Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

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.”

When Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets don’t have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they won’t perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Your Pandemic Pet Be in Your Estate Plan?

America’s love affair with pets grew during the pandemic, a heartfelt solution for individuals who are older and living without the comfort of seeing family on a regular basis. However, adopting a puppy when you are in your sixties or seventies must include some thought about the pet’s future. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article “So, you’ve got a pandemic support pet. Now what?” provides answers.

Let’s say you become ill or disabled and can’t care for your pet. Neither your family nor friends want the pet. A starting point is to have a general power of attorney created that is limited to the care of your pet. Make sure the person (or persons) you have selected to care for your pet are willing and able, of course. Tell them how and what you would like them to do with your pet. Should they try to find another home? Is there a no-kill shelter you would want your pet to go to? Write out your wishes, so they know exactly what you want.

However, what happens if you die?

All states now accept the use of a pet trust, which can be in your will or in a separate document. A pet trust is created to provide for the care of an animal that is living during your lifetime. The trust ends when the pet dies, or, if your trust is for more than one pet, then the trust lasts until the last pet dies.

Selecting the trustee for a pet trust is just as important as naming a trustee for any kind of trust. You might decide to designate more than one trustee if the original trustee is unable to fulfill their role.

The trustee is legally responsible for following your directions as expressed in the trust. That also means the assets in the trust are for the pet’s benefit. Therefore, you want to be specific about what kind of care you want your pet to have.

In some states, you can name another person who will monitor the care of your pets and require annual veterinary checkups. If this role is appointed in the trust, they may be able to remove the trustee if they deem that the person is not taking good care of the pet.

Deciding how to fund the trust is an important decision. How old is your pet, and how long do you expect them to live? A large dog won’t likely live for as long as a large bird, for instance. How much money will be needed for the care of a pet that might live several decades after you pass?

Consider a fee to be paid to the guardian from the trust. Caring for some pets is a long-term commitment, and they will appreciate an acknowledgment of their dedication to your beloved animal companion.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 20, 2021) “So, you’ve got a pandemic support pet. Now what?”