Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

How to Protect Digital Property

When people built wealth, assets were usually tangible: real estate, investments, cash, or jewelry. However, the last year has seen a huge jump in digital assets, which includes cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Combine this growing asset class with the coming biggest wealth transfer in history, says the article “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?” from Tech Crunch, and the problems of inheriting assets will take more than a complete search of the family attic.

One survey found only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows the details of their digital assets, from the location of the online accounts to passwords. However, digital assets that require two factor authentication or biometrics to gain access may make even this information useless.

There are many reports about people who purchased digital assets like Bitcoin and then lost their passwords or threw away their computers. More than $250 million in client assets vanished when a cryptocurrency exchange founder died and private keys to these accounts could not be found.

Digital assets need to be a part of anyone’s estate plan. A last will and testament is used to dictate how assets are to be distributed. If there is no will, the state’s estate law will distribute assets. A complete list of accounts and assets should not be part of a will, since it becomes a public document when it goes through probate. However, a complete list of assets and accounts needs to be prepared and shared with a trusted person.

Even traditional assets, like bank accounts and investment accounts, are lost when no one knows of their existence. If a family or executor doesn’t know about accounts, and if there are no paper statements mailed to the decedent’s home, it’s not likely that the assets will be found.

Things get more complicated with digital assets. By their nature, digital assets are decentralized.  This is part of their attraction for many people. Knowing that the accounts or digital property exists is only part one. Knowing how to access them after death is difficult. Account names, private keys to digital assets and passwords need to be gathered and protected. Directives or directions for what you want to happen to the accounts after you die need to be created, but not every platform has policies to do this.

Password sharing is explicitly prohibited by most website and app owners. Privacy laws also prohibit using someone else’s password, which is technically “account holder impersonation.” Digital accounts that require two factor authentication or use biometrics, like facial recognition, make it impossible for an executor to gain access to the data.

Some platforms have created a means of identifying a person who may be in charge of your digital assets, including Facebook and more recently, LinkedIn. Some exchanges, like Ethereum, have procedures for death-management. Some will require a copy of the will as part of their process to release funds to an estate, so you will need to name the asset (although not the account number).

A digital wallet can be used to store access information for digital assets, if the family is reasonably comfortable using one. A complete list of assets should include tangible and digital assets. It needs to be updated annually or whenever you add new assets.

Reference: Tech Crunch (April 5, 2021) “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?”

Are You Clueless about Social Security?

If you haven’t a clue about Social Security, it’s vital that you learn, so you can be ready to grow and maximize your benefits.

Lake Geneva Regional News’ recent article entitled “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It” provides several important things you should know:

Your benefits are determined by your top 35 years of earnings. The monthly benefit you get in retirement is based on your specific earnings during your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce. If you don’t work a full 35 years, you’ll have $0 factored into that equation for each year you’re missing an income. So, you can see how important it is to try to fill in those gaps. If you lost your job during the pandemic and are thinking about early retirement, check your earnings history before you do.

You’re only entitled to your full monthly benefit when you hit full retirement age. You can claim your monthly retirement benefit in full once you hit your full retirement age (FRA). However, many people don’t know what that age is. About a quarter (26%) of those aged 60 to 65 couldn’t correctly identify their FRA on the quiz. Your FRA is based on your year of birth.

You can claim Social Security as early as age 62 or wait until age 70 and grow your benefits in the process. However, you’ll need to know your FRA first.

You can collect Social Security, even if you never worked. If you are or were married to someone who’s entitled to Social Security, you may be eligible for spousal benefits that amount to 50% of what your current or ex-spouse collects.

MassMutual found that 30% of older Americans didn’t know that a person who’s divorced may be able to collect Social Security benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings history. Thus, it pays to read up on spousal benefits as retirement nears, even if you never held a job.

Being ill-informed about Social Security could make it more difficult to file at the right time and make the most of your Social Security income

Stay up to date on how Social Security benefits work, so you’re able to make wise choices for your retirement.

Reference: Lake Geneva Regional News (April 10, 2021) “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It”

Should Young Families have an Estate Plan?

Young families are always on the go. New parents are busy with diapers, feeding schedules and trying to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s hard to think about the future when you’re so focused on the present. Even so, young parents should think about estate planning.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled, “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan,” explains that the word “estate” might sound upscale, but estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. Your estate is simply all the assets you have when you die. This includes bank accounts, 401(k) plan, a home and cars. An estate plan helps to make certain that your property goes to the right people, that your debts are paid and your family is cared for. Without an estate plan, your estate must go through probate, which is a potentially lengthy court process that settles the debts and distributes the assets of the decedent.

Estate planning is valuable for young families, even if they don’t have extensive assets. Consider these key estate planning actions that every parent needs to take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future has in store.

Purchase Life Insurance. Raising children is costly, and if a parent dies, life insurance provides funds to continue providing for surviving children. For most, term life insurance is a good move because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect until the children grow to adulthood and are no longer financially dependent.

Make a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents, the most important reason to make a will is to designate a guardian for your children. If you fail to do this, the courts will decide and may place your children with a relative with whom you have not spoken in years. However, if you name a guardian, you choose a person or couple you know has the same values and who will raise your kids as you would have.

Review Your Beneficiaries. You probably already have a 401(k) or IRA that makes you identify who will inherit it if you die. You’ll need to update these accounts, if you want your children to inherit these assets.

Consider a Trust. If you die before your children turn 18, your children can’t directly assume control of an inheritance, which can be an issue. The probate court could name an individual to manage the assets you leave to your child. However, if you want to specify who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, consider asking an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust. With a trust, you can name a designated person to manage money on behalf of your children and provide direction regarding how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children as they grow. Trusts aren’t just for the very well-to-do. Anyone may be able to benefit from a trust.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (April 13, 2021) “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan”

Can a Person with Alzheimer’s Sign Legal Documents?

If a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia, it is necessary to address legal and financial issues as soon as possible. The person’s ability to sign documents and take other actions to protect themselves and their assets will be limited as the disease progresses, so there’s no time to wait. This recent article “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s” from Statesville Record & Landmark explains the steps to take.

Watch for Unusual Financial Activity

Someone who has been sensible about money for most of his life may start to behave differently with his finances. This is often an early sign of cognitive decline. If bills are piling up, or unusual purchases are being made, you may need to prepare to take over his finances. It should be noted that unusual financial activity can also be a sign of elder financial abuse.

Designate a Power of Attorney

The best time to designate a person to take care of finances is before she shows signs of dementia. It’s not an easy conversation, but it is very important. Someone needs to be identified who can be trusted to manage day-to-day money matters, who can sign checks, pay bills and supervise finances. If possible, it may be easier if the POA gradually eases into the role, only taking full control when the person with dementia can no longer manage on her own.

An individual needs to be legally competent to complete or update legal documents including wills, trusts, an advanced health care directive and other estate planning documents. Once such individual is not legally competent, the court must be petitioned to name a family member as a guardian, or a guardian will be appointed by the court. It is far easier for the family and the individual to have this handled by an estate planning attorney in advance of incompetency.

An often-overlooked detail in cases of Alzheimer’s is the beneficiary designations on retirement, financial and life insurance policies. Check with an estate planning attorney for help, if there is any question that changes may be challenged by the financial institution or by heirs.

Cost of Care and How It Will Be Paid

At a certain point, people with dementia cannot live on their own. Even those who love them cannot care for them safely. Determining how care will be provided, which nursing facility has the correct resources for a person with cognitive illness and how to pay for this care, must be addressed. An elder law estate planning attorney can help the family navigate through the process, including helping to protect family assets through the use of trusts and other planning strategies.

If the family has a strong history of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive diseases, it makes sense to do this sort of preparation far in advance. The sooner it can be addressed, even long before dementia symptoms appear, the better the outcome will be.

Reference: Statesville Record & Landmark (April 11, 2021) “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s”

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.

One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.

If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

Many family-owned businesses have had to scramble to maintain ownership, when owners or heirs were struck by COVID-19. Lacking a succession plan may have led to disastrous results, or at best, less than optimal corporate structures and large tax bills. This difficult lesson is a wake-up call, says the article “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’” from Bloomberg Tax.

Another factor putting family-owned businesses at risk is divorce. Contemplating the best way to transfer ownership to the next generation requires a candid examination of family dynamics and acknowledgment of outsiders (i.e., in-laws) and the possibility of divorce.

Before documents can be created, a number of issues need to be discussed:

Transfer timing. When will the ownership of the business transfer to the next generation? There are some who use life-events as prompts: births, marriages and/or the death of the owners.

How will the transfer take place? Corporate structures and estate planning tools provide many options limited only by the tax liabilities and wishes of the family. Be wary, since each decision for the structure may have unintended consequences. Short and long-term strategic planning is needed.

To whom will the business be transferred? Who will receive an ownership interest and what will be the rights of ownership? Will there be different levels of ownership, and will those levels depend upon the level of activity in the business? Will percentages be used, or shares, or another form?

In drafting a succession plan, it is wise to assume that the future owners will either marry or divorce—perhaps multiple times. The succession plan should address these issues to prevent an ex-spouse from becoming a shareholder, whose interest in the business needs to be bought out.

The operating agreement/partnership agreement should require all future owners to enter into a prenuptial agreement before marriage specifically excluding their interest in the family business from being distributed, valued, or deemed marital property subject to distribution, if there is a divorce.

An owner may even exact a penalty for a subsequent owner who fails to enter into a prenup prior to a marriage. The same corporate document should specifically bar an owner’s spouse from receiving an ownership interest under any circumstance.

A prenup is intended to remove the future value of the owner’s interest from the marital asset pool. This typically requires the owner to buy-out the future spouse’s legal claim to future value. This could be a costly issue, since the value of the future ownership interest cannot be predicted at the time of the marriage.

Many different strategies can be used to develop a succession plan that ideally works alongside the business owner’s estate plan. These are used to ensure that the business remains in the family and the family interests are protected.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 5,2021) “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’”

Should I Discuss Estate Planning with My Children?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children” says that staying up-to-date with your estate plan and sharing your plans with your children could make a big impact on your legacy and what you’ll pay in estate taxes. Let’s look at why you should consider talking to your children about estate planning.

People frequently create an estate plan and name their child as the trustee or executor. However, they fail to discuss the role and what’s involved with them. Ask your kids if they’re comfortable acting as the executor, trustee, or power of attorney. Review what each of the roles involves and explain the responsibilities. The estate documents state some critical responsibilities but don’t provide all the details. Having your children involved in the process and getting their buy-in will be a big benefit in the future.

Share information about valuables stored in a fireproof safe or add their name to the safety deposit box. Tell them about your accounts at financial institutions and the titling of the various accounts, so that these accounts aren’t forgotten, and bills get paid when you’re not around.

Parents can get children involved with a meeting with their estate planning attorney to review the estate plan and pertinent duties of each child. If they have questions, an experienced estate planning attorney can answer them in the context of the overall estate plan.

If children are minors, invite the successor trustee to also be part of the meeting.

Explain what you own, what type of accounts you have and how they’re treated from a tax perspective.

Discussing your estate plan with your children provides a valuable opportunity to connect with your loved ones, even after you are gone. An individual’s attitudes about money says much about his or her values.

Sharing with your children what your money means to you, and why you are speaking with them about it, will help guide them in honoring your memory.

There are many personal reasons to discuss your estate plans with your children. While it’s a simple step, it’s not easy to have this conversation. However, the pandemic emphasized the need to not procrastinate when it comes to estate planning. It’s also provided an opportunity to discuss these estate plans with your children.

Reference: US News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

When do Medicaid Recipients have to Cash Stimulus Checks before Government Collects?

Medicaid enrollees are generally allowed to have only a limited amount of assets, outside of their primary residence, car and other essentials.

For singles, it’s typically about $2,000. Those who exceed that threshold could be deemed ineligible for the health insurance program for low-income Americans.

CNN’s recent article entitled “Nursing home residents have a little more time to spend stimulus checks before losing Medicaid” notes that the $1,200 stimulus payments that many people received last spring didn’t count as income under Medicaid rules.

As a result, nursing home residents didn’t have to give the money over to the facilities where they live and could save it for their own use.

However, the funds are considered an asset after one year. That is a deadline that is rapidly drawing near for the first of the three relief payments Congress has authorized since the pandemic began.

Even so, another coronavirus provision that lawmakers approved last March prevents states from disenrolling residents from Medicaid during the public health emergency, which is currently set to end next month. However, it’s expected to be extended again.

This means that Medicaid recipients, including nursing home residents, don’t have to worry about spending the funds until the pandemic is over.

The same is true for the $600 checks many received from the December relief bill and the $1,400 payment that is being distributed from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery package, but the time on those funds started more recently.

Just the same, people shouldn’t wait until the last minute to spend their stimulus funds. They can buy things they need and can also give the money to family or friends or make a charitable contribution. They just need to prove that the gift isn’t part of a strategy to give away assets to qualify for Medicaid.

“People should just be conscious of Medicaid asset limits and deal with it without trying to wait until the last month of the public health emergency,” said Eric Carlson, a directing attorney with Justice in Aging, a non-profit legal advocacy group. “There’s no particular benefit to cutting it close.”

Reference: CNN (March 30, 2021) “Nursing home residents have a little more time to spend stimulus checks before losing Medicaid”

Is the Pandemic Making Young People Think About Estate Planning?

A 2021 study from caring.com shows the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on estate planning and the change in viewpoints among specific groups. The survey generated responses from 2,500 Americans and is a continuing effort to create greater awareness and understanding about the estate planning process.

Insurance News Net’s recent article entitled “Study: Young Adults More Likely To Do Estate Planning Due To COVID-19” reports that, based on results from last year, the number of young adults with a will increased by 63%.

For the first time, adults under 35 are more likely to have a will than those ages 35-54. About 50% of all younger adults surveyed also said that COVID-19 prompted their interest in estate planning. Despite the growing interest among younger adults, most Americans still do not have a will. They fail to take any action, except for speaking to loved ones about estate planning. About ⅔ or 67% overall still don’t have a will.

Most of those who responded to the survey said that procrastination was the main reason for not having a will. However, the number of Americans who expressed a lack of understanding increased by 90% since 2017.

The survey also shows a significant increase among Hispanic and Black Americans with a will. The number of Hispanics with a will increased by 12% and by 6.2% among Blacks, since the 2020 report.

“In comparison to previous years, the 2021 study indicates that Americans see a greater need for estate planning due to the pandemic,” says caring.com CEO, Jim Rosenthal. “Unfortunately, many people haven’t begun the estate planning process – even with the increased availability of remote and online services.”

Income level is also a significant factor among people who do in estate planning. The survey’s respondents making under $40,000 a year were less likely to have a will.

The percentage of Americans with a will and annual income of $40,000 to $80,000 increased 6% to 39% in one year.

Caring.com has conducted its Wills and Estate Planning Study since 2015 to raise awareness of the importance of estate planning, especially among people who may not feel they have the money or know-how needed to create a will or living trust.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Feb. 23, 2021) “Study: Young Adults More Likely To Do Estate Planning Due To COVID-19”

What Does ‘Per Stirpes’ in a Will Mean?

Let’s say you had six brothers and sisters. All of your siblings were still living at the time your father made his will. However, three of your brothers died before your father passed away.

In that case, would the children of the deceased siblings be entitled to their fathers’ shares of their grandfather’s estate?

What if that wasn’t what the father intended when he wrote the will. Instead, the money was to be divided equally between his remaining living children. Who’s right?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My father died. Who will get the share meant for a dead beneficiary?” says that it really depends on how the will was written by the deceased, who’s also known as the testator.

A will may state, “I give, devise, and bequeath my residuary estate to those of my children who survive me, in equal shares, and the descendants of a deceased child of mine, to take their parent’s share per stirpes.”

Per stirpes in a will means that the share of a deceased child will pass to the children of that deceased child in equal shares, if any. However, if nothing is stated in the will, then every state has law that interprets a lapse of a will provision. These are known as “anti-lapse” statutes.

For example, the Kansas anti-lapse statute (K.S.A. 59-615), is operative only when:

  • The testator bequeaths or devises property to a beneficiary who’s a member of the class designated by the statute
  • The specified beneficiary predeceases the testator and leaves issue who survive the testator  and
  • The testator doesn’t revoke or change his or her will as to the predeceased beneficiary.

If you are a resident of Arizona, that state’s anti-lapse statute applies, if a beneficiary under your will predeceases you. The anti-lapse statute would apply if the predeceasing beneficiary were your grandparent, a descendant of your grandparent, or your stepchild, who have at least one child who survives you. Therefore, if the anti-lapse statute were to apply, the child who survives you would effectively take your beneficiary’s place, and inherit the gift instead of the beneficiary.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney if you have questions about wills and per stirpes designations.

Reference: nj.com (March 25, 2021) “My father died. Who will get the share meant for a dead beneficiary?”