Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidentally disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust

Any trust created while the person, known as the “grantor,” is living, is known as a “living trust.” However, the term is also used interchangeably with “revocable trusts,” which can be changed according to the grantor’s wishes. During the lifetime of the grantor, as explained in the recent article “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust” from FED Week, that person can be the trustee as well as the beneficiary. Control is retained over the trust and the assets it contains.

Trusts are used in estate plans as a way to avoid probate. Equally importantly, they can provide for an easier transition if the grantor becomes incapacitated. The co-trustee or successor trustee steps in to manage assets, and the process is relatively seamless. The family, in most cases, will not have to apply for conservatorship, an expensive and sometimes unnerving process. Within the privacy afforded a trust, the control and management of assets is far less stressful, assuming that the trust has been funded and all assets have been placed properly within the trust beforehand.

Naming a successor trustee so the grantor may remain in control during his or her lifetime is an easier concept for most people. However, adding a co-trustee rather than a successor may be a wiser move. A successor trustee requires the grantor, if still living, to formally resign and allow the successor trustee to take control of the trust and its assets.

If a co-trustee is named, he or she may step into control instantly, if the grantor becomes incapacitated.

Trusts fall into two basic categories:

Irrevocable Trusts—A permanent arrangement in which assets going into the trust are out of control of anyone but the trustee. Giving up this control comes with benefits: the assets within the trust may not be tapped by creditors and they are not considered part of the estate, also lowering tax liability. Irrevocable trusts are generally used to protect loved ones, who are named as beneficiaries.

Revocable Trusts—The grantor retains control over trust assets and may collect investment income from assets in the trust. If the grantor decides to have the assets back in his or her personal accounts, they can be reclaimed into his or her own name.

The revocable trust protects the grantor against incompetency, as the successor trustee or co-trustee can take over management of trust assets and assets pass to designated recipients without having to go through probate.

Determining which of these trusts is best for your family depends on many different factors. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how trusts might work within your unique estate plan.

Reference: FED Week (Jan. 21, 2021) “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust”

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