Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Does a Last Will and Testament Do?

Your will is the foundation of an estate plan, used to instruct your executor on distributing property, naming a guardian for minor children, creating a legacy and ensuring that your beneficiaries receive what you want. The will can also serve to disinherit a family member, as explained in the recent article “Last will can both include and exclude heirs” from The Record-Courier.

The process of cutting someone out of a will is known as “disinheriting.” Hurt feelings and tension among family members are inevitable when someone is disinherited. However, if the goal is to avoid litigation between family members, an experienced estate planning attorney will be needed. It takes careful planning to avoid creating a will contest. Disinheriting adult children increases the likelihood of them contesting the validity of the will.

Laws concerning inheritance rights vary. In Nevada, for instance, unless there is a prenuptial agreement, you cannot completely disinherit a spouse. Even if your will attempts to disinherit a spouse, in some cases the law will actually override the instructions in the will or trust and award a portion of the estate, known as the elective share, to a surviving spouse. If this is a concern, check with your estate planning attorney.

Adult children can be disinherited. However, minor children are often protected against disinheritance.

Parents can be disinherited if they outlive the decedent, since they are not always legally entitled to a share of their children’s estate.

Extended relatives can also be disinherited. Some estate planning attorneys will conduct a search for missing heirs or beneficiaries while preparing an estate plan to be sure there are no unknown legal heirs who might make themselves known to a decedent’s surviving spouse or other heirs.

Estranged biological children can be disinherited. However, the last will and testament must be properly prepared.

The reasons for disinheritance very from estrangement to the decedent believing their family member is financially secure and doesn’t need the inheritance. It is not necessary for the last will and testament to explain the reason for the disinheritance. However, it is advised to use a disinheritance clause to ensure the heir or beneficiary is removed and will not inherit under the will.

To protect the integrity of the will, it is also advised to include a no-contest clause in the will. This is a provision expressing a directive to eliminate the share allocated to any beneficiary who takes action to contest the testator’s intents as expressed in the will.

The last will and testament is the person’s last communication with loved ones. There is no further opportunity for clarification once they have passed. This is why it’s so important to have a will and for the will to explicitly state the names of the beneficiaries and the names of any disinherited persons.

When you meet with your estate planning attorney to create or update your last will and testament, be prepared to tell them if there are any family members who you want to disinherit, so they can create a last will and testament and an estate plan designed to withstand challenges.

Reference: The Record-Courier (Dec. 17, 2022) “Last will can both include and exclude heirs”

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”

What Sparks the Contesting of a Will?

A last will and testament is the document used to direct your executor to distribute assets and property according to your wishes. However, it’s not uncommon for disgruntled or distant family members or others to dispute the validity of the will. A recent article titled “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested” from Vents Magazine explains the top five factors to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Undue influence is a commonly invoked reason for a challenge. If a potential beneficiary can prove the person making the will (the testator) was influenced by another person to make decisions they would not have otherwise made, a will challenge could be brought to court. Undue influence means the testator’s decision was significantly affected by a person who stood to gain something by the outcome of the will and made a concerted effort to change the testator’s mind.

Even if there was no evidence of fraud, any suspicion of the testator’s being influenced is enough for a court to accept a case. If you think someone unduly influenced a loved one, especially if they suffer from any mental frailties or dementia, you may have cause to bring a case.

Outright fraud or forgery is another reason for the will to be contested. If there have been many erasures or signature styles appear different from one document to another, there may have been fraud. An estate planning attorney should examine documents to evaluate whether there is enough cause for suspicion to challenge the will.

Improper witnesses. The testator is required to sign the will with witnesses present. In some states, only one witness is required. In most states, two witnesses must be present to sign the will in front of the testator. A beneficiary may not be a witness to the signing of the will. Some states have changed laws to allow for remote signings in response to COVID. If the rules have not been followed, the will may be invalid.

Mistaken identity seems farfetched. However, it is a common occurrence, especially when someone has a common name or more than one person in the family has the same name, and the document has not been properly signed or witnessed. This could create confusion and make the document vulnerable to a challenge. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to prepare documents to withstand any challenges.

Capacity in the law means someone is able to understand the concept of a will and contents of the document they are signing, along with the identities of the people to whom they are leaving their assets. The person doesn’t need to have perfect mental health, so people with mild cognitive impairments, such as depression or anxiety, may make and sign a will. A medical opinion may be needed, if there might be any doubt as to whether a person had testamentary capacity when the will is signed.

A will contest can be time-consuming and expensive, so keep these issues in mind, especially if the family includes some litigious individuals.

Reference: Vents Magazine (May 6, 2022) “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested”

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?”

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