Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Should You Agree to Being a Guardian?

Yes, it is an honor to be asked to be the guardian of someone’s children. However, you’ll want to understand the full responsibilities involved before agreeing to this life-changing role. A recent article from Kiplinger, “3 Key Things to Consider Before Agreeing to Be A Guardian in a Trust,” explains.

For parents, this is one of the most emotional decisions they have to make. Assuming a family member will step in is not a plan for your children. Naming a guardian in your will needs to be carefully and realistically thought out.

For instance, people often first think of their own parents. However, grandparents may not be able to care for a child for one or two decades. If the grandparent’s own future plan includes downsizing to a smaller home or moving to a 55+ community, they may not have the room for children. In a 55+ community, they may also not be permitted to have minor children as permanent residents.

What about siblings? A trusted aunt or uncle might be able to be a guardian. However, do they have children of their own, and will they be able to manage caring for your children as well as their own? You’ll also have to be comfortable with their parenting styles and values.

Other candidates may be a close friend of the family, who does not have children of their own. An “honorary” aunt or uncle who is willing to embark on raising your children might be a good choice.  However, it requires careful thought and discussion.

Financial Considerations. What resources will be available to raise the children to adulthood? Do the parents have life insurance to pay for their needs, and if so, how much? Are there other assets available for the children? Will you be in charge of managing assets and children, or will someone else be in charge of finances? You’ll need to be very clear about the money.

Legal Arrangements. Is there a family trust? If so, who is the successor trustee of the trust? What are the terms of the trust? Most revocable trusts include language stating they must be used for the “health, education, maintenance, and support of beneficiaries.” However, sometimes there are conditions for use of the funds, or some funds are only available for milestones, like graduating college or getting married.

Lifestyle Choices. You’ll want to have a complete understanding of how the parents want their children to be raised. Do they want the children to remain in their current house, and has an estate plan been made to allow this to happen? Will the children stay in their current schools, religious institutions or stay in the neighborhood?

In frank terms, simply loving someone else’s children is not enough to take on the responsibility of being their guardian. Financial resources need to be discussed and lifestyle choices must be clarified. At the end of the discussion, all parties need to be completely satisfied and comfortable. This kind of preparedness provides tremendous peace of mind.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 17, 2022) “3 Key Things to Consider Before Agreeing to Be A Guardian in a Trust”

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?”

Estate Planning Considerations for Minor Children

Creating an estate plan with minor children in mind has a host of variables quite different than one where all heirs are adults. If the intention is for the minor children to be beneficiaries, or if there is a remote chance a minor child might become an unintended beneficiary, different provisions will be needed. A recent article titled “Children need special attention in estate planning” from The News-Enterprise explains how these situations might be addressed.

Does the person creating the will—aka, the testator—want property to be distributed to a minor child? If so, how is the distribution is to occur, tax consequences and safeguards need to be put into place. Much depends upon the relationship of the testator to the minor child. An older individual may want to leave specific dollar bequests for minor children or great-grandchildren, while people with younger children generally leave their entire estate in fractional shares to their own minor children as primary beneficiaries.

While minor children and grandchildren beneficiaries are excluded from inheritance taxes in certain states, great- grandchildren are not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide details on who is subject to inheritance, federal and state estate taxes. This needs to be part of your estate plan.

If minor children are the intended beneficiaries of a fractional share of the estate in its entirety, distributions may be held in a common trust or divided into separate share for each minor child. A common trust is used to hold all property to benefit all of the children, until the youngest child reaches a determined age. When this occurs, the trust is split into separate shares according to the trust directions, when each share is managed for the individual beneficiary.

Instructions to the trustee as to how much of the income and principal each beneficiary is to receive and when, at what age or intervals each beneficiary may exercise full control over the assets and what purposes the trust property is intended for until the beneficiary reaches a certain age are details which need to be clearly explained in the trust.

Trusts for minor children are often specifically to be used for health, education, maintenance, or support needs of the beneficiary, within the discretion of the trustee. This has to be outlined in the trust document.

Even if the intention is not to make minor children beneficiaries, care must be taken to include provisions if they are family members. The will or trust must be clear on how property passed to minor child beneficiaries is to be distributed. This may be done through a requirement to put distributions into a trust or may leave a list of options for the executor.

Testators need to keep in mind the public nature of probate. Whatever is left to a minor child will be a matter of public record, which could make the child vulnerable to scammers or predatory family members. Consider using a revocable living trust as an alternative to safeguard the child and the assets.

Regardless of whether a will or trust is used, there should be a person named to act as the child’s guardian and their conservator or trustee, who manages their finances. The money manager does not have to be a parent or relative but must be a trustworthy person.

