Estate Planning Blog Articles

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How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

Couple’s Charitable Remainder Trust Helps University Students

Florida resident Robert Larson of Leesburg recently donated $1.4 million to the Minnesota State University, Mankato in honor of his late wife, Virginia, the Minnesota State University, Mankato recently announced.

A story entitled “Minnesota State Mankato Receives $1.4 Million Gift to Support Education, Music, ROTC Scholarships” said that Larson’s gift will support scholarships for students studying elementary education (75%) and music (20%), and the remaining 5% is earmarked to establish Minnesota State Mankato’s first Reserve Officer Training Corps endowment. At least 14 students annually will receive scholarships as a result of the gift.

“This gift is especially meaningful because of the many years that Robert and Virginia Larson spent planning for it,” said Minnesota State University, Mankato President Edward Inch.“ Students will benefit from this gift for many generations to come.”

The Larson’s originally planned their gift by creating the university’s first-ever charitable remainder trust in 1987. The trust was set up to benefit University students after both Robert and Virginia died.

A charitable remainder trust (CRT) is a gift of cash or other property to an irrevocable trust. The donor gets to keep an income stream from the trust for a term of years or for life. The charity then gets the remaining trust assets at the conclusion of the trust term. The donor receives an immediate income tax charitable deduction when the CRT is funded, based on the present value of the assets that will eventually go to the named charity.

Mr. Larson later decided he wanted to give a larger sum to the university to be able to have an effect on students while he was still living. Therefore, he decided to forego the annual payments he received and terminated the charitable remainder trust early.

His wife Virginia graduated from Minnesota State Mankato in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She began teaching fourth grade in Lakeville, Minnesota. She then taught third grade in Poway, California, and finally taught fourth grade and English as a second language in Chula Vista, California. She died in 2020.

“Virginia really enjoyed her time as a student at Minnesota State Mankato, and we started planning for this gift out of a desire to help students,” said Robert Larson.

Reference: Minnesota State University, Mankato (August 12, 2021) “Minnesota State Mankato Receives $1.4 Million Gift to Support Education, Music, ROTC Scholarships”

Has COVID Affected Baby Boomers’ Retirement Plans?

Baby boomers, who are either in retirement or very close to it, have had COVID-19 make an especially significant effect on post-work plans. That’s according to a recent survey from the Center for a Secure Retirement and CNO Financial Group. With the coronavirus, Boomers had to help family financially, which meant less for their own retirement.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “5 Impacts the Pandemic Had on Baby Boomers’ Retirement Plans” provides five important ways the pandemic has changed baby-boomer retirement dreams. The results are based on a survey of more than 2,500 middle-income boomers — defined as Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964, and who have an annual household income between $30,000 and $100,000 and less than $1 million in investable assets.

  1. Their main ‘non-negotiable’ retirement priorities have changed. Before the pandemic, 56% of boomers said maintaining financial security and independence was their top “non-negotiable” retirement priority. However, it’s now back to the basics for more boomers. The top retirement priorities are now: spending time with grandchildren (43%); maintaining financial stability and independence (35%); staying active (34%); being able to travel (30%); and living close to family and friends (25%).
  2. They’ve supported other family members financially. Many middle-income boomers reported that they assisted family members financially during the pandemic, with 41% of those surveyed saying that was the case.
  3. They haven’t been able to save much for retirement. Among middle-income baby boomers who offered cash to support family during the pandemic, 75% say they haven’t been able to save as much for retirement as they wanted.
  4. They’ve delayed plans to move. Retiring by the beach or near the grandkids are common retirement destinations. However, the pandemic has thwarted those plans for many a baby boomer. Among middle-income baby boomers who helped support family during the pandemic, 65% say that they delayed their moving plans.
  5. They’ve re-evaluated retirement finances and expenses. Helping the kids in the pandemic has meant an adjustment for many baby boomers’ budgets. About half (51%) responded that they’ve re-evaluated finances and expenses for retirement.

Reference: Money Talks News (Aug. 2, 2021) “5 Impacts the Pandemic Had on Baby Boomers’ Retirement Plans”

Disney Grandson Loses Appeal of Probate Court’s Decision

Bradford Lund, Walt Disney’s adult grandson, lost an appeal in a battle with a Los Angeles probate judge who appointed a guardian ad litem without a hearing and rejected a proposed settlement that would have given Lund a $200 million inheritance, says this recent article “Walt Disney’s Grandson Loses Appeal in Fight for $200M Inheritance” from The Hollywood Reporter. Despite its decision, the appellate court described the probate court’s behavior as “troubling.”

In 2020, Lund filed a lawsuit in California federal court arguing that his due process was violated when a County Superior Court judge rejected a settlement reached by family members and trustees. The judge appointed a guardian ad litem, even though an Arizona judge had determined that Lund was not incapacitated and another judge in California stated that Lund had the capacity to choose new trustees.

The lawsuit was later amended to include a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act because in the 2019 settlement, Judge Cowan had stated that he would not give 200 million dollars to someone who may suffer, at some level, from Down syndrome.

Six months later, a U.S. District judge dismissed the matter. During the appeals process, the Superior Court discharged the guardian ad litem and granted Lund’s request for a new judge.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, finding that most of Lund’s claims had become moot, as a result of the judge recusing himself and removing the guardian ad litem. The panel also held that, while the judge’s statements were inappropriate and without factual basis, they were protected by judicial immunity.

It may be small comfort to Lund, but the 9th Circuit judge criticized the probate court and acknowledged his frustration with the system. The district judge no longer serves in probate court, although no connection between his departure and the Lund matter was recognized by the 9th District.

Regarding the ADA claim, the panel of 9th Circuit judges says that judges must remain completely independent, and subjecting judges to liability for grievances of litigants would compromise that.

Reference: The Hollywood Reporter (July 16, 2021) “Walt Disney’s Grandson Loses Appeal in Fight for $200M Inheritance”

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

Will Vets Get More Time to Apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance?

The Department of Veterans Affairs has extended the deadline to apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance to include service members leaving the military through Dec. 11, 2021. During the pandemic, the VA provided more application time to anyone leaving the military from June 11, 2020, through June 11, 2021. The move allows troops leaving in the second half of last year to also get some extra time.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance” tells us how it works for those whose separation dates are between June 11, 2020, and Dec. 11, 2021:

  • To apply for VGLI without a health review to provide proof of good health, service members will be allowed to 330 days after they separate from the military, an increase of 90 days over the standard period of 240 days and
  • To apply with a health review of good health, service members will have up to one year and 210 days after leaving the service—an increase of 90 days over the standard period of one year and 120 days.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that the extension is aimed at relieving some of the financial effects of the pandemic for former service members, “especially those with disabilities incurred while in service, since many of these former members would otherwise not qualify for a private commercial plan of insurance due to such disabilities,” the VA states. Some troops may also have challenges with visiting their health care provider to get their medical records, according to the VA.

The Veterans’ Group Life Insurance coverage is an option for those who have Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. This permits them to convert their existing SGLI coverage to VGLI coverage. Both programs are administered by the Office of Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, and are supervised by the VA.

VGLI coverage is more expensive than Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. It increases in cost every five years up to age 80. Therefore, for instance, $400,000 worth of SGLI coverage costs the same — $25 a month — regardless of age. VGLI coverage of $400,000 at age 30 costs $36 a month, and at age 40 costs $64 a month. However, life insurance policies can be purchased in increments of $10,000 up to $400,000. Thus, a $10,000 policy would cost $1.60 a month for a 40-year-old.

Service members should shop around for life insurance and have a policy in hand well before their VGLI application deadline to ensure they have coverage, if there are health conditions that might make them ineligible for commercial life insurance coverage.

Reference: Military Times (June 18, 2021) “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance”

Have You Considered Estate Planning for Fido?

In Montana, a pet is “any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of its owner.” In Kansas, the statutes define an “animal” as “any live dog, cat, rabbit, rodent, nonhuman primate, bird or other warm blooded vertebrate or any fish, snake, or other cold-blooded vertebrate.”

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning For Pets” explains that a pet is tangible personal property—just like guns, cars, or jewelry. When a pet owner passes away, pets pass to beneficiaries by provisions in an owner’s will, by directives in an owner’s trust document, or by a priority list of heirs contained in the state probate laws, if an owner does not have a will or a trust.

Pet owners should select a willing care giver and make a care plan for their pet that will lower the pet’s stress in the first days after you are gone. Writing down your wishes can help your heirs avoid potential problems, if there is a need to cover expenses for food, medical requirements and transportation of the pet to the beneficiary.

For example, in Montana, an honorary trust for pets is valid for only 21 years, no matter if a pet owner writes a longer term in the trust document. As a result, the trust terminates the earlier of 21 years or when the pet dies. Unless indicated in the trust document, the trustee may not use any portion of the principal or income from the trust for any other use than for the pet’s care.

Pet owners have options, when funding a pet trust. Funds could come from a payable on death (POD) designation on financial accounts to the pet trust. Another option is a transfer on death (TOD) registration with the pet trust as beneficiary for stocks, bonds, mutual funds and annuities. The pet owner could also direct the trustee in the pet trust document to sell assets, like a vehicle, house, or  boat, and place those funds in the trust for the care of the pet.

Life insurance is perhaps another option for funding for a pet’s care. States typically do not consider a pet to be a “person,” so Puffball cannot be a beneficiary of a life insurance policy. A pet owner can fund a living or testamentary pet trust, by naming the trustee of the trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. As an alternative, a pet owner may have a certain percentage of an existing policy payable to the pet trust.

Pet owners should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best way of naming the trustee of a pet trust as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 14, 2021) “Estate Planning For Pets”

What’s the Latest on Country Star Charley Pride’s Estate?

Grammy-winning country star Charley Pride died from COVID-19 in December, and an article from 5 NBC DFW entitled “Charley Pride’s ‘Secret’ Son Contests Will” reports that his son Tyler has revealed the family “secret.” His story started with an affair between his mother, a flight attendant, and his father, country music’s first Black superstar.

At the time of their relationship, Charley was already married to his wife of many years, Rozene, and the couple had three children. A paternity test later confirmed that Tyler was also Charley’s son.

“We made it through and had the best relationship that we could, per the circumstances,” said Tyler. “We still got to talk on the phone a lot and get to know each other that way, but it was difficult because of his situation and having to keep peace at home, as he put it over and over.”

Tyler said his father visited when he was able, and even after he turned 18 and Charley’s obligation to financially support him ended, Tyler said his father stayed involved in his life. However, when Charley died of COVID-19, Tyler said the family did not even tell him that his father was sick. In fact, Tyler’s name was not included in the obituary, and he said he was not allowed to attend the funeral.

Tyler also wasn’t named in Charley’s will, which Tyler has filed a lawsuit to contest. He says there was undue influence by Rozene over her husband, who’d publicly acknowledged mental health struggles.

“I don’t think he could imagine that this is going on right now and I don’t think it’s what he wanted. Because he always said he wanted his kids taken care of equally. Up until his death, that’s what I was told every time we talked,” said Tyler.

Rozene’s statement said, “Tyler does not have a valid claim, so he has resorted to a hurtful smear campaign. His attack on Charley hurts me and his other children deeply, but we all know that Charley was doing great physically and mentally and making his own decisions, until he was taken down by COVID. Much of what Tyler is saying about Charley and me is a lie that Tyler hopes reporters will spread to grab headlines.”

However, Tyler says this isn’t a financial fight. It’s instead about honoring his father’s wishes and finally being recognized as his son.

“He is my dad and I’m proud to be able to tell that part of the story because I am part of his story,” said Tyler.

Reference: 5 NBC DFW (June 11, 2021) “Charley Pride’s ‘Secret’ Son Contests Will”

What Paperwork Is Required to Transfer the Ownership of Home to Children?

Some seniors may ask if they would need to draft a new deed with their name on it and attach an affidavit and have it notarized. Or should the home be fully gifted to the children in life?

And for a partial gift to the children in life, where they’re co-owners, would the parent be required to complete the same paperwork as a full gift? Is there a way to change the owner of a property without having to pay taxes?

The reason for considering the transfer of a full or partial ownership in your home makes a difference in how you should proceed, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “What taxes are owed if I add my children to my deed?”

If the objective is to avoid probate when you pass away, adding children as joint tenants with rights of survivorship will accomplish this. However, there may also be some drawbacks that should be considered.

If the home has unrealized capital gains when you die, only your ownership share receives a step-up in basis. With a step-up in basis, the cost of the home is increased to its fair market value on the date of death. This eliminates any capital gains that accrued from the purchase date.

There’s the home-sale tax exclusion. If you sell the home during your lifetime, you’re eligible to exclude up to $500,000 of capital gains if you’re married, or $250,000 for taxpayers filing single, if the home was your primary residence for two of the last five years. However, if you add your children as owners, and they own other primary residences, they won’t be eligible for this tax exclusion when they sell your home.

In addition, your co-owner(s) could file for bankruptcy or become subject to a creditor or divorce claim. Depending on state law, a creditor may be able to attach a lien on the co-owner’s share of the property.

Finally, if you transfer your entire interest, the new owners will be given total control over the home, allowing them to sell, rent, or use the home as collateral against which to borrow money. If you transfer a partial interest, you may need the co-owner’s consent to take certain actions, like refinancing the mortgage.

If you decide to transfer ownership, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare the legal documents and to discuss your goals and the implications of the transfer. The attorney would draft the new deed and record the deed with the county office where the property resides.

A gift tax return, Form 709, should be filed, but there shouldn’t be any federal gift tax on the transfer, unless the cumulative lifetime gifts exceed the threshold of $11.7 million or $23.4 million for a married couple.

Reference: nj.com (June 15, 2021) “What taxes are owed if I add my children to my deed?”

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”