Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

Given a choice, most people will opt to do almost anything rather than talk about death and life for others after they are gone. However, estate planning is essential to ensure that your life and life’s work will be cared for correctly after you’ve passed, advises the article “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” from NASDAQ.com. If you own any assets, have a family, loved ones, pets or belongings you’d like to give to certain people or organizations, you need an estate plan.

Estate planning is not a set-it-and-forget it process. Every few years, your estate plan needs to be reviewed to be sure the information is accurate. Big life changes, from birth and death to marriage and divorce—and everything in between—usually also indicate it’s time for an update. Changes in tax laws also require adjustments to an estate plan, and this is something your estate planning attorney will keep you apprised of.

Reviewing and updating an estate plan is a straightforward process, once your estate planning attorney has created an initial plan. Keeping it updated protects your wishes and your loved ones’ futures. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing your estate plan:

Have you moved? Changes in residence require an update, since estate laws vary by state. You also should keep your advisors, including estate planning attorney, financial advisor and tax professional, informed about any changes of residence. You’d be surprised how many people move and neglect to inform their professional advisors.

Changes in tax law. The last five years have seen big changes in tax laws. Estate plans created years ago may no longer work as originally intended.

Power of Attorney documents. A Power of Attorney authorizes a person to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal and financial decisions. If this document is old, or no longer complies with your state’s laws, it may not be accepted by banks, investment companies, etc. If the person you designed as your POA decades ago can’t or won’t serve, you need to choose another person. If you need to revoke a power of attorney, speak with your estate planning attorney to do this effectively.

Health Care Power of Attorney and HIPAA Releases. Laws concerning who may speak with treating physicians and health care providers have become increasingly restrictive. Even spouses do not have automatic rights when it comes to health care. You’ll also want to put your wishes about being resuscitated or placed on artificial life support in writing.

Do you have an updated last will and testament? Review all the details, from executor to guardian named for minor children, the allocation of assets and your estate tax costs.

What about a trust? If you have minor children, you need to ensure their financial future with a trust. Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation.

A regular check-up for your estate plan helps avoid unnecessary expenses, delays and costs for your loved ones. Don’t delay taking care of this very important matter. You can then return to selecting a color for the nursery or planning your next exciting adventure. However, do this first.

Reference: NASDAQ.com (July 28, 2021) “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Minor Children, Guardian, Last Will and Testament, Executor, Power of Attorney, Health Care, POA, Assets, Trust, HIPAA Release

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”

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

How Do I Stop Heirs from Foolishly Wasting Inheritance?

This is a problem solved by a trust—a “spendthrift” trust. With a spendthrift provision in a testamentary trust created under a will or an inheritance trust created under a revocable living trust, the trustee makes all decisions about distributions. This can be an effective means of controlling the flow of money.

A spendthrift trust, according to the article “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust” from Record Courier, is created for the benefit and protection of a financially irresponsible person.

For a spendthrift trust, it may be better not to choose a family member or trusted friend to serve as the trustee. Such person might not live long enough or have the capacity to serve as trustee for as long as required, especially if the heir is a young adult. Conflicts among family members are common, when money is involved. An independent and well-established trust company or bank may be a better choice as a trustee. Large estates often go this route, since their services can be expensive. However, some retail banks do have a private wealth division. All options need to be explored.

Another benefit to a spendthrift trust—funds are protected against current or future creditors of the beneficiary. Let’s say a parent wants to leave money to a child, but knows the child has credit card debt already. Unless they are co-signers, the parent and their estate do not have a duty to pay an adult child’s debts. The spendthrift trust will not be accessible to the credit card company.

It is difficult to set up a spendthrift trust to protect one’s own money from creditors. This is something that must be approached only with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is because the rules are complex and there are significant limitations. If you wanted to create a spendthrift trust for yourself, you would have to completely give over control of assets to the trustee. There is no way to predict whether a court will consider the person to have relinquished enough control to make the trust valid.

This type of spendthrift trust may not be created with an intent to defraud, delay or hinder creditors. Doing so may make the trust invalid and any possible protection will be lost.

A spendthrift provision in a will is a clause used to protect a beneficiary from a creditor attaching prior debts against the beneficiary’s future inheritance. This means that the creditor may not force an heir or the estate’s executor to pay the beneficiary’s inheritance to the creditor, instead of the beneficiary. It also prevents the beneficiary from procuring a debt based on a future inheritance.

It is important to be aware that a spendthrift provision in a will or a spendthrift trust has limitations. The assets are only protected when they are in the trust or in the estate. Once a distribution is received, creditors can seek payment from the assets owned by the beneficiary.

Another qualifying factor: the spendthrift provision in the will must prevent both the voluntary and involuntary transfer of a beneficiary’s interest. The beneficiary may not transfer their interest to someone else.

The spendthrift trust and clause are mainly intended to protect a beneficiary’s interests from present and future creditors. They are not valid if their intent is to defraud others and may not be created to avoid paying any IRS debts.

Reference: Record Courier (July 10, 2021) “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust”

What Happens If You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes, says the old adage. The same could be said about mortgages. Did you know that the word “mortgage” is taken from a French term meaning “death pledge?” A recent article titled “What happens to your mortgage when you die?” from bankrate.com explains the options for homeowners who wonder what might happen to their home, mortgage and loved ones, after they die.

When a homeowner dies, their mortgage lives on. The mortgage lender still needs to be repaid, or the lender could foreclose on the home when payments stop, regardless of the reason. The same is true if there are outstanding home equity loans or lines of credit attached to the property.

If there is a co-borrower or co-signer, the other person must continue making payments on the mortgage. If there is no co-signer, the executor of the estate is responsible for making mortgage payments from estate assets.

If the home is left to an heir through a will, it’s up to the heir to decide what to do with the home and the mortgage. If the lender and the terms of the mortgage allow it, the heir can assume the mortgage and make payments. The heir might also arrange for the property to be sold.

A sole heir should reach out to the mortgage company and discuss their options, after conferring with the family’s estate planning attorney. To assume the loan, the mortgage must be transferred to the heir. If the property is sold, proceeds from the sale are used to pay off the loan.

Heirs do not need to requalify for the mortgage on a loan they inherited. This can be a good opportunity for someone with bad credit to repair that credit, if they can stay current on the mortgage. If the heir wants to change the terms of the mortgage, they will need to qualify for a new loan and meet all of the lending institution’s eligibility requirements.

Proof that a person is the rightful inheritor of the property or executor of the estate may be required. The mortgage lender will typically have a process to specify what documents are needed. If the lender is not cooperative or balks at any requests, the estate planning attorney will be able to help.

If you own a home, it is very important to plan for the future and that includes making decisions about what you want to happen to your home, if you are too ill to manage your affairs or for when you die. You’ll need to document your wishes,

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 9, 2021) “What happens to your mortgage when you die?”

What’s the Latest on Country Star Charley Pride’s Estate?

Grammy-winning country star Charley Pride died from COVID-19 in December, and an article from 5 NBC DFW entitled “Charley Pride’s ‘Secret’ Son Contests Will” reports that his son Tyler has revealed the family “secret.” His story started with an affair between his mother, a flight attendant, and his father, country music’s first Black superstar.

At the time of their relationship, Charley was already married to his wife of many years, Rozene, and the couple had three children. A paternity test later confirmed that Tyler was also Charley’s son.

“We made it through and had the best relationship that we could, per the circumstances,” said Tyler. “We still got to talk on the phone a lot and get to know each other that way, but it was difficult because of his situation and having to keep peace at home, as he put it over and over.”

Tyler said his father visited when he was able, and even after he turned 18 and Charley’s obligation to financially support him ended, Tyler said his father stayed involved in his life. However, when Charley died of COVID-19, Tyler said the family did not even tell him that his father was sick. In fact, Tyler’s name was not included in the obituary, and he said he was not allowed to attend the funeral.

Tyler also wasn’t named in Charley’s will, which Tyler has filed a lawsuit to contest. He says there was undue influence by Rozene over her husband, who’d publicly acknowledged mental health struggles.

“I don’t think he could imagine that this is going on right now and I don’t think it’s what he wanted. Because he always said he wanted his kids taken care of equally. Up until his death, that’s what I was told every time we talked,” said Tyler.

Rozene’s statement said, “Tyler does not have a valid claim, so he has resorted to a hurtful smear campaign. His attack on Charley hurts me and his other children deeply, but we all know that Charley was doing great physically and mentally and making his own decisions, until he was taken down by COVID. Much of what Tyler is saying about Charley and me is a lie that Tyler hopes reporters will spread to grab headlines.”

However, Tyler says this isn’t a financial fight. It’s instead about honoring his father’s wishes and finally being recognized as his son.

“He is my dad and I’m proud to be able to tell that part of the story because I am part of his story,” said Tyler.

Reference: 5 NBC DFW (June 11, 2021) “Charley Pride’s ‘Secret’ Son Contests Will”

What Paperwork Is Required to Transfer the Ownership of Home to Children?

Some seniors may ask if they would need to draft a new deed with their name on it and attach an affidavit and have it notarized. Or should the home be fully gifted to the children in life?

And for a partial gift to the children in life, where they’re co-owners, would the parent be required to complete the same paperwork as a full gift? Is there a way to change the owner of a property without having to pay taxes?

The reason for considering the transfer of a full or partial ownership in your home makes a difference in how you should proceed, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “What taxes are owed if I add my children to my deed?”

If the objective is to avoid probate when you pass away, adding children as joint tenants with rights of survivorship will accomplish this. However, there may also be some drawbacks that should be considered.

If the home has unrealized capital gains when you die, only your ownership share receives a step-up in basis. With a step-up in basis, the cost of the home is increased to its fair market value on the date of death. This eliminates any capital gains that accrued from the purchase date.

There’s the home-sale tax exclusion. If you sell the home during your lifetime, you’re eligible to exclude up to $500,000 of capital gains if you’re married, or $250,000 for taxpayers filing single, if the home was your primary residence for two of the last five years. However, if you add your children as owners, and they own other primary residences, they won’t be eligible for this tax exclusion when they sell your home.

In addition, your co-owner(s) could file for bankruptcy or become subject to a creditor or divorce claim. Depending on state law, a creditor may be able to attach a lien on the co-owner’s share of the property.

Finally, if you transfer your entire interest, the new owners will be given total control over the home, allowing them to sell, rent, or use the home as collateral against which to borrow money. If you transfer a partial interest, you may need the co-owner’s consent to take certain actions, like refinancing the mortgage.

If you decide to transfer ownership, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare the legal documents and to discuss your goals and the implications of the transfer. The attorney would draft the new deed and record the deed with the county office where the property resides.

A gift tax return, Form 709, should be filed, but there shouldn’t be any federal gift tax on the transfer, unless the cumulative lifetime gifts exceed the threshold of $11.7 million or $23.4 million for a married couple.

Reference: nj.com (June 15, 2021) “What taxes are owed if I add my children to my deed?”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”