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”

Are My Children Entitled to My Money?

Let’s say that one of your children hasn’t had contact with you since COVID in 2019. She’s been off the radar and never calls. You may not feel obligated to give them an inheritance.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “We want to cut one child out of our will. Can we?” says that adult children aren’t legally entitled to an inheritance.

Unfortunately, will contests generally happen where a child who’s left less, or disinherited, thinks that a sibling has wrongly influenced a parent to leave more to him or her.

This is particularly problematic if the parent is elderly and/or in ill health and completely reliant on that child for assistance.

A will contest is a probate proceeding where interested parties dispute the validity of a will.

The most common legal grounds for disputing the validity of a will are undue influence, duress, mistake and the decedent’s lack of capacity when they signed the will.

To properly avoid a will contest, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney who will document his or her file and prepare a will for you with appropriate language.

Note that it isn’t necessary or advisable to provide an explanation as to why you’re disinheriting a child. That’s because if you give a reason, that reason may cause controversy.

If avoiding litigation is a priority, as an alternative to totally disinheriting a child, your attorney can also talk with you about the different forms of “no-contest” clauses that can be placed in a will.

This clause, also called an `in terrorem’ clause, indicates that if a beneficiary raises a claim with respect to the will, he or she will lose his or her inheritance.

There’s also typically a time limit to contesting a will. For example, in Minnesota, those with standing who want to contest a will must do so within a year after the death of the deceased person.

For a no-contest clause to be effective, a child must be a beneficiary of some amount in your will.

The courts will uphold this clause, unless it finds there is probable cause for bringing a court action.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 2, 2022) “We want to cut one child out of our will. Can we?”

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”=

Do Young Adults Need a Will?

Everyone, age 18 and older, needs at least some basic estate planning documents. That’s true even if you own very little. You still need an advance health care directive and a power of attorney. These documents designate agents to make decisions for you, in the event you become incapacitated.

The Los Angeles Daily News’ recent article entitled “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics” reminds us that incapacity doesn’t just happen to the elderly. It can happen from an accident, a health crisis, or an injury. To have these documents in place, you just need to state the person you want to make decisions for you and generally what those decisions should be.

An experienced estate planning attorney will help you draft your will by using a questionnaire you complete before your initial meeting. This helps you to organize and list the information required. It also helps the attorney spot issues, such as taxes, blended families and special needs. You will list your assets — real property, business entities, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, cars, life insurance and anything else you may own. The estimated or actual value of each item should also be included. If you have life insurance or retirement plans, attach a copy of the beneficiary designation form.

An experienced estate planning attorney will discuss your financial and family situation and offer options for a plan that will fit your needs.

The attorney may have many different solutions for the issues that concern you and those you may not have considered. These might include a child with poor money habits, a blended family where you need to balance the needs of a surviving spouse with the expectations of the children from a prior marriage, a pet needing ongoing care, or your thoughts about who to choose as your trustee or power of attorney.

There are many possible solutions, and you aren’t required to know them before you move ahead with your estate planning.

If you are an adult, you know generally what you own, your name and address and the names of your spouse and children or any other beneficiaries you’d like to include in your plan. So, you’re ready to move ahead with your estate planning.

The key is to do this now and not procrastinate.

Reference: Los Angeles Daily News (July 24, 2022) “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics”

Can I Avoid Financial Exploitation?

AARP’s recent article entitled “The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steepreports that romance scams are on the rise. Older, lonely, or heartbroken adults are common targets. In Florida in 2020, $40.1 million was stolen from victims who were victims of a crime ring or bad actor posing as a potential suitor.

Some people lose their whole life savings in a matter of months.

Many other financial crimes are carried out by fraudsters, such as phony investment scams, phone and gift card scams, lottery scams, Medicare and Social Security scams and more.

There is no limit on how creative these criminals can be. Family, friends, and caregivers are also not immune from skimming funds for their own use.

The average amount lost per victim is $34,000. When a person is acting as a fiduciary, the number soars to $83,000. The older the victim, the greater the average amount of stolen assets.

As soon as exploitation is suspected or confirmed, action should be taken. When exploitation is suspected, take these steps to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute the criminals:

  1. Talk to the victim, who may not be aware of the exploitation
  2. Contact the authorities and follow their instructions
  3. Notify financial advisers who may be able to put a freeze on accounts
  4. Document the victim’s interactions with the suspect
  5. Talk to all witnesses to interactions between the suspect and victim; and
  6. Talk to an elder law attorney who can discuss your legal options regarding guardianship or conservatorship if the victim lacks capacity to handle their own affairs.

Reference: AARP (Feb. 22, 2022) “The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steep”

Why Is Estate Planning Review Important?

Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced.

You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

Does Marriage have an Impact on a Will?

It is very difficult to challenge a marriage once it has occurred, since the capacity needed to marry is relatively low. Even a person who is under conservatorship because they are severely incapacitated may marry, unless there is a court order stating otherwise, says the article “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration” from Lake Country News. This unfortunate fact allows scammers to woo and wed their victims.

What about individuals who think they are married when they are not? A “putative” spouse is someone who genuinely believed they were married, although the marriage is invalid, void, or voidable because of a legal defect. An example of a legal defect is bigamy, if the person is already married when they marry another person.

Once a couple is married, they owe each other a duty to treat each other fairly. In certain states, they are prohibited from taking unfair advantage of each other. Depending on the state of residence, property is also owned in different ways. In a community property state, such as California, marital earnings and anything acquired while married is presumed to be community property.

In a community property state, debts incurred before or during the marriage are also shared. In a number of states, marriage is sufficient reason for a creditor to come after the assets of a spouse, if they married someone with pre-marital debts.

