Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

unintended heirs

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Disinheritance, Omitted, Decedent, Will, Trust, Appellate Court, Unknown Child, Last Will and Testament, Appeal

sole beneficiary sharing

What If a Sole Beneficiary Wants to Share?

That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, right?

However, Morningstar’s recent article entitled “3 Strategies to Consider When Sole Beneficiaries Want to Share the Wealth” says that there are a few hurdles to clear, such as the IRA administrator’s policies, income tax consequences, transfer tax consequences and the terms of the decedent’s will.

Here’s a scenario: Uncle Buck dies and leaves his IRA to his niece, Hope. Buck’s will leaves all his other assets equally to all three of his nieces: sisters Hope, Faith and Charity. However, the three agree that Buck’s IRA should be shared equally, like the rest of the estate. What do they do?

The Easy Way. Hope keeps the IRA, withdraws from it when she wants (and as required by the minimum distribution rules), pays the income tax on her withdrawals and makes cash gifts to Faith and Charity (either now or as she withdraws from the IRA) in an agreed upon the amount. It would mean giving her two sisters ⅓ of the after-tax value of the IRA. There is no court proceeding or issue with the IRA provider. There are no income tax consequences because Hope will pay the other girls only the after-tax value of the IRA distributions she receives. However, there’s a transfer tax consequence: Hope’s transfers would be considered as gifts for gift tax purposes because she has no legal obligation to share the IRA with the other nieces. Any gift over the annual exclusion amount in any year ($15,000 as of 2020) will be using up some of Hope’s lifetime gift and estate tax exemption. This easy answer may work well for a not-too-large inherited IRA.

The Expensive Method: Reformation. If there is evidence that Buck made a mistake in filling out the beneficiary form, a court-ordered reformation of the document may be appropriate. Therefore, if Hope, Faith, and Charity have witnesses who would testify that the decedent told them shortly before he died, “I’m leaving all my assets equally to my three nieces,” it could be evidence that he made a mistake in completing the beneficiary designation form for the IRA. The court could order the IRA provider to pay the IRA to all three girls, and the IRS would probably accept the result. By accepting the result, the IRS would agree that the nieces should be equally responsible for their respective shares of income tax on the IRA and for taking the required distributions, and that no taxable gift occurred. However, as you might expect, the IRS isn’t legally bound by a lower state court’s order. If the reformation is based on evidence, the parties may want the tax results confirmed by an IRS private letter ruling, which is an expensive and time-consuming task.

The In-Between. The final possible solution is a qualified disclaimer. Hope would “disclaim” two thirds of the IRA (and keep a third). A qualified disclaimer (made within nine months after Buck’s death) would be effective to move two thirds of the IRA (and the income taxes) from Hope without gift taxes. A qualified disclaimer involves a legal fee but no court or IRS involvement. As a result, it can be fairly simple and cost-effective. However, there may be an issue: when Hope disclaims two thirds of the IRA, that doesn’t mean the disclaimed share of the IRA automatically goes to the other nieces. Instead, the disclaimed portion of the IRA will pass to the contingent beneficiary of the IRA. Hope needs to see where it goes next, prior to signing the disclaimer. If there’s no contingent beneficiary named by Buck, the disclaimed portion will pass to the default beneficiary named in the IRA provider’s plan documents. That’s typically the decedent’s probate estate. If the disclaimed portion of the IRA passes to the uncle’s estate, and Hope is a one-third beneficiary of the estate, she will also need to disclaim her estate-derived share of the IRA. A “simple disclaimer” can be complicated, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help.

Even if Hope disclaims two thirds of the IRA, so that it passes to Faith and Charity through the estate, the other girls won’t receive as favorable income tax treatment as Hope. Hope inherits her share as designated beneficiary, while an estate (the assumed default beneficiary), which isn’t a designated beneficiary, can’t qualify for that.

Reference: Morningstar (Aug. 13, 2020) “3 Strategies to Consider When Sole Beneficiaries Want to Share the Wealth”

inheritance acceptance

Do I Have to Accept an Inheritance?

Most people don’t use a disclaimer because they’re not entitled to other assets to offset the value of the asset disclaimed. They don’t get to decide who gets their disclaimed asset.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Can I reject an inheritance?” explains that the details can be found in Internal Revenue Code §2518. However, here are some of the basics about disclaimers.

In most states, a qualified disclaimer can be filed within nine months of an asset owner’s death. This disclaimer is irrevocable. Therefore, once it’s done, it’s done. This can create problems with IRAs because they have beneficiary designations, and the death claim can be processed with a few forms. As soon as the funds are transferred to an inherited IRA, disclaiming is no longer an option.

When a person disclaims an asset, the asset is distributed as though that beneficiary had died prior to the date of the benefactor’s death. Therefore, with an IRA, it is pretty simple. If you disclaim all or a part of the IRA, the funds pass on, based on the beneficiary designation.

The IRA usually has a secondary beneficiary named. If the beneficiaries in line to inherit the account are who you would want to inherit the account, disclaiming should transfer the account to them. However, if they’re not who you want to get the funds, you have little leverage to do anything about it.

If there are no other beneficiaries and you disclaimed, the money goes back into the decedent’s estate.

The funds would go through probate and be directed based upon his will. If there was no will (intestacy), the probate laws of the decedent’s state will dictate how the assets are distributed.

Having an IRA go through an estate is inefficient, time consuming and adds additional costs beyond the taxes.

All these drawbacks can be avoided, by properly designating beneficiaries.

Being wise with your beneficiary designations, also provides flexibility in your estate plan.

For example, you can set up beneficiary designations to purposely give an inheritor the option to disclaim to other family members, which is done when the primary beneficiary can disclaim to a family member that is in greater need of funds or is in a lower tax bracket.

Reference: MarketWatch (Aug. 25, 2020) “Can I reject an inheritance?”

keep assets

How Do I Keep My Assets from the Nursing Home?

If you don’t have a plan for your assets when it comes time for nursing home care, they can be at risk. Begin planning now for the expenses of senior living. The first step is to consider the role of Medicaid in paying for nursing home services.

WRCB’s recent article entitled “How to Protect Your Assets from Nursing Homes” describes the way in which Medicaid helps pay for nursing homes and what you can do to shield your assets.

One issue is confusing nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities. Medicare does cover a stay in a skilled nursing facility for convalescence. However, it doesn’t pay for full-time residence in a nursing home. For people who can’t afford to pay and don’t have long-term care insurance, they can apply for Medicaid. That’s a government program that can pay nursing home costs for those with a low income. People who don’t have the savings to pay for nursing home care and then require that level of care, may be able to use Medicaid.

For those who don’t qualify for Medicaid when they need nursing home care, they may become eligible when their savings are depleted. With less money in the bank and minimal income, Medicaid can pay for nursing home care. It is also important to remember that when a Medicaid recipient dies, the government may recoup the benefits provided for nursing home care from the estate. Family members may discover that this will impact their inheritance. To avoid this, look at these ways to protect assets from nursing home expenses.

Give Away Assets. Giving loved ones your assets as gifts can help keep them from being taken by the government when you die. However, there may be tax consequences and could render you Medicaid ineligible.

Create an Irrevocable Trust. When assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they can no longer belong to you because you name an independent trustee. The only exception is that Medicaid can take assets that were yours five years before you died. Therefore, you need to do this as soon as you know you’re going into a nursing home.

Contact an experienced estate planning, elder law, or Medicaid planning attorney to help you protect your assets. The more you delay, the less likely you’ll be able to protect them.

Reference: WRCB (Dayton) (Sep. 4, 2020) “How to Protect Your Assets from Nursing Homes”

social security benefits

Social Security Benefits: Timing Is Everything

Not knowing when you will be eligible to receive all of the benefits earned through your work history can hurt a retirement plan, says a recent article from CNBC.com titled “Here’s what to you need to know about claiming Social Security retirement benefits.” Equally problematic? It is letting fears of the program running out of money before you can get your fair share influence your decision.

If you get the timing right and use a combination of your retirement savings and Social Security benefits in the right time and the right order, your money may last as much as seven years longer. However, remember that there are many rules about Social Security and retirement fund withdrawals. Here are three big blind spots to avoid:

Not knowing when to take full benefits.

Age 62 is when you are first eligible to take Social Security benefits. Many people start taking them at this age because they don’t know better or because they have no alternative. If you start taking benefits at age 62, your monthly benefits will be reduced.

There is a difference between eligibility and Full Retirement Age, or FRA. When you reach FRA, which is usually 66 or 67, depending upon your birth year, then you are entitled to 100% of the benefits based on your work record. If you can manage without taking Social Security benefits a few more years after your FRA, those benefits will continue to grow—about 8% a year.

Most Americans simply don’t know this fact. If you can wait it out, it’s worth doing so. If you can’t, you can’t. However, the longer you can wait until when you reach your full amount, the bigger the monthly check.

How many ways can you claim benefits?

This is where people make the biggest number of mistakes. There are many different ways to take Social Security benefits. People just don’t always know which one to choose. First, once you start receiving benefits, you have up to a year to withdraw your application. Let’s say you need to start benefits but then you find a job. You can stop taking benefits, but you have to repay all the benefits you and your family members received. This option is a one-time only event.

Another way to increase benefits if you start taking them early, is to suspend them from the time you reach your FRA until age 70. However, you have to live without the Social Security income for those years.

Expecting the worst scenarios for Social Security.

Social Security headlines come in waves, and they can be disconcerting. However, a knee-jerk reaction is to take benefits early because of fear is not a good move for the long term. There are a number of proposals now on Capitol Hill to strengthen the program. Benefits may be reduced, but they will not go away entirely.

Reference: CNBC.com (Aug. 24, 2020) “Here’s what to you need to know about claiming Social Security retirement benefits”

digital asset law

Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania, Joining Most States

More and more of our lives are lived online. However, what happens when we become disabled or die and our executor or a fiduciary needs to access these accounts? Pennsylvania recently joined many states that have passed a law intended to make accessing these accounts easier, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

The official name of the law is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Pennsylvania is one of the last states in the nation—48th—to adopt this type of legislation, with the passage of Act 72 of 2020. Until now, the Keystone state didn’t allow concrete authority to access digital information to fiduciaries. The problem: the ability to access the information is still subject to the agreement that the user has with the online provider. That’s the “yes” we give automatically, when presented with terms of service agreement every time we open a new app on our phones.

Online service providers give deference to “legacy” contacts that a user can name, if authority to a third party to access their accounts is given. However, most people don’t name a successor to have access, and most apps don’t have a way to do this.

It’s worse than dying without a will. If you die with no will, the state has a process to identify legal heirs and distribute your estate. However, with digital assets, first you have to locate the person’s digital assets (and chances are good you’ll miss a few). There’s no shoebox of old receipts, or letters and bills coming in the mail to identify digital property. The custodians of the online information (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, etc.) still rely on those contracts between the user and the digital platform.

However, with the adoption of the new law, if the user does not make use of the online tool to name a successor, or if one is not offered, then the user can dictate the terms of access or non-access to the online accounts through estate planning documents, including a will, trust or power of attorney.

Here are some tips to clarify your wishes to disclose (or not) digital assets:

Make a list of all your online accounts, their URL address, usernames and passwords. Share the list only with someone you trust. You will be surprised at just how many you have.

Review the terms of service for each account to see if you have the ability to provide a name for a person who is authorized to access the account on your behalf.

Make sure your estate planning documents are aligned with your service contract preferences. Does your Power of Attorney mention access to your digital accounts? Depending on the potential value, sentimental and otherwise, of your digital assets, you may need to revise your estate plan.

Remember to never put anything in your will, like account numbers, URLs, usernames or passwords, since your will becomes a public document once it is probated. Your estate planning attorney will know how to best accomplish documenting your digital assets, while protecting them.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 24, 2020) “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

lower taxes

Searching for Lower Taxes? Check State Laws

If you are among the many Americans making a move because of economics, a recent article from MarketWatch titled “Thinking about moving to a state with lower taxes? These are the mistake to avoid” has the information you need about the tax impact of your prospective new home state.

Moving to a state with no personal income tax is not the quick and easy answer it seems. You’ve got to look at ALL the taxes that apply to residents, from property taxes to estate and inheritance taxes.

Here’s a good example: Texas has no personal state income tax. Colorado has a flat 4.63% personal state income tax. Therefore, if you are working and have a good income, it makes sense that Texas would be your best option, right? Wrong.

The property tax rate on a home in some Colorado Springs neighborhoods is about 0.49% of the property’s actual value. Let’s say you move to one of these areas and buy a home for $500,000. Your annual property tax bill: $2,450. Let’s say your taxable income is $200,000. Your Colorado state income tax bill would be $9,260, and with the property tax, your tax bill would be $11,710. For that same $500,000 home in Dallas—your property tax would be $21,200 or about $17,800 if you are over age 65 or a surviving spouse. The higher property tax means that your annual tax bill is lower in Colorado.

What about after you die? Seventeen states and the District of Columbia impose their own estate tax or inheritance tax, and Maryland imposes both. Exemptions from the state estate tax are way below the current federal estate tax exemption. However, if you move to the wrong state, your estate could shrink dramatically from the state’s death taxes.

To clarify, an estate tax is charged against the entire taxable estate, regardless of who inherits from the estate. An inheritance tax is charged against people who receive inheritance. The rate usually depends upon their relationship to you.

Here are a few state estate taxes to consider:

  • Connecticut’s top estate tax rate is 12%, with a $5.1 million exemption allowed for 2020. The exemption increases to $7.1 million in 2021, and $9.1 million in 2022. Above $15 million of the estate tax value, the tax rate drops to 0%.
  • Hawaii’s top estate tax rate is 20%, and in 2020, there is a $5.49 million exemption.
  • In Illinois, the top tax rate is 16%, with a $4 million exemption in 2020.

Review the entire tax picture, before making this important decision. You should also confer with your estate planning attorney to learn how your estate’s structure—trusts and other estate planning tools—would work in a different state. Keep in mind that all of these tax exemptions, including the federal one, are likely to change as local, state and federal governments respond to the increased costs and lowered revenues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reference: MarketWatch (Aug. 30, 2020) “Thinking about moving to a state with lower taxes? These are the mistake to avoid”

early retirement

Should I Take the Early Retirement Package Offered at My Job?

As tempting as an early retirement package sounds, it’s a decision that should be made only after analyzing it carefully. What the early retirement decision boils down to is: “Can I afford to do it?”

AARP’s recent article entitled “What to Consider When You’re Offered an Early Retirement Package” explains that many early retirement packages include salary severance (such as receiving one or two weeks’ pay for each year of service); extended health insurance coverage and a pension-related payout.

However, just because you’re offered an early retirement package, it doesn’t mean you have to retire if you take it.

The first question is whether you’d consider working after taking your company’s early retirement offer. Taking a voluntary buyout when you plan to keep working is a different decision, than if you’re considering retirement. If you have a new job and will still be collecting a paycheck after the buyout, you might save some of that cash.

The analysis is more difficult when your future job prospects are poor, or you’re planning on using the voluntary buyout as retirement funds.

The older you are — and the nearer that the offer is to your planned retirement date — the better. If you are 63½ when you get a buyout offer, if you have enough savings, a well-stocked 401(k) or IRA retirement plan and no large debts, you’d be “within the window” to take the buyout. The reason is that you’re only 18 months from being eligible for Medicare health insurance at age 65. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows workers to continue their employer-based health coverage for up to 18 months. This applies even if the termination is involuntary. Most early retirement packages offer COBRA benefits. You’ll have to pay for COBRA, but it will be a bridge to age 65 when your Medicare coverage begins. See if you can get coverage by joining your spouse’s plan, if he or she is employed and has a plan at work. You can also shop for your own private plan through the federal government-run Health Insurance Marketplace. However, don’t attempt to go without health care because you’ll need it.

You’ll need money in retirement to pay your monthly bills. Therefore, you should do an expense audit and figure out what your monthly costs are now and what they’ll be in the future. Based on the expense audit, see if you’ve got enough income or assets to cover your budget.

Look at whether the buyout terms are attractive enough to let you to leave your job and bridge the income gap, until retirement age of 65 or you get a new job. If it doesn’t, you might be better off not taking it. A severance payment of six months to a year might give you enough time to find a new job, but for most, a month or two of severance won’t be enough.

Reference: AARP (Aug. 28, 2020) “What to Consider When You’re Offered an Early Retirement Package”

grandchild's college tuition

How Can I Help with My Grandchild’s College Tuition?

To assist with college tuition for younger children or grandchildren, you may want to defer the receipt of funds, until the child or grandchild needs to pay for tuition down the road. You can make a gift into a custody account or into a trust that qualifies as a current gift under the Uniform Gifts to Minor’s Act, or you can fund a Qualified Tuition Plan under IRC Section 529.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans” explains that there are two kinds of 529 programs: prepaid plans and savings plans. The advantage of a 529 plan over a Unified Gift to Minors Act plan is that the earnings on the assets in the 529 plan aren’t taxed, until the funds are distributed. The distributions are also tax-free up to the amount of the student’s “qualified higher education expenses.”

Prepaid Programs: Some colleges let you buy tuition credits or certificates at the current tuition rates, even though your grandchild won’t be starting college for several years. This allows you to lock in today’s rates for her enrollment some years later. This move can resultant in substantial savings, since tuition continues to rise at most institutions.

Savings Programs: Similar to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, tuition amounts covered by a savings plan are dependent on the investment performance of the money you have in the plan. If it grows, more cost can be covered. But if it declines, less will be covered. Therefore, it is good to be conservative, if the need for distributions is nearing soon.

Qualified Higher Education Expenses: Tuition (including up to $10,000 in tuition for an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school), fees, books, supplies, and required equipment, as well as reasonable room and board are qualified expenses, if the student is enrolled at least half-time. Distributions in excess of qualified expenses are taxed to the student, if they represent earnings on the account. A 10% penalty tax is also imposed.

Beneficiary: The beneficiary of the program is specified when you start the funding. However, you are able to change the beneficiary or roll over the funds in the program to another plan for the same or a different beneficiary without income tax liability.

Eligible Schools: Any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education will be eligible schools for these programs.

The contributions made to the qualified tuition program are treated as gifts to the student. They qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person per year for 2020) adjusted annually for inflation. If your contributions in a year exceed the exclusion amount, you can elect to take the contributions into account over a five-year period starting with the year of the contributions.

Note that you may not be able to make the distributions from the program when a very young (or unborn) beneficiary goes to college, so name an alternative custodian, perhaps a parent of a grandchild, to make distributions for you.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 5, 2020) “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans”

estate plan goals

Gifting Can Help Estate Plans and Heirs Reach Goals

The applicable exclusion amount for gift/estate tax purposes is $11.58 million in 2020, a level that makes incorporating gifting into estate plans very attractive for high net-worth families. If a donor’s taxable gift—one that does not qualify for the annual, medical or education exclusion—is in excess of this amount, or if the value of the donor’s aggregate taxable gifts is higher than this amount, the federal gift tax will be due by April 15 of the following year. The current gift tax rate is 40%.

This presents an opportunity, as described in detail in the article “The Case for Gifting Now (or At Least Planning for the Possibility” from The National Law Review.

If the exclusion is used during one’s lifetime, it reduces the amount of the exemption available at death to shelter property from the estate tax. With proper planning, spouses may currently gift or die with assets totally as much as $23.16 million, with no gift or federal estate tax.

To gain perspective on how high this exclusion is, in 2000-2001, the applicable exclusion amount was $675,000.

The exclusion amount will automatically decrease to approximately $6.5 million on January 1, 2026, unless changes are made by Congress before that time to continue the current exclusion amount. Now is a good time to have a conversation with your estate planning attorney about making gifts in advance of the scheduled decrease and/or any changes that may occur in the future. The following are reasons why this exemption may be lowered:

  • Trillions of dollars in federal stimulus spending necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe economic downturn in the U.S.
  • Past precedent of passing tax legislation mid-year and applying it retroactively to January 1.
  • A possible change in party control for the presidency and/or the Senate
  • The use of the budget reconciliation process to pass changes to taxes.

In the 100-plus year history of the estate tax, the exemption has never gone down. However, the exemption has also never been this high. The possibility of a compressed timeframe for family business owners and wealthy individuals to implement lifetime gifts before any legislative change may make a tidal wave of gifting transactions challenging between now and December 31, 2020. Now is the time to start planning and take action to utilize the exclusion amount.

Reference: The National Review (Aug. 20, 2020) “The Case for Gifting Now (or At Least Planning for the Possibility”