Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Could Your Estate Plan Be a Disaster?

You may think your estate plan is all set.However, it might not be. If you met with your attorney when your children were small, and your children are now grown and have children of their own, your estate could be a disaster waiting to happen, says a recent article “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?” from the New Haven Register.

Most estate planning attorneys encourage their clients to revisit their estate plan every three to five years, with good reason. The size of your estate may have changed, you may have experienced a health issue, or you may have a new child or a grandchild. There may be tax law changes, statutes may have been updated and the plan you had three to five years ago may not accomplish what you want it to.

Many people say they “have nothing” and their estate is “simple.” They might also think “my spouse will get everything anyway.” This is wrong 99% of the time. There are unintended consequences of not having a will—accounts long forgotten, an untimely death of a joint owner, or a 40-year-old car with a higher value than anyone ever expected.

Your last will and testament designates who receives your assets and provides for any minors. A will can also help protect your wishes from a challenge by unwanted heirs after your passing.

The federal estate tax exemption today is $12.6 million, but if your will was created to minimize estate taxes when the exemption was $675,000, there may be unnecessary provisions in your plan. Heirs may be forced to set up inherited trusts or even sub-trusts. With today’s current exemption level, your plan may include trusts that no longer serve any purpose.

When was the last time you reviewed your will to see whether you still want the same people listed to serve as guardians for minor children, executors, or trustees? If those people are no longer in your family, or if the named person is now your ex, or if they’ve died, you have an ineffective estate plan.

Many adults believe they are too young to need an estate plan, or they’ve set up all of their assets to be owned jointly and, therefore, don’t need an estate plan. If one of the joint owners suffers a disability and is receiving government benefits, an inheritance could put all of their benefits at risk. Minor children might inherit your estate. However, the law does not permit minors to inherit assets, so someone needs to be named to serve as their conservator. If you don’t name someone, the court will, and it may not be the person you would choose.

What about using a template from an online website? Estate planning attorneys are called in to set things right from online wills with increasing frequency. The terms of a will are governed by state law and often these websites don’t explain how the document must be aligned with the statutes of the state where it is signed. Estate plans are not one-size-fits-all documents and a will deemed invalid by the court is the same as if there were no will at all.

If you don’t have an estate plan, if your estate plan is outdated, or if your estate plan was created using an online solution, your heirs may inherit a legal quagmire, in addition to your coin collection. Give yourself and them the peace of mind of knowing you’ve done the right thing and have your will updated or created with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: New Haven Register (Oct. 29, 2022) “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?”

Estate Planning Considerations for Minor Children

Creating an estate plan with minor children in mind has a host of variables quite different than one where all heirs are adults. If the intention is for the minor children to be beneficiaries, or if there is a remote chance a minor child might become an unintended beneficiary, different provisions will be needed. A recent article titled “Children need special attention in estate planning” from The News-Enterprise explains how these situations might be addressed.

Does the person creating the will—aka, the testator—want property to be distributed to a minor child? If so, how is the distribution is to occur, tax consequences and safeguards need to be put into place. Much depends upon the relationship of the testator to the minor child. An older individual may want to leave specific dollar bequests for minor children or great-grandchildren, while people with younger children generally leave their entire estate in fractional shares to their own minor children as primary beneficiaries.

While minor children and grandchildren beneficiaries are excluded from inheritance taxes in certain states, great- grandchildren are not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide details on who is subject to inheritance, federal and state estate taxes. This needs to be part of your estate plan.

If minor children are the intended beneficiaries of a fractional share of the estate in its entirety, distributions may be held in a common trust or divided into separate share for each minor child. A common trust is used to hold all property to benefit all of the children, until the youngest child reaches a determined age. When this occurs, the trust is split into separate shares according to the trust directions, when each share is managed for the individual beneficiary.

Instructions to the trustee as to how much of the income and principal each beneficiary is to receive and when, at what age or intervals each beneficiary may exercise full control over the assets and what purposes the trust property is intended for until the beneficiary reaches a certain age are details which need to be clearly explained in the trust.

