Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Major Blunders in Estate Planning

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “5 Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid” warns that if you overlook an important step or make a misstep in your estate planning, everything could be undone. You could instead burden your family with a challenging and headache-inducing estate.

There are many ways to get things wrong. Let’s look at a few:

  1. Not preparing for incapacity. The main reason to create a will is because we know that some day we’ll pass away. A will lets your family know how to distribute your property and other assets. A well-thought-out estate plan should identify the people authorized to make important decisions on your behalf regarding finances, health care and other critical matters. This is accomplished with powers of attorney. Once you are unconscious or afflicted with dementia, it will be too late. Make a list of decision-makers now, inform them of your wishes and create the necessary powers of attorney.
  2. Failing to include funeral and burial wishes. If you can purchase a burial plot and make funeral plans, put this in your estate planning documents. If you don’t, it may mean a lot of work for your family after your death. Name someone to be in charge of the funeral and burial arrangements and make sure that person understands your wishes. If you don’t detail your wishes prior to your death, it may become an issue for your loved ones.
  3. Ignoring the tax implications of transferring property. As generous as it may seem to give property to your family during your lifetime, it is usually much smarter – and far more generous – to delay the transfer until you’re deceased. If you convey the deed to property to your next of kin before you die, they may see a hefty tax bill whenever they sell the same property. That’s because the basis for that property will be tagged to the date on which you made your purchase, not the date you made your gift. As a result, it could leave your heirs scrambling to pay an enormous sum that would have been averted, had they been granted the deed after your death.
  4. Failing to designate backups for decision-makers. The best of plans can go south without a secondary beneficiary. This will address any unforeseen events. Name backups for your executor and other decision-makers. If they can’t fulfill their obligations, a court will name substitutes unless you’ve already planned for these contingencies.
  5. Not tracking beneficiary designations. In addition to stating the beneficiaries and their respective shares in your will, you must also communicate a directive to your bank that sets forth the interests in your account after your death. If you fail to do this, the bank’s rules will override anything you’re written in your will as to that account. That means your percentages will be different from those expressed in your will.

Take steps now to make certain there are no hidden issues that will haunt your family after you’ve passed.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 17, 2022) “5 Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid”=

What Happens When Inheritances are Unequal?

In this case, one brother left New York and had nothing to do with his brother for the rest of their lives. Uneven inheritances almost always lead to poor feelings between siblings, says a recent article “Where There’s a Will, There Can Be a War” from Next Avenue.

Wills have a way of frustrating a basic desire for equal treatment among siblings. If an older sibling works in the family business and receives full control of it in the will, siblings who inherit non-voting stock are likely to feel slighted, even if they never set foot in the business. Can this be avoided?

There are a few ways to avoid this kind of outcome. One option is to name each child as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy equal to the value of the stock passed to the oldest child. In this way, all children will feel they have been fairly treated.

If one child lives closest to the parents and takes on their care in their later years, the parents often leave this child the majority of their estate. It would be helpful for parents to explain this to the other siblings, so they understand why this has been done. A family meeting in person or online to explain the parent’s decision may be helpful. This gives the children time to process the information. Learning it for the first time after the parents die can be a surprise. Combining the surprise with grief is never a good idea.

For some families, an estate planning attorney can be helpful to serve as a mediator and/or buffer when this news is shared.

In some states, wills and trusts can include no-contest clauses. These forbid beneficiaries to receive any inheritance, if they challenge the will after the death of the parent. If one child receives more than another child, the other child could lose the smaller amount if they contest the will. Some attorneys recommend leaving the children enough to make it worth their while not to engage in litigation.

When unequal is fair. There are times when uneven inheritances are entirely fair. One child may have a substance abuse issue, or one may earn a six-figure salary while the other is eking out a living in a low-paying position. The parents may wish to leave more to a struggling family member and the other child may actually be relieved because the sibling will not need their financial assistance. A conversation with the family may eliminate confusion and clarify intent.

In all cases, the heirs and those who expect to be heirs must remember the estate planning attorney who creates the will or trust works for the parent and not for them. It’s the estate planning attorney’s role to counsel their clients, which they can do best if they have the complete picture of how the family dynamics operate.

Reference: Next Avenue (Oct. 13, 2022) “Where There’s a Will, There Can Be a War”

Should I Look at I-Bonds for My Estate Plan?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are I-Bonds?” compiled answers to some frequently asked questions about series I bonds.

How is the interest rate determined? The composite rate has two parts: (i) a fixed rate that stays the same for the life of the bond; and (ii) an inflation rate based on the consumer price index (CPI). Each May and November, the U.S. Treasury Department announces a new fixed rate and inflation rate that apply to bonds issued during the following six months. The inflation rate changes every six months from the bond’s issue date.

How does interest accrue? They earn interest monthly from the first day of the month of the issue date, and interest is compounded semi-annually. Interest is added to the bond’s principal value. Note that you can’t redeem an I-Bond in the first year, and if you cash it in before five years, you forfeit the most recent three months of interest. If you check your bond’s value at TreasuryDirect.gov, within the first five years of owning it, the amount you’ll see will have the three-month penalty subtracted from it. As a result, when you buy a new bond, interest doesn’t show until the first day of the fourth month following the issue month.

How many I-Bonds can I buy? You can purchase up to $10,000 per calendar year in electronic bonds through TreasuryDirect.gov. You can also buy up to $5,000 each year in paper bonds with your tax refund. For those who are married filing jointly, the limit is $5,000 per couple.

How are I-Bonds taxed? I-Bond interest is free of state and local income tax. You can also defer federal tax until you file a tax return for the year you cash in the bond or it stops earning interest because it has reached final maturity (after 30 years), whichever comes first. You can also report the interest every year, which may be a good choice if you’d rather avoid one large tax bill in the future.

If you use the bonds’ proceeds to pay for certain higher-education expenses for your spouse, your dependents, or yourself, you may avoid federal tax. However, you must meet several requirements to be eligible. Among them, the bond owner must have been at least 24 years old by the issue date and have income that falls below specified limits.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 11, 2022) “What Are I-Bonds?”

Are You Ready for 2026?

You may not be thinking about Jan. 1, 2026. Any New Year’s Eve celebrations being planned now are more likely to concern Jan. 1, 2023. However, if your estate is worth $5 million or more when the first day of 2026 arrives, your estate planning should begin now. According to a recent article from Forbes, “Is 2026 An Important Year For Your Wealth?,” the reduction in the estate tax exemption will revert to the 2010 level of $5 million adjusted for inflation. It could go even lower. With federal tax rates on estates over the exemption level set at 40%, plus any state estate or inheritance taxes, planning needs to be done in advance.

Considering the record levels of national debt and government spending, it’s unlikely these exemptions will remain the same. Now is the time to maximize today’s high estate tax exemption levels to minimize federal estate taxes and maximize what will be left to heirs.

Your estate planning attorney will have many different strategies and tools to achieve these goals. One is the Spousal Lifetime Access Trust (SLAT). This is an irrevocable trust created by each spouse, known as the grantors, for the benefit of the other spouse. Important note: to avoid scrutiny, the trusts must not be identical.

Each trust is funded by the grantor in an amount up to the current available tax exemption. Today, this is $12.06 million each (or a total of $24.12 million) without incurring a gift tax.

This serves several purposes. One is removing the gifted assets from the grantor’s estate. The assets and their future growth are protected from estate taxes.

The spousal beneficiary has access to the trust income and/or principal, depending upon how the trust is created, if they need to tap the trust.

The trust income may be taxed back to the grantor instead of the trust. This allows the assets in the trust to grow tax-free.

Remainder beneficiaries, who are typically the grantor’s children, receive the assets at the termination of the SLAT, usually when the beneficiary spouse passes away.

The SLAT can be used as a generation-skipping trust, if this is the goal.

The SLAT is a useful tool for blended families to avoid accidentally disinheriting children from first (or subsequent) marriage. Reminder assets can be distributed to named beneficiaries upon the death of the spouse.

The SLAT is an irrevocable trust, so some control needs to be given up when the SLATs are created. Couples using this strategy need to have enough assets to live comfortably after funding the SLATS.

Why do this now, when 2026 is so far away? The SLAT strategy takes time to implement, and it also takes time for people to get comfortable with the idea of taking a significant amount of wealth out of their control to place in an irrevocable trust. For a large SLAT, estate planning attorneys, CPAs and financial advisors generally need to work together to create the proper structure. Executing this estate planning strategy takes time and should not be left for the year before this large change in federal estate taxes occurs.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2022) “Is 2026 An Important Year For Your Wealth?”

What Is Upstream Planning?

Estate planning with an eye to a future inheritance, known as “upstream planning,” can be especially important where families pass significant wealth from generation to generation. Knowing these details in advance can have a big impact on deciding on how to manage the heir’s own assets, as explained in the article “Expecting an Inheritance? Consider Coordinating Your Estate Plan with Your Parents’” from Kiplinger.

What happens when information is kept private? In one example, a patriarch refused to share any details, despite having children who had succeeded on their own and didn’t really need their inheritances. The family was left with an eight figure estate tax bill.

Clear and open discussions make sense. If a person has an estate large enough to need to pay federal estate taxes, inheriting more will add to their heir’s tax burdens. Parents may choose to leave assets to heirs through a trust. Money in a trust belongs to the trust, so in addition to tax benefits, the trust is a good way to protect assets from creditors, litigation, or divorce.

Trusts are also used to take advantage of the GST—generation skipping tax exemption. The executor of the parents’ estates can apply their GST exemption to the trust, which will not be taxed when they are distributed or passed to grandchildren, even if the grandchild is a beneficiary of the trust.

Business considerations also come into play. If a couple built and grew a business now being run by their granddaughter, and the grandsons have had little or no involvement, their wishes should be clarified: do they want their granddaughter to be the sole heir? Or do they want the grandsons to receive cash or other assets or any shares of the business?

Talking about multigenerational wealth early and often provides benefits to all concerned. The more money a family has, the more it makes sense to have those conversations and not only from an estate tax perspective. Those who created the wealth can use upstream planning as a way to start conversations about their success, family values and hopes for how heirs and future generations will benefit.

In some families, these conversations won’t happen because they think it’s too private or don’t want their children and grandchildren to feel they don’t need to work hard to become responsible citizens.

Communicating and coordinating are vital to success. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide guidance, having seen what happens when upstream planning occurs and when it does not.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 4, 2022) “Expecting an Inheritance? Consider Coordinating Your Estate Plan with Your Parents’”

Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

Estate Planning Considerations for Minor Children

Creating an estate plan with minor children in mind has a host of variables quite different than one where all heirs are adults. If the intention is for the minor children to be beneficiaries, or if there is a remote chance a minor child might become an unintended beneficiary, different provisions will be needed. A recent article titled “Children need special attention in estate planning” from The News-Enterprise explains how these situations might be addressed.

Does the person creating the will—aka, the testator—want property to be distributed to a minor child? If so, how is the distribution is to occur, tax consequences and safeguards need to be put into place. Much depends upon the relationship of the testator to the minor child. An older individual may want to leave specific dollar bequests for minor children or great-grandchildren, while people with younger children generally leave their entire estate in fractional shares to their own minor children as primary beneficiaries.

While minor children and grandchildren beneficiaries are excluded from inheritance taxes in certain states, great- grandchildren are not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide details on who is subject to inheritance, federal and state estate taxes. This needs to be part of your estate plan.

If minor children are the intended beneficiaries of a fractional share of the estate in its entirety, distributions may be held in a common trust or divided into separate share for each minor child. A common trust is used to hold all property to benefit all of the children, until the youngest child reaches a determined age. When this occurs, the trust is split into separate shares according to the trust directions, when each share is managed for the individual beneficiary.

Instructions to the trustee as to how much of the income and principal each beneficiary is to receive and when, at what age or intervals each beneficiary may exercise full control over the assets and what purposes the trust property is intended for until the beneficiary reaches a certain age are details which need to be clearly explained in the trust.

Trusts for minor children are often specifically to be used for health, education, maintenance, or support needs of the beneficiary, within the discretion of the trustee. This has to be outlined in the trust document.

Even if the intention is not to make minor children beneficiaries, care must be taken to include provisions if they are family members. The will or trust must be clear on how property passed to minor child beneficiaries is to be distributed. This may be done through a requirement to put distributions into a trust or may leave a list of options for the executor.

Testators need to keep in mind the public nature of probate. Whatever is left to a minor child will be a matter of public record, which could make the child vulnerable to scammers or predatory family members. Consider using a revocable living trust as an alternative to safeguard the child and the assets.

Regardless of whether a will or trust is used, there should be a person named to act as the child’s guardian and their conservator or trustee, who manages their finances. The money manager does not have to be a parent or relative but must be a trustworthy person.

Review your specific situation with your estate planning attorney to create a plan to protect your minor children, ensuing their financial and lifestyle stability.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 10, 2022) “Children need special attention in estate planning”

Vets May See a Big COLA Jump Next Year

Federal officials aren’t expected to announce the Social Security benefits adjustment until mid-October. However, the nonprofit Senior Citizens League recently predicted a cost-of-living increase of about 8.7% for 2023, based on inflation data through the first eight months of the year.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Vets benefits poised for biggest cost of living boost in 40 years” says that if the estimate is correct, it would be the highest annual increase since 1981. The 2022 cost-of-living adjustment was 5.9%.

For a veteran receiving about $1,500 in monthly payouts, that type of increase would result in roughly $130 extra each month.

Social Security and some other federal benefits are adjusted each year, to reflect increases in basic family costs like rent, groceries, and utilities. However, for veterans’ benefits, that process isn’t automatic. Congress must pass legislation annually to connect the two sets of benefits to ensure that veterans’ payouts keep pace with those increasing costs.

The House passed the legislation on September 15, and the Senate followed suit this week. Lawmakers called it a simple but significant move.

“With the global supply chain crisis continuing to impact Americans, disabled veterans, and military families, [this legislation] will ensure that the needs of our disabled veterans are being met,” bill sponsor Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said in a statement.

The Department of Defense has announced several initiatives to improve quality of life for service members, including a boost in Basic Allowance in Housing for some troops. Senate leaders echoed that sentiment.

“We have a responsibility to ensure veterans’ benefits are keeping pace with a changing economy,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. “That’s why I’m glad the Senate unanimously passed this bipartisan bill that’ll do just that — providing veterans and their families from every corner of the country with the support they need and earned.”

The COLA increase legislation would apply to payouts for disability compensation, clothing allowance, dependency and indemnity benefits, as well as other VA assistance programs. President Biden is expected to sign the measure into law in coming days.

Reference: Military Times (Sep. 23, 2022) “Vets benefits poised for biggest cost of living boost in 40 years”

How Does Probate Court Work?

Probate court is where wills are examined to be sure they have been prepared according to the laws of the state and according to the wishes of the person who has died. It is also the jurisdiction where the executor is approved, their activities are approved and all debts are paid and assets are distributed properly. According to a recent article from Investopedia “What is Probate Court?,” this is also where the court determines how to distribute the decedent’s assets if there is no will.

Probate courts handle matters like estates, guardianships and wills. Estate planning lawyers often manage probate matters and navigate the courts to avoid unnecessary complications. The probate court process begins when the estate planning attorney files a petition for probate, the will and a copy of the death certificate.

