Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What Is Needed in Estate Plan Besides a Will?

Having a will is especially important if you have young children, says FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning Doesn’t Stop with Making a Will.”  In your will, you can nominate guardians, who would raise your children in the event neither you nor your spouse is able to do so.

When designating a guardian, try to be practical.

Remember, your closest relatives—like your brother and his wife—may not necessarily be the best choice.

And keep in mind that you’re acting in the best interests of your children.

Be sure to obtain the consent of your guardians before nominating them in your will.

Also make sure there’s sufficient life insurance in place, so the guardians can comfortably afford to raise your children.

Your estate planning isn’t complete at this point. Here are some of the other components to consider:

  • Placing assets in trust will help your heirs avoid the hassle and expense of probate.
  • Power of Attorney. This lets a person you name act on your behalf. A “durable” power will remain in effect, even if you become incompetent.
  • Life insurance, retirement accounts and payable-on-death bank accounts will pass to the people you designate on beneficiary forms and won’t pass through probate.
  • Health care proxy. This authorizes a designated agent to make medical decisions for you, if you can’t make them yourself.
  • Living will. This document says whether you want life-sustaining efforts at life’s end.

Be sure to review all of these documents every few years to make certain they’re up to date and reflect your current wishes.

Reference: FedWeek (Dec. 28, 2022) “Estate Planning Doesn’t Stop with Making a Will”

It Is Important to Update Your Estate Plan

Individuals who have a will, a power of attorney for health care, a financial power of attorney and a living will might believe they are done with estate planning. They’re only half right. There are many reasons an estate plan needs to be revised or updated, as explained in the recent article “10 reasons to update your estate plan” from American Legion.

New children, grandchildren, or a change in heirs. Most estate plans make provisions for children and heirs who are living when you die. If you have a specific transfer in your estate plan, a new child or one who has not been included in your will may receive a smaller inheritance, or no inheritance at all.

Here’s an example: Jane Doe has a $1 million estate and left a home valued at $400,000 to her first-born son Jason. She divided the rest of her estate, with 1/6 of the balance going to Jason and 5/6 to Justin. If a third child is born, depending on the laws of her state, the third child might receive nothing. Family strife or litigation could easily be the legacy she leaves. Thus, the arrival of a new heir is a reason to update your estate plan.

If you are married and move to a different state, there may be laws impacting ownership and inheritance. Some states are “common law” property states, others are “community property” states. If you move, clarify the ownership of your property as either separate or jointly owned.

Some states still have state inheritance or estate taxes. Many have taxes applied at lower levels than the federal exemption per person. Depending on who your heirs are and the state, you may be giving heirs a large tax liability, in addition to an inheritance.

Power of Attorney laws also vary from state to state, as do living wills or advance directives. You’ll want to be sure your medical planning documents reflect your state’s laws.

Selling or buying a major asset can change your plan and its results. If you transfer a property which has appreciated in value and a large estate tax is to be paid from your estate, beneficiaries could receive less than you intended.

Most estates contain cash, cash equivalents, stocks, real estate and retirement accounts. If your retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, IRAs, pensions, or other accounts, have become the largest portion of your estate, you should review the accounts and their tax impacts on heirs.

Families with unmarried brothers and sisters often receive an inheritance and remember their surviving siblings with an inheritance. However, if there are two or three unmarried siblings, one will inevitably become the survivor and hold most of the assets. If you have included a sibling in your estate plan, there is also the chance they will die before you.

Single people have different estate plans than married couples. A single person who transfers assets to a former spouse will not qualify for the unlimited marital deduction. If there is a divorce and beneficiary designations on retirement plans and insurance policies are not updated, the named person will receive the assets.

When a will is created, it names an executor and a successor executor. If the primary executor predeceases the person making the will, a new executor will need to be added. It’s always better to have two candidates for a position than one.

Estate plans are impacted by changes in asset value, changes in the family and changes in federal and estate law. Every three to five years, meet with your estate planning attorney to review your plan and be sure it still accomplishes what you want.

Reference: American Legion (Nov. 28, 2022) “10 reasons to update your estate plan”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

The Benefits of a Good Estate Plan

If you don’t have a comprehensive estate plan, state law will control. That’s unlikely to coincide with what you would choose to do. MSN’s recent article entitled “What is estate planning?” discusses the benefits of estate planning.

