Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Kiplinger’s recent article titled “Britney Spears’ Sad Song … Warning: This Could Happen to You” says that conservatorship is a topic that’s been in the news lately with Britney’s recent court battle.

In Britney’s case, while there has not been any evidence alleged of actual fraud or financial abuse in her conservatorship, she lost nearly all control over her finances, her business affairs and the most personal aspects of her life.

She also doesn’t want her father to be the person to hold that much power or control over her life.

A judge can take charge of an individual’s personal and financial decisions and appoint a third party to make decisions almost on an unlimited basis. These proceedings can exact a significant emotional toll and be tremendously expensive and time-consuming.

Conservatorship can happen to anyone, if and when you’re too disabled (due to an accident or illness) or too incompetent (due to infirmity of mind, old age or dementia, or a similar condition) to handle your own affairs.

If your estate plan addresses this with a chain of command to act on your behalf, no formal court proceedings would be required. Your wishes can be honored, and all the drama like that which Britney Spears has endured can be avoided.

If you are under age 60, there is a four to five times greater likelihood that you’ll become disabled, due to an accident or illness, for a period of more than one year, than your chances of dying. This is because modern medicine can often prevent death but not cure the illness or condition causing the disability. If you’re over age 60, there’s a 70% chance that, during your remaining lifetime, you’ll be too disabled or incompetent to act for yourself, for a period of at least two to 2½ years.

However, Britney Spears’ battle to end her court-ordered conservatorship took an unexpected turn recently, when her father and the conservator of her estate, Jamie Spears, filed a petition to end the arrangement. Mr. Spears cited his daughter’s pleas at two separate court hearings over the summer in his request to terminate the 13-year conservatorship.

“Recent events related to this conservatorship have called into question whether circumstances have changed to such an extent that grounds for establishment of a conservatorship may no longer exist,” the filing states.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “Britney Spears’ Sad Song … Warning: This Could Happen to You”

What Is a Power of Attorney?

Any responsible adult can act as your agent. South Florida Reporter’s recent article entitled “Everything You Should Know About Power of Attorney” says this is an important decision that shouldn’t be handled lightly.

A power of attorney or “POA” is a legal document that authorizes a trusted person (the “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) to make decisions on your behalf (the “donor” or “grantor”).

The authority can be broad, or it can be narrow for only specific actions.

There are two basic types of powers of attorney: one for finances and another for medical decisions.

A financial POA provides your agent with the authority to make financial and property decisions on your behalf. This may include handling your bank or building society accounts, collecting a pension or benefits, paying bills, or selling your house. Once registered, you can use it right away or keep it till you lose your mental capacity.

A medical POA lets your agent make decisions about your medical care and placement in a care facility, including life-sustaining medical care. It should only be used if you’re incapable of making your own decisions, and you must agree to it while you are still capable of doing so.

These specifics may vary, but the following are general guidelines that typically apply:

  • Write it down
  • Determine the parties
  • Delegate the authority
  • Define the term “durability”; and
  • Get the POA notarized.

Appoint a person as your representative who’s both trustworthy and capable.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (July 18, 2021) “Everything You Should Know About Power of Attorney”

Does My Brain Improve as I Age?

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “2 Ways Your Aging Brain Actually Improves Over Time” explains that our ability to gather new information and to concentrate on the most important things in any given situation may get better with age, according to new research out of Georgetown University Medical Center. The findings were published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

As part of the study, researchers examined three distinct components of attention and executive function in group of about 700 participants:

  • Alerting — a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness in order to respond to incoming information;
  • Orienting — the shifting of brain resources to a particular location in space; and
  • Executive inhibition — in which we inhibit distracting or conflicting information, allowing us to focus on what is important.

Study co-author João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, explained:

“We use all three processes constantly. For example, when you are driving a car, alerting is your increased preparedness when you approach an intersection. Orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian. And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions, such as birds or billboards, so you can stay focused on driving.”

They looked at individuals from 58 and 98, the ages when cognition tends to change the most during the aging process. The researchers found that while alerting abilities declined with age, the other two abilities improved. Those two abilities help us with several key parts of cognition, such as:

  • Memory
  • Decision-making
  • Self-control
  • Navigation
  • Math
  • Language
  • Reading

The researchers say orienting and inhibition appear to be skills that can get better over a lifetime the more they’re practiced. However, it appears that alerting — a basic state of vigilance and preparedness — can’t improve with practice.

Study co-author Michael T. Ullman, a professor in the Georgetown University Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab, commented, “People have widely assumed that attention and executive functions decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions. However, the results from our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life.”

Reference: Money Talks News (Sep. 6, 2021) “2 Ways Your Aging Brain Actually Improves Over Time”

What’s a Pot Trust?

A pot trust can give you added flexibility as to the way in which the trust assets are used, if you plan to leave your entire estate to your children, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How Does a Pot Trust Work?” It’s also called a discretionary, sprinkling or common pot trust and is a type of trust that can be used by families to pass on assets. Minor children serve as beneficiaries with a trustee overseeing the management of trust assets. The trustee has discretionary power to decide how the trust funds are used to pay for the care and needs of beneficiaries.

Flexibility is key in family pot trusts, since the assets are distributed based on the children’s needs, rather than setting specific distribution rules as to who gets what. You might consider this type of trust over other types of trusts if: (i) you have two or more children; and (ii) at least one of those children is a minor. As long as the trust is in place, the trustee determines how trust assets may be used to provide for the beneficiaries’ well-being. This trust is designed to address the financial needs of individual children as they arise, and there’s no requirement for trust assets to be divided equally among them.

Pot trusts can offer an advantage to parents who want to make certain the needs of their children will be met in the event something happens to them. If both parents were to die, a pot trust could provide money to cover basic living expenses, as well as other costs that might arise. You can decide when the trust should end, based on the ages of your children, if ever. Children can also still get distributions from the trust once it terminates, if all trust assets haven’t been used.

However, pot trusts don’t ensure an equal distribution of assets among multiple children. A family pot trust can also put an increased burden on the trustee because the trustee must in effect assume a parental role when it comes to financial decision-making. There’s no predetermined set of instructions left behind by the trust grantor.

However, if you’re worried about issues of fairness or older children having to wait to receive trust assets, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about creating individual trusts instead, so that you can designate specific assets to be added to each trust and provide instructions to the trustee on how those assets should be managed. An individual trust gives you more control over what happens with the trust assets. You can also say what portion of your estate each child should receive.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Aug. 31, 2021) “How Does a Pot Trust Work?”

 

What Should I Know about Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning?

Cryptocurrency is a digital currency that can be used to buy online goods and services, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “Cryptocurrency And Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know.” Part of cryptocurrency’s appeal is the technology that backs it. Blockchain is a decentralized system that records and manages transactions across many computers and is very secure.

As of June 24, the total value of all cryptocurrencies was $1.35 trillion, according to CoinMarketCap. There are many available cryptocurrencies. However, the most popular ones include Bitcoin, Ethereum, Binance Coin and Dogecoin. Many believe cryptocurrency will be a main currency in the future, and they’re opting to buy it now. They also like the fact that central banks are not involved in the process, so they can’t interfere with its value.

In addition, NFTs or non-fungible tokens, are also gaining in popularity. Each token is one of a kind and they’re also supported by blockchain technology. They can be anything digital, such as artwork or music files. NFTs are currently being used primarily as a way to buy and sell digital art. An artist could sell their original digital artwork to a buyer. The buyer is the owner of the exclusive original, but the artist might retain proprietary rights to feature the artwork or make copies of it. The popularity of NFTs is centered around the social value of fine art collecting in the digital space.

Here are three reasons to have an estate plan, if you buy bitcoin:

  1. No probate. Even if your loved ones knew you had cryptocurrency, and even if they knew where you stored your password, that wouldn’t be enough for them to get access to it. Without a proper estate plan, your digital assets may be put through a lengthy and expensive probate process.
  2. Blockchain technology. You must have a private key to access each of your assets. It’s usually a long passcode. A comprehensive estate plan that includes this can help you have peace of mind knowing that your investments can be passed on to loved ones’ if anything were to happen to you unexpectedly.
  3. Again, central banks don’t play any part in the process, and it’s secure because its processing and recording are spread across many different computers. However, there’s no governing body overseeing the affairs of cryptocurrency.

Reference: Forbes (July 21, 2021) “Cryptocurrency And Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know”

States with the Best Tax Rates for Retirees

For the moment, fewer Americans are concerned about the federal estate tax. However, if your goal is to leave as much as possible to heirs, then it’s wise to consider all the taxes of the state you choose for retirement. That’s all detailed in the article “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes” from Kiplinger.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have their own estate taxes, which some call “death taxes.” Their exemption levels are far lower than the federal government’s. There are also six states with inheritance taxes, where heirs pay taxes based on their relationship to the deceased. Maryland has both: an estate tax and an inheritance tax.

The most tax friendly states of all are Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Delaware. In Colorado, taxpayers 55 and older get a retirement income exclusion from state taxes that gets better when they reach 65. Colorado also has one of the lowest median tax rates and seniors may qualify for an exemption of up to 50% of the first $200,00 of property value. Colorado also has a flat income tax rate of 4.55%, and up to $24,000 of Social Security benefits, along with other retirement income, can be excluded for income tax purposes.

Next in line for retiree tax friendliness are Montana, Idaho, California, Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Let’s look at the Sunshine State, which has no state income tax and also a low sales tax rate. Property taxes are low in Florida, and residents 65 and older who meet certain income, property-value and length-of-ownership standards also receive a homestead exemption of up to $50,000 from some city and county governments and meet other requirements. Social Security benefits are not taxed in Florida and the state has no income tax, making it extremely attractive to retirees.

Coming in third place with a mixed tax picture are Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and the District of Columbia.  Many people are moving to North Carolina, where Social Security benefits are not taxed, but tax breaks for other kinds of retirement income are far and few between. Property taxes are low and there are no estate or inheritance taxes. State income is taxed at a flat 5.25% percent, making North Carolina competitive, when compared to high state income taxes. Then there’s Oklahoma, which doesn’t tax Social Security benefits and allows residents to exclude up to $10,000 per person ($20,000 for couples) in retirement income. However, the Sooner State has one of the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the nation. Property taxes also fall right in the middle, when the median property taxes for all 50 states are compared.

Looking for a state to avoid when it comes to taxes? The fourth place in taxes goes to New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Indiana may not tax Social Security benefits, but it taxes IRAs, 401(k) plans and private pension income. And counties are authorized to levy their own income taxes on top of the state’s flat tax. Sales and property taxes are in the middle of the road. Illinois also spares retirees from taxes on Social Security and income from most retirement plans, but property taxes in are the second highest in the nation. Sales tax rates are high in Illinois. The state also levies an estate tax on heirs. Pennsylvania has an inheritance tax and high property taxes (the 12th highest in the country). However, it has a flat income tax rate of 3.07%, although school districts and municipalities may levy their own taxes.

Lowest on the list for retirees seeking to minimize tax expenses are New York State, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Everyone knows about taxes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but Texas? How does a state with no income tax at all end up on the “least tax friendly for retirees” list? Texas has the seventh-highest median property tax rate in the country. There are some exemptions for retirees, but not enough to make the state tax friendly. Sales taxes are high, with the average combined state and local taxes in the state hitting 8.19%.

Taxes are not the only factor in deciding where to retire. Where you ultimately retire also considers where your loved ones live, what level of healthcare you need now and may need in the future and whether you want to move or remain in your community.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 25, 2021) “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes”

Should I Try Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning explains that the coronavirus pandemic has made many people face decisions about estate planning. Many will use a do-it-yourself solution. Internet DIY websites make it easy to download forms. However, there are mistakes people make when they try do-it-yourself estate planning.

Here are some issues with do-it-yourself that estate planning attorneys regularly see:

You need to know what to ask. If you’re trying to complete a specific form, you may be able to do it on your own. However, the challenge is sometimes not knowing what to ask. If you want a more comprehensive end-of-life plan and aren’t sure about what you need in addition to a will, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. If you want to cover everything, and are not sure what everything is, that’s why you see them.

More complex issues require professional help. Take a more holistic look at your estate plan and look at estate planning, tax planning and financial planning together, since they’re all interrelated. If you only look at one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another. This could unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. Your situation might also include special issues or circumstances. A do-it-yourself website might not be able to tell you how to account for your specific situation in the best possible way. It will just give you a blanket list, and it will all be cookie cutter. You won’t have the individual attention to your goals and priorities you get by sitting down and talking to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate laws vary from state to state. Every state may have different rules for estate planning, such as for powers of attorney or a health care proxy. There are also 17 states and the District of Columbia that tax your estate, inheritance, or both. These tax laws can impact your estate planning. Eleven states and DC only have an estate tax (CT, HI, IL, ME, MA, MN, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA). Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax. Maryland has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax.

Setting up health care directives and making end-of-life decisions can be very involved. It’s too important to try to do it yourself. If you make a mistake, it could impact the ability of your family to take care of financial expenses or manage health care issues. Don’t do it yourself.

Reference: US News & World Report (July 5, 2021) “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning”

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

Given a choice, most people will opt to do almost anything rather than talk about death and life for others after they are gone. However, estate planning is essential to ensure that your life and life’s work will be cared for correctly after you’ve passed, advises the article “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” from NASDAQ.com. If you own any assets, have a family, loved ones, pets or belongings you’d like to give to certain people or organizations, you need an estate plan.

Estate planning is not a set-it-and-forget it process. Every few years, your estate plan needs to be reviewed to be sure the information is accurate. Big life changes, from birth and death to marriage and divorce—and everything in between—usually also indicate it’s time for an update. Changes in tax laws also require adjustments to an estate plan, and this is something your estate planning attorney will keep you apprised of.

Reviewing and updating an estate plan is a straightforward process, once your estate planning attorney has created an initial plan. Keeping it updated protects your wishes and your loved ones’ futures. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing your estate plan:

Have you moved? Changes in residence require an update, since estate laws vary by state. You also should keep your advisors, including estate planning attorney, financial advisor and tax professional, informed about any changes of residence. You’d be surprised how many people move and neglect to inform their professional advisors.

Changes in tax law. The last five years have seen big changes in tax laws. Estate plans created years ago may no longer work as originally intended.

Power of Attorney documents. A Power of Attorney authorizes a person to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal and financial decisions. If this document is old, or no longer complies with your state’s laws, it may not be accepted by banks, investment companies, etc. If the person you designed as your POA decades ago can’t or won’t serve, you need to choose another person. If you need to revoke a power of attorney, speak with your estate planning attorney to do this effectively.

Health Care Power of Attorney and HIPAA Releases. Laws concerning who may speak with treating physicians and health care providers have become increasingly restrictive. Even spouses do not have automatic rights when it comes to health care. You’ll also want to put your wishes about being resuscitated or placed on artificial life support in writing.

Do you have an updated last will and testament? Review all the details, from executor to guardian named for minor children, the allocation of assets and your estate tax costs.

What about a trust? If you have minor children, you need to ensure their financial future with a trust. Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation.

A regular check-up for your estate plan helps avoid unnecessary expenses, delays and costs for your loved ones. Don’t delay taking care of this very important matter. You can then return to selecting a color for the nursery or planning your next exciting adventure. However, do this first.

Reference: NASDAQ.com (July 28, 2021) “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Minor Children, Guardian, Last Will and Testament, Executor, Power of Attorney, Health Care, POA, Assets, Trust, HIPAA Release

What Your Need to Know about 529 College Savings Plans

You might think that tax-deferred savings is the main benefit, along with tax-free withdrawals for qualifying higher education expenses. However, there are also state tax incentives, such as tax deductions, credits, grants, or exemption from financial aid consideration from in-state schools in certain states .

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)” says there are many more advantages to the college savings programs than simple tax benefits.

1) Registered Apprenticeship Programs Qualify. You can make qualified withdrawals from a 529 plan for registered apprenticeship programs. These programs cover a wide range of areas with an average annual salary for those that complete their apprenticeship of $70,000.

2) International Schools Usually Qualify. More than 400 schools outside of the US are considered to be qualified higher education institutions. You can, therefore, make tax-free withdrawals from a 529 plan for qualifying expenses at those colleges.

3) Gap Year and College Credit Classes for High School. Some gap year programs have partnered with higher education institutions to qualify for funding from 529 accounts. This includes some international and domestic gap year, outdoor education, study-abroad, wilderness survival, sustainable living trades and art programs. Primary school students over 14 can also use 529 funds for college credit classes, where available.

4) Get Your Money Back if Not Going to College. If your beneficiary meets certain criteria, it’s possible to avoid a 10% penalty and changing the plan from tax-free to tax-deferred. For this to happen, the beneficiary must:

  • Receive a tax-free scholarship or grant
  • Attend a US military academy
  • Die or become disabled; or
  • Get assistance through a qualifying employer-assisted college savings program.

Note that 529 plans are technically revocable. Therefore, you can rescind the gift and pull the assets back into the estate of the account owner. However, there are tax consequences, including tax on earnings plus a 10% penalty tax.

5) Private K–12 Tuition Is Qualified. 529 withdrawals can be used for up to $10,000 of tuition expenses at private K–12 schools. However, other expenses, such as computers, supplies, travel and other costs are not qualified.

6) Pay Off Your Student Loans. If you graduate with some money leftover in a 529 account, it can be used for up to $10,000 in certain student loan repayments.

7) Estate Planning. Contributions to a 529 plan are completed gifts to the beneficiary. These can be “superfunded” for up to $75,000 per beneficiary in a single year, effectively using five years’ worth of annual gift tax exemption up front. For retirees with significant RMDs (required minimum distributions) from qualified accounts, such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, the 529 plan offers high contribution limits across multiple beneficiaries, while retaining control of the assets during the lifetime of the account owner. Assets also pass by contract upon death, avoiding probate and estate tax.

Reference: Forbes (July 15, 2021) “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)”

Will Congress Provide more Dollars for Elder Care?

For millions of Americans taking care of elderly or disabled loved ones, resources are very costly. Government assistance is provided through Medicaid, but it’s just for those with the lowest incomes. Many who qualify don’t get the help because many states restrict the number of eligible recipients, resulting in long waiting lists.

NBC News’ recent article entitled “Democrats want billions to pay for elder care. Republicans say the price tag is too high” reports that Democrats have earmarked roughly $300 billion to expand home-based care for seniors and the disabled in the $3.5 trillion spending bill dubbed the American Families Plan. The bill would offer states incentives to lift their income caps to 300 times the poverty level, or about $38,600 per person. Democrats say it would enable an additional 3.2 million people to be eligible for home-based assistance.

However, Republicans are launching an all-out messaging campaign that accuses Democrats of a “reckless tax and spending spree” and saying the American Families Plan would lead to higher inflation and a suffering economy. Democrats say they aren’t afraid of the cost or of Republican claims about inflation. Research shows that the elder care proposal is one of the most popular components of their agenda among likely Democratic voters. Two-thirds of voters said expanding access to home-based care for the elderly and the disabled was important, and 48% strongly favored the expansion.

Progressives have said $3.5 trillion is too little to transform the economy. Moderate Democrats point to the risk of inflation.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), who is a member of the House Women’s Caucus, cared for her dad, who suffered a stroke, her mom, who had Alzheimer’s and three young children when she was running for Congress. She said elder care is a priority.

“Even though I had resources and options, it was really, really challenging to me. That story plays out for parents and women across this country every day,” Clark said in an interview. “It is long past time that we recognize how fundamental the care agenda and the care economy is to our economy in general.”

Democrats also would like to pass provisions to guarantee that home health care workers make a living wage through reporting guidelines and by requiring a minimum wage, which would be set by region.

Reference: NBC News (Aug. 21, 2021) “Democrats want billions to pay for elder care. Republicans say the price tag is too high.”