Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Tackling Estate Plan Quarter by Quarter

Most of us know that a tax bill is typically due on April 15, and we know that our paychecks will include deductions for taxes, Social Security, and IRA or 401(k) contributions. If we are self-employed or retired, we make quarterly estimated tax payments. We plan throughout the year to be better prepared when April 15 comes around. The preparation takes place routinely over time, and the same can be done for estate planning and updating, says a recent article “Make quarterly payments to estate plan” from Victoria Advocate. It’s simple and sensible.

If we can make our plans today to make our eventual passing easier for loved ones and friends, why not divide and conquer, in a quarterly manner? Consider these quarterly “payments” to your estate plan and your family:

First Quarter: Review current estate plans with your estate planning attorney. Don’t have an estate plan? Get started. An estate plan includes a Will, Durable Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney, Directive to Physicians document and any trusts you might need.

The Will, aka Last Will and Testament, is the only one of these documents to be used post-mortem. The will is used to designate an executor to carry out your wishes and designate a person or persons to serve as legal guardians for minor children.

Second Quarter: Let your family know your wishes. Open communication with family members is a gift, so they are not left guessing during critical times. Finding the right words is not always easy, so try writing out your thoughts as you prepare your estate plan. Document your wishes for burial arrangements, information they’ll need for a death certificate or obituary. Do you want to donate your organs, or will your pet need special care? Where are your important papers located? Once you’ve had all the necessary documents created and have thought through these wishes and written a memo about them, let your future executor know what your wishes are, and where they can find the information that they’ll need.

Third Quarter: Do some easy but important estate planning tasks. Review the beneficiaries listed on your accounts. Assets and accounts that pass through beneficiary designations are not controlled by the will, so this is extremely important if it’s been more than a few years since you last reviewed these documents. Your IRA, SEP, 401(k), life insurance and any accounts titled Transfer or Payable on Death probably have beneficiaries listed.

Fourth Quarter: Does your estate plan include a legacy to future generations or charities? Speak with your estate planning attorney about how to pass your estate to children or grandchildren. If you have a unique goal, trusts can be as individual as you are.

As systematically as you pay taxes and bills, work through your estate plan so that you are prepared for the two things we know will occur, regardless of how we feel about them—taxes and death.

Reference: Victoria Advocate (May 8, 2021) “Make quarterly payments to estate plan”

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.

The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

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”

How to Protect Digital Property

When people built wealth, assets were usually tangible: real estate, investments, cash, or jewelry. However, the last year has seen a huge jump in digital assets, which includes cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Combine this growing asset class with the coming biggest wealth transfer in history, says the article “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?” from Tech Crunch, and the problems of inheriting assets will take more than a complete search of the family attic.

One survey found only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows the details of their digital assets, from the location of the online accounts to passwords. However, digital assets that require two factor authentication or biometrics to gain access may make even this information useless.

There are many reports about people who purchased digital assets like Bitcoin and then lost their passwords or threw away their computers. More than $250 million in client assets vanished when a cryptocurrency exchange founder died and private keys to these accounts could not be found.

Digital assets need to be a part of anyone’s estate plan. A last will and testament is used to dictate how assets are to be distributed. If there is no will, the state’s estate law will distribute assets. A complete list of accounts and assets should not be part of a will, since it becomes a public document when it goes through probate. However, a complete list of assets and accounts needs to be prepared and shared with a trusted person.

Even traditional assets, like bank accounts and investment accounts, are lost when no one knows of their existence. If a family or executor doesn’t know about accounts, and if there are no paper statements mailed to the decedent’s home, it’s not likely that the assets will be found.

Things get more complicated with digital assets. By their nature, digital assets are decentralized.  This is part of their attraction for many people. Knowing that the accounts or digital property exists is only part one. Knowing how to access them after death is difficult. Account names, private keys to digital assets and passwords need to be gathered and protected. Directives or directions for what you want to happen to the accounts after you die need to be created, but not every platform has policies to do this.

Password sharing is explicitly prohibited by most website and app owners. Privacy laws also prohibit using someone else’s password, which is technically “account holder impersonation.” Digital accounts that require two factor authentication or use biometrics, like facial recognition, make it impossible for an executor to gain access to the data.

Some platforms have created a means of identifying a person who may be in charge of your digital assets, including Facebook and more recently, LinkedIn. Some exchanges, like Ethereum, have procedures for death-management. Some will require a copy of the will as part of their process to release funds to an estate, so you will need to name the asset (although not the account number).

A digital wallet can be used to store access information for digital assets, if the family is reasonably comfortable using one. A complete list of assets should include tangible and digital assets. It needs to be updated annually or whenever you add new assets.

Reference: Tech Crunch (April 5, 2021) “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?”

Should I Discuss Estate Planning with My Children?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children” says that staying up-to-date with your estate plan and sharing your plans with your children could make a big impact on your legacy and what you’ll pay in estate taxes. Let’s look at why you should consider talking to your children about estate planning.

People frequently create an estate plan and name their child as the trustee or executor. However, they fail to discuss the role and what’s involved with them. Ask your kids if they’re comfortable acting as the executor, trustee, or power of attorney. Review what each of the roles involves and explain the responsibilities. The estate documents state some critical responsibilities but don’t provide all the details. Having your children involved in the process and getting their buy-in will be a big benefit in the future.

Share information about valuables stored in a fireproof safe or add their name to the safety deposit box. Tell them about your accounts at financial institutions and the titling of the various accounts, so that these accounts aren’t forgotten, and bills get paid when you’re not around.

Parents can get children involved with a meeting with their estate planning attorney to review the estate plan and pertinent duties of each child. If they have questions, an experienced estate planning attorney can answer them in the context of the overall estate plan.

If children are minors, invite the successor trustee to also be part of the meeting.

Explain what you own, what type of accounts you have and how they’re treated from a tax perspective.

Discussing your estate plan with your children provides a valuable opportunity to connect with your loved ones, even after you are gone. An individual’s attitudes about money says much about his or her values.

Sharing with your children what your money means to you, and why you are speaking with them about it, will help guide them in honoring your memory.

There are many personal reasons to discuss your estate plans with your children. While it’s a simple step, it’s not easy to have this conversation. However, the pandemic emphasized the need to not procrastinate when it comes to estate planning. It’s also provided an opportunity to discuss these estate plans with your children.

Reference: US News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

Remind Me Why I Need a Will

There are a number of reasons to draft a will as soon as possible. If you die without a will (intestate), you leave decisions up to your state of residence according to its probate and intestacy laws. Without a will, you have no say as to who receives your assets or properties. Not having a will could also make it difficult for your family.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will” reminds us that, before it is too late, consider these reasons why a will is essential.

Avoid Family Disputes. This process occasionally will lead to disagreements among family members, if there’s no will or your wishes aren’t clear. A contested will can be damaging to relationships within your family and can be costly.

Avoid Costly and Lengthy Probate. A will expedites the probate process and tells the court the way in which you want your estate to be divided. Without a will, the court will decide how your estate will be divided, which can lead to unnecessary delays.

Deciding What Happens to Your Assets. A will is the only way you can state exactly to whom you want your assets to be given. Without a will, the court will decide.

Designating a Guardian for Your Children. Without a will, the court will determine who will take care of your minor children.

Eliminate Stress for Your Family. Most estates must go to probate court to start the process. However, if you have no will, the process can be complicated. The court must name personal representatives to administer your estate.

Protect Your Business. A will allows you to pass your business to your co-owners or heirs.

Provide A Home For Your Pets. If you have a will, you can make certain that someone will care for your pets if you die. The law considers pets as properties, so you are prohibited from leaving assets to your pets in your will. However, you can name beneficiaries for your pets, leaving them to a trusted person, and you can name people to serve as guardians of your pets and leave them funds to meet their needs.

Drafting a will with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can give you and your family peace of mind and convenience in the future.

Reference: Legal Reader (Jan. 28, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will”

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or administrator) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or administrator will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or administrator’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or administrator is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

How Do I Cancel a Loved One’s Credit Cards and Manage Their Points, After They Die?

First, you should get legal advice before you start delving into the deceased person’s estate. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney. Typically, the executor of the deceased’s estate will be in charge of these tasks.

Insider’s recent article entitled “How to cancel a loved one’s credit cards and manage their points after they die” provides some general tips on the steps to take to cancel credit cards and manage loyalty points, after a family member or close friend passes away.

Review the situation and gather documents. After a death, there’s a lot to do. Once you receive a death certificate, the executor must begin managing the deceased’s finances.

First, you want the credit bureaus to note the death in the deceased’s credit report and to get a list of all credit cards they owned. You can contact one of the three nationwide credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion) to tell them about the death and get a copy of their credit report. The Social Security Administration usually notifies the credit bureaus of the death. However, personally contacting them will make certain that a death notice is entered in their credit report. This will decrease the risk of identity theft. When noted, lenders will see that the individual is dead and won’t issue credit. You only need to contact one bureau because they will automatically notify the others.

How to close the deceased’s credit cards. After you get the credit report, identify all open credit cards and contact each one to notify them of the death. Each issuer will have a different procedure for closing the card, but most will ask you to send a copy of the death certificate. Lenders may also automatically close cards when they see the death notice on the credit bureau report.

Paying off credit card debt after death. The CARD Act of 2009 set the rules for credit card debt after death. Once the lender is notified, it will close the credit card and provide a final bill to the estate within 30 days. While the estate is being settled, they can’t impose additional late fees, annual fees, or over-limit fees. However, the interest on the debt continues to accrue. Note that if the estate pays the debt within 30 days of receiving the final bill, there’s no additional interest charged.

Credit card rewards after death. Every credit card has its own rules for managing points after death. For instance, American Express Membership Rewards has a process to take ownership of an account, and Chase Ultimate Rewards terms state that “If we’re notified of your death, your points will be automatically redeemed for cash in the form of an account statement credit.” The miles and points earned with an airline or hotel are subject to the terms of that program. Review the rules of each credit card, airline and hotel loyalty program to understand how points will be managed.

How to simplify life for your family. You can make things easier for your loved ones, if you make a plan to handle your points, miles and credit card rewards. Similar to other assets, you should explain how you want your points to be used in your will. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: Insider (Feb. 1, 2021) “How to cancel a loved one’s credit cards and manage their points after they die”

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC.

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to die, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, a state court may decide who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan also includes a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to die.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”

tax planning

Is a Tax Change a Good Time to Check My Will?

A last will and testament can make certain that your goals for legacy and asset disposition are satisfied and carried out. However, what most people fail to grasp is that a will needs regular review—especially if the document was written or involved the creation of a trust prior to passage of tax reform, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), in 2017, says Financial Advisor’s recent article entitled “Tax Changes Make This A Good Time To Revise A Will.”

Wills can pass on assets, but taxes have come to greatly impact how much money is passed on. People usually understand the primary components, including the tax implications, of their wills.

These include:

  • The unlimited marital deduction
  • Applying current rules to make non-taxable gifts of up to $15,000 per person
  • The current estate tax exemption of $11.58 million
  • Health care directives
  • Naming trustees and executors; and
  • Creating long-term trusts with non-taxable asset transfers.

Wills and trusts were created prior to the passage of the TCJA may not consider that reform changed the amount which can be exempted from estate taxes.

The law more than doubled the amount that can be exempted from estate taxes. The potential tax changes could cause many more Americans to have a taxable estate, and it’s important to have a full understanding of your assets and carefully decide who you want to receive them. You must also decide if you want them passed outright or through a trust.

Privacy is a good reason why some people often prefer trusts. They also like the quick processing and avoiding probate.

Estate plans should be reviewed every few years, and wills should be reviewed more frequently because life changes are the biggest reason for trouble in revising wills.

Divorce, separation or marriage; the birth or adoption of children, as well as a child reaching adulthood; and changes to finances, location and health all can play important roles.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 9, 2020) “Tax Changes Make This A Good Time To Revise A Will”