Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Does New COVID Relief Bill have an Impact on Seniors?

Money Talk News’ recent article entitled “6 Ways the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirees” provides a look at some of the changes retirees can expect from the new legislation.

  1. Stimulus payments for dependent adults. A first noticeable way in which the third round of stimulus payments is different from the first two is that dependents of all ages can qualify. Therefore, a household that supports a disabled senior will receive an additional $1,400 payment for that senior, if the household claims the person as a dependent on their federal income tax.
  2. Funding for ailing pension plans. The American Rescue Plan Act includes several terms concerning pension plans, one of which calls for the Treasury Department to transfer funds to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. so that certain financially troubled multiemployer pensions can continue to pay out full benefits. That will help more than one million Americans. The PBGC operates insurance programs for single-employer and multiemployer pensions.
  3. Eligibility for the earned income credit for 2021. One of several changes the legislation made to the earned income tax credit — which is for working taxpayers with low to moderate incomes — is striking the maximum age of 64 for the 2021 tax year. As a result, seniors who work may be eligible to claim the earned income credit, when they file their taxes in 2022. The usual eligibility requirements for the credit require you to have at least one qualifying child or, if you don’t have a qualifying child, you must be between 25 and 65.
  4. Higher taxes for some gig workers. However, this COVID-19 relief law isn’t all good news for all taxpayers. Retirees (and anyone else) who earn some extra money with gig work might face more taxes in the future. This will help offset the cost of the American Rescue Plan Act, generating an estimated $8.4 billion in additional tax revenue for the federal government through fiscal year 2031. Companies with gig workers may report more payments than in the past, so the IRS will have a better idea of who is earning income from gig-economy jobs. This change may come as a surprise for some who’ve underreported income in the past.
  5. Tax relief for forgiven student loans. Under the Act, student loan debt that’s forgiven in 2021 through 2025 can be excluded from the debtor’s gross income. That will shield the canceled debt from federal taxation. Prior to this, such canceled debt generally was considered taxable income by the IRS. This will apply to student loan debtors of all ages. However, that group includes a growing number of retirees, as 20% of all student loan debt — around $290 billion — is owed by people age 50 and older, according to a 2019 AARP report. That’s five times more since 2004.
  6. New or expanded tax credits for health premiums. Retirees who aren’t yet 65 and as a result don’t have Medicare health insurance, might benefit from tax credits in the Act that help eligible individuals with two other types of health insurance. The law creates a refundable, advanceable tax credit for COBRA continuation coverage premiums. It is for people who are eligible for COBRA from when the Act was signed into law (March 11) and Sept. 30, 2021.

Reference: Money Talk News (March 16, 2021) “6 Ways the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirees”

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

Does My Family have to Pay My Credit Cards when I Die?

Market Realist’s recent article entitled “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?” says that the short answer is that the deceased’s estate pays off any credit card debt they have left behind. Credit card debt and other debts can pass on to others in some cases, which is a big reason why estate planning is so important.

When a person dies, their assets are frozen until his or her will is verified, their debts are settled and their beneficiaries are identified in the probate process.

Then, the state will order that the deceased’s remaining assets (such as leftover cash and property with cash value) be used to pay off the credit card debt. However, retirement accounts, eligible brokerage accounts, and life insurance payouts are usually protected from this debt reconciliation. Once the debts are settled, the beneficiaries get their inheritance.

The debts are paid off until they’re all settled, or until the estate runs out of money. Unsecured debts, like credit cards, are usually paid off after secured debts, administrative fees and attorney fees.

There are some circumstances in which another person is legally obligated to pay the deceased’s debt.

Typically, no one is legally required to pay off a deceased individual’s debts, but there are some exceptions:

  • Co-signers must pay loans
  • Joint account holders must pay the debt on credit card accounts
  • Spouses have to pay particular types of debt in some states; and
  • Executors of an estate must pay outstanding bills out of property jointly owned by the surviving and deceased spouses in some states.

In addition, surviving spouses may be required to use community property to pay their deceased spouse’s debt in certain states.

The community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska would also be included in this list, if a special agreement is in place.

If there was no joint account, co-signer, or other exception, only the estate of the deceased person owes the debt.

Reference: Market Realist (Feb. 11, 2021) “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?”

Remind Me Why I Need a Will

There are a number of reasons to draft a will as soon as possible. If you die without a will (intestate), you leave decisions up to your state of residence according to its probate and intestacy laws. Without a will, you have no say as to who receives your assets or properties. Not having a will could also make it difficult for your family.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will” reminds us that, before it is too late, consider these reasons why a will is essential.

Avoid Family Disputes. This process occasionally will lead to disagreements among family members, if there’s no will or your wishes aren’t clear. A contested will can be damaging to relationships within your family and can be costly.

Avoid Costly and Lengthy Probate. A will expedites the probate process and tells the court the way in which you want your estate to be divided. Without a will, the court will decide how your estate will be divided, which can lead to unnecessary delays.

Deciding What Happens to Your Assets. A will is the only way you can state exactly to whom you want your assets to be given. Without a will, the court will decide.

Designating a Guardian for Your Children. Without a will, the court will determine who will take care of your minor children.

Eliminate Stress for Your Family. Most estates must go to probate court to start the process. However, if you have no will, the process can be complicated. The court must name personal representatives to administer your estate.

Protect Your Business. A will allows you to pass your business to your co-owners or heirs.

Provide A Home For Your Pets. If you have a will, you can make certain that someone will care for your pets if you die. The law considers pets as properties, so you are prohibited from leaving assets to your pets in your will. However, you can name beneficiaries for your pets, leaving them to a trusted person, and you can name people to serve as guardians of your pets and leave them funds to meet their needs.

Drafting a will with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can give you and your family peace of mind and convenience in the future.

Reference: Legal Reader (Jan. 28, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will”

What Ailments Increase Risk for Severe COVID-19?

Did you know that if 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred in people 65 and older, and 95% of those who have died have been at least 50 years old?

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “7 Conditions That Increase Your Risk for Severe COVID-19” explains that pre-existing health conditions also significantly increase a person’s odds of getting a severe form of the disease. Moreover, last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 94% of people in the U.S. whose death certificates mentioned COVID-19 also had other health conditions listed.

Here are pre-existing conditions that dramatically increase your odds of severe illness or death, if you’re infected with the coronavirus.

Kidney disease requiring long-term dialysis. If kidney issues require you to be on long-term dialysis, you are more than five times likelier to get COVID-19, and almost four times as likely to die from it than others, according to a study published recently in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The study found that dialysis patients typically have characteristics that increase their risk of COVID-19 and related complications. These individuals are more likely to: (i) be older; (ii) have some underlying conditions and different degrees of immunosuppression; and (iii) reside in long-term care facilities.

Pneumonia. If you have been diagnosed with pneumonia in the past, you may face a higher risk of getting severely ill, or even dying, from COVID-19. Studies show that prior pneumonia illness was the second-greatest overall risk factor for death from COVID-19 — second only to age. The researchers think that a prior case of pneumonia may be a sign that you have an underlying chronic lung disease that’s gone undiagnosed.

Diabetes. Those with diabetes — either Type 1 or Type 2 — who develop COVID-19 are three times as likely to have a severe case or to require hospitalization as people without diabetes who get the disease.

Cancer. Those individuals who have cancer have a heightened risk for both contracting COVID-19 and having worse outcomes from the disease, especially for African American patients. Specifically, patients diagnosed with cancer within the last year were found to be at significantly higher risk for contracting COVID-19. The risk association was highest for those with leukemia, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and lung cancer. Patients diagnosed with both cancer and COVID-19 had higher hospitalization rates (47%) and death rates (15%) than those diagnosed with COVID-19 but not cancer (hospitalization rate of 24%, death rate of 5%). The CDC said right now they don’t know if a past bout with cancer — as opposed to a current diagnosis — increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Sickle cell disease. Those patients with this inherited blood disorder were more likely to have poor outcomes after contracting the coronavirus, according to researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and the CDC. Of 178 COVID-19-positive patients with sickle cell disease who were studied, 69% were hospitalized during their COVID-19 illness; 11% were admitted to the intensive care unit, and 7% died. The researchers also noted that the patients had an average age of 28.6 years, which made the findings even more startling. Sickle cell disease is most frequently found in African Americans. It strikes about one in 365.

Heart disease and cardiovascular issues. A study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center looked at the records of nearly 20,000 patients and that found that cardiovascular disease — or risk factors for it — in COVID-19 patients dramatically increased their risk of dying in the hospital. The risk of death was especially high for older men of color.

Obesity. Those individuals who are severely obese are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than those with conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, according to Kaiser Permanente researchers. This increased risk is especially pronounced in obese men and younger patients who contract COVID-19. The risk of death is more than doubled for patients with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 to 44. It almost doubles again for those with a BMI of 45, compared with people with a normal BMI of 18.5 to 24.

Reference: Money Talks News (Feb. 9, 2021) “7 Conditions That Increase Your Risk for Severe COVID-19”

What are Most Costly Mistakes with Social Security?

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “5 Social Security Oversights That Could Cost You Thousands” says that these five Social Security mistakes could cost you thousands in your retirement.

  1. Claiming Social Security early while you’re still working. You can claim your Social Security retirement benefit as young as age 62, but your benefits will be permanently reduced when compared with the amount you would receive if you waited until your full retirement age. Social Security will also penalize you for continuing to work while collecting benefits, if you are younger than your full retirement age.
  2. Failing to claim Social Security by your 70th birthday. Once you hit age 62, your benefit increases the longer you wait to claim, until you reach 70. You don’t have to claim your benefit by your 70th birthday, but there is no more benefit for waiting at that point.
  3. Delaying past your full retirement age to claim Social Security spousal benefits. If you’re claiming Social Security benefits based on your own income record, it’s smart to wait past your full retirement age to start taking benefits. However, if you’re claiming based on your spouse’s benefits, there’s no benefit to delay beyond your full retirement age to claim. As a result, married couples of similar ages who have vastly different earned incomes have a dilemma: for you to claim spousal benefits, your spouse also has to have begun claiming benefits based on his or her own earnings record. This combination makes it less worthwhile for the primary breadwinner spouse to wait to collect benefits, if the spouse is expecting to take spousal benefits.
  4. Taxes on Social Security benefits are not adjusted for inflation. Originally, Social Security benefits weren’t taxed. However, in 1984, the government started taxing Social Security benefits once a person’s combined income reached $25,000. Even now, the income level where Social Security starts to get taxed is still at $25,000. Because there is no adjustment for inflation, this makes more of people’s Social Security income taxable. This easily costs even moderate-income retirees thousands of dollars of spendable income over the course of their retirements.
  5. “Tax free” income counts toward making Social Security taxable. Even traditionally tax-free sources of income, like the interest from in-state municipal bonds, is included in the calculations to see how much of your Social Security will be considered taxable. Therefore, seniors who own tax free municipal bonds as part of their retirement portfolio may be surprised to find that those bonds are what’s causing their Social Security to be taxed. Seniors who find themselves in that situation may want to reevaluate their choice to be invested in those tax-free municipal bonds.

Despite how simple Social Security may appear, these five situations show how mistakes can cost thousands of dollars.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 14, 2021) “5 Social Security Oversights That Could Cost You Thousands”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

Dr. Seuss’ Controversy Impact on Estate?

It may surprise you to know exactly how profitable the estate of Dr. Seuss continues to be. Eighty years after the publication of his first children’s book — “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” which is among the works being discontinued — the author’s collection still makes a whole lot of money, says The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How Dr. Seuss became the second highest-paid dead celebrity.”

Forbes.com’s annual inventory of the highest-paid dead celebrities, Theodor Geisel —AKA “Dr. Seuss”— ranks second, only trailing Michael Jackson. The Seuss empire raked in earnings last year of $33 million. In other words, the Vipper of Vipp, Flummox and Fox in Sox generated a bushel-full of dough in 2020.

Add to this, the fact that because of the news that six of his 60+ books will no longer be published, buyers are scrambling to purchase his back catalog. This means more money for the good doctor, as evidenced by the fact that recently nine of the top 10 spots on Amazon’s best-sellers list were occupied by Dr. Seuss, including classics “The Cat in the Hat,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

The answer to how Dr. Suess’ estate has maintained a $33 million fortune 30 years after his death, is that it’s his wife’s doing. Geisel died in 1991 at the age of 87. Two years after that, Audrey Geisel, founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises to handle licensing and film deals for her husband’s work.

She passed away in 2018, but Dr. Seuss Enterprises is still going strong. It’s shrewdly built the Seuss brand with kids’ merchandise and several television and film projects, notably the animated “Green Eggs and Ham” series, which debuted on Netflix in 2019, starring Michael Douglas, Keegan-Michael Key and Diane Keaton.

Past Seuss projects include Jim Carrey’s “The Grinch” in 2000; Mike Myers’s mediocre “The Cat in the Hat” in 2003, “Horton Hears a Who!” in 2008; not to mention the 2001 Broadway bomb “Seussical.”

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (March 9, 2021) “How Dr. Seuss became the second highest-paid dead celebrity”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

The importance of the family business in the U.S. can’t be overstated. Neither can the problems that occur as a direct result of a failure to plan for succession. Business succession planning is the development of a plan for determining when an owner will retire, what position in the company they will hold when they retire, who the eventual owners of the company will be and under what rules the new owners will operate, instructs a recent article, “Succession planning for family businesses” from The Times Reporter. An estate planning attorney plays a pivotal role in creating the plan, as the sale of the business will be a major factor in the family’s wealth and legacy.

  • Start by determining who will buy the business. Will it be a long-standing employee, partners, or family members?
  • Next, develop an advisory team of internal employees, your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor and insurance agent.
  • Have a financial evaluation of the business prepared by a qualified and accredited valuation professional.
  • Consider taxes (income, estate and gift taxes) and income requirements to sustain the owner’s current lifestyle, if the business is being sold outright.
  • Review estate planning strategies to reduce income and estate tax liabilities.
  • Examine the financial impact of the sale on the family member, if a non-family member buys the business.
  • Develop the structure of the sale.
  • Create a timeline.
  • Get started on all of the legal and financial documents.
  • Meet with the family and/or the new owner on a regular basis to ensure a smooth transition.

Selling a business to the next generation or a new owner is an emotional decision, which is at the heart of most business owner’s utter failure to create a plan. The sale forces them to confront the end of their role in the business, which they likely consider their life’s work. It also requires making decisions that involve family members that may be painful to confront.

The alternative is far worse for all concerned. If there is no plan, chances are the business will not survive. Without leadership and a clear path to the future, the owner may witness the destruction of their life’s work and a squandered legacy.

Speak with your estate planning attorney and your accountant, who will have had experience helping business owners create and execute a succession plan. Talking about such a plan with family members can often create an emotional response. Working with professionals who benefit from a lack of emotional connection to the business will help the process be less about feelings and more about business.

Reference: The Times Reporter (March 7, 2021) “Succession planning for family businesses”