Review your specific situation with your estate planning attorney to create a plan to protect your minor children, ensuing their financial and lifestyle stability.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 10, 2022) “Children need special attention in estate planning”

How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Perhaps getting hit by a cement truck is too blunt for some, but unexpected things happen all the time. An estate plan, including a will and other important documents, is good preparation, especially for caregivers of people with special needs. A recent article from Forbes titled “Where There is a Will, There is a Way” explains the steps everyone, especially caregivers, need to follow.

Creating a last will and testament

This is the foundation of an estate plan. Without a will, the court will distribute assets to children equally. If a disabled person receiving government benefits receives an inheritance, they will become ineligible and lose access to services. The court will also assign guardianship to minors or disabled individuals, if there is no will. A will, in tandem with proper estate planning, ensures protection for an individual with special needs, including naming a guardian of your choice.

Having a General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

A POA allows you to name a person you trust to manage finances, real estate property, investments, or any aspect of your life, if you become incapacitated. A POA should be created for your needs, so you may decide in advance what you do and do not want your agent to be able to do for you.

Creating a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This important legal document, paired with a HIPAA release form, allows someone of your choice to take charge of your healthcare, talk with healthcare providers and make decisions based on your expressed wishes. You may name more than one person for this role but doing so could make it harder if the two people don’t agree on your care.

Naming a Guardian

This is a critical step if you are a caretaker for a person who will likely be unable to manage their own affairs, even after attaining legal age. By naming a guardian in your will, you can select the people who will be in charge of your special needs family member or minor children. Without a guardian named in your will, the courts will make this decision.

Drafting a “Letter of Intent”

A letter of intent is a guide with important information only you know. It is especially important for caretakers. Explaining in detail your disabled individual’s preferences can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives when you are no longer available. What are their likes and likes, what people do they enjoy spending time with and what foods do they prefer, etc. If your children are minors, this letter is an opportunity to describe your preferences for how they should be raised, including religious preferences, vocational choices and even nighttime rituals.

Providing Financial Security

If your family includes a loved one with Special Needs, you can protect their ability to have funds for things not covered by government benefits through a Special Needs Trust. Your estate planning attorney will create an SNT with a trustee and a secondary trustee to oversee the funds and ensure that they are used for qualified expenses.

Reference: Forbes (July 6, 2022) “Where There is a Will, There is a Way,”

What Is the Purpose of a Pet Trust?

You don’t have to be a billionaire to want to protect your pets. However, you do need to plan for their well-being, if something happens to you. Since pets are considered property, they can’t inherit money to be used for their care. Instead, as explained in a recent article from Barron’s Penta “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust” titled owners can create pet trusts to protect them, if something happens to their humans. With close to 70% of American households having pets, pet trusts have now become mainstream.

Owners need to designate a reliable caregiver, just as they would designate a guardian for minor children. If you don’t have family members or friends who love animals, contact a local animal rescue group to learn if they have a life-long care program for animals. Many do, with programs incorporating Charitable Remainder Trusts to cover the cost of the pet’s care.

If you want a friend or relative to care for your pet, make sure they are willing and able to do so.  You should have another person as a back-up, in case something happens to them. Circumstances change, and someone who wants to take care of your pet now may not be able to in future years. How long you need to plan for depends upon the lifespan of your pet.

An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pet trust. Because state law enforces conditional distributions from the trust, the care of your pet can be enforced in court, if necessary. The pet owner names a beneficiary, the caregiver and funds the trust with enough assets to care for the pet.

The pet owner also names a trustee. They are a responsible person who will be in charge of distributing funds and making sure they are used for the pet’s well-being. The trustee also makes sure that the pet is healthy and being properly cared for, following the directions of the trust.

Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are regarding pet trusts, which varies from state to state. For instance, Pennsylvania requires a pet trust to end when the last pet in the trust dies, while other states may limit the trust’s length to 21 years. For dogs and cats, 21 years is a reasonable period of time. However, for other pets, like birds who can live to 100 years, this won’t be long enough.

You’ll need to fund the trust, making sure that there’s enough money to cover the pet’s needs throughout their lifetime. You may also consider the caregiver’s needs, depending on circumstances. How much is reasonable will depend upon the type of pet and the lifestyle of the caretaker. An apartment dweller caring for an elderly cat will need a different level of resources than a person tasked to care for a young horse.

Some states limit the amount of money in a pet trust and will penalize overfunding. Making sure your pet trust is appropriately funded may limit the likelihood of its being challenged.

Reference: Barron’s Penta (April 18, 2022) “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust”

What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

Is It Important for Physicians to Have an Estate Plan?

When the newly minted physician completes their residency and begins practicing, the last thing on their minds is getting their estate plan in order. Instead, they should make it a priority, according to a recent article titled “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead” from Medical Economics. Physicians accumulate wealth to a greater degree and faster than most people. They are also in a profession with a higher likelihood of being sued than most. They need an estate plan.

Estate planning does more than distribute assets after death. It is also asset protection. An estate planning attorney helps physicians, dentists and other medical professionals protect their assets and their legacies.

