Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

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 Jackie Kennedy Knew about CLATs and Estate Planning

What most people don’t know about Jackie Kennedy was her role as an innovative steward of her family’s wealth and philanthropic legacy, reports a recent article from Forbes titled “Elevating Your Estate And Legacy: A Lesson From Jackie Kennedy.” After her husband’s assassination, she was in charge of a $44 million plus estate and her actions spoke volumes about her values and view for the future.

Jackie Kennedy initiated a Charitable Lead Annuity Trust (CLAT), which today many refer to as the Jackie Onassis Trust.

She created a CLAT receptacle through her will, so her children could elect to transfer some or all of their inherited assets in exchange for significant charitable, tax and non-tax benefits. They were not required to do this. However, it was an option for assets including stock, real estate and other capital. The CLAT offered her children three possible benefits: avoiding federal estate tax on all and any assets transferred to the CLAT, tax-efficient philanthropic giving for a limited number of years and continued investment of CLAT assets, which could be ultimately returned to the child or gifted to future generations at the end of the CLAT’s charitable period.

In addition, during the charitable term, the annual payments required to be distributed via the CLAT to charities would have created income tax deductions against the CLAT’s taxable income.

Despite their mother’s recommendations, the first lady’s children opted against funding the CLAT.

According to an article from The New York Times in 1996, if the Jackie Onassis Trust was worth $100 million and if the beneficiaries had executed the CLAT, the family would have inherited approximately $98 million tax-free in 2018, with charities receiving $192 million.

Instead, the children paid $23 million in estate taxes, leaving the estate with $18 million.

Besides the clear adage of “Mother knows best,” this is an example of the potential power of a CLAT to satisfy the charitable and family wealth transfer of the trust creator and individual beneficiaries. Since the 1960s, more sophisticated trust variants have been created to improve on the original CLAT.

One of these is the Optimized CLAT, a tax-planning trust which accomplishes four goals. It generates a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction in the year of funding, returns an expected 1x-5x of the initial contribution back to the contributor, immediately exempts contributed assets from the 40% federal gift and estate tax and exempts the transferred assets from the contributor’s personal creditors.

These complex estate planning strategies will become increasingly popular as federal estate taxes return to lower levels in near future. Your estate planning attorney will guide you as to which type of trust works best for you and your family, for now and for generations to follow.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 19, 2022) “Elevating Your Estate And Legacy: A Lesson From Jackie Kennedy”

What Happens to Stock Options when Someone Dies?

Once your business grows, so does the pressure to make good financial decisions in the short and long term. When you think about the future, estate and succession planning emerge as two major concerns. You’re not just considering balance sheets, profits and losses, but your family and what will happen to them and your business when you’re not around. This thinking leads to what seems like a great idea: transferring stock or LLC membership units to one or more of your adult children.

There are benefits, especially the ability to avoid a 40% estate tax and other benefits. However, there are also lots of ways this can go sideways, fast.

Executing due diligence and creating an exit plan to minimize taxes and successfully transfer the business takes planning and, even harder, removing emotions from the plan to make a good decision.

An outright transfer of stock or ownership units can expose you and your business to risk. Even if your children are Ivy-league MBA grads, with track records of great decision making and caring for you and your spouse, this transaction offers zero protection and all risk for you. What could go wrong?

  • An in-law (one you may not have even met yet) could try to place a claim on the business and move it away from the family.
  • Creditors could seize assets from the children, entirely likely if their future holds legal or financial problems—or if they have such problems now and haven’t shared them with you.
  • Assets could go into your children’s estates, which reintroduces exposure to estate taxes.

No family is immune from any of these situations, and if you ask your estate planning attorney, you’ll hear as many horror stories as you can tolerate.

Trusts are a solution. Thoughtfully crafted for your unique situation, a trust can help avoid exposure to some estate and other taxes, allocating effective ownership to your children, in a protected manner. Your ultimate goal: keeping ownership in the family and minimizing tax exposure.

