Firearms are unique in this regard; guns are the only item of personal property that carry an inherent risk of legal peril, including potential criminal liability, so careful and deliberate planning is warranted.
It’s common to focus on the big assets when creating an estate plan, like the family home, investment accounts and life insurance, but personal property also needs to be addressed, especially if the items are of great value or if ownership is complicated. This is especially the case regarding firearms, discussed in a recent article, “In the Crosshairs: Guns in Estate Planning” from The National Law Review.
Your executor, personal representative or successor trustee is the person who takes on the fiduciary role of administering your estate, according to the directions in your last will and testament. What seems like a relatively simple transfer of your favorite shotgun to a family member could lead to serious legal problems, if the family member is a “prohibited person.”
The Gun Control Act of 1968 made it unlawful for certain people to ship, transport, receive or possess firearms or ammunition. This group includes persons with mental illness, felons, dishonorable discharges or domestic violence convictions. Unless your executor knows the family member and can confirm they do not belong to any of these categories, the transfer and receipt of the firearm could constitute criminal behavior.
Geography could be an issue as well. A federal firearms license holder must be used to transfer the firearm, if the recipient lives in a different state. Since guns laws vary widely throughout the US, transfers are not straightforward. Something perfectly legal in one state may be a felony in another.
Laws about guns and related devices change also. After a mass shooting event in Las Vegas in 2017, the bump stock, a device used to allow more shots to be fired from an assault weapon was made illegal and owners were advised to surrender or destroy any bump stocks in their possession. If the fiduciary doesn’t know anything about firearms, they may unwittingly commit a felony.
The risks of transferring firearms can be addressed with informed planning. Gun trusts are used to protect and plan, especially for unique items like registered machine guns, suppressors, short barrel rifles and short barrel shotguns.
In recent years, the gun trust use has expanded to collectible firearms to preserve their use for future generations. Collectable firearms often are as expensive as collectible cars, so care must be taken to properly preserve and transfer them.
If firearms are in your home and you wish to pass them along to another family member, the best way to do this is with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney who can create a gun trust and help determine if the intended heir is permitted to inherit a gun.
Reference: The National Law Review (May 10, 2022) “In the Crosshairs: Guns in Estate Planning”
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