Estate Planning Blog Articles

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estate plan audit

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

digital property protection

Does Your Estate Plan Include Digital Property Protection?

One of the challenges facing estate plans today is a new class of assets, known as digital property or digital assets. When a person dies, what happens to their digital lives? According to the article “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning” from the Cleveland Jewish News, digital assets need to be included in an estate plan, just like any other property.

What is a digital asset? There are many, but the basics include things like social media—Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat—as well as financial accounts, bank and investment accounts, blogs, photo sharing accounts, cloud storage, text messages, emails and more. If it has a username and a password and you access it on a digital device, consider it a digital asset.

Business and household files stored on a local computer or in the cloud should also be considered as digital assets. The same goes for any cryptocurrency; Bitcoin is the most well-known type, and there are many others.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) has been adopted by almost all states to provide legal guidance on rights to access digital assets for four (4) different types of fiduciaries: executors, trustees, agents under a financial power of attorney and guardians. The law allows people the right to grant not only their digital assets, but the contents of their communications. It establishes a three-tier system for the user, the most important part being if the person expresses permission in an online platform for a specific asset, directly with the custodian of a digital platform, that is the controlling law. If they have not done so, they can provide for permission to be granted in their estate planning documents. They can also allow or forbid people to gain access to their digital assets.

If a person does not take either of these steps, the terms of service they agreed to with the platform custodian governs the rights to access or deny access to their digital assets.

It’s important to discuss this new asset class with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan addresses your digital assets. Having a list of digital assets is a first step, but it’s just the start. Leaving the family to fight with a tech giant to gain access to digital accounts is a stressful legacy to leave behind.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 24, 2020) “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning”

estate planning documents

What Estate Planning Documents Do I Need for a Happy Retirement?

Estate planning documents are made to help you and your family, in the event of your untimely demise or incapacitation.

These documents will give your family specific instructions on how to proceed.

The Winston-Salem Journal’s recent article entitled “4 Must-Have Documents for a Peaceful Retirement” looks at these critical documents in constructing an effective estate plan.

  1. Power of Attorney (POA). If you become incapacitated or become unable to make your own financial decisions, a POA will permit a trusted agent to manage your affairs. Have an estate planning attorney review your POA before it’s executed. You can give someone a limited POA that restricts their authority to specific transactions. You can also create a springing POA, which takes effect only at the time of your incapacitation.
  2. Will. About 40% of Americans actually have a will. Creating a valid will prevents you from leaving a mess for your heirs to address after you die. A will appoints an executor who will manage your affairs in a fiduciary manner. The will also details your plan for the distribution of your property. Make certain that your will is also in agreement with other documents you’ve set up, so it doesn’t create any questions.
  3. TOD/POD Designation Forms. A Transfer-on-Death (TOD) or Payable-on-Death (POD) designation lets you to assign your investment accounts to a named beneficiary. The big benefit here is that accounts with a named TOD/POD beneficiary pass directly to that person when you die. Any accounts without a TOD/POD beneficiary will be subject to the terms of your will and will be required to go through the probate process.
  4. Healthcare POA/Advance Directives. These are significant health-related documents. A healthcare POA allows your named agent to communicate your wishes to medical professionals, if you are unable. They also include instructions as to whether you want to have life-saving measures performed, if you have a cardiac or respiratory arrest. These healthcare documents also remove the need for your family to make difficult decisions for you.

Reference: Winston-Salem Journal (Sep. 20, 2020) “4 Must-Have Documents for a Peaceful Retirement”

life insurance

Should I Cash in My Life Insurance Policy?

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy” explains that there are some drawbacks to using life insurance to meet your immediate cash needs—one of which is potentially compromising your long-term goals or your family’s financial future. However, if other options aren’t available, life insurance—especially cash-value life insurance—can be a good source of needed income.

Cash-value life insurance, like whole life and universal life, builds reserves in its excess premiums plus earnings. The deposits are held in a cash-accumulation account within the policy. These cash-value life insurance policies offer the chance to access cash savings within the policy through withdrawals, policy loans, or partial or full surrender of the policy. Another option is to sell your policy for cash, which is called a life settlement.

