Fiduciaries and Firearms: What Executors Need to Know When Administering an Estate with Firearms
According to a recent survey published by the Washington Post, there are more than 400 million privately owned guns in the U.S. In another survey performed by the Pew Research Center, it was reported that as of 2017, one in every five women owned at least one gun and three in five men owned at least one gun. This means that if you have been appointed to serve as the executor of an estate, there’s a good chance the assets under your supervision may include firearms. Given the very strict restrictions imposed upon firearms by both federal and state laws, it is important to know what your duties as an executor are in regards to such firearms.
Understanding Categories of Firearms
The first step you should take is to prepare an inventory of all firearms (including ammunition and other accessories) that are part of the estate. Once this is complete, it is important to understand how such items are categorized by law.
Connecticut breaks up firearms (and firearm accessories) into five categories: (1) handguns (pistols and revolvers), (2) long guns (rifles and shot guns), (3) assault weapons, (4) machine guns, and (5) ammunition. The following are certain rules and regulations specific to each category.
With a few exceptions, anyone acquiring a handgun must have an eligibility certificate, permit to sell, or permit to carry handguns. Eligibility certificates and permits are issued by the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (“DESPP”). Connecticut law prohibits the transfer of any handgun to an individual under the age of 21.
- Long Guns
With a few exceptions, anyone acquiring a long gun must have a valid long gun eligibility certificate, handgun eligibility certificate, handgun permit, or gun dealer’s permit. Connecticut law prohibits the transfer of any handgun to an individual under the age of 18.
- Assault Weapons
With a few exceptions, Connecticut law prohibits: (1) giving an assault weapon to anyone, (2) distributing or transporting and assault weapon, and (3) keeping or offering such assault weapons for sale.
An exception to this general rule exists in regards to estates and trusts. An executor of an estate that includes a registered assault weapon (i.e. an assault weapon that was owned and registered prior to the assault weapon ban that went into effect in 2013) may sell, transfer, and possess the weapon at places specified by law or as the probate court authorizes. Assault weapons may also be transferred by bequest or intestate succession to a trust or from a trust to a beneficiary who is eligible to possess them. Any individual that inherits a registered assault weapon has 90 days to apply to register it anew, sell it to a gun dealer, permanently disable it, or transport it out of state.
- Machine Guns
Machine guns are legal if they are registered with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”) and DESPP. It is illegal to use them for offensive or aggressive purposes, as defined by law, or to transfer them to anyone under age 16.
Connecticut law generally requires anyone buying ammunition to have an ammunition certificate or state-issued gun credential and be at least age 18. Connecticut law prohibits buying, selling, or possessing large capacity magazines (“LCMs”) (i.e. magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds) unless such LCM was: (1) lawfully owned prior to the state ban on LCMs, and (2) were declared to DESPP.
Concerns in Estate Administration
Once the firearms have been inventoried and categorized, there are a few questions the executor then needs to consider.
- Who is eligible to possess the firearms?
Under federal law, the mere possession of firearms or ammunition by a “prohibited person” is a federal crime. This applies both to the beneficiary as well as the executor. Examples of “prohibited persons” generally include felons, certain domestic abusers, and certain individuals with a history of mental illness.
Also, as discussed above, the individual in possession of the firearms must have the appropriate certificates of eligibility and/or permits required by the State and must have reached the ages required for possession.
- How should the firearms be stored while the probate administration is ongoing?
Connecticut has some of the strictest laws in the country regarding storage of firearms. For example, individuals are prohibited from storing loaded or unloaded firearms on their premises if they know or reasonably should know that a minor (individual under age 18) is likely to gain access to such firearms without permission. However, this prohibition does not apply if the firearm is locked up or otherwise secured. Connecticut law also prohibits storing handguns in unattended motor vehicles, unless the handgun is in the trunk, in a locked safe, or in a locked glove box.
As such, an executor needs to be very mindful of where the firearms in his possession are being stored, particularly in the case of a probate administration that takes place over several months or years. If this is too significant of a burden, it may be beneficial for the executor to engage a licensed gun dealer to take possession of the firearms.
- What is the proper procedure for distributing firearms to beneficiaries?
If the beneficiary is eligible to possess the firearms, the executor needs to coordinate how to get the firearms to the beneficiary. Consideration should be given to where the beneficiary lives. If the beneficiary lives in Connecticut, the executor should review the rules and regulations issued by the town to see if there are any additional restrictions (above and beyond state and federal law) that could impact the beneficiary’s right to possess the firearms.
If the beneficiary lives out of state, special consideration should be given to how the firearms may be transported and by whom.
Moral of the Story
State and federal laws regarding firearms are numerous and ever-changing. If you are the executor for an estate (or trustee of a trust) that owns firearms, you need to be very mindful of what your duties and obligations are concerning those firearms.
Conversely, if you are a gun owner, be mindful of the burden you may be placing on your executor if you die still owning your guns. Whenever a client asks me what to do with their guns to make their estate administration easier, my answer is simple: “Get rid of them before you die.” If you know who you intend to get the firearms after your death, consider gifting them to such beneficiary during your lifetime and avoid a whole lot of headaches.