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With estate planning, home is where the domicile is

Joan Rivers was a trailblazer. She was the first woman to be appointed permanent guest host of The Tonight Show. She was the first woman to host her own talk show. She was funny in a way women hadn't really been funny before. She was unique, and she was deeply mourned by friends, family and fans when she passed away in September.

She was bold in life, and she took a bold step to protect her estate. In her will, Rivers stated that she was a resident of New York and that she was domiciled in California.

The distinction is important: The laws of the testator's domicile generally govern the administration of the will. Indeed, the will clearly stated that the laws of New York would apply unless she was domiciled in California at the time of her death.

Rivers' estate was valued at about $150 million, so it was no surprise that she owned homes in more than one state. Generally, an estate plan will name just one state as both domicile and residence. Remember, though, the terms have slightly different meanings in the law.

A domicile is the place you always planned to return to, the "home base" where your social network has been established, where you are registered to vote. The residence is where you are physically at any given time.

There are significant differences between New York's and California's estate taxes and laws of probate. New York has an estate tax; California has none. New York probate courts generally take a hands-off attitude to uncontested wills. California courts are not as easygoing. Probate can be complicated and time-consuming -- and expensive.

The better part of Rivers' estate will go to her daughter and grandson. And it seems that the California domicile was just a dream at the time of her death: The will was filed in New York.


Investment News, "Joan Rivers' estate planning gambit: A New York state of residence," Darla Mercado, Dec. 11, 2014

CBS News, "Melissa Rivers honors mother Joan in emotional tribute," Dec. 11, 2014

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