Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Why Is a Will So Important?

A 2020 Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans have a will or have made plans regarding how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have a will.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will” says that no matter your age, it’s important to have a will to be in control of what happens with your own assets. A will is a legal document that establishes a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.

Without a will, state law may control who gets your “probate” assets and when. Having a will can save an enormous amount of time and money in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children, if needed.

There’s a big difference between a will and a living will. A living will is a document that lets you state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical situations, if you’re unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.

These differ by state law. However, they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options. General medical decisions unrelated to end of life care are typically covered in a health care power of attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive.

Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, a will lets you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate. If you have minor children, a will also allows you to nominate a guardian for them.

When creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.” To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What assets do you have?
  • To whom do you want to leave them?
  • Who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
  • Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
  • How do you want the assets transferred?

Reference: Yahoo News (Aug. 17, 2022) “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will”

When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”

When Should I Revise My Will?

Just as your life changes, so should your will. You may need to replace an executor, update accounts, or adjust heirs. If you have an estate plan with greater wealth or need more complex arrangements, such as trusts or guardianship provisions, may want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney, says US News’ March 2018 article entitled “4 Times It Makes Sense to Revise Your Will.” Let’s look at the four events:

  1. You’ve experienced a significant life event. This may be a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, remarriage or the death of a loved one. These changes may require that new heirs be added to a will or others removed. These life events may also influence how assets are divided in the will. In addition, if you move to a new state, update your will to ensure it adheres to the laws there.
  2. A person in your will has experienced a significant life event. Wills also include executors, trustees and guardians. These individuals may move, get married or become sick or disabled, all of which could change whether they are appropriate for the role listed in your will.
  3. The tax laws have changed. A will may be written to minimize the effects of estate taxes. When laws change, the provisions of the will may need to be updated. For example, in 2017, $5.49 million of a person’s estate was exempt from the 40% federal estate tax. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, $12.06 million of an estate is currently exempt from the tax in 2022. This could mean that some families no longer need to worry about paying an estate tax and could eliminate the need for some trusts or other provisions in a will.
  4. If it’s been three to five years. It’s smart to review a will at least every three to five years and ensure that all provisions are still in line with your wishes.

While you’re reviewing your will, don’t forget to also review beneficiaries on bank accounts, retirement funds and life insurance. Remember that a named beneficiary trumps the will.

Make sure that all that hard work on your will does not go to waste, by reviewing and updating the document periodically to make sure it reflects the changing landscape of your life.

When you have the will updated, be sure to store it in a secure location, like a fire-proof safe, and let your executor know where to find it. If an attorney drew up your will, they’ll be happy to store at least a digital copy for you.

Reference: US News (March 30, 2018) “4 Times It Makes Sense to Revise Your Will”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

How Do I Conduct an Estate Inventory?

When a loved one dies, it may be necessary for their estate to go through probate—a court-supervised process in which his or her estate is settled, outstanding debts are paid and assets are distributed to the deceased person’s heirs. An executor is tasked with overseeing the probate process. An important task for an executor is submitting a detailed inventory of the estate to the probate court.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?” looks at the estate inventory. During probate, the executor is charged with several duties, including collecting assets, estimating the fair market value of all assets in the estate, ascertaining the ownership status of each asset and liquidating assets to pay off outstanding debts, if needed. The probate court will need to see an inventory of the estate’s assets before distributing those assets to the deceased’s heirs.

An estate inventory includes all the assets of an estate belonging to the individual who’s passed away. It can also include a listing of the person’s liabilities or debts. In terms of assets, this would include:

  • Bank accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs
  • Investment accounts
  • Business interests
  • Real estate
  • Pension plans and workplace retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457 plans
  • Life insurance, disability insurance, annuities and long-term care insurance
  • Intellectual property, such as copyrights, trademarks and patents
  • Household items
  • Personal effects; and

Here’s what’s included in an estate inventory on the liabilities side:

  • Home mortgages;
  • Outstanding business loans, personal loans and private student loans;
  • Auto loans associated with a vehicle included on the asset side of the inventory
  • Credit cards and open lines of credit
  • Any unpaid medical bills
  • Unpaid taxes; and
  • Any other outstanding debts, including unpaid court judgments.