A Beneficiary Defective Inheritance Trust (BDIT) may be appropriate for you. If you’ve already executed an outright transfer of the stock, it’s not too late to fix things. The BDIT is a grantor trust serving to enable protection of stock and eliminate any “residue” in your childrens’ estates.

If you haven’t yet transferred stock to children, don’t do it. The risk is very high. If you’ve already completed the transfer, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how to reverse the transfer and create a plan to protect the business and your family.

Bottom line: business interests are better protected when they are held not by individuals, but by trusts for the benefit of individuals. Your estate planning attorney can draft trusts to achieve goals, minimize estate taxes and, in some situations, even minimize state income taxes.

Reference: The Street (June 27, 2022) “Should I Transfer Company Stock to My Kids?”

Can Estate Planning Reduce Taxes?

The estate tax exemption won’t always be so high. The runup in housing prices may mean capital gains taxes become a serious issue for many people. There are solutions to be found in estate planning, including one known as an “Upstream Power of Appointment” Trust, as explained in the article “How to Use Your Estate Plan to Save on Taxes While You’re Still Alive!” from Kiplinger.

The strategy isn’t for everyone. It requires a completely trustworthy, elderly and less wealthy relative, such as a parent, aunt, or uncle, to serve as an additional trust beneficiary. First, here is some background information:

Basis: This is the amount by which a price is reduced to determine the taxable gain. This is often the historical cost of an asset, which may be adjusted for depreciation or other items. Estate planning attorneys are familiar with these terms.

Step-up (in-basis): If you bought a house for $100,000 and sold it for $400,000, your taxable gain would be $300,000. However, if the house had belonged to your father and was being sold to distribute assets between you and your siblings, the basis (cost) would be increased to the fair market value at the date of your father’s passing. This increase is known as the “step-up in basis” and here’s the benefit: there would be no capital gain on the sale and no taxes owed.

Lifetime estate tax exemption: This is currently at $12.06 million per person or $24.12 for married couples. This is the amount of assets which can be passed to children or others free of any federal estate tax. However, the number will take a deep dive on January 1, 2026, when it reverts back to just under $6 million, adjusted for inflation. Plan for the change now, because 2026 will be here before you know it!

Upstream planning involves transferring certain appreciated assets to older or other family members with shorter life expectancies. Since the person is expected to die sooner, the basis step-up is triggered sooner. When the named person dies, you obtain a basis step-up on the asset, saving income taxes on depreciation and saving capital gains on a future sale of the property.

Most Americans aren’t worried about paying estate taxes now, but no one wants to pay too much in income taxes or capital gains taxes.

To make this happen, your estate planning attorney will need to give an elderly person (let’s say Aunt Rose) the general power of appointment over the asset. Section 2041 of the Internal Revenue Code says you may give your Aunt Rose a power to appoint the asset to her estate, creditors, or the creditors of her estate. Providing the power will include the value of the property in her estate, not yours, ensuring the basis step-up and income tax savings.

Don’t do this lightly, as a general power of appointment also gives Aunt Rose ownership and the right to give the property to herself or anyone she wishes. Can you protect yourself, if Aunt Rose goes rogue?

While the IRC rule doesn’t require Aunt Rose to get your permission to control or change distribution of the property, a trust can be crafted with a provision to effectuate the desired result. The IRC doesn’t require Aunt Rose to know about this provision. This is why the best person for this role is someone who you know and trust without question and who understands your wishes and the desired outcome.

Proper planning with an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for this kind of transaction. All the provisions need to be right: the beneficiary need not survive for any stated period of time, you should not lose access to the assets receiving the basis increase, you want a formula clause to prevent a basis step down if the property or asset values fall and you want to be sure that assets are not exposed to creditor claims or any other liabilities of the person holding this broad power.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 3, 2022) “How to Use Your Estate Plan to Save on Taxes While You’re Still Alive!”

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

Is It Important for Physicians to Have an Estate Plan?

When the newly minted physician completes their residency and begins practicing, the last thing on their minds is getting their estate plan in order. Instead, they should make it a priority, according to a recent article titled “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead” from Medical Economics. Physicians accumulate wealth to a greater degree and faster than most people. They are also in a profession with a higher likelihood of being sued than most. They need an estate plan.

Estate planning does more than distribute assets after death. It is also asset protection. An estate planning attorney helps physicians, dentists and other medical professionals protect their assets and their legacies.

Basic estate planning documents include a last will and testament, financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. However, the physician’s estate is complex and requires an attorney with experience in asset protection and business succession.

During the process of creating an estate plan, the physician will need to determine who they would want to serve as a guardian, if there are minor children and what they would want to occur if all of their beneficiaries were to predecease them. A list should be drafted with all assets, debts, including medical school loans, life insurance documents and retirement or pension accounts, including the names of beneficiaries.

The will is the center of the estate plan. It will require naming a person, typically a spouse, to be the executor: the person in charge of administering the estate. If the physician is not married, a trusted relative or friend can be named. There should also be a second person named, in case the first is unable to serve.

If the physician owns their practice, the estate plan should be augmented with a business succession plan. The will’s executor may need to oversee decisions regarding the sale of the practice. A trusted friend with no business acumen or knowledge of how a medical practice works may not be the best executor. These are all important considerations. Special considerations apply when the “business” is a professional practice, so do not make any moves without expert estate planning assistance.

The will only controls assets in the individual’s name. Assets owned jointly, or those with a beneficiary designation, are not governed by the will.

Without a will, the entire estate may need to go through probate, which is a lengthy and expensive process. For one family, their father’s lack of a will and secrecy took 18 months and cost $30,000 in legal fees for the estate to be settled.

Trusts are an option for protecting assets. By placing assets in trust, they are protected from creditors and provide control in complex family situations. The goal is to create a trust and fund it before any legal actions occur. Transferring assets after a lawsuit has begun or after a creditor has attached an asset could lead to a physician being charged with fraudulent conveyance—where assets are transferred for the sole purpose of avoiding paying creditors.

Estate planning is never a one-and-done event. If a doctor starts a family limited partnership to transfer wealth to the next generation but neglects to properly maintain the partnership, some or all of the funds may be vulnerable.

An estate plan needs to be reviewed every few years and certainly every time a major life event occurs, including marriage, divorce, birth, death, relocation, or a significant change in wealth.

When consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, a doctor should ask about the potential benefits of revocable living trust planning to avoid probate, maintain privacy and streamline the administration of the estate upon incapacity or at death.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 22, 2022) “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead”

What Power Does an Executor Have?

Being asked to serve as an executor is a big compliment with potential pitfalls, advises the recent article “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” from U.S. News & World Report. You are being asked because you are considered trustworthy and able to handle complex tasks. That’s flattering, of course, but there’s a lot to know before making a final decision about taking on the job.

An executor of an estate helps file paperwork, close accounts, distribute assets of the deceased, deal with probate and any court filings and navigate family dynamics. Some of the tasks include:

  • Locating critical documents, like the will, any trusts, deeds, vehicle titles, etc.
  • Obtaining death certificates.
  • Overseeing funeral arrangements and memorial services, if any.
  • Filing the will in probate court.
  • Creating an estate bank account, after obtaining an estate tax number (EIN).
  • Notifying organizations, including Social Security, pension accounts, etc.
  • Paying creditors.
  • Distributing assets.
  • Overseeing the sale or transfer of real estate
  • Filing estate tax returns and final tax returns.

If you are asked to become the executor of an estate for a loved one, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible while the person is still living. It will be far easier to tackle the tasks, if you have been set up to succeed. Find out where their estate planning documents are and read the documents to make sure you understand them. If you don’t understand, ask, and keep asking until you do. Similarly, obtain information about all assets, including joint assets. Find out if there are any family members who may pose a challenge to the estate.

Today’s assets include digital assets. Ask for a complete list of the person’s online accounts, usernames and passwords. You will also need access to their devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone and smart watch. Discuss what they want to happen to each account and see if there is an option for you to become a co-owner of the account or a legacy contact.

Many opt to have an estate planning attorney manage some or all of these tasks, as they can be very overwhelming. Frankly, it’s hard to administer an estate at the same time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.

As executor, you are a fiduciary, meaning you’re legally required to put the deceased’s interests above your own. This includes managing the estate’s assets. If the person owned a home, you would need to secure the property, pay the mortgage and/or property taxes and maintain the property until it is sold or transferred to an heir. Financial accounts need to be managed, including investment accounts.

The amount of time this process will take, depends on the complexity and size of the estate. Most estates take at least twelve months to complete all of the administrative work. It is a big commitment and can feel like a second job.

A few things vary by state. Convicted felons are never permitted to serve as executors, regardless of what the will says. A sole executor must be a U.S. citizen, although a non-citizen can be a co-executor, if the other co-executor is a citizen. Rules also vary from state to state regarding being paid for your time. Most states permit a percentage of the size of the estate, which must be considered earned income and reported on tax returns.

Be very thorough and careful in documenting every decision made as the executor to protect yourself from any future challenges. This is one job where trying to do it on your own could have long-term effects on your relationship with the family and financial liability, so take it seriously. If it’s too much, an estate planning attorney can help.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate”

Can Elder Financial Abuse Be Stopped?

The numbers are chilling. One in ten Americans age 60+ has experienced elder abuse. One of the most common forms of elder abuse is financial, says a recent article from Forbes titled “What Is Elder Financial Abuse—And How Do We Prevent It?”

Financial elder abuse is defined as when someone illegally or improperly uses an elderly person’s money for their own use. Elderly people are easy victims for obvious reasons. They may be mentally vulnerable, suffering from Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia. They may also be lonely and find the company of a new “friend” is so delightful that it impairs their judgement.

Financial elder abuse occurs most often from adult children, but also in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Be on the watch for those new friends who enter senior’s lives, especially if they seek to limit contact with family members.

Caregivers or nursing staff have access to resident’s possessions, including checkbooks, ATM cards and credit cards. Monitoring an aging parent’s bank accounts on a regular basis should be part of caregiving by adult children. Unusual transactions, large withdrawals or unlikely purchases by credit card should immediately be reported to their bank or credit card company.

Less obvious and harder to track, is when someone forces a nursing home resident to sign legal documents transferring ownership of homes, cars, bank accounts and even investment accounts. They may also be pressured into creating a new will.

Here are some red flags to watch for:

  • New names being added to bank accounts or on credit cards.
  • Finding unpaid bills, letters from collection agencies or past due notices from creditors, especially when the person has sufficient funds.
  • Relatives who suddenly show up and want to be involved with an aging senior, including estranged children.
  • The unexpected transfer of any kind of asset to someone who is not a family member.
  • Any change in habits concerning money, including someone who was never worried about money suddenly being concerned about paying bills.

The elderly are often scared to report being victimized. They may fear further loss of control over their lives or be embarrassed to have been scammed. If a caregiver is stealing, they may also be physically threatened, or frightened of losing their familiar care provider.

Talk to your estate planning attorney, speak with the local Adult Protective Services office, or contact the National Elder Fraud Hotline, if you are concerned about a loved one being financially exploited.  If you believe a loved one is in physical danger, contact the local police. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 9, 2021) “What Is Elder Financial Abuse—And How Do We Prevent It?”

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

A person with Power of Attorney for their parents can’t actually “add” the POA to their bank accounts. However, they may change bank accounts to be jointly owned. There are some pros and cons of doing this, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.

As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account passes to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”