Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Happens to Stock Options when Someone Dies?

Once your business grows, so does the pressure to make good financial decisions in the short and long term. When you think about the future, estate and succession planning emerge as two major concerns. You’re not just considering balance sheets, profits and losses, but your family and what will happen to them and your business when you’re not around. This thinking leads to what seems like a great idea: transferring stock or LLC membership units to one or more of your adult children.

There are benefits, especially the ability to avoid a 40% estate tax and other benefits. However, there are also lots of ways this can go sideways, fast.

Executing due diligence and creating an exit plan to minimize taxes and successfully transfer the business takes planning and, even harder, removing emotions from the plan to make a good decision.

An outright transfer of stock or ownership units can expose you and your business to risk. Even if your children are Ivy-league MBA grads, with track records of great decision making and caring for you and your spouse, this transaction offers zero protection and all risk for you. What could go wrong?

  • An in-law (one you may not have even met yet) could try to place a claim on the business and move it away from the family.
  • Creditors could seize assets from the children, entirely likely if their future holds legal or financial problems—or if they have such problems now and haven’t shared them with you.
  • Assets could go into your children’s estates, which reintroduces exposure to estate taxes.

No family is immune from any of these situations, and if you ask your estate planning attorney, you’ll hear as many horror stories as you can tolerate.

Trusts are a solution. Thoughtfully crafted for your unique situation, a trust can help avoid exposure to some estate and other taxes, allocating effective ownership to your children, in a protected manner. Your ultimate goal: keeping ownership in the family and minimizing tax exposure.

A Beneficiary Defective Inheritance Trust (BDIT) may be appropriate for you. If you’ve already executed an outright transfer of the stock, it’s not too late to fix things. The BDIT is a grantor trust serving to enable protection of stock and eliminate any “residue” in your childrens’ estates.

If you haven’t yet transferred stock to children, don’t do it. The risk is very high. If you’ve already completed the transfer, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how to reverse the transfer and create a plan to protect the business and your family.

Bottom line: business interests are better protected when they are held not by individuals, but by trusts for the benefit of individuals. Your estate planning attorney can draft trusts to achieve goals, minimize estate taxes and, in some situations, even minimize state income taxes.

Reference: The Street (June 27, 2022) “Should I Transfer Company Stock to My Kids?”

Can Estate Planning Reduce Taxes?

The estate tax exemption won’t always be so high. The runup in housing prices may mean capital gains taxes become a serious issue for many people. There are solutions to be found in estate planning, including one known as an “Upstream Power of Appointment” Trust, as explained in the article “How to Use Your Estate Plan to Save on Taxes While You’re Still Alive!” from Kiplinger.

The strategy isn’t for everyone. It requires a completely trustworthy, elderly and less wealthy relative, such as a parent, aunt, or uncle, to serve as an additional trust beneficiary. First, here is some background information:

Basis: This is the amount by which a price is reduced to determine the taxable gain. This is often the historical cost of an asset, which may be adjusted for depreciation or other items. Estate planning attorneys are familiar with these terms.

Step-up (in-basis): If you bought a house for $100,000 and sold it for $400,000, your taxable gain would be $300,000. However, if the house had belonged to your father and was being sold to distribute assets between you and your siblings, the basis (cost) would be increased to the fair market value at the date of your father’s passing. This increase is known as the “step-up in basis” and here’s the benefit: there would be no capital gain on the sale and no taxes owed.

Lifetime estate tax exemption: This is currently at $12.06 million per person or $24.12 for married couples. This is the amount of assets which can be passed to children or others free of any federal estate tax. However, the number will take a deep dive on January 1, 2026, when it reverts back to just under $6 million, adjusted for inflation. Plan for the change now, because 2026 will be here before you know it!

Upstream planning involves transferring certain appreciated assets to older or other family members with shorter life expectancies. Since the person is expected to die sooner, the basis step-up is triggered sooner. When the named person dies, you obtain a basis step-up on the asset, saving income taxes on depreciation and saving capital gains on a future sale of the property.

Most Americans aren’t worried about paying estate taxes now, but no one wants to pay too much in income taxes or capital gains taxes.