Minimizes taxes. Clever structuring of flexible retirement accounts, such as a Roth IRA, can help funnel more tax-free money to your heirs, while other tax-planning strategies like strategic charitable giving can help you mitigate estate taxes.

Prevents family disputes. The possibility of a fight about who gets what of value or even a sentimental treasure can arise without proper planning.

Clarifies your directives. Although you may have always intended for your niece to get a certain heirloom, unless it’s written out in your estate plan, it may not get into her hands. If you clearly spell out your wishes with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, you can help your loved ones remember you fondly or at least get what you intended.

Avoids the time and expense of probate court. Done correctly, a trust can help your family avoid the hassles of probate court. Because of the ease of using a trust, more people are doing an end-run around probate and setting up their assets this way. You don’t need as much wealth as you might think to make it worthwhile.

Keeps your family assets together. Trusts can be a good way to make sure your money stays in the family. With the help of an estate planning attorney, a trust can keep a beneficiary from blowing your lifetime of hard work in a few years.

Protects your heirs. If you have minor children, a will can instruct who will take care of them. A living will can help heirs avoid some difficult health decisions during a parent’s end of life.

Sound estate planning can help avoid several potentially troubling problems.

Reference: MSN (Oct. 13, 2022) “What is estate planning?”

Major Blunders in Estate Planning

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “5 Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid” warns that if you overlook an important step or make a misstep in your estate planning, everything could be undone. You could instead burden your family with a challenging and headache-inducing estate.

There are many ways to get things wrong. Let’s look at a few:

  1. Not preparing for incapacity. The main reason to create a will is because we know that some day we’ll pass away. A will lets your family know how to distribute your property and other assets. A well-thought-out estate plan should identify the people authorized to make important decisions on your behalf regarding finances, health care and other critical matters. This is accomplished with powers of attorney. Once you are unconscious or afflicted with dementia, it will be too late. Make a list of decision-makers now, inform them of your wishes and create the necessary powers of attorney.
  2. Failing to include funeral and burial wishes. If you can purchase a burial plot and make funeral plans, put this in your estate planning documents. If you don’t, it may mean a lot of work for your family after your death. Name someone to be in charge of the funeral and burial arrangements and make sure that person understands your wishes. If you don’t detail your wishes prior to your death, it may become an issue for your loved ones.
  3. Ignoring the tax implications of transferring property. As generous as it may seem to give property to your family during your lifetime, it is usually much smarter – and far more generous – to delay the transfer until you’re deceased. If you convey the deed to property to your next of kin before you die, they may see a hefty tax bill whenever they sell the same property. That’s because the basis for that property will be tagged to the date on which you made your purchase, not the date you made your gift. As a result, it could leave your heirs scrambling to pay an enormous sum that would have been averted, had they been granted the deed after your death.
  4. Failing to designate backups for decision-makers. The best of plans can go south without a secondary beneficiary. This will address any unforeseen events. Name backups for your executor and other decision-makers. If they can’t fulfill their obligations, a court will name substitutes unless you’ve already planned for these contingencies.
  5. Not tracking beneficiary designations. In addition to stating the beneficiaries and their respective shares in your will, you must also communicate a directive to your bank that sets forth the interests in your account after your death. If you fail to do this, the bank’s rules will override anything you’re written in your will as to that account. That means your percentages will be different from those expressed in your will.

Take steps now to make certain there are no hidden issues that will haunt your family after you’ve passed.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 17, 2022) “5 Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid”=

How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

What are Mistakes to Avoid with Beneficiary Designations?

