Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Cryptocurrency and NFTs Need to Be Included in Your Estate Plan

As more people continue to purchase cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital assets are becoming a bigger part of the investment world and of people’s estate plans. If you want to pass these assets to loved ones upon death, you’ll need to plan for it, says the article “Got Cryptocurrency or NFTs? They Need to Be in Your Estate Planfrom Kiplinger. Otherwise, securing, transferring and gifting crypto and NFTs can create unsolvable problems and lost assets.

There are many different kinds of crypto and NFTs, with Bitcoin, Ethereum, Binance Coin, Thether among them. An NFT is a unique, collectable, and tradable digital asset, like digital art or a photo. NFTs are purchased through a bidding process in this universe and in the metaverse, an online world where people are buying homes, real estate and more in the shape of NFTs. Sales of NFTs are estimated to have reached more than $17 billion in 2021. For better or worse, the future is here.

Cryptocurrency is accessed through a private key. This is a series of alphanumeric characters known only to the owner and stored in cold storage or a digital wallet. Whoever has possession of the key can buy, sell and spend the digital currency. If you have crypto, your family or fiduciary needs to know what you have, where to find the assets and what to do with them.

One option is to share the private key or place crypto assets and NFTs in custody, using a software application or a hardware wallet. There are a number of companies now offering these services. An old-school option for this new world asset is to create a secure spreadsheet of your digital assets and list the login protocols for each account.

For now, it is difficult to open crypto accounts and NFTs in the name of a revocable or irrevocable trust. However, digital wallets allowing you to open an account in the name of a trust do exist, if the company handling the digital asset permits. This is a very new, rapidly evolving asset class. Beneficiaries may not yet be named for crypto accounts. However, this may change in the future.

With no trust account and no named beneficiary, what happens to your crypto and NFTs when you die? For now, they must pass through your probate estate under the will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure your estate plan includes the correct way to give digital asset powers for the fiduciary handling your estate and include digital asset powers in your will, trust, and durable power of attorney.

If your state has adopted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) or the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA)—46 states have—then it will be easier for loved ones to manage digital assets in case of incapacity or when you pass, as long as your estate plan addresses them.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 23, 2022) “Got Cryptocurrency or NFTs? They Need to Be in Your Estate Plan

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

Is Your Incapacity Plan in Place?

Wise incapacity planning usually includes the execution of a power of attorney.

This is a document that appoints an agent who can legally sign checks, pay bills and make other financial decisions on your behalf, as the principal, in the event you become incapacitated by illness or an accident.

A power of attorney is also used when the principal is unable to be present to sign necessary documents.

The designated agent can be given broad legal authority or limited authority to make decisions about the principal’s property, finances, or medical care.

FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Putting an Incapacity Plan in Place” suggests that, rather than a “regular” power of attorney, you may prefer one of the following:

A durable power of attorney can name a trusted friend, relative, or advisor to sign papers, if you are unable to make knowledgeable decisions.

These documents remain in effect if you become incapacitated.

Springing power is a durable power of attorney that will go into effect only if one or more doctors declare that you are incompetent or that you cannot perform some “activities of daily living,” such as being able to get dressed and go to the bathroom.

A springing power will not go into effect as long as you are competent.

Some financial institutions also may not accept your power of attorney because they require the use of their own forms.

Send a copy of your power to each of your banks, brokers and other accounts to see if there is an issue. Some companies will also not recognize old powers.

Add an expiration date on the document and update it every year or two, so it expresses your current wishes.

A power of attorney can also end for a number of reasons, such as when the principal revokes the agreement or dies, when a court invalidates it, or when the agent can no longer carry out the responsibilities outlined.

In the case of a married couple, the authorization may be invalidated if the principal and the agent divorce.

Reference: FedWeek (Feb. 1, 2022) “Putting an Incapacity Plan in Place”

Who Is the Best Choice for Power of Attorney?

Picking a person to serve as your Power of Attorney is an extremely important part of your estate plan, although it is often treated like an afterthought once the will and trust documents are completed. Naming a POA needs to be given the same serious consideration as creating a will, as discussed in this recent article “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes” from Medical Economics.

Choosing the wrong person to act on your behalf as your Power of Attorney (POA) could lead to a host of unintended consequences, leading to financial disaster. If the same person has been named your POA for healthcare, you and your family could be looking at a double-disaster. What’s more, if the same person is also a beneficiary, the potential for conflict and self-dealing gets even worse.

The Power of Attorney is a fiduciary, meaning they are required to put your interests and the interest of the estate ahead of their own. To select a POA to manage your financial life, it should be someone who you trust will always put your interests first, is good at managing money and has a track record of being responsible. Spouses are typically chosen for POAs, but if your spouse is poor at money management, or if your marriage is new or on shaky ground, it may be better to consider an alternate person.

If the wrong person is named a POA, a self-dealing agent could change beneficiaries, redirect portfolio income to themselves, or completely undo your investment portfolio.

The person you name as a healthcare POA could protect the quality of your life and ensure that your remaining years are spent with good care and in comfort. However, the opposite could also occur. Your healthcare POA is responsible for arranging for your healthcare. If the healthcare POA is a beneficiary, could they hasten your demise by choosing a substandard nursing facility or failing to take you to medical appointments to get their inheritance? It has happened.

Most POAs, both healthcare and financial, are not evil characters like we see in the movies, but often incompetence alone can lead to a negative outcome.

How can you protect yourself? First, know what you are empowering your POAs to do. A boilerplate POA limits your ability to make decisions about who may do what tasks on your behalf. Work with your estate planning attorney to create a POA for your needs. Do you want one person to manage your day-to-day personal finances, while another is in charge of your investment portfolio? Perhaps you want a third person to be in charge of selling your home and distributing your personal possessions, if you have to move into a nursing home.

If someone, a family member, or a spouse, simply presents you with POA documents and demands you sign them, be suspicious. Your POA should be created by you and your estate planning attorney to achieve your wishes for care in case of incapacity.

Different grown children might do better with different tasks. If your trusted, beloved daughter is a nurse, she may be in a better position to manage your healthcare than another sibling. If you have two adult children who work together well and are respected and trusted, you might want to make them co-agents to take care of you.

Your estate planning attorney has seen all kinds of family situations concerning POAs for finances and healthcare. Ask their advice and don’t hesitate to share your concerns. They will be able to help you come up with a solution to protect you, your estate and your family.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 3, 2022) “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes”

Talk to Parents about Estate Planning without Making It Awkward

If you don’t have this conversation with parents when they are able to share information and provide you with instructions, helping with their care if they become incapacitated or dealing with their estate after they pass will be far more difficult. None of this is easy, but there are some practical strategies shared in the article “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from The Balance.

Parents worry about children fighting over estates after they pass, but not having a “family meeting” to speak about estate planning increases the chance of this happening. In many cases, family conflicts lead to litigation, and everyone loses.

Start by including siblings. Including everyone creates an awareness of fairness because no one is being left out. A frank, open conversation including all of the heirs with parents can prevent or at least lessen the chances for arguments over what parents would have wanted. Distrust grows with secrets, so get everything out in the open.

When is the right time to have the conversation? There is no time like the present. Don’t wait for an emergency to occur—what most people do—but by then, it’s too late.

Estate planning includes preparing for issues of aging as well as property distribution after death. Health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney need to be prepared, so family members can be involved when a parent is incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will draft these documents as part of creating an estate plan.

The unpredictable events of 2020 and 2021 have made life’s fragile nature clear. Now is the time to sit down with family members and talk about the plans for the future. Do your parents have an estate plan? Are there plans for incapacity, including Long-Term Care insurance? If they needed to be moved to a long-term facility, how would the cost be covered?

Another reason to have this conversation with family now is your own retirement planning. The cost of caring for an ailing parent can derail even the best retirement plan in a matter of months.

Define roles among siblings. Who will serve as power of attorney and manage mom’s finances? Who will be the executor after death? Where are all of the necessary documents? If the last will and testament is locked in a safe deposit box and no one can gain access to it, how will the family manage to follow their parent’s wishes?

Find any old wills and see If trusts were established when children were young. If an estate plan was created years ago and the children are now adults, it’s likely all of the documents need to be revised. Review any trusts with an estate planning attorney. Those children who were protected by trusts so many years ago may now be ready to serve as executor, trustees, power of attorney or health care surrogate.

Usually, a complete understanding of the parent’s wishes and reasons behind their estate plan takes more than a single conversation. Some of the issues may require detailed discussion, or family members may need time to process the information. However, as long as the parents are living, the conversation should continue. Scheduling an annual family meeting, often with the family’s estate planning attorney present, can help everyone set long-term goals and foster healthy family relationships for multiple generations.

Reference: The Balance (Oct. 15, 2021) “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”

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?”

What are Digital Assets in an Estate?

Planning for what would happen to our intangible, digital assets in the event of incapacity or death is now as important as planning for traditional assets, like real property, IRAs, and investment accounts. How to accomplish estate planning for digital assets is explained in the article, aptly named, “Estate planning for your digital assets” from the Baltimore Business Journal.

Digital asset is the term used to describe all electronically stored information and online accounts. Some digital assets have monetary value, like cryptocurrency and accounts with gaming or gambling winnings, and some may be transferrable to heirs. These include bank accounts, domains, event tickets, airline miles, etc.

Ownership issues are part of the confusion about digital assets. Your social media accounts, family photos, emails and even business records, may be on platforms where the content itself is considered to belong to you, but the platform strictly controls access and may not permit anyone but the original owner to gain control.

Until recently, there was little legal guidance in managing a person digital files and accounts in the event of incapacity and death. Accessing accounts, managing contents and understanding the owner, user and licensing agreements have become complex issues.

In 2014, the Uniform Law Commission proposed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) to provide fiduciaries with some clarity and direction. The law, which was revised in 2015 and is now referred to as RUFADAA (Revised UFADAA) was created as a guideline for states and almost every state has adopted these laws, providing estate planning attorneys with the legal guidelines to help create a digital estate plan.

A digital estate plan starts with considering how many digital accounts you actually own—everything from online banking, music files, books, businesses, emails, apps, utility and bill payment programs. What would happen if you were incapacitated? Would a trusted person have the credentials and technical knowledge to access and manage your digital accounts? What would you want them to do with them? In case of your demise, who would you want to have ownership or access to your digital assets?

Once you have created a comprehensive list of all of your assets—digital and otherwise—an estate planning attorney will be able to update your estate planning documents to include your digital assets. You may need only a will, or you may need any of the many planning tools and strategies available, depending upon the type, location and value of your assets.

Not having a digital asset estate plan leaves your estate vulnerable to many problems, including costs. Identity theft against deceased people is rampant, once their death is noted online. The ability to pay bills to keep a household running may take hours of detective work on your surviving spouse’s part. If your executor doesn’t know about accounts with automatic payments, your estate could give up hundreds or thousands in charges without anyone’s knowledge.

There are more complex digital assets, including cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with values from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. The rules on the valuation, sale and transfers of these assets are as yet largely undefined. There are also many reports of people who lose large sums because of a lack of planning for these assets.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your state’s laws concerning digital assets and protect them with an estate plan that includes this new asset class.

Reference: Baltimore Business Journal (Sep. 16, 2021) “Estate planning for your digital assets”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”