While cash from the policy might be useful during stressful financial times, you could face unwanted consequences, depending on the way you use to access the funds. You can generally withdraw limited amounts of cash from a life insurance policy. The amount you can take differs, based on the type of policy you have and the carrier. The big advantage of cash-value withdrawals is they’re not taxable up to your policy basis, provided your policy isn’t classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC). That’s a term given to a life insurance policy, where the funding exceeds federal tax law limits.

You should also note that cash-value withdrawals can have some unexpected or unrealized consequences. For one, the withdrawals that decrease your cash value could reduce your death benefit, which is a potential source of funds you or your family might need for income replacement, business purposes, or wealth preservation.

Cash-value withdrawals aren’t always tax-free, like when you take a withdrawal during the first 15 years of the policy, and the withdrawal causes a reduction in the policy’s death benefit. If so, some or all of the withdrawn cash could be subject to taxation. The withdrawals that reduce your cash surrender value could also make your premiums go up to maintain the same death benefit. Otherwise, your policy could lapse.

If your policy has been classified as a modified endowment contract, the withdrawals generally are taxed pursuant to the rules applicable to annuities. The cash disbursements are considered to be made from interest first and are subject to income tax and possibly a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you’re under the age of age 59½, when you take out the funds.

Most cash-value policies let you borrow money from the issuer, using your cash-accumulation account as collateral. The amount you can borrow depends on the value of the policy’s cash-accumulation account and the contract’s terms. The borrowed amounts from non- modified endowment contract policies are not taxable, and you don’t have to make payments on the loan, even though the outstanding loan balance might be accruing interest. However, loan balances typically decrease your policy’s death benefit. Therefore, your beneficiaries might receive less than you intended. An unpaid loan accruing interest also reduces your cash value. This can cause the policy to lapse, if insufficient premiums are paid to maintain the death benefit. If the loan is still outstanding when the policy lapses or if you later surrender the insurance, the borrowed amount becomes taxable to the extent the cash value (without reduction for the outstanding loan balance) exceeds your basis in the contract.

Policy loans from a policy that’s seen as a MEC are treated as distributions. As a result, the amount of the loan up to the earnings in the policy will be taxable and could also be subject to the pre-59½ early-withdrawal penalty. Note that withdrawing money or borrowing money from your policy can reduce your policy’s death benefit. Surrendering the policy also means that you’re giving up the right to the death benefit altogether.

When you surrender or cancel your policy, you can use the cash any way you want. However, if you surrender the policy during the early years of ownership, there will probably be surrender fees that will drop the cash value. The gain on the surrendered policy is also taxed. If you have an outstanding loan balance against the policy, additional taxes could be incurred.

Look at other options before using your life insurance policy for cash, like borrowing against your 401(k) plan or taking out a home equity loan. Each has its drawbacks, but based on your current financial circumstances, some choices are better than others.

As the policy owner, if you sell your life insurance policy to an individual or a life settlement company in exchange for cash, the new owner will keep the policy in force (and pay the premiums). They’ll also get a return on the investment, by receiving the death benefit when you die. The big advantage to a life settlement is that you may receive more for the policy than by cashing it in (surrendering the policy). While life settlements can be a valuable source of liquidity, remember these issues:

  • You relinquish control of the death benefit
  • The new policy owner(s) has access to your past medical records and usually the right to request updates on your health; and
  • The life settlement industry is very marginally regulated, so it’s hard to determine your policy’s value, which makes it tough to know if you’re getting a fair price for your policy.

Up to 30% of your proceeds may also go to commissions and fees, which reduces the net amount you receive.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 11, 2019) “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy”

granny cams

Can Senior Care Facilities Use ‘Granny Cams’?

A bill in Georgia that would permit residents in assisted living communities and personal care homes to install electronic monitoring equipment in their rooms has been met with resistance. There are some members of the long-term care industry the oppose HB 849, so-called “granny cam” legislation due to privacy issues. The legislation—which also covers nursing homes—was introduced by state representative Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge). Douglas contends that the technology is needed now more than ever.