Many people don’t know that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they die. Some assets pass by beneficiary designation. Assets like life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts all pass by beneficiary designation.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid” lists five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to designate any beneficiary at all. Many people forget to name a beneficiary for retirement accounts or life insurance. They may forget, didn’t know they had to, or just never got around to filling out the forms. If you don’t name a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement accounts, the company will apply its rules about where the assets will go after you die. For life insurance, the proceeds will typically be paid to your probate estate. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely receive the assets. However, if you’re unmarried, the retirement account will likely be paid to your probate estate, which has negative income tax ramifications.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every family member should get an asset directly. This includes minor children, those with specials needs and people who can’t manage assets or with creditor issues.
  3. Misspelling a beneficiary’s name. Beneficiary designation forms can be filled out incorrectly and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names through marriage or divorce, or assumptions can be made about a person’s legal name that later prove incorrect. Failing to have names match exactly can cause delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, it can result in a court case.
  4. Forgetting to update your beneficiaries. Your choice of beneficiary may likely change over time as circumstances change. Naming a beneficiary is part of an overall estate plan, and just as life changes, so should your estate plan. Beneficiary designations are an important part of that plan—make certain that they’re updated regularly.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary choices with legal and financial advisers. How beneficiary designations should be completed is a component of an overall financial and estate plan. Involve your legal and financial advisers to determine what’s best for your circumstances. Note that beneficiary designations are designed to guarantee that you have the ultimate say over who will get your assets when you pass away. Taking the time to carefully (and correctly) choose your beneficiaries and then periodically reviewing those choices and making any necessary updates will allow you to remain in control of your money.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 6, 2022) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

Do I Need an Estate Plan If I’m 25?

Florida Today’s recent article entitled “No matter your age, income or crushing debt, you should have an estate plan” explains that the purpose of a good estate plan is that it allows you to maintain control over how your assets are distributed if you die.

It names someone to make decisions for you, if you can no longer act for yourself. Let’s look at the different documents that are necessary.

Power of attorney: If you become incapacitated, someone still needs to pay your bills and handle your finances. A POA names the person you’d want to have that responsibility.

Health care surrogate: This document is used if you become incapacitated and appoints the individual whom you want to make health care decisions on your behalf.

Last will and testament: This document designates both who oversees your estate, who gets your assets and how they should be transferred.

Beneficiary designations: Part of your planning is to name who should receive money from life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts and other financial accounts.

HIPAA Waiver: This is a legal document that allows an individual’s health information to be used or disclosed to a third party. Without this, loved ones may not be able to be a part of decisions and treatment.

Trust. A trust can facilitate passing property to your heirs and potentially provide tax benefits for both you and your beneficiaries.

As you can see, there are a number of reasons to have an estate plan.

Estate planning isn’t only for the rich, and it doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

An experienced estate planning lawyer, also called a trusts and estates attorney, can work with you to create an estate plan customized to your needs, financial affairs and family situation.

Putting your wishes in writing will make certain that your affairs are in order for now and in the future and help your family.

Reference: Florida Today (May 28, 2022) “No matter your age, income or crushing debt, you should have an estate plan”

What Should I Know about Estate Planning before ‘I Do’?

Romance is in the air. Spring is the time for marriages, and with America coming out of the pandemic, wedding calendars will be filled.

AZ Big Media’s recent article entitled “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds” gives those ready to walk down the aisle a few things to consider.

  1. Prenuptial Agreement. Commonly referred to as a prenup, this is a written contract that you and your spouse enter into before getting legally married. It provides details on what happens to finances and assets during your marriage and, of course, in the event of divorce. A prenup is particularly important if one of the spouses already has significant assets and earnings and wishes to protect them in the event of divorce or death.
  2. Review you restate plan. Even if you come into a marriage with an existing plan, it’s out of date as soon as you’re wed.
  3. Update your beneficiary designations. Much of an individual’s estate plan takes place by beneficiary designations. Decide if you want your future spouse to be a beneficiary of life insurance, IRAs, or other pay on death accounts.
  4. Consider real estate. A married couple frequently opts to live in the residence of one of the spouses. This should be covered in the prenup. However, in a greater picture, decide in the event of the death of the owner, if you’d want this real estate to pass to the survivor, or would you want the survivor simply to have the right to live in the property for a specified period of time.
  5. Life insurance. You want to be sure that one spouse is taken care of in the event of your death. A married couple often relies on the incomes of both spouses, but death will wreck that plan. Think about life insurance as a substitute for a spouse’s earning capacity.

If you are soon-to-be-married or recently married and want to discuss it with an expert, make an appointment with a skilled estate planning attorney.

Reference:  AZ Big Media (March 23, 2022) “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds”