Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What about House Contents when Someone Dies?

Probate law does not allow anyone to take items from a loved ones’ home after they die, until the will has been probated. Learning about probate, what it entails and how to prepare for it may make it a little easier when a family member dies, says a recent article titled “Can you empty a house before probate? from Augusta Free Press. Knowing what to expect can avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, some of which often lead to family fights and even litigation.

Probate is a court-supervised period when the estate of the decedent is on pause. Assets may not be distributed, including personal items in the home. The goal is to ensure that assets are distributed only after the will has been ruled valid by the court and following the instructions in the will.

Probate includes the legal appointment of the executor, who is named in the will with specific statutory responsibilities, to include ultimately distributing assets.

For many people, estate planning includes preparing assets to avoid the probate process. An estate plan includes a review of the entire estate to see which assets are best suited to be taken out of the estate. Living trusts, joint ownership, transfer-on-death (TOD) and many other estate planning strategies can be used, depending on the person’s finances.

Certain tasks can be accomplished during probate relating to the home and other property. This includes changing the locks on the home to protect it from criminals and unauthorized people who have keys. The decedent’s mail can be forwarded to the executor or another family member’s address. A review of the decedent’s bills, especially monthly payments, can take place. If there’s a mortgage on the home, the mortgage company needs to be contacted and the payments need to be made.

As the end of the probate period nears, it may be time to contact an appraiser to get an unbiased, professional appraisal of the home’s value. This will be needed if the home is to be sold, or if the estate plan needs a valuation of the home.

Probate is often a necessary process. It can create challenges for the family, especially if no estate planning has been done. In some jurisdictions, probate is quick and painless, while in others it is a long and expensive process. Prior planning by an experienced estate planning attorney prevents many of the issues presented by probate.

After probate has been completed, the executor distributes the assets, including the personal property in the home. Personal property with sentimental value often sparks more family fights than assets of greater value. Administering an estate when emotions are running high is a challenge for all concerned.

Another reason to have an estate plan in place is to delineate very specifically what you want to occur after your death. That way there is no room for family members to stake a claim and do something contrary to your wishes.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (May 13, 2022) “Can you empty a house before probate?

Does the Executor Control Bank Accounts?

Executors administering probate assets usually have to deal with several different financial institutions. If good planning has been done by the decedent, the executor has a list of assets, account numbers, website addresses and phone numbers. Otherwise, the personal representative or successor trustee starts by gathering information and identifying the accounts, as described in a recent article “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages” from Lake Country News.

The accounts must be identified, retitled to become part of the estate, or liquidated and moved into the estate account.

If the decedent had a financial advisor who handled all of their investments, the process may be easier, since there will only be one person to deal with.

If there is no financial advisor who can or will personally manage the assets, the executor starts by contacting the back office department of the institution, often referred to as the “estates department.” The contact info can usually be found on the institutions’ website or on the paper statements, if there are any.

Expect to spend a lot of time on hold, especially in the beginning of the week. It may be better to call on a Wednesday or Thursday.

The first call is to introduce the executor, advise of the death of the decedent and learn about the company’s procedures for transferring, retitling, or otherwise gaining control of the account. The bank usually assigns a case number, to be used on all future communications.

If possible, obtain their name, direct dial, and direct email of whoever you speak with. It may only be with one assigned representative, or a different person every time. It depends upon the organization. Take careful notes on every interaction. You may need them.

Some of the documents needed to complete these transactions include an original death certificate, a court certified letter of administration or trustee’s certification of trust and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the institution to communicate with the executor or successor trustee.

Financial institutions will often only accept their own forms, which then need to be prepared for completion and signature. Expect to be asked to notarize some documents. In many cases, the institution will require a new account be opened and the assets transferred to the new account.

Be organized—you may find yourself needing to submit the documents multiple times, depending on the financial institution. If hard copy documents are sent, use registered or express mail requiring a signature on delivery. If documents are sent by email, they should only be sent via an encrypted portal to protect both estate and executor.

This is not a quick process and requires diligent follow up, with multiple emails and phone calls. If the value of the estate is large and the assets are complex, it may be better to have the estate planning attorney handle the process.

Reference: Lake Country News (Jan. 15, 2022) “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages”

What Taxes Have to Be Paid When Someone Dies?

The last thing families want to think about after a loved one has passed are taxes, but they must be dealt with, deadlines must be met and challenges along the way need to be addressed. The article “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate” from The Sentinel offers a useful overview, and recommends speaking with an estate planning attorney to be sure all tasks are completed in a timely manner.

Final income tax returns must be filed after a person passes. This is the tax return on income received during their last year of life, up to the date of death. When a final return is filed, this alerts federal and state taxing authorities to close out the decedent’s tax accounts. If a final return is not filed, these agencies will expect to receive annual tax payments and may audit the deceased. Even if the person didn’t have enough income to need to pay taxes, a final return still needs to be filed so tax accounts are closed out. The surviving spouse or executor typically files the final tax return. If there is a surviving spouse, the final income tax return is the last joint return.

