for victims' families. 

Newspapers and bonding agencies are already waiving their customary fees for publishing public notices and bonding personal representatives. "It has really been a wonderful effort by many people," said Lynn Loughlin Skerpon, Prince George's County Register of Wills. 

The legislation would permit county wills offices across the state to waive probate fees and inheritance taxes on the estates of those killed in the terrorist attacks. 

"At a time when many are searching for ways to help, this legislation will provide a small measure of assistance to the spouses, children, parents, siblings and non-lineal heirs of Marylanders whose lives were lost on Sept. 11," Miller said in a statement. "I am positive that every member of the General Assembly will support this initiative." 

Nieces, nephews and friends are considered non-lineal heirs. Beginning last year, lineal heirs do not have to pay state inheritance taxes. 

The proposed legislation would extend that exemption from the 10 percent tax to other types of heirs of victims. The first bills could be prefiled late this month, enabling the General Assembly to take them up immediately upon convening in January, said Vicki Fretwell, Miller's spokeswoman. 

The changes may also be introduced as emergency legislation, so the bill would go into effect with the governor's signature rather than in July or October, the traditional starting times for new laws. 

The victims' estates will remain open until the laws pass, Skerpon said. 

Estates typically take six to nine months to close, but victims' cases will have priority so Department of Defense benefits can reach families as soon as possible. Probate fees, which cover administrative costs, are based on the value of the estate and average between $200 and $400, Skerpon said. 

The few cases involved won't sharply impact the Prince George's office, which handles about 2,700 estates a year, Skerpon said. 

But the cases of the 59 Marylanders lost in the attacks present unusual problems. Some may not have required death certificates or funeral bills, Skerpon said. In other cases, there may be orphaned children who need a legal guardian. 

Joseph Griffin, Montgomery County Register of Wills, cannot think of another time when probate fees have been waived. The only similar tax exemption is a 1999 Maryland law exempting the recovered assets of Holocaust victims from taxation, Griffin said. 

In addition, some insurance agencies and newspapers are waiving their customary estate fees. Insurance agencies must bond the executors of estates in Maryland. State Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen authorized waiving the premiums for those bonds, which generally range from $60 to $100. 

Some newspapers will waive public notice publishing fees, which typically run less than $100. 

Congress is considering similar tax relief measures, and Skerpon said any state relief from estate taxes would probably wait for a federal decision. 

Green described the legislation as "a small effort to relieve the administrative grief for victims' families."


 Copyright 2001 University of Maryland College of Journalism

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