Several states have similar laws.

McKnight’s Senior Living’s recent article entitled “Georgia Legislature blocks ‘granny cam’ legislation; industry reps raised concerns” reports that Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association, says he previously spoke with Douglas and other legislators about the granny cam bill and his concerns. He said concerns were also shared by the state ombudsman and various advocacy groups.

“Surveillance cameras observe — they do not protect — and the use of such cameras in a healthcare setting significantly increases the risk of violating HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], federal and state privacy regulations,” Marshall told McKnight’s Senior Living. “We also have concerns related to several other technical aspects of the bill.”

Marshall also noted that the Georgia Health Care Association supports “transparency and measures to ensure that the highest quality of care is being provided to elderly Georgians,” while also “valuing a home-like setting and honoring each resident’s dignity and right to privacy.”

He said his association believes that true quality improvement happens by collaborative efforts with legislators and other players to bolster the ability of nursing centers to recruit and retain a skilled, competent workforce. This also will “further programs designed to educate healthcare professionals, consumers and communities-at-large on abuse prevention and identification,” Marshall said.

The bill allows electronic monitoring equipment to be put in a resident’s rooms in assisted living communities, personal care homes, skilled nursing facilities and intermediate care homes. The resident would be required to provide written consent from any roommate and notify the facility before installing a device. A sign must also to be posted to let visitors and staff members know about the granny cam. The facility also wouldn’t be permitted to access any video or audio recording from the resident’s device.

Douglas said the pandemic has shown the need for cameras and noted that other states have adopted similar measures, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The state legislator remarked that he introduced the legislation after being contacted during the lockdown by family members, who said they weren’t told about outbreaks or immediately told when an elderly family member died.

There are six states—Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah—that have laws requiring assisted living communities to accommodate resident requests to install electronic monitoring equipment in their rooms.

New Jersey also has a “Safe Care Cam” program that loans such equipment to healthcare consumers, including families of assisted living and nursing home residents.

Reference: McKnight’s Senior Living (Sep. 15, 2020) “Georgia Legislature blocks ‘granny cam’ legislation; industry reps raised concerns”

taxes during retirement

Do I Have to Pay Taxes during Retirement?

Paying taxes when you aren’t working but are instead receiving income from a lifetime of working and Social Security is a harsh reality of retirement for many people. Figuring out how much of your income will be consumed by taxes is a tricky task, according to the article “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement” from Next Avenue. Ignore it, and your finances will suffer.

Most households will pay about six percent of their retirement income in federal income tax, but that number varies greatly, depending upon the size of their retirement income. The lowest income groups may pay next to nothing, but as income rises, so do the taxes. Married couples with an average combined Social Security benefit of about $33,000, 401(k)/IRA balances of $180,790, and personal financial wealth of $87,000 could find themselves paying 10.5% to 20.9%.

Income taxes and health costs are most people’s biggest expenses in retirement. Income taxes are due on pensions and withdrawals from tax-deferred accounts, including traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and similar retirement accounts. The same goes for tax-deferred annuities. Required minimum distributions must be taken starting at age 72.

Roth IRA and 401(k) distributions are tax free, since taxes are paid when the funds go into the accounts, not when they are withdrawn.

If you have investments in addition to your tax-deferred funds, like stocks or bond funds, you also pay taxes on the dividends and interest paid to you. If you sell them, you’ll likely need to pay any capital gains taxes.

Learning that a portion of your Social Security benefits are subject to federal income tax is a shocker to many retirees, but about 40% of recipients do pay taxes on their benefits. The higher your income, the more taxes you’ll need to pay.

There may also be state taxes on your Social Security benefits, depending on where you live.

However, here’s the biggest shocker–if you work part time, you may forfeit benefits, temporarily, if you claim before your Full Retirement Age, while you are working. Claiming before FRA means that your benefits are subject to earnings limits—the most you can make from work before triggering a benefit reduction.