There is usually no asset or liability that’s too small to be included in the estate inventory.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 15, 2022) “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?”

How to Handle Digital Assets in a Will

Now that cryptocurrency has become almost commonplace, it is necessary to incorporate it into estate plans and their administration, according to the article “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency” from Roll Call.

One advantage of using cryptocurrencies in estate planning is the ease of transference—if all parties know how crypto works. Unlike a traditional bank, which typically requires executors to produce an original death certificate and other documents to take control of accounts in the estate, cryptocurrency only requires the fiduciary to have passcodes to gain access to accounts.

The passcode is a complex, multicharacter code appearing to be a long string of unrelated numbers and letters. It is stored in a digital wallet, which can only be accessed through the use of the 64-digit passcode, also known as a key.

While the passcode is simple, it is also very vulnerable. If the key is lost, there is no way to retrieve it. The executor must know not just where the key is physically located if it has been written down on paper, or if it is kept in a digital wallet, but how to access the digital wallet. There are also different kinds of digital wallets.

People do not usually share their passwords with others. However, in the case of crypto, consider storing it in a safe but accessible location and telling a trusted person where it may be found.

People who own cryptocurrency need to give someone access info. If someone is named an executor at one point in your life and they have the information about digital assets, then at some point you change the executor, there is no way to guarantee the former executor might not access the account.

How do you protect digital assets? Using “cold storage,” an account passcode is stored and concealed on a USB drive or similar device, allowing the information to be shared without the user needing to learn the passcode to access the account. The cold storage USB drive can be given from one fiduciary to the successor fiduciary without either knowing the passcode.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress addressing cryptocurrency and blockchain policies. The IRS has issued a number of notices and publications regarding taxes on digital currency transactions. Crypto is no longer an “invisible” asset.

In addition to policies and regulations, litigation concerning estates and cryptocurrency is still relatively new to the judiciary. Planning for these assets to ensure they are passed to the next generation securely is very important as their use and value continues to grow.

Reference: Roll Call (Feb. 22, 2022) “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency”

No Will? What Happens Now Can Be a Horror Show

Families who have lived through settling an estate without an estate plan will agree that the title of this article, “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will,” from Next Avenue, is no exaggeration. When the family is grieving is no time to be fighting, yet the absence of a will and an estate plan leads to this exact situation.

Why do people procrastinate having their wills and estate plans done?

Limited understanding about wealth transfers. People may think they do not have enough assets to require an estate plan. Their home, retirement funds or savings account may not be in the mega-millions, but this is actually more of a reason to have an estate plan.

Fear of mortality. We do not like to talk or think about death. However, talking about what will happen when you die or what may happen if you become incapacitated is very important. Planning so your children or other trusted family member or friends will be able to make decisions on your behalf or care for you alleviates what could otherwise turn into an expensive and emotionally disastrous time.

Perceived lack of benefits. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will put your interests first means you will have one less thing to worry about while you are living and towards the end of your life.

Estate planning documents contain the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you pass. They answer questions like:

  • Who should look after your minor children, if both primary caregivers die before the children reach adulthood?
  • If you become incapacitated, who should handle your financial affairs, who should be in charge of your healthcare and what kind of end-of-life care do you want?
  • What do you want to happen to your assets after you die? Your estate refers to your financial accounts, personal possessions, retirement funds, pensions and real estate.

Your estate plan includes a will, trusts (if appropriate), a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney or advanced directive and a living will. The will distributes your property and also names an executor, who is in charge of making sure the directions in the will are carried out.

If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the POA gives agency to someone else to carry out your wishes while you are living. The living will provides an opportunity to express your wishes regarding end-of-life care.

There are many different reasons to put off having an estate plan, but they all end up in the same place: the potential to create family disruption, unnecessary expenses and stress. Show your family how much you love them, by overcoming your fears and preparing for the next generation. Meet with an estate planning attorney and prepare for the future.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 21, 2022) “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will”

Why Shouldn’t I Wait to Draft my Will?

There are countless reasons why people 50 and over fail to write a will, update a previous one, or make other estate planning decisions. Market Watch’s recent article entitled “We beat up 6 of your excuses for not writing a will (or updating an old one)” takes a closer look at those six reasons, and how to help overcome them.

Excuse No. 1: You have plenty of time. Sure, you know you need to do it. However, it’s an easy thing to move down on your priority list. We all believe we have time and that we’ll live to be 100. However, that’s not always the case. Set up an appointment with an experienced estate planning lawyer ASAP because what gets scheduled gets done.

Excuse No. 2: You don’t have a lot of money. Some think they have to have a certain amount of assets before estate planning matters. That isn’t true. Drafting these documents is much more than assigning your assets to your heirs: it also includes end-of-life decisions and deciding who would step in, if you were unable to make financial decisions yourself. It’s also wise to have up-to-date documents like a power of attorney and a living will in case you can’t make decisions for yourself.

Excuse No. 3: You don’t want to think about your death. This is a job that does require some time and energy. However, think about what could happen without an up-to-date estate plan. Older people have seen it personally, having had friends pass without a will and seeing the children fighting over their inheritance.

Excuse No. 4: It takes too much time. There’s a misconception about how time-consuming writing a will is. However, it really can be a fairly quick process. It can take as little as 2½ hours. First, plan on an hour to meet with the lawyer; an hour to review the draft; and a half-hour to sign and execute your documents. That is not a hard-and-fast time requirement. However, it is a fair estimate.

Excuse No. 5: You’d rather avoid making difficult decisions. People get concerned about how to divide their estate and aren’t sure to whom they should leave it. While making some decisions in your estate plan may seem final, you can always review your choices another time.

Excuse No. 6: You don’t want to pay an attorney. See this as investment in your loved ones’ futures. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney helps you uncover and address the issues you don’t even know you have. Maybe you don’t want your children to fight. However, there can be other issues. After all, you didn’t go to law school to learn the details of estate planning.

Reference: Market Watch (March 12, 2022) “We beat up 6 of your excuses for not writing a will (or updating an old one)”

Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Executors Need to Know

Millennials are not the only ones investing in cryptocurrency. In a recent article titled “Help! My dad is investing in cryptocurrency” from Monterey Herald, a woman is worried about her elderly father investing in this new type of money. She is concerned for both his financial well-being and for what she may have to address when it is time to distribute his estate to her siblings.

Crypto, or cryptocurrency, is more than a passing fad. It has become an alternative purchasing and investment tool, with more than 8,000 different types of crypto available, representing billions in assets. You can use crypto to buy a Tesla automobile, an airplane or real estate. Regulations have recently been issued to permit banks to take custody of digital currency. One credit card company is even developing a card to allow consumers to spend digital cash using a credit or debit card.

Perhaps the ultimate recognition of this new currency comes from the IRS, which now requires owners to report income and capital gains earned on the sale of crypto and assess taxes on it, the same as other traditional types of investments.

As the executor of her father’s will, the woman mentioned above will be responsible for distributing her father’s entire estate, including the cryptocurrency. As a fiduciary, she will have to learn what it is and how to manage it.

When people buy crypto, they receive a digital key. This is usually a string of numbers, symbols and letters representing the asset on a secure ledger. The key cannot be replaced, and if it is lost, so are the crypto holdings. There are many different ways to store this key, so the daughter needs to know where the key is stored and how to access it.

The best way forward would be for the daughter to spend time with her father learning about cryptocurrency, what types he owns and how they are secured. Their conversation should also address his wishes for the investment. Does he want his grandchildren to receive it as crypto, or would he prefer to liquidate it before he dies and place it in a trust? Does he want her to liquidate it after he dies, and have it become part of his estate?

When it is time to settle the estate, if the crypto has not been liquidated into cash, she will need to value the assets at his date of death, like any other investment and may either sell the currency or distribute it to his beneficiaries. If the estate is valued at more than $12.06 million, federal estate taxes will need to be paid on all assets, including the cryptocurrency. There may also be state estate taxes due.

She should also speak with an estate planning attorney about cryptocurrency, and also read his will to learn if the cryptocurrency is included. If he does not have a will or an estate plan, now is the time to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney and get that in order.

Being an executor used to require learning about possessions like art or jewelry collections or fine rugs. Today, the executor needs to add a cryptocurrency education to their task list.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Feb. 19, 2022) “Help! My dad is investing in cryptocurrency”