There are exceptions. If a married person puts their earnings during marriage into a separate bank account their spouse is not able to access, then those deposited earnings are not available for debtor spouse’s debts incurred before the marriage took place.

If a married person dies without a will, also known as “intestate,” the surviving spouse is the next of kin.  In most cases, they will inherit the assets of the decedent. If the decedent had children from a prior marriage, they may end up with nothing.

These are all reasons why couples should have frank discussions about finances, including assets and debts, before marrying. Coming into the marriage with debt may not be a problem for some people, but they should be advised beforehand.

A pre-nuptial agreement can state the terms of the couple’s financial health as individuals and declare their intentions. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pre-nuptial to align with the couple’s estate plan, so the estate plan and the pre-nuptial work together.

Marriage brings rights and responsibilities which impact life and death for a couple. Starting a marriage based on full disclosure and proper planning clears the way for a focus on togetherness, and not solely the business side of marriage.

Reference: Lake Country News (Feb. 12, 2022) “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration”

What Can’t I Forget in My Will Now that I’m 50?

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “If You’re Over 50, Don’t Leave This Out of Your Will, Expert Says” fills us in on what we can’t forget in a will after the big 5-0.

Incapacity. A 2021 survey from Caring.com says that almost two-thirds of adults do not have a will. Even those thinking about estate planning do not consider a plan for addressing the possibility of incapacity.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to create a power of attorney, so in the event you are incapable of making decisions because of your mental state or disability, you have someone you trust doing it for you.

More than a will. A will should be one component of a comprehensive estate plan that addresses who gets what when you die, but also who can take care of business, if you are not able to care for yourself. Naming a person in advance lets you to avoid having court involvement and lets you take control of your future.

The law has many ways for you to select who will have authority and care for you, if you become incapacitated. This is something that you can and should discuss with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Will backups. Designating loved ones you trust should be the rule in all facets of estate planning. However, it is critical to be certain that you have backups (“successors” or “alternates”), in the event that a person you’ve selected can’t fulfill their role.

Many people around age 50 who see their thriving, productive children making their way in the world fail to consider the thought that their children may not be available or able to serve a role. Designating more than one backup might not seem like it is a big deal, but you should consider the possibility that a loved one might be incapacitated, predecease you, or be unavailable.

Keep your will current. As your life changes, so do your needs. Therefore, it is vital to be sure that your will is up-to-date. You should review your will regularly (at least every few years) to make sure that it still reflects your current thinking.

You should also be sure you know where an original copy of the will is located. It is important to keep track of it. You can leave it locked away with your attorney or some other secure place, but you need to know where it is.

Reference: Yahoo News (Feb. 6, 2022) “If You’re Over 50, Don’t Leave This Out of Your Will, Expert Says”

Is There More to Estate Planning Than Writing My Will?

Having a will is especially important if you have minor children. That’s because you can nominate guardians for your minor children in your will. Guardians are the people you want to raise your children, in the event that neither you or your spouse can do so.

Fed Week’s article entitled “Estate Planning: It’s Not Just about Making a Will” explains that when designating guardians, a person should be practical.

Closet relatives—such as a brother and his wife—may not necessarily be the best choice. They may be busy raising their own family and have plenty to look after, without adding your children to the equation.

You’re acting in the interests of your children, so be certain that you obtain the consent of your chosen guardians before nominating them in your will.

In addition, make sure you have sufficient life insurance in place, so the guardians can comfortably afford to raise your children.

However, your estate planning shouldn’t stop with a will and guardians. There are a number of other components to include:

  • Powers of attorney. A power of attorney allows a person you name to act on your behalf regarding financial matters.
  • Health care proxy. This authorizes another person to make medical decisions for you, if you are unable to do so yourself.
  • Living will. This document states your wishes on life-sustaining efforts.
  • HIPAA Waiver. This document allows healthcare professionals to provide information on a patient’s health to third parties, such as family members.
  • Letter of Last Instruction. This personal document is an organized way for you to give your family important information about your finances and perhaps your reasons for your choices in your will or trust. This letter isn’t a will or a substitute for one.
  • This is a way to avoid assets going through probate. The assets in trust can provide funds for your heirs under the rules you set up.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about developing a comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Fed Week (September 28, 2021) “Estate Planning: It’s Not Just About Making a Will”

What Emergency Documents Do I Need in Pandemic?

With the threat of COVID-19, we’ve all come face-to-face with our mortality. However, are you prepared for the worst?, asks KSAT in its January 23 article entitled, “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency.”

A consumer report recently found that just 7% of those ages 19 to 29 have an advance directive for health care emergencies, and even fewer have a will. Estate planning is one of the most worthwhile things we could do for ourselves or our loved ones.

The article explains that your estate is everything you own, and if it’s not protected, it could be taken away from your loved ones.

An extremely important document to have, in addition to a will, is a living will and a healthcare proxy or power of attorney. These documents let you designate the individual who will make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot speak for yourself.

In addition, a HIPAA authorization permits an individual you trust to speak with your healthcare staff and receive your personal medical information.

Another key document is a financial power of attorney. This empowers you to designate an agent to handle your debts, contracts and assets. A financial power of attorney must be signed and notarized.

You should also consider payable on death and transfer on death designations, which transfer assets to designated beneficiaries without probate.

It is important to conduct a digital asset inventory to list your entire online presence and include all accounts, logins, passwords, social media, and professional profiles, and most importantly, a list of everything you have on autopay.

Last, you need a last will and testament. This lets you to name an executor or personal representative to handle your postmortem affairs. However, a last will does not keep assets out of probate.

One last note: you can prepare a personal property memorandum to list the beneficiaries of any sentimental, non-monetary items.

Reference: KSAT (San Antonio) (Jan. 23, 2021) “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency”