Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Is the Purpose of a Pet Trust?

You don’t have to be a billionaire to want to protect your pets. However, you do need to plan for their well-being, if something happens to you. Since pets are considered property, they can’t inherit money to be used for their care. Instead, as explained in a recent article from Barron’s Penta “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust” titled owners can create pet trusts to protect them, if something happens to their humans. With close to 70% of American households having pets, pet trusts have now become mainstream.

Owners need to designate a reliable caregiver, just as they would designate a guardian for minor children. If you don’t have family members or friends who love animals, contact a local animal rescue group to learn if they have a life-long care program for animals. Many do, with programs incorporating Charitable Remainder Trusts to cover the cost of the pet’s care.

If you want a friend or relative to care for your pet, make sure they are willing and able to do so.  You should have another person as a back-up, in case something happens to them. Circumstances change, and someone who wants to take care of your pet now may not be able to in future years. How long you need to plan for depends upon the lifespan of your pet.

An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pet trust. Because state law enforces conditional distributions from the trust, the care of your pet can be enforced in court, if necessary. The pet owner names a beneficiary, the caregiver and funds the trust with enough assets to care for the pet.

The pet owner also names a trustee. They are a responsible person who will be in charge of distributing funds and making sure they are used for the pet’s well-being. The trustee also makes sure that the pet is healthy and being properly cared for, following the directions of the trust.

Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are regarding pet trusts, which varies from state to state. For instance, Pennsylvania requires a pet trust to end when the last pet in the trust dies, while other states may limit the trust’s length to 21 years. For dogs and cats, 21 years is a reasonable period of time. However, for other pets, like birds who can live to 100 years, this won’t be long enough.

You’ll need to fund the trust, making sure that there’s enough money to cover the pet’s needs throughout their lifetime. You may also consider the caregiver’s needs, depending on circumstances. How much is reasonable will depend upon the type of pet and the lifestyle of the caretaker. An apartment dweller caring for an elderly cat will need a different level of resources than a person tasked to care for a young horse.

Some states limit the amount of money in a pet trust and will penalize overfunding. Making sure your pet trust is appropriately funded may limit the likelihood of its being challenged.

Reference: Barron’s Penta (April 18, 2022) “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust”

What’s the VA Doing about Long Wait Times?

In his recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s concerned about delivering accurate information on appointment timeliness to veterans as they seek to resume care that was deferred or canceled in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data.”

“If you look at our average wait times across the system, they’re good, but it’s a big system and we’re coming out of a pandemic,” he said. “So, I fear that there are outliers where people are waiting too long.”

Wait times at VA facilities made headlines in 2014, after whistleblowers revealed that officials were manipulating data to cover up long delays in care to meet performance metrics. During President Trump’s administration, the department began posting wait-time data online for all VA hospitals and clinics in an attempt to show more transparency into how long veterans have to wait for routine or specialty appointments.

However, in a report released Thursday, the VA Inspector General’s office said much of that data remains confusing and misleading.

“The Veterans Health Administration] has sometimes presented wait times with different methodologies, using inconsistent start dates that affect the overall calculations without clearly and accurately presenting that information to the public,” officials wrote.

In response to similar concerns raised by lawmakers, Secretary McDonough said that “we have to do a better job with that” and said he expects an announcement on changes related to the wait time issues in coming months. We’re working really hard on it because I am frustrated with it myself.”

Broad legislation has been stalled in the Senate over concerns about cost and potential workload burdens on Veterans Affairs workers. That’s raised concerns about pressure on the VA health care system, and if veterans could see a significant increase in the time it takes to schedule appointments.

Health officials have touted new pandemic telehealth options within the department as a way to help ease the burden on facilities facing increased requests.

However, lawmakers said that in rural areas — locations with some of the longest wait times already — a lack of reliable internet access may restrict the availability of those services.

Reference: Military Times (April 8, 2022) “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data”

Is Putting a Home in Trust a Good Estate Planning Move?

A typical estate at death will include a personal residence. It’s common for a large estate to also include a vacation home, or family retreat. Leaving real property in trust is common.

Estate plans that include a revocable trust will fund the trust by a pour-over, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should You Own Your Home in Your Trust?”

A settlor (the person establishing a trust) often will title their home to the revocable trust, which becomes irrevocable at death.

Another option is a Qualified Personal Residence Trust, which is irrevocable, to gift a valuable home to a trust for the settlor’s children. With a QPRT, the house is passed over a term of years while the original owner continues to live there, so the gift passes with little or no gift or estate tax.

Some trusts arising from a decedent estate will hold the home belonging to the settlor without any instructions for its disposal or retention. Outside of very large trusts, a requirement to actually purchase homes for beneficiaries in the trust is far less common.

It is more common in a large trust to have terms that let the trustee buy a home for a beneficiary outside the trust or keep the settlor’s home in the trust for a beneficiary’s use, including purchasing a replacement home when requested.

The trustee will hopefully propose a plan that will satisfy the beneficiary without undue risk to the trust estate or exceeding the trustee’s powers. The most relevant considerations for homeownership in a trust are:

  • The competing needs of other trust beneficiaries
  • The purchase price and costs of maintaining the home
  • The size of the trust as compared to those costs
  • Other sources of income and resources available to the beneficiary; and
  • The interests of the remaindermen (beneficiaries who will take from the trust when the current beneficiaries’ interests terminate).

The terms of the trust may require the trustee to ignore some of these considerations.

Each situation requires a number of decisions that could expose the trustee to a charge that it has acted imprudently.

Those who want to create a trust should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to avoid any issues.

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2022) “Should You Own Your Home in Your Trust?”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”

What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

Can I Help Parents Remember Online Passwords?

Hacked usernames and passwords are the most common causes of malicious online identity attacks, accounting for 61% of breaches.

Seniors Matter’s recent article entitled “Why your loved one needs a password manager” explains that keeping your loved one’s passwords safe is actually nearly as important as the security and complexity of the passwords themselves. This is why a password manager can help. It’s software that allows the user to generate, store and manage credentials in one central and secure location online.

A password manager can help make your loved one’s day-to-day interactions with technology easier and more secure for several reasons. For instance, older adults are vulnerable to scammers, more likely to forget their passwords or store them in unsafe locations. Online accounts should be included in estate planning, but many family members find themselves “locked out” of important accounts after their loved one passes, with no access to the credentials—especially if the death is unexpected.

A password manager puts all your loved one’s online account credentials and documents into one secure place, then they have just one password to remember. Many password managers let you share credentials with other people, so nothing’s ever lost forever. This way they can make certain that the right people will have the details they need to access the accounts necessary to settle the estate.

With many password managers, you can not only store, change and access passwords in these apps but also write notes about information like:

  • Financial account details
  • The location of valuables and important documents
  • Important contact info
  • Important logins or security codes that aren’t website logins; and
  • Instructions in case of death.

Research has shown that older adults who use password managers were satisfied with their experiences overall and even felt confident using multiple features, like the password generator and auto-fill.

After a senior gets over the hurdle of setting up and learning how to use the software, they love it and are quite adept at using it.

This is the reason for you as the caregiver to help your loved one get a password manager set up and help them get acquainted with using it properly.

Reference: Seniors Matter (March 6, 2022) “Why your loved one needs a password manager”

Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

Half of Americans Making More than $100K Don’t Have a Will

About 70% of participants in a new survey from Wealth, an estate planning platform, said that they want to pass wealth down to their loved ones. However, only about half (53%) have an estate plan. And only about a third (32%) say they have a will in place.

Think Advisor’s recent article entitled “Nearly Half of Families Earning $100K or More Lack an Estate Plan: Survey” reports that the survey found that people of color, in particular, face accessibility barriers. This group is 14% less likely to have an estate plan in place than their counterparts in the sample.

Wealth’s findings were based on a survey conducted in the U.S. by WALR in partnership with Manifest in the last two weeks of last year among 10,000 employed respondents ages 30 to 55 with a household income of more than $100,000.

The survey results showed that the main factor keeping people from securing their financial legacy is the notion that estate planning should be done in the future rather than now — possibly because 45% of respondents said they avoid thinking about death.

Another misperception is that estate planning is only for the very wealthy: 42% of survey participants said they don’t own anything valuable and as a reason they do not have a plan, and 30% said they don’t have enough money.

Wealth said it behooves employers to make employees aware of estate planning in their benefits packages.

Just 13% of the sample said they receive estate planning as an employee benefit.

About 72% of the respondents who don’t have a plan said they’d be more likely to create a will if the services were offered by their employer.

“Estate planning should not only be available to high-net-worth households,” Rafael Loureiro, Wealth’s co-founder and chief executive, said in a statement. “Employees of all income levels and walks of life can benefit from financial clarity and emotional peace of mind that comes with having an estate plan.”

The survey found that 40% haven’t gotten around to setting up an estate plan, although 70% say they eventually will do it and about 45% say that they actively avoid thinking about death (especially men and 51% of millennials). Almost half (45%) also think it’s inappropriate to talk about money with friends, missing out on valuable financial advice.

Reference: Think Advisor (March 29, 2022) “Nearly Half of Families Earning $100K or More Lack an Estate Plan: Survey”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidentally disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

My Children Really Don’t Want My Stuff?

Next Avenue’s recent article entitled “Your Top 10 Objects Your Kids Don’t Want” gives us a list of these items and what to do with them.

Books. Unless your grown children are professors, they don’t want your books. If you think the book is rare, call a book antiquarian.

Paper Ephemera. Snapshots, old greeting cards and postcards are called paper ephemera. Did you know that? Me neither. Old photos are not worth anything, unless the subject is a celebrity or linked with an important historical event. Old greeting cards are not valuable, unless handmade by a famous artist or sent by a celebrity. Postcards are valued mainly for the stamps. Take all your family snapshots and have them made into digital files. The other option is to sell those old snapshots to greeting card publishers who use them on funny cards or give family photos to image archive businesses, like Getty. If the archive is a not-for-profit, take the donation write-off.

Steamer Trunks, Sewing Machines and Film Projectors. Thrift stores are full of these items. Therefore, unless your family member was a professional and the item is top-notch, yours can go there as well.

Porcelain Figurine Collections and Bradford Exchange Pieces. Your collections of frogs, shoes, flowers, and trolls, as well your Hummel’s, and Precious Moments won’t be wanted by the children. See if you can find a retirement home that does a gift exchange at Christmas and donate the figurines. If you want to hold on to a memory of your mom’s collection, have a professional photographer take a photo for your wall. Collector’s plates won’t sell. Donate these as well.

Silver-Plated Stuff. Your children won’t polish silverplate, so if you give them platters, serving bowls, tea services and candelabra, you won’t enhance your standing. The exception may be silver-plated items from Tiffany or Cartier but give these away to any place or person who will take it.

Heavy, Dark, Antique Furniture. There’s still a market for this sort of furniture at secondhand shops. However, you’ll get less than a quarter of purchase price, if you sell on consignment. Unless your furniture is mid-century modern, there’s a good chance you will have to pay someone to take it off your hands. Instead, donate it and take a non-cash charitable contribution using fair market valuation.

Persian Rugs. No, these aren’t really in vogue for younger adults. However, the high-end market is still collecting in certain parts of the country, like Martha’s Vineyard. However, unless the rug is rare, it’s one of the hardest things to sell these days. If you think the value of the rug is below $2,000, it will be a hard sell. Like antique furniture, it may be best to donate these.

Linens. No, they don’t want them. They might not even own an iron or ironing board, and they definitely don’t set that kind of table. Give these to needlewomen who make handmade Christening clothes, wedding dresses and quinceañera gowns. You may also donate linens to costume shops of theaters and deduct the donation. A site like P4a.com has auction results to establish the fair market value of such objects.

Sterling Silver Flatware and Crystal Wine Services. Matching sets of sterling flatware are tough to sell because they rarely go for “antique” value. Do the children do a lot of formal entertaining? The same is true for crystal. These sets are too precious, and the wine they hold is too small a portion. Sites like Replacements.com offer matching services for people who do enjoy silver flatware and have recognized patterns. Because they sell per piece, and therefore buy per piece, sellers get a rather good price.

Fine Porcelain Dinnerware. Your grown children may not want to store four sets of fancy porcelain dinnerware and won’t see the benefit of unpacking it once a year for a holiday or event. China is something to consider selling. Know your pattern to get a quote. Some replacement companies buy per piece, so the aggregate of the selling price is always more than a bulk sale at a consignment store, which might be the only other option.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 1, 2018) “Your Top 10 Objects Your Kids Don’t Want”