The probate court process is completed when the executor completes all required tasks, provides a full accounting statement to the court and the court approves the statement.

Probate is the term used to describe the legal process of handling the estate of a recently deceased person. The role of the court is to make sure that all debts are paid and assets distributed to the correct beneficiaries as detailed in their last will and testament.

Probate has many different aspects. In addition to dealing with the decedent’s assets and debts, it includes the court managing the process and the actual distribution of assets.

Probate and probate court rules and terms vary from state to state. Some states don’t even use the term probate, but instead refer to a surrogate’s court, orphan’s court, or chancery court. Your estate planning attorney will know the laws regarding probate in the state where the will is to be probated before death if you’re having an estate plan created, or after death if you are the beneficiary or the executor.

Probate is usually necessary when property is only titled in the name of the decedent. It could include real property or cars. There are some assets which do not go through probate and pass directly to beneficiaries. A partial list includes:

  • Life insurance policies with designated beneficiaries
  • Pension plan distribution
  • IRA or 401(k) retirement accounts with designated beneficiaries
  • Assets owned by a trust
  • Securities owned as Transfer on Death (TOD)
  • Wages, salary, or commissions owed to the decedent (up to the set limits)
  • Vehicles intended for the immediate family (this depends on state law)
  • Household goods and other items intended for the immediate family (also depending upon state law).

Many people seek to avoid or at least minimize the probate process. This needs to be done in advance by an experienced estate planning attorney. They can create trusts, assign assets to the trust and designate beneficiaries for those assets. Another means of minimizing probate is to gift assets during your lifetime.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 21, 2022) “What is Probate Court?”

What’s Being Done to Help Seniors Age in Place?

Seasons’ recent article entitled “Federal grant will fund $15 million in aging-in-place home projects” provides everything you need to know about the latest on aging in place. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is making $15 million available to assist seniors with home modifications. This funding is made available through HUD’s Older Adult Home Modification Program.

“The funding opportunity … will assist experienced nonprofit organizations, state and local governments, and public housing authorities in undertaking comprehensive programs that make safety and functional home modifications, repairs and renovations to meet the needs of low-income elderly homeowners,” HUD officials said in a statement.

The goal of the program is to assist low-income and older adult homeowners (at least age 62) to remain in their homes by providing low-cost, low barrier and high-impact home modifications to reduce their risk of falling, improve general safety, increase accessibility and to improve functional abilities in the home.

“This is about enabling older adults to remain in the comfort of their family home, where they have made their life,” the spokesperson said, “rather than having to move to a nursing home or other assisted care facilities.”

With an estimated 20% of the population reaching age 65 by 2040, the home modification program aims to assist older adults who remain in their homes safely with honor and respect.

“We must allow our nation’s seniors to age-in-place with dignity,” said HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge in a statement. “This funding will give seniors the flexibility to make changes to their existing homes—changes that will keep them safe and allow them to gracefully adjust to their changing lifestyle.”

Eligible applicants include experienced nonprofit organizations, state and local governments and public housing authorities that have at least three years of experience in providing services to the elderly. Individuals, foreign entities and sole proprietorship organizations are not eligible to apply or receive funds, according to HUD. As a result, there’s no individual application homeowners or family members need to fill out to receive funding. Homeowners, family members, caregivers and other interested parties who want to get help and receive home modifications need to apply through a certain institution by contacting organizations in their area in the process of applying for funds or that have already received funds.

“Caregivers can contact the local organization that has a home modification grant, and let the grantee know that they are caregivers for a family with a family member that is age 62 and older, who owns the home they live in and are interested in having the family’s home modified under HUD’s Home Modification grant program to help them age in place,” a HUD spokesperson said.

Reference:  Seasons (Sep. 19, 2022) “Federal grant will fund $15 million in aging-in-place home projects”