Trusts for minor children are often specifically to be used for health, education, maintenance, or support needs of the beneficiary, within the discretion of the trustee. This has to be outlined in the trust document.

Even if the intention is not to make minor children beneficiaries, care must be taken to include provisions if they are family members. The will or trust must be clear on how property passed to minor child beneficiaries is to be distributed. This may be done through a requirement to put distributions into a trust or may leave a list of options for the executor.

Testators need to keep in mind the public nature of probate. Whatever is left to a minor child will be a matter of public record, which could make the child vulnerable to scammers or predatory family members. Consider using a revocable living trust as an alternative to safeguard the child and the assets.

Regardless of whether a will or trust is used, there should be a person named to act as the child’s guardian and their conservator or trustee, who manages their finances. The money manager does not have to be a parent or relative but must be a trustworthy person.

Review your specific situation with your estate planning attorney to create a plan to protect your minor children, ensuing their financial and lifestyle stability.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 10, 2022) “Children need special attention in estate planning”

Can We Prevent the Elderly from Being Scammed?

Just as parents guide their children through adulthood and teach them about finances and how to manage their money, adult children of aging parents need to be alert for their parents before they fall victim to those preying on the elderly. It’s become all too common, according to the article “The Best Way to Protect a Parent from Scammers” from Kiplinger.

There are a few common scams seen across the country. One is to call an elderly person and tell them their beloved grandchild has been arrested and cash needs to be sent immediately to get them out of jail. The grandparents are told the child has told the police not to call the parents, so the call is secret. No police department calls grandparents with a demand for cash, but in the stress of the moment, flustered people often comply.

Another is a thief posing as an IRS agent and telling a surviving spouse that their deceased spouse owed thousands in back taxes and penalties. The senior is told to make a payment or risk being arrested.  There is also the scammer claiming to be from the DEA and warning the person their Social Security number and credit card were used to rent a car found abandoned near the Mexican border with suitcases stuffed with drugs. The person is told they need to verify their information to clear their record, or they’ll be arrested for drug trafficking. The voice is always very convincing.

Elderly victims are vulnerable for several reasons. One, the generation preceding the boomers was taught to trust others, especially people in positions of authority. As people age, their ability to think clearly when a dramatic and unexpected piece of bad news is easily shaken. Someone who would otherwise never have given out their personal information or sent cash or purchased gift cards becomes overwhelmed and complies with the scammer.

Taking control of a parent’s financial life is a hard step for both the aging parents and the adult children. No one wants to lose their independence and freedom, nor do adult children want to see their parents becoming vulnerable to thieves. However, at a certain point, adult children need to become involved to protect their parents.

A General Durable Power of Attorney (POA) is a legal document giving another person, typically an adult child, the power to act on behalf of another person immediately, once the document has been signed. It may not be effective in stopping a parent from giving money to a scammer, since the parents still have control of their money. fI transactions are done online, the bank may not have an alert set up for questionable transactions.

That said, having a POA in place and alerting the bank to its use will give the financial institution more freedom to be in touch with an adult child about their parent’s accounts, if fraud is suspected.

Guardianship or conservator is another way to address this issue, although it is far more invasive and brings the court system into the life of the person who becomes a “ward” and requires regular reporting. Guardianship is usually sought when the aging parent is incapacitated.

While we often think of trusts as a means of passing wealth to the next generation, they are also useful for protecting people in general and seniors in particular from scammers. When an adult child or other trusted person becomes the trustee, they gain complete control of the assets in the trust. If the aging parent is a trustee, they have control but someone else can step in if necessary. The co-trustee can see any changes in spending habits or unusual activity and take immediate action, without the delay that applying for guardianship would create.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your unique situation to learn which of these solutions would be appropriate for your loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 25, 2022) “The Best Way to Protect a Parent from Scammers”

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