Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Happens When Property Is Owned Jointly and an Owner Dies?

When property is owned jointly, the property may pass automatically to the other owner, passing without going through probate, according to a recent article titled “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills” from TBR News Media

Your will only concerns assets in your name alone without a designated beneficiary. Let’s say you have a joint checking account with another person. On your death, the account automatically becomes the property of the surviving owner. This is outside of probate, and any directions in your will won’t apply.

Real estate is most commonly owned jointly, in several different ways and each with its own set of laws.

Joint Tenancy or Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship. On the death of a joint owner, the owner’s share goes to the surviving joint owner. Simple. The main advantage is the avoidance of probate, which can be costly and take months to complete.

Tenancy by the Entirety. This type of joint ownership is only available between spouses and is not used in all states. A local estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you have this option. As with Joint Tenancy, when the first spouse passes, their interest automatically passes to the surviving spouse outside of probate.

There are additional protections in Tenancy by the Entirety making it an attractive means of ownership. One spouse may not mortgage or sell the property without the consent of the other spouse, and the creditor of one spouse can’t place a lien or enforce a judgment against property held as tenants by the entirety.

Tenancy in Common. This form of ownership has no right of survivorship and each owner’s share of the property passes to their chosen beneficiary upon the owner’s death. Tenants in Common may have unequal interests in the property, and when one owner dies, their beneficiaries will inherit their share and become co-owners with other Tenants.

The Tenant in Common share passes the persons designated according to their will, assuming they have one. This means the decedent’s executor must “probate” the will and file a petition with the court. However, a Tenant in Common may be able to avoid probate if their share of the property is held in trust, in which case the terms of the trust and not their will controls how the property passes at death. In this case, there’s no need for any court involvement.

There may be capital gains consequences when transferring ownership interests during and after life. Such gifts should never be made without speaking with an estate planning attorney. One of the more common errors occurs when the testator fails to account for the different types of ownership and how assets pass through the will. A comprehensive estate plan, created by an experienced estate planning attorney, ensures that both probate and non-probate assets work together.

Reference: TBR News Media (Dec. 27, 2022) “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills”

What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?

The executor’s job includes gathering all of the assets, determining the value and ownership of real estate, securities, bank accounts and any other assets and filing a formal inventory with the probate court. Every state has its own rules, forms and deadline for the process, says a recent article from yahoo! Finance titled “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate,” which recommends contacting a local estate planning attorney to get it right.

The inventory is used to determine the overall value of the estate. It’s also used to determine whether the estate is solvent, when compared to any claims of creditors for taxes, mortgages, or other debts. The inventory will also be used to calculate any estate or inheritance taxes owed by the estate to the state or federal government.

What is an estate asset? Anything anyone owned at the time of their death is the short answer. This includes:

  • Real estate: houses, condos, apartments, investment properties
  • Financial accounts: checking, savings, money market accounts
  • Investments: brokerage accounts, certificates of deposits, stocks, bonds
  • Retirement accounts: 401(k)s, HSAs, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pensions
  • Wages: Unpaid wages, unpaid commissions, un-exercised stock options
  • Insurance policies: life insurance or annuities
  • Vehicles: cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats
  • Business interests: any business holdings or partnerships
  • Debts/judgments: any personal loans to people or money received through court judgments

Preparing an inventory for probate may take some time. If the decedent hasn’t created an inventory and shared it with the executor, which would be the ideal situation, the executor may spend a great deal of time searching through desk drawers and filing cabinets and going through the mail for paper financial statements, if they exist.

If the estate includes real property owned in several states, this process becomes even more complex, as each state will require a separate probate process.

The court will not accept a simple list of items. For example, an inventory entry for real property will need to include the address, legal description of the property, copy of the deed and a fair market appraisal of the property by a professional appraiser.

Once all the assets are identified, the executor may need to use a state-specific inventory form for probate inventories. When completed, the executor files it with the probate court. An experienced estate planning attorney will be familiar with the process and be able to speed the process along without the learning curve needed by an inexperienced layperson.

Deadlines for filing the inventory also vary by state. Some probate judges may allow extensions, while other may not.

The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate to file the inventory without delay. The executor is also responsible for paying off any debts or taxes and overseeing the distribution of any remaining assets to beneficiaries. It’s a large task, and one that will benefit from the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 3, 2022) “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate”

Does My Estate Plan Need an ‘ePlan’?

Modern estate plans should include what’s known as an “ePlan” to manage online accounts and online data. There are four specific steps to creating an effective ePlan, says American Legion’s recent article entitled “Estate planning and online accounts.”

  1. Create a List of Accounts and How to Access Them. Your list should specify the username, password account number and a description of what’s included in each account. Make sure to keep this list up to date.
  2. Store and Protect Your Info. Develop a plan for storing information, including saving the list you compiled and backing up important data files and account information. Since an ePlan account list contains sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords, it’s important to maintain the security and confidentiality of this list.
  3. Designate a Digital Executor. The laws of many states give access to online accounts to the executor of an estate. However, in some cases, state law may restrict access, if the executor doesn’t have the password or an estate plan does not clearly grant powers to the executor to access these accounts.
  4. Give Your Executor “Digital Directions.” Draft a letter of instruction to the digital executor and tell him or her how to manage your online accounts and digital assets. It may also include suggestions on the distribution of accounts, assets, files and information to family.

Note that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and other companies have policies for when an account holder dies. These policies may permit an account holder to designate a “Legacy Contact” to manage the account; require specific documentation before a deceased person’s account can be closed, such as a copy of a death certificate; or automatically close an account after an extended period of inactivity, such as three months.

Digital estate planning is a new and dynamic field. By adding an ePlan to your estate plan, you can be certain your executor will take the right steps to preserve and protect these accounts and that valuable and sentimental data can be passed on to family and loved ones.

Reference: American Legion (Dec. 13, 2022) “Estate planning and online accounts”

It Is Important to Update Your Estate Plan

Individuals who have a will, a power of attorney for health care, a financial power of attorney and a living will might believe they are done with estate planning. They’re only half right. There are many reasons an estate plan needs to be revised or updated, as explained in the recent article “10 reasons to update your estate plan” from American Legion.

New children, grandchildren, or a change in heirs. Most estate plans make provisions for children and heirs who are living when you die. If you have a specific transfer in your estate plan, a new child or one who has not been included in your will may receive a smaller inheritance, or no inheritance at all.

Here’s an example: Jane Doe has a $1 million estate and left a home valued at $400,000 to her first-born son Jason. She divided the rest of her estate, with 1/6 of the balance going to Jason and 5/6 to Justin. If a third child is born, depending on the laws of her state, the third child might receive nothing. Family strife or litigation could easily be the legacy she leaves. Thus, the arrival of a new heir is a reason to update your estate plan.

If you are married and move to a different state, there may be laws impacting ownership and inheritance. Some states are “common law” property states, others are “community property” states. If you move, clarify the ownership of your property as either separate or jointly owned.

Some states still have state inheritance or estate taxes. Many have taxes applied at lower levels than the federal exemption per person. Depending on who your heirs are and the state, you may be giving heirs a large tax liability, in addition to an inheritance.

Power of Attorney laws also vary from state to state, as do living wills or advance directives. You’ll want to be sure your medical planning documents reflect your state’s laws.

Selling or buying a major asset can change your plan and its results. If you transfer a property which has appreciated in value and a large estate tax is to be paid from your estate, beneficiaries could receive less than you intended.

Most estates contain cash, cash equivalents, stocks, real estate and retirement accounts. If your retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, IRAs, pensions, or other accounts, have become the largest portion of your estate, you should review the accounts and their tax impacts on heirs.

Families with unmarried brothers and sisters often receive an inheritance and remember their surviving siblings with an inheritance. However, if there are two or three unmarried siblings, one will inevitably become the survivor and hold most of the assets. If you have included a sibling in your estate plan, there is also the chance they will die before you.

Single people have different estate plans than married couples. A single person who transfers assets to a former spouse will not qualify for the unlimited marital deduction. If there is a divorce and beneficiary designations on retirement plans and insurance policies are not updated, the named person will receive the assets.

When a will is created, it names an executor and a successor executor. If the primary executor predeceases the person making the will, a new executor will need to be added. It’s always better to have two candidates for a position than one.

Estate plans are impacted by changes in asset value, changes in the family and changes in federal and estate law. Every three to five years, meet with your estate planning attorney to review your plan and be sure it still accomplishes what you want.

Reference: American Legion (Nov. 28, 2022) “10 reasons to update your estate plan”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

What Documents are Needed in an Emergency?

Most people don’t have any idea where to start when it comes to their emergency documents.  This often keeps them from going anywhere near their estate planning. This is a big mistake, says a recent article, “3 tasks your family needs to complete to ease any anxiety over unexpected emergencies,” from MarketWatch.

Estate planning is not just about wealthy people putting assets into trusts to avoid paying taxes. Estate planning includes preparing for life as well as death. This includes a parent preparing for surgery, for instance, who needs to have the right documents in place so family members can make emergency medical or financial decisions on their behalf. Estate planning also means being prepared for the unexpected.

Power of Attorney. Everyone over age 18 should have a POA, so a trusted person can take over their financial decisions. The POA can be as specific or broad as desired and must follow the laws of the person’s state of residence.

Medical Directives. This includes a Medical Power of Attorney, HIPAA authorization and a Living Will. The Medical POA allows you to appoint an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf. A HIPAA authorization allows someone else to gain access to medical records—you need this so your agent can talk with all medical and health insurance personnel. A living will is used to convey your wishes concerning end of life care. It’s a serious document, and many people prefer to avoid it, which is a mistake.

All of these documents are part of an estate plan. They answer the hard questions in advance, rather than putting family members in the terrible situation of having to guess what a loved one wanted.

An estate plan includes a will, and it might also include a trust. The will covers the distribution of property upon death, names an executor to be in charge of the estate and, if there are minor children, is used to name a guardian who will raise them.

A list of important information is not required by law. However, it should be created when you are working on your estate plan. This includes the important contacts from doctors to CPAs and financial advisors. Even more helpful would be to include a complete health profile with dates of previous surgeries, current medications with dosage information and pharmacy information.

Don’t overlook information about your digital life. Names of financial institutions, account numbers, usernames and passwords are all needed if your agent needs to access funds. Do not place any of this information in your will, as you’ll be handing the keys to the vault to thieves. Create a separate document with this information and tell your agent where to find the information if they need it.

Reference: MarketWatch (Nov. 19, 2022) “3 tasks your family needs to complete to ease any anxiety over unexpected emergencies”

Could Your Estate Plan Be a Disaster?

You may think your estate plan is all set.However, it might not be. If you met with your attorney when your children were small, and your children are now grown and have children of their own, your estate could be a disaster waiting to happen, says a recent article “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?” from the New Haven Register.

Most estate planning attorneys encourage their clients to revisit their estate plan every three to five years, with good reason. The size of your estate may have changed, you may have experienced a health issue, or you may have a new child or a grandchild. There may be tax law changes, statutes may have been updated and the plan you had three to five years ago may not accomplish what you want it to.

Many people say they “have nothing” and their estate is “simple.” They might also think “my spouse will get everything anyway.” This is wrong 99% of the time. There are unintended consequences of not having a will—accounts long forgotten, an untimely death of a joint owner, or a 40-year-old car with a higher value than anyone ever expected.

Your last will and testament designates who receives your assets and provides for any minors. A will can also help protect your wishes from a challenge by unwanted heirs after your passing.

The federal estate tax exemption today is $12.6 million, but if your will was created to minimize estate taxes when the exemption was $675,000, there may be unnecessary provisions in your plan. Heirs may be forced to set up inherited trusts or even sub-trusts. With today’s current exemption level, your plan may include trusts that no longer serve any purpose.

When was the last time you reviewed your will to see whether you still want the same people listed to serve as guardians for minor children, executors, or trustees? If those people are no longer in your family, or if the named person is now your ex, or if they’ve died, you have an ineffective estate plan.

Many adults believe they are too young to need an estate plan, or they’ve set up all of their assets to be owned jointly and, therefore, don’t need an estate plan. If one of the joint owners suffers a disability and is receiving government benefits, an inheritance could put all of their benefits at risk. Minor children might inherit your estate. However, the law does not permit minors to inherit assets, so someone needs to be named to serve as their conservator. If you don’t name someone, the court will, and it may not be the person you would choose.

What about using a template from an online website? Estate planning attorneys are called in to set things right from online wills with increasing frequency. The terms of a will are governed by state law and often these websites don’t explain how the document must be aligned with the statutes of the state where it is signed. Estate plans are not one-size-fits-all documents and a will deemed invalid by the court is the same as if there were no will at all.

If you don’t have an estate plan, if your estate plan is outdated, or if your estate plan was created using an online solution, your heirs may inherit a legal quagmire, in addition to your coin collection. Give yourself and them the peace of mind of knowing you’ve done the right thing and have your will updated or created with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: New Haven Register (Oct. 29, 2022) “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?”

Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

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?”