To make this happen, your estate planning attorney will need to give an elderly person (let’s say Aunt Rose) the general power of appointment over the asset. Section 2041 of the Internal Revenue Code says you may give your Aunt Rose a power to appoint the asset to her estate, creditors, or the creditors of her estate. Providing the power will include the value of the property in her estate, not yours, ensuring the basis step-up and income tax savings.

Don’t do this lightly, as a general power of appointment also gives Aunt Rose ownership and the right to give the property to herself or anyone she wishes. Can you protect yourself, if Aunt Rose goes rogue?

While the IRC rule doesn’t require Aunt Rose to get your permission to control or change distribution of the property, a trust can be crafted with a provision to effectuate the desired result. The IRC doesn’t require Aunt Rose to know about this provision. This is why the best person for this role is someone who you know and trust without question and who understands your wishes and the desired outcome.

Proper planning with an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for this kind of transaction. All the provisions need to be right: the beneficiary need not survive for any stated period of time, you should not lose access to the assets receiving the basis increase, you want a formula clause to prevent a basis step down if the property or asset values fall and you want to be sure that assets are not exposed to creditor claims or any other liabilities of the person holding this broad power.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 3, 2022) “How to Use Your Estate Plan to Save on Taxes While You’re Still Alive!”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”

When Should I Revise My Will?

Just as your life changes, so should your will. You may need to replace an executor, update accounts, or adjust heirs. If you have an estate plan with greater wealth or need more complex arrangements, such as trusts or guardianship provisions, may want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney, says US News’ March 2018 article entitled “4 Times It Makes Sense to Revise Your Will.” Let’s look at the four events:

  1. You’ve experienced a significant life event. This may be a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, remarriage or the death of a loved one. These changes may require that new heirs be added to a will or others removed. These life events may also influence how assets are divided in the will. In addition, if you move to a new state, update your will to ensure it adheres to the laws there.
  2. A person in your will has experienced a significant life event. Wills also include executors, trustees and guardians. These individuals may move, get married or become sick or disabled, all of which could change whether they are appropriate for the role listed in your will.
  3. The tax laws have changed. A will may be written to minimize the effects of estate taxes. When laws change, the provisions of the will may need to be updated. For example, in 2017, $5.49 million of a person’s estate was exempt from the 40% federal estate tax. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, $12.06 million of an estate is currently exempt from the tax in 2022. This could mean that some families no longer need to worry about paying an estate tax and could eliminate the need for some trusts or other provisions in a will.
  4. If it’s been three to five years. It’s smart to review a will at least every three to five years and ensure that all provisions are still in line with your wishes.

While you’re reviewing your will, don’t forget to also review beneficiaries on bank accounts, retirement funds and life insurance. Remember that a named beneficiary trumps the will.

Make sure that all that hard work on your will does not go to waste, by reviewing and updating the document periodically to make sure it reflects the changing landscape of your life.

When you have the will updated, be sure to store it in a secure location, like a fire-proof safe, and let your executor know where to find it. If an attorney drew up your will, they’ll be happy to store at least a digital copy for you.

Reference: US News (March 30, 2018) “4 Times It Makes Sense to Revise Your Will”

How Do I Maximize My IRA?

IRAs are valuable tools for retirement savings because they offer tax benefits in exchange for putting aside money for your golden years. Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “8 Ways to Maximize Your Traditional or Roth IRA” explains that contributions to IRAs are capped at $6,000 per year for most people, and that can make it difficult to amass the $1 million some people suggest is needed for retirement. Nonetheless, you can maximize your IRA contributions – both this year and over time – by using these ideas.

