Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Cornelius Vanderbilt Created an Estate Plan, but Should I?

AJC’s recent article entitled “Why Vanderbilts should inspire you to create an estate plan” explains that when Cornelius Vanderbilt died, his son, William, inherited most of the fortune and nearly doubled it within a decade. However, after that came a drop in the cash, and after just a few decades, the fortune had been spent. Therefore, none of Vanderbilt’s descendants stayed among the wealthiest people in the country.

When 120 Vanderbilt family members recently gathered for a reunion at Vanderbilt University, not one was a millionaire. In a century, the largest estate America has ever known had dwindled to next to nothing.

Let’s look at why this happens and how you can prevent this from happening to your estate.

America is currently in the midst of the greatest transfer of wealth ever. An estimated $59 trillion will be transferred to heirs, charities and taxes between 2007 and 2061. However, roughly 70% of wealth transfers aren’t successful. This means that sometimes heirs get practically nothing. There are three reasons for this failure:

  1. No trust and communication among heirs because they’re all concerned about their share.
  2. Heirs are unprepared to inherit an estate, which may include managing investments or a business. In many cases, other family members don’t know how it works.
  3. Heirs have no clue where the money should go and what purpose it should serve because no one is thinking long term about what is best for the family assets.

It’s common for business owners to believe that an estate plan is enough to keep everything in order, but they don’t consider their business. This is the reason why succession planning is vital. This planning determines what happens to the business itself and lays out the strategy, so it continues to operate smoothly after it’s passed to the heirs.

Let’s look at some tips for dealing with estate planning that should make for a smooth transition:

Create a plan. If you die without a will, state probate law will determine who gets your assets. This may not be what you want. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that everything is drawn up correctly.

Discuss the issues with your heirs. Talk to your family about the financial details. Make sure that your heirs know the details of your estate, so they can start to manage and oversee it once you die.

Get heirs involved in the process. Likewise, heirs can help plan based on their knowledge, future availability and expectations. By planning now, no one will be caught unaware about what to do with the estate.

Ready your heirs. Educate your heirs on how to manage and oversee your assets, especially if you have a succession plan for a business. Discuss the company’s mission and vision, and what you want the company to achieve.

Organize your financial documents. Get all financial documents in a single location and label everything clearly to help out your heirs. Keep this in a safe location, and let your heirs know where it’s located. Your attorney should also have a copy of your will, estate plan and succession plan (if applicable).

Get help from experts. Help forge a relationship between your heirs and your financial team, which may include a financial adviser, an estate planning attorney and an accountant. This will allow your heirs to know who to call, if things get complicated. It’ll also help to prepare them for what they’re supposed to be doing, once they get their inheritance.

Communication is the key. Talking with your experts and your heirs will make certain that everyone understands each other’s roles, regardless of whether it’s a small business or a multimillion-dollar empire.

Reference: AJC (Sep. 25, 2020) “Why Vanderbilts should inspire you to create an estate plan”

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Your Estate Plan Include Digital Property Protection?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dividing Pablo Picasso’s Estate, a Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can Siblings Settle Disputes over an Estate?

When your parents pass away, their assets are often divided between their children. However, if there’s no will to answer any legal questions that may arise, siblings can fight over the assets. Some even take the matter to court. It would be great to avoid these battles because, in many cases, a fight over an estate between the siblings can end their good relationship and enrich attorneys, instead of family members.

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle” says that the following tips can help people in this situation or assist them in preventing the fight entirely, when there are no instructions for the distribution of certain assets.

Use a Family Auction. With a family auction, siblings use agreed upon “tokens” to bid for the estate items they want.

Get an Appraisal. The division of an estate between the siblings can get complicated and end in a fight, if the siblings want different pieces of the estate and have to work out the value difference. If, for example, the siblings decide to split the estate unevenly, and one gets a car and another a house, it’s worthwhile to engage the services of an appraiser to calculate the value of these assets. That way, those pieces of smaller value can be deducted from ones of higher value for fairer distribution.

Mediation. If siblings historically don’t get along, they may battle over every trinket left as an inheritance, no matter how immaterial. In that case, you should use a mediator to help divide the estate fairly without a court battle.

Take Turns! Sometimes, if there are several siblings involved in the division of assets, they can take turns in claiming the items within the estate. All siblings naturally have to agree to the idea with no hard feelings involved. Just like Mom would have wanted!

Asset Liquidation. If everything else fails, the easiest way to divide the assets and the estate between the siblings is to go through asset liquidation and split the proceeds.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to deal with the division of the estate and assets and prevent the legal battle between the siblings. To avoid hard feelings, stay calm, be reasonable and ask your siblings to act the same way.

Reference: The Legal Reader (Aug. 24, 2020) “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle”

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

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”

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?”