Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What You Should Never, Ever, Include in Your Will

A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be validated in a court of law before any property is distributed. The process, called probate, takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.

However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

caring for a loved one

Caring for a Loved One from a Distance

Trying to coordinate care from a distance becomes a challenge for many, especially since as many as 80% of caregivers are working. Add COVID-19 into the mix, and the situation becomes even more difficult, reports the article “When your parent is far away and you are trying to care for them” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The starting point is to have the person you are caring for give you legal authorization to act on their behalf with a Power of Attorney for financial affairs and a Health Care Directive that gives you authority to receive health information under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). It is HIPAA that addresses the use, disclosure and protection of sensitive patient information.

Next, have a conversation about their finances. Find out where all of their important documents are, including insurance policies (long-term care, health, life, auto, home), Social Security and Medicare cards. You’ll want to know where their tax documents are, which will provide you with information on retirement accounts, bank accounts and investments.

Gather up family documents, including birth, death, and marriage certificates. Make sure your loved one has completed their estate planning, including a last will and testament.

Put all of this information into a binder, so you have access to it easily.

Because you are far from your loved one, you may want to set up a care plan. What kind of care do they have in place right now, and what do you anticipate they may need in the near future? There should also be a contingency plan for emergencies, which seem to occur when they are least expected.

Find a geriatric care manager or a social worker who can do a needs assessment and help coordinate services, including shopping for groceries, medication administration and help with basic activities of daily living, including bathing, toileting, