Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Why are Trusts a Good Idea?

Estate planning attorneys know trusts are the Swiss Army knife of estate planning. Whatever the challenge is to be overcome, there is a trust to solve the problem. This includes everything from protecting assets from creditors to ensuring the right people inherit assets. There’s no hype about trusts, despite the title of this article, “Trusts—What Is The Hype?” from mondaq. Rather, there’s a world of benefits provided by trusts.

A trust protects assets from creditors. If the person who had the trust created, known as the “grantor,” is also the owner of the trust, it is best for the trust to be irrevocable. This means that it is not easily changed by the grantor. The trust also can’t be modified or terminated once it’s been set up.

This is the direct opposite of a revocable or living trust. With a revocable trust, the grantor has complete control of the trust, which comes with some downsides.

Once assets are transferred into an irrevocable trust, the grantor no longer has any ownership of the assets or the trust. Because the grantor is no longer in control of the asset, it’s generally not available to satisfy any claims by creditors.

However, this does not mean the grantor is free of any debts or claims in place before the trust was funded. Depending upon your state, there may be a significant look-back period. If this is the case, and if this is the reason for the trust to be created, it may void the trust and negate the protection otherwise provided by the trust.

Most people use trusts to protect assets for future generations, for a variety of reasons.

The “spendthrift” trust is created to protect heirs who may not be good at managing money or judging the character of the people they associate with. The spendthrift trust will protect against creditors, as well as protecting loved ones from losing assets in a divorce. The spouse may not be able to make a claim for a share of the trust property in a divorce settlement.

There are a few different trusts to be used in creating a spendthrift trust. However, the one thing they have in common is a “spendthrift clause.” This restricts the beneficiary’s ability to assign or transfer their interests in the trust and restricts the rights of creditors to reach the trust assets. However, the spendthrift clause will not avoid creditor claims, unless any interest in the trust assets is relinquished completely.

Greater protection against creditor claims may come from giving trustees more discretion over trust distribution. For instance, a trust may require a trustee to make distributions for a beneficiary’s support. Once those distributions are made, they are vulnerable to creditor claims. The court may also allow a creditor to reach the trust assets to satisfy support-related debts. Giving the trustee full and complete discretion over whether and when to make distributions will allow them to provide increased protection.

A trust requires the balance of having access to assets and preventing access from others. Your estate planning attorney will help determine which is best for your unique situation.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 9, 2022) “Trusts—What Is The Hype?”

What’s a ‘Pot Trust’?

A pot trust is a type of trust that names the children as beneficiaries and the trustee is given discretion to decide how the trust assets should be spent. This trust lets the grantor create a single pool of assets to be used for the benefit of multiple children. A pot trust can offer more flexibility as to how trust assets are used if you plan to leave your entire estate to your children, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How Does a Pot Trust Work?”

If you create a family pot trust for your three children and one of them experiences a medical emergency, the trustee would be able to authorize the use of trust funds or assets to cover those costs.

Flexibility is a key element of family pot trusts. Assets are distributed based on the children’s needs, rather than setting specific distribution rules as to who gets what. You might consider this type of trust over other types of trusts if:

  • You have two or more children;
  • At least one of those children is a minor; and
  • You plan to leave your entire estate to your children when you pass away.

Pot trusts can be created for children when you plan to leave all of your assets to them. Generally, a pot trust ends when the youngest included as a beneficiary reaches a certain age. As long as the trust is in place, the trustee can use his or her discretion to determine the way in which trust assets may be used to provide for the beneficiaries’ well-being. The aim is to satisfy the financial needs of individual children as they arise.

However, pot trusts don’t ensure an equal distribution of assets among multiple children. And a family pot trust can also put an increased burden on the trustee. In effect, the trustee has to take on a parental role for financial decision-making. That’s instead of adhering to predetermined directions from the trust grantor. And children may also not like at having to wait until the youngest child comes of age for the trust to terminate and assets to be distributed.

Setting up a pot trust isn’t that different from setting up any other type of trust. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Aug. 30, 2021) “How Does a Pot Trust Work?”

Should I have a Charitable Trust in My Estate Plan?

Charitable trusts can be created to provide a reliable income stream to you and your beneficiaries for a set period of time, says Bankrate’s recent article entitled “What is a charitable trust?”

Establishing a charitable trust can be a critical component of your estate plan and a rewarding way to make an impact for a cause you care deeply about. There are a few kinds of charitable trusts to consider based on your situation and what you may be looking to accomplish.

Charitable lead trust. This is an irrevocable trust that is created to distribute an income stream to a designated charity or nonprofit organization for a set number of years. It can be established with a gift of cash or securities made to the trust. Depending on the structure, the donor can benefit from a stream of income during the life of the trust, deductions for gift and estate taxes, as well as current year income tax deductions when the assets are donated to the trust.

If the charitable lead trust is funded with a donation of cash, the donor can claim a deduction of up to 60% of their adjusted gross income (AGI), and any unused deductions can generally be carried over into subsequent tax years. The deduction limit for appreciated securities or other assets is limited to no more than 30% of AGI in the year of the donation.

At the expiration of the charitable lead trust, the assets that remain in the trust revert back to the donor, their heirs, or designated beneficiaries—not the charity.

Charitable remainder trust. This trust is different from a charitable lead trust. It’s an irrevocable trust that’s funded with cash or securities. A CRT gives the donor or other beneficiaries an income stream with the remaining assets in the trust reverting to the charity upon death or the expiration of the trust period. There are two types of CRTs:

  1. A charitable remainder annuity trust or CRAT distributes a fixed amount as an annuity each year, and there are no additional contributions can be made to a CRAT.
  2. A charitable remainder unitrust or CRUT distributes a fixed percentage of the value of the trust, which is recalculated every year. Additional contributions can be made to a CRUT.

Here are the steps when using a CRT:

  1. Make a partially tax-deductible donation of cash, stocks, ETFs, mutual funds or non-publicly traded assets, such as real estate, to the trust. The amount of the tax deduction is a function of the type of CRT, the term of the trust, the projected annual payments (usually stated as a percentage) and the IRS interest rates that determine the projected growth in the asset that’s in effect at the time.
  2. Receive an income stream for you or your beneficiaries based on how the trust is created. The minimum percentage is 5% based on current IRS rules. Payments can be made monthly, quarterly or annually.
  3. After a designated time or after the death of the last remaining income beneficiary, the remaining assets in the CRT revert to the designated charity or charities.

There are a number of benefits of a charitable trust that make them attractive for estate planning and other purposes. It’s a tax-efficient way to donate to the charities or nonprofit organizations of your choosing. The charitable trust provides benefits to the charity and the donor. The trust also provides upfront income tax benefits to the donor, when the contribution to the trust is made.

Donating highly appreciated assets, such as stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds, to the charitable trust can help avoid paying capital gains taxes that would be due if these assets were sold outright.  Donations to a charitable trust can also help to reduce the value of your estate and reduce estate taxes on larger estates.

However, charitable trusts do have some disadvantages. First, they’re irrevocable, so you can’t undo the trust if your situation changes, and you were to need the money or assets donated to the trust. When you establish and fund the trust, the money’s no longer under your control and the trust can’t be revoked.

A charitable trust may be a good option if you have a desire to create a legacy with some of your assets. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about your specific situation.

Reference: Bankrate (Dec. 14, 2021) “What is a charitable trust?”

Storing Passwords in Case of Death

Despite having the resources to hire IT forensic experts to help access accounts, including her husband’s IRA, it’s been three years and Deborah Placet still hasn’t been able to gain access to her husband’s Bitcoin account. Placet and her late husband were financial planners and should have known better. However, they didn’t have a digital estate plan. Her situation, according to the Barron’s article “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” offers cautionary tale.

Our digital footprint keeps expanding. As a result, there’s no paper trail to follow when a loved one dies. In the past, an executor or estate administrator could simply have mail forwarded and figure out accounts, assets and values. Not only don’t we have a paper trail, but digital accounts are protected by passwords, multifactor authentication processes, fingerprints, facial recognition systems and federal data privacy laws.

The starting point is to create a list of digital accounts. Instructions on how to gain access to the accounts must be very specific, because a password alone may not be enough information. Explain what you want to happen to the account: should ownership be transferred to someone else, who has permission to retrieve and save the data and whether you want the account to be shut down and no data saved, etc.

The account list should include:

  • Social media platforms
  • Traditional bank, retirement and investment accounts
  • PayPal, Venmo and similar payment accounts
  • Cryptocurrency wallets, nonfungible token (NFT) assets
  • Home and utilities accounts, like mortgage, electric, gas, cable, internet
  • Insurance, including home, auto, flood, health, life, disability, long-term care.
  • Smart phone accounts
  • Online storage accounts
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • Subscription services
  • Loyalty/rewards programs
  • Gaming accounts

Some accounts may be accessed by using a username and password. However, others are more secure and require biometric protection. This information should all be included in a document, but the document should not be included in the Last Will, since the Last Will becomes public information through probate and is accessible to anyone who wants to see it.

Certain platforms have created a process to allow heirs to access assets. Typically, death certificates, a Last Will or probate documents, a valid photo ID of the deceased and a letter signed by those named in the probate records outlining what is to be done with assets are required. However, not every platform has addressed this issue.

Compiling a list of digital assets is about as much fun as preparing for tax season. However, without a plan, digital assets are likely to be lost. Identity theft and fraud occurs when assets are unprotected and unused.

Just as a traditional estate plan protects heirs to avoid further stress and expense, a digital estate plan helps to protect the family and loved ones. Speak with your estate planning attorney as you are working on your estate plan to create a digital estate plan.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

How to Keep the Vacation Home in the Family

There are several ways to protect a vacation home so it remains in the family and is not overly burdensome to any one member or couple in the family, according to the article “Estate planning for vacation property” from Pauls Valley Daily Democrat.

To begin, families have the option of creating a legal entity to own the asset. This can be a Family LLC, a partnership or a trust. The best choice depends upon each family’s unique situation. For an LLC, there needs to be an operating agreement, which details management and administration, conflict resolution, property maintenance and financial matters. The agreement needs to include:

Named management—ideally, two or three people who are directly responsible for managing the LLC. This typically includes the parents or grandparents who set up the LLC or Trust. However, it should also include representatives from different branches in the family.

Property and ownership rules must be clarified and documented. The property’s use and rules for transferring property are a key part of the agreement. Does a buy-sell agreement work to give owners the right to opt out of owning the property? What would that look like: how can the family member sell, who can she sell to and how is the value established? Should there be a first-right-of refusal put into place? In these situations, a transfer to anyone who is not a blood descendent may require a vote with a unanimous tally.

There are families where transferring ownership is only permitted to lineal descendants and not to the families of spouses who marry into the family.

Finances need to be spelled out as well. A special endowment can be included as part of the LLC or as a separate trust, so that money or investments are set aside to pay taxes, upkeep, insurance and future capital requirements. Anyone who has ever owned a house knows there are always capital requirements, from replacing an ancient heating system to fixing a roof after decades of a heavy snow load.

If the endowment is not enough to cover costs, create an agreement for annual contribut6ions by family members. Each family will need to determine who should contribute what. Some set this by earnings, others by how much the property is used. What happens if someone fails to pay their share?

Managing use of the property when there is a legal entity in place is more than a casual “Who calls Mom and Dad first.” The parents who establish the LLC or Trust may reserve lifetime use for themselves. The managers should establish rules for scheduling.

For parents or grandparents who create an LLC or Trust, be sure it works with your estate plan. If they intend to keep the property in the family and wish to leave a bequest for its maintenance, for instance, the estate planning attorney will be able to incorporate that into the LLC or Trust.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (July 29, 2021) “Estate planning for vacation property”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust

Any trust created while the person, known as the “grantor,” is living, is known as a “living trust.” However, the term is also used interchangeably with “revocable trusts,” which can be changed according to the grantor’s wishes. During the lifetime of the grantor, as explained in the recent article “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust” from FED Week, that person can be the trustee as well as the beneficiary. Control is retained over the trust and the assets it contains.

Trusts are used in estate plans as a way to avoid probate. Equally importantly, they can provide for an easier transition if the grantor becomes incapacitated. The co-trustee or successor trustee steps in to manage assets, and the process is relatively seamless. The family, in most cases, will not have to apply for conservatorship, an expensive and sometimes unnerving process. Within the privacy afforded a trust, the control and management of assets is far less stressful, assuming that the trust has been funded and all assets have been placed properly within the trust beforehand.

Naming a successor trustee so the grantor may remain in control during his or her lifetime is an easier concept for most people. However, adding a co-trustee rather than a successor may be a wiser move. A successor trustee requires the grantor, if still living, to formally resign and allow the successor trustee to take control of the trust and its assets.

If a co-trustee is named, he or she may step into control instantly, if the grantor becomes incapacitated.

Trusts fall into two basic categories:

Irrevocable Trusts—A permanent arrangement in which assets going into the trust are out of control of anyone but the trustee. Giving up this control comes with benefits: the assets within the trust may not be tapped by creditors and they are not considered part of the estate, also lowering tax liability. Irrevocable trusts are generally used to protect loved ones, who are named as beneficiaries.

Revocable Trusts—The grantor retains control over trust assets and may collect investment income from assets in the trust. If the grantor decides to have the assets back in his or her personal accounts, they can be reclaimed into his or her own name.

The revocable trust protects the grantor against incompetency, as the successor trustee or co-trustee can take over management of trust assets and assets pass to designated recipients without having to go through probate.

Determining which of these trusts is best for your family depends on many different factors. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how trusts might work within your unique estate plan.

Reference: FED Week (Jan. 21, 2021) “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust”

What You Should Never, Ever, Include in Your Will

A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be validated in a court of law before any property is distributed. The process, called probate, takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.

However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

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Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”