Any tax liabilities should be paid by the estate, not by the executor. If a refund is due, the IRS will only release it to the personal representative of the estate. An estate planning attorney will know the required IRS form, which is to be sent with an original of the order appointing the person to represent the estate.

Depending on the decedent’s state of residence, heirs may have to pay an Inheritance Tax Return. This is usually based on the relationship of the heirs. The estate planning attorney will know who needs to pay this tax, how much needs to be paid and how it is done.

Income received by the estate after the decedent’s death may be taxable. This may be minimal, depending upon how much income the estate has earned after the date of death. In complex cases, there may be significant income and complex tax filings may be required.

If a Fiduciary Return needs to be filed, there will be strict filing deadline, often based on the date when the executor applied for the EIN, or the tax identification number for the estate.

The estate’s executor needs to know of any trusts that exist, even though they pass outside of probate. Currently existing trusts need to be administered. If there is a trust provision in the will, a new trust may need to be started after the date of death. Depending on how they are structured, trust income and distributions need to be reported to the IRS. The estate planning attorney will be able to help with making sure this is managed correctly, as long as they have access to the information.

The decedent’s tax returns may have a lot of information, but probably don’t include trust information. If the person had a Grantor Trust, you’ll need an experienced estate planning attorney to help. During the Grantor’s lifetime, the trust income is reported on the Grantor’s 1040 personal income tax return, as if there was no trust. However, when the Grantor dies, the tax treatment of the trust changes. The Trustee is now required to file Fiduciary Returns for the trust each year it exists and generates income.

An experienced estate planning attorney can analyze the trust and understand reporting and taxes that need to be paid, avoiding any unnecessary additional stress on the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (Dec. 3, 2021) “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate”

Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

No one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. It may or may not go to the decedent’s children.

After a valid qualified disclaimer has been executed and submitted, you as the “disclaimor” are treated as if you died before the decedent. Whoever receives the inheritance instead depends upon what the last will or trust provides, or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

In most cases, the last will or trust has instructions in the case of an heir disclaiming. It may have been written to give the disclaimed property to the children of the disclaimor, or go to someone else or be given to a charity. It all depends on how the will or trust was prepared.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimer is considered invalid. The disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

If you execute a non-qualified disclaimer relating to a $100,000 inheritance and it ends up going to your offspring, you may have inadvertently given them a gift according to the IRS. You’ll then need to know who needs to report the gift and what, if any, taxes are due on the gift.

Persons with Special Needs who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.

A Special Needs Trust might be able to receive an inheritance, but there are limitations regarding how much can be accepted. An estate planning attorney will need to be consulted to ensure that the person with Special Needs will not have their benefits jeopardized by an inheritance.

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

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”

What States Make You Pay an Inheritance Tax?

Let’s start with defining “inheritance tax.” The answer depends on the laws of each state, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney to learn exactly how your inheritance will be taxed, says the article “States with Inheritance Tax” from yahoo! finance. There are six states that still have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, you’ll need to pay an inheritance tax within nine months after the person dies, and the amount will depend upon how you are related to the decedent.

In Kentucky, spouse, parents, children, siblings and half-siblings do not have to pay inheritance taxes. Others need to act within 18 months after death but may be eligible for a 5% discount, if they make the payment within 9 months.

Timeframes are different county-by-county in Maryland, and the Registrar of Wills of the county where the decedent lived, or owned property determines when the taxes are due.

Only a spouse is exempt from inheritance taxes in Nebraska, and it has to be paid with a year of the decedent’s passing.

New Jersey gets very complicated, with a large number of people being exempted, as well as qualified religious institutions and charitable organizations.

In Pennsylvania, rates range from 4.5% to 15%, depending upon the relationship to the decedent. There’s a 5% discount if the tax is paid within three months of the death, otherwise the tax must be paid within nine months of the death.

As you can tell, there are many variations, from who is exempt to how much is paid. Pennsylvania exempts transfers to spouses and charities, but also to children under 21 years old. If one sibling is 20 and the other is 22, the older sibling would have to pay inheritance tax, but the younger sibling does not.

There’s also a difference as to which property is subject to inheritance taxes. In Nebraska, the first $40,000 inherited is exempt. Pennsylvania exempts certain transfers of farmland and agricultural property. All six exempt life insurance proceeds when they are paid to a named beneficiary, but if the policies are paid to the estate in Iowa, the proceeds are subject to inheritance tax.

Note that an inheritance tax is different than an estate tax. Both taxes are paid upon death, but the difference is in who pays the tax. For an inheritance tax, the tax is paid by heirs and the tax rate is determined by the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.

Estate tax is paid by the estate itself before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Estate taxes are the same, regardless of who the heirs are.

There are twelve states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) that have their own estate taxes (in addition to the federal estate tax). Note that Maryland has an inheritance, state and federal estate taxes. The rest of the states with an estate tax are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The large variations on estate and inheritance taxes are another reason why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer who knows the estate laws in your state.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Jan. 6, 2021) “States with Inheritance Tax”

unintended heirs

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

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