Social Security withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 earned above the annual earnings limitation cap. If you reach your FRA after 2020, that’s $18,240. If you reach your FRA in 2020, the annual exemption amount is $48,600.

Pension, investment income and any government benefits, like unemployment compensation, don’t count towards earned income.

Benefits that are withheld will be returned to you once you hit FRA when Social Security bumps up your monthly benefit to make up for the withholding, but this takes place over time.

Reference: Next Avenue (Sep. 17, 2020) “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement”

Picasso's estate

Dividing Pablo Picasso’s Estate, a Disaster

Picasso left behind 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, as well as tens of thousands of prints, thousands of ceramic works and 150 sketchbooks when he passed away in 1973. He owned five homes and a large portfolio of stocks and bonds. “The Master” fathered four children with three women. He was also thought to have had $4.5 million in cash and $1.3 million in gold in his possession when he died. Once again, Picasso did not leave a will. Distributing his assets took six years of contentious negotiations between his children and other heirs, such as his wives, mistresses, legitimate children and his illegitimate ones.

Celebrity Net Worth’s recent article entitled “When Pablo Picasso Died He Left Behind Billions Of Dollars Worth Of Art … Yet He Left No Will” explains that Picasso was creating art up until his death. Unlike most artists who die broke, he had been famous in his lifetime. However, when he died without a will, people came out of the woodwork to claim a piece of his valuable estate. Only one of Picasso’s four children was born to a woman who was his wife. One of his mistresses had been living with him for decades. She had a direct and well-documented influence on his work. However, Picasso had no children with her. Dividing his estate was a disaster.

A court-appointed auditor who evaluated Picasso’s assets after his death said that he was worth between $100-$250 million (about $530 million to $1.3 billion today, after adjusting for inflation). In addition to his art, his heirs were fighting over the rights to license his image rights. The six-year court battle cost $30 million in legal fees to settle. But it didn’t settle for long, as the heirs began fighting over the rights to Picasso’s name and image. In 1989, his son Claude sold the name and the image of Picasso’s signature to French carmaker Peugeot-Citroen for $20 million. They wanted to release a sedan called the “Citroen Xsara Picasso.” However, one of Picasso’s grandchildren tried to halt the sale because she disagreed with the commission paid to the agent who brokered the deal—but oddly enough, the consulting company was owned by her cousin, another Picasso.

Claude created the Picasso Administration in Paris in the mid-90s. This entity manages the heirs’ jointly owned property, controls the rights to exhibitions and reproductions of the master’s works, and authorizes merchandising licenses for his work, name and image. The administration also investigates forgeries, illegal use of the Picasso name and stolen works of art. In the 47 years since his death, Picasso has been the most reproduced, most exhibited, most stolen and most faked artist of all time.

Pablo Picasso’s heirs are all very well off as a result of his art. His youngest daughter, Paloma Picasso, is the richest, with $600 million. She’s had a successful career as a jewelry designer.  She also enjoys her share of her father’s estate.

Reference: Celebrity Net Worth (Sep, 13, 2020) “When Pablo Picasso Died He Left Behind Billions Of Dollars Worth Of Art … Yet He Left No Will”

letter of instruction

Should You Include a Letter of Instruction with Your Estate Plan?

A letter of instruction, or LOI, is a good addition to the documents included in your estate plan. It’s commonly used to express advice, wishes and practical information to help the people who will be taking care of your affairs, if you become incapacitated or die. According to this recent article “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information” from the Times Herald-Record, there are many different ways an LOI can help.

In our digital world, you might want to use your LOI to record website names, usernames and passwords for social media accounts, online accounts and other digital assets. This helps loved ones who you want to have access to your online life.

If you have minor children who are beneficiaries, the LOI is a good way to share your priorities to the trustee on your wishes for the funds left for their care. It is common to leave money in trust for HEMS—for “Health, Education, Maintenance and Support.” However, you may want to be more specific, both about how money is to be spent and to share your thoughts about the path you’d like their lives to take in your absence.

Art collectors or anyone who owns valuable items, like musical instruments, antiques or collectibles may use the LOI as an inventory that will be greatly appreciated by your executor. By providing a carefully created list of the items and any details, you’ll increase the likelihood that the collections will be considered by a potential purchaser. This would also be a good place to include any resources about the collections that you know of, but your heirs may not, like appraisers.

Animal lovers can use an LOI to share personalities, likes, dislikes and behavioral quirks of beloved pets, so their new caregivers will be better prepared. In most states, a pet trust can be created to name a caregiver and a trustee for funds that are designated for the pet’s care. The caregiver and the trustee may be the same person, or they may be two different individuals.

For families who have a special needs member, an LOI is a useful means of sharing important information about the person and is often referred to as a “Letter of Intent.” It works in tandem with a Special Needs Trust, which is created to leave assets to a person who receives government benefits without putting means-tested benefits in jeopardy. If there is no Special Needs Trust and the person receives an inheritance, they could lose access to their benefits.

Some of the information in a Letter of Intent includes information on the nature of the disability, daily routines, medications, fears, preferred activities and anything that would help a caregiver provide better care, if the primary caregiver dies.

The LOI can also be used to provide basic information, like where important documents are kept, who should be notified in case of death or incapacity, which bills should be paid, what home maintenance tasks need to be taken care of and who provides the services, etc. It is a useful document to help those you leave behind to adjust to their new responsibilities and care for loved ones.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 8, 2020) “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information”

healthcare information

How to Keep Track of Mom’s Healthcare Information if She Gets Sick or Injured

It’s common for seniors to have several chronic medical conditions that must be closely monitored and for which they take any number of prescription medications. Family caregivers usually are given a crash course in nursing and managing medical care, when they start helping an aging loved one. The greatest lesson is that organization is key, which is especially true when a senior requires urgent medical care.

Physicians encounter countless patients and families who struggle to convey important medical details to health care staff, according to The (Battle Ground, WA ) Reflector’s recent article titled “The emergency medical file every caregiver should create.”

A great solution is to create a packet that contains information that caregivers should have. Here’s what should be in this emergency file:

Medications. Make a list of all your senior’s prescription and over-the-counter medications, with dosages and how frequently they’re taken.

Allergies. Note if your loved one is allergic to any medications, additives, preservatives, or materials, like latex or adhesives. You should also note the severity of their reaction to each of these.

Physicians. Put down the name and contact info for the patient’s primary care physician, as well as any regularly seen specialists, like a cardiologist or a neurologist.

Medical Conditions. Provide the basics about your senior’s serious physical and mental conditions, along with their medical history. This can include diabetes, a pacemaker, dementia, falls and any heart attacks or strokes. You should also list pertinent dates.

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order. If a senior doesn’t want to receive CPR or intubation if they go into cardiac or respiratory arrest, include a copy of their state-sponsored and physician-signed DNR order or Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form.

Medical Power of Attorney. Keep a copy of a medical power of attorney (POA) in the packet. This is important for communicating with medical staff and making health care decisions. You should also check that the contact information is included on or with the form.

Recent Lab Results. Include copies of your senior’s most recent lab tests, which can be very helpful for physicians who are trying to make a diagnosis and decide on a course of treatment without a complete medical history. This can include the most recent EKGs, complete blood counts and kidney function and liver function tests.

Insurance Info. Provide copies of both sides of all current insurance cards. Include the Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap) and Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D) cards (if applicable). This will help ensure that the billing is done correctly.

Photo ID. Emergency rooms must treat patients, even if they don’t have identification or insurance information However, many urgent care centers require a picture ID to see patients. You should also include a copy of their driver’s license in the folder.

Once you have all the records, assemble the folder and put it in an easily accessible location. Give the packet to paramedics responding to 911 calls. It should also be brought to any visits at an urgent care clinic.

Reference: The (Battle Ground, WA ) Reflector (Sep. 14, 2020) “The emergency medical file every caregiver should create”