  1. Know your IRA options. See if you’re eligible to open a specialized IRA with a higher contribution limit. Self-employed people can also contribute to a SEP IRA. These Simplified Employee Pension plans let workers save 25% of their compensation.
  2. Don’t forget about the catch-up contributions. When you reach 50, you’re eligible to make catch-up contributions to traditional and Roth IRAs. It’s another $1,000 a year. Therefore, everyone age 50+ can contribute a total of $7,000 to their IRA for 2022.
  3. Take advantage of a spousal IRA. You typically need to earn taxable income to contribute to an IRA. However, there’s an exception for spouses. A non-working spouse can set up and contribute to an IRA, as long as their spouse has taxable income. However, if you file your taxes separately, you’ll miss out on this opportunity. Your total IRA contributions also can’t exceed the taxable income reported on your joint return.
  4. Make regular contributions throughout the year. If you wait for a year-end bonus to make your annual IRA contribution, you might be shortchanging yourself. Try to make small monthly contributions. Known as dollar-cost averaging, this makes saving money a habit and can result in more efficient investments. It may help your IRA grow more quickly.
  5. Start contributing as early as possible. It’s never too early to begin saving for retirement, so open an IRA as soon as you’re able and start your deposits as early in the year as possible.
  6. Look into a Roth conversion. Both traditional and Roth IRAs offer tax advantages. However, they differ. A traditional account offers an immediate tax deduction on contributions and then taxes withdrawals in retirement as regular income. With a Roth, there’s no tax deduction for contributions. However, the money is tax-free in retirement. If you have a traditional IRA, you can convert it to a Roth account.
  7. Invest for the long term. As far as your money in your IRA, “set it and forget it.” Moving it around frequently could incur fees and selling off investments during a down market simply means you’ll be locking in losses. Determine the appropriate investment strategy for your goals and risk tolerance and then stay with it. And remember that you may have to ride out some short-term bumps in the market to maximize your long-term gains.
  8. Talk to an expert. For savvy investors and those with the time and inclination to research investment choices, managing an IRA can be a viable option. For others, using a professional can save time and may result in better returns.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 20, 2021) “8 Ways to Maximize Your Traditional or Roth IRA”

Can My Pet Help Me in Old Age?

Seniors who own a pet may slow their rate of cognitive decline, according to a preliminary study recently presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “Sharp Mind in Old Age? Thank Your Pet” reports that the positive effect appears to be particularly pronounced for those who own a pet for at least five years.

The study looked at data from 1,369 older adults with an average age of 65.

All had normal cognitive skills at the outset of the study. Of the adults in the study, 53% owned pets, with 32% having had their pet for five years or longer.

After examining cognitive test data, the researchers found that after six years, long-term pet owners had a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher compared than those who did not own pets.

In a press release, study author Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor remarked that the positive impact of pets may stem in part from the animals’ ability to reduce our levels of stress:

“As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings. A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health.”

However, Braley — who also is a member of the American Academy of Neurology — said more research is needed to both confirm the results and identify underlying mechanisms that may be responsible for the link.

Earlier studies have found that the presence of pets can help reduce their owners’ levels of stress and even lower their blood pressure.

Reference: : Money Talks News (May 5, 2022) “Sharp Mind in Old Age? Thank Your Pet”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

What Should I Know About Buying Funeral Services?

People usually don’t buy funeral services frequently, so they’re unfamiliar with the process. Add to this the fact that they’re typically bereaved and stressed, which can affect decision-making, explains Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, an advocacy group. In addition, people tend to associate their love for the dead person with the amount of money they spend on the funeral, says The Seattle Times’ recent article entitled “When shopping for funeral services, be wary.”

“Grieving people really are the perfect customer to upsell,” Slocum said.

The digital age has also made it easier to contact grieving customers. Federal authorities recently charged the operator of two online cremation brokerages of fraud. The operator misled clients and even withheld remains to force bereaved families to pay inflated prices.

The Justice Department, on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission, sued Funeral & Cremation Group of North America and Legacy Cremation Services, which operates under several names and the companies’ principal, Anthony Joseph Damiano. The companies, according to a civil complaint, sell their funeral services through the websites Legacy Cremation Services and Heritage Cremation Provider.

These companies pretend to be local funeral homes offering low-cost cremation services. Their websites use search engines that make it look like consumers are dealing with a nearby business. However, they really act as middlemen, offering services and setting prices with customers, then arranging with unaffiliated funeral homes to perform cremations.

The lawsuit complaint says these companies offered lower prices for cremation services than they ultimately required customers to pay and arranged services at locations that were farther than advertised, forcing customers to travel long distances for viewings and to obtain remains.

“In some instances when consumers contest defendants’ charges,” the complaint said, the companies “threaten not to return or actually refuse to return” remains until customers pay up.

Mr. Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance recommends contacting several providers — in advance, if possible, so you can look at the options without pressure. And ask for the location of the cremation center and request a visit. Also note that cremation sites in the U.S. are frequently not located in the same place as the funeral home and may not be designed for consumer tours.

Note that the FTC’s Funeral Rule predates the internet and doesn’t require online price disclosure. Likewise, most states don’t require this either.

Last year during the pandemic, the government issued a warning about fraud related to the funeral benefits. They said FEMA had reports of people receiving calls from strangers offering to help them “register” for benefits.

Reference: Seattle Times (May 15, 2022) “When shopping for funeral services, be wary”

State Bolsters Nursing Home Oversight

The New York State Assembly recently gave final legislative approval in a unanimous vote to a bill requiring the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP) to publicize, as part of its annual reports, the kinds and patterns of complaints received by its regional offices and the number of ombudsman visits to each long-term care facility.

Harlem World Magazine’s recent article entitled “NYS Lawmakers Move To Strengthen Nursing Home Oversight From Care, To Complaints And More” reports that the New York State Senate passed the companion bill on May 24 with a strong, bipartisan vote.

The move follows a $2.5 million increase in state funding in the 2022 state budget for the federally-required program – more than doubling its previous state-funded budget.

LTCOP has lagged in other states’ programs, while more than 15,000 people have died in New York nursing homes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This bill would arm policymakers with the information they need to ensure the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is as effective as possible in advocating for and speaking on behalf of our society’s most vulnerable population: nursing home residents,” said AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel.

“After over 15,000 deaths in New York nursing homes and counting since the start of the pandemic, we need a strong advocate. AARP New York thanks Senator Rachel May and Assembly Member Sarah Clark for steering this bill through their respective houses, and we strongly urge Governor Kathy Hochul to sign it into law.”

The New York Ombudsman Program is an advocate and resource for seniors and people with disabilities who live in nursing homes, assisted living and other licensed adult care homes. Ombudsmen help residents understand and exercise their rights to good care in an environment that promotes and protects their dignity and quality of life.

The legislation was supported by the Center for Elder Law & Justice in Buffalo, New York.

Although LTCOP can’t sanction long-term care facilities, it’s the only agency authorized to visit facilities on a regular basis to observe conditions, monitor care and help residents and families resolve problems.

In addition to helping individual residents and families, LTCOP is required by federal rules to act as an independent voice for residents with respect to laws and policies that impact their care.

Reference: Harlem World Magazine (June 4, 2022) “NYS Lawmakers Move To Strengthen Nursing Home Oversight From Care, To Complaints And More”

Some Seniors Getting Estate Plans Completed More Quickly after COVID

Indiana Lawyer’s recent article entitled “New urgency: COVID prompts seniors to be more proactive with estate planning” says that, after roughly two years, many Americans appear to finally be emerging from the strictest phases of the pandemic.

As many middle-aged and young people move back into what somewhat resembles a pre-pandemic normalcy, older citizens continue to feel the heavy impact of the virus.

As COVID’s threat to the elderly quickly became apparent, some estate planning attorneys have seen a major increase in older clients scrambling to get their affairs in order.

People aged 65 and older account for nearly 75% of U.S. COVID-related deaths. More often than not, estate planning lawyers say people don’t have their end-of-life and estate planning documents together until it’s too late.

For some, estate planning is almost taboo in the sense that if someone gets their affairs taken care of, older generations tend to think they’ll die the next day. As if, “I’m going to have an impending death sometime soon if I do this.”

However, by doing the estate planning, it helps that stigma to be diminished.

Some say people had to die, in order to motivate people to do what they needed to do.

However, more people seem willing to get up and get an estate plan because of COVID.

Visit an estate planning attorney and set up your plan right away. Ask about the basic documents:

  • A will
  • Powers of Attorney
  • A Living Will
  • An Advance Medical Directive; and perhaps
  • A Revocable Living Trust

Everyone’s situation is different, so you should sit down with an experienced attorney who can customize an estate plan to your family and situation.

Reference: Indiana Lawyer (May 25, 2022) “New urgency: COVID prompts seniors to be more proactive with estate planning”