Basic estate planning documents include a last will and testament, financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. However, the physician’s estate is complex and requires an attorney with experience in asset protection and business succession.

During the process of creating an estate plan, the physician will need to determine who they would want to serve as a guardian, if there are minor children and what they would want to occur if all of their beneficiaries were to predecease them. A list should be drafted with all assets, debts, including medical school loans, life insurance documents and retirement or pension accounts, including the names of beneficiaries.

The will is the center of the estate plan. It will require naming a person, typically a spouse, to be the executor: the person in charge of administering the estate. If the physician is not married, a trusted relative or friend can be named. There should also be a second person named, in case the first is unable to serve.

If the physician owns their practice, the estate plan should be augmented with a business succession plan. The will’s executor may need to oversee decisions regarding the sale of the practice. A trusted friend with no business acumen or knowledge of how a medical practice works may not be the best executor. These are all important considerations. Special considerations apply when the “business” is a professional practice, so do not make any moves without expert estate planning assistance.

The will only controls assets in the individual’s name. Assets owned jointly, or those with a beneficiary designation, are not governed by the will.

Without a will, the entire estate may need to go through probate, which is a lengthy and expensive process. For one family, their father’s lack of a will and secrecy took 18 months and cost $30,000 in legal fees for the estate to be settled.

Trusts are an option for protecting assets. By placing assets in trust, they are protected from creditors and provide control in complex family situations. The goal is to create a trust and fund it before any legal actions occur. Transferring assets after a lawsuit has begun or after a creditor has attached an asset could lead to a physician being charged with fraudulent conveyance—where assets are transferred for the sole purpose of avoiding paying creditors.

Estate planning is never a one-and-done event. If a doctor starts a family limited partnership to transfer wealth to the next generation but neglects to properly maintain the partnership, some or all of the funds may be vulnerable.

An estate plan needs to be reviewed every few years and certainly every time a major life event occurs, including marriage, divorce, birth, death, relocation, or a significant change in wealth.

When consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, a doctor should ask about the potential benefits of revocable living trust planning to avoid probate, maintain privacy and streamline the administration of the estate upon incapacity or at death.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 22, 2022) “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

One of the goals of estate planning is to care for loved ones, particularly those who depend on us for care after we have passed on. Wills, trusts, life insurance and beneficiary designations are all used to provide support to people—but what about pets? There is something you can do to protect your furry companions, says a recent article from The Sentinel, “Elder Care: Estate planning for your furry friends.”

We love our pets, to the tune of $103.6 billion in expenditures in 2020, including everything from pet food, toys, bedding, veterinary care, grooming, training and even Renaissance style portraits of pets. Scientific studies have proven the emotional and physical advantages pet ownership confers, not to mention the unconditional love pets bring to the household. So why not protect your pets, as well as other family members?

Many people rely on informal agreements with good friends or family members to take care of Fluffy or Spice, if the owner dies or becomes sick to take care of their pet. Here’s the problem: these informal agreements are not binding. Even if you’ve left a certain sum of money to a person in your will and ask it to be used solely for the care and well-being of your pet, it’s not enforceable.

We know all things change. What if your chosen pet caretaker has a child or a new romance with someone with a deathly allergy to pet dander? Or if their pet, who always used to play well during your visits, won’t tolerate your beloved pet as a housemate?

The informal agreement won’t hold the person accountable, and the funds may be spent elsewhere.

A better option is to use a pet trust. These have been recognized in all fifty states as a lawful way to provide for your animal companion’s needs. A pet trust can be created to provide for your pet during your lifetime, as well as after you have passed, allowing for continuity of care if you become incapacitated and need someone else to have the resources and guidance to care for your pet.

A pet trust is a legal document, prepared by an estate planning attorney and usually includes financial accounts in the name of the trust. Note the pet does not own the trust (animals may not own property), nor do you as the creator of the trust (the grantor). The trust is a legal entity, managed by the trustee.

A few of the things you’ll need to consider before having a pet trust created:

Who is to be the pet’s guardian? Have more than one person in mind, in case the primary pet guardian cannot serve or changes their mind.

If all of your guardians end up unable or unwilling to serve, name a no-kill animal shelter or rescue organization to take your pet. They may require you to plan in advance to cover the cost of caring for your pet. Larger organizations may have a process for a charitable remainder trust (CRT) as part of this type of arrangement.

Give details about pet preferences. If they are AKC registered, use their formal name as well as their regular name. People often fail to use the correct name in legal documents, even for humans, which can lead to legal challenges.

Do you want the same person to serve as trustee, managing funds for the pet, as the guardian? This is a similar decision for naming a guardian for minor children. Sometimes the person who is wonderful with care, is not so skilled at handling finances.

Finally, include instructions about what should happen to the money left after the pet passes. It may be used as a thank you to the person who cared for your beloved companion, or a gift to an animal organization.

Reference: The Sentinel (Jan. 7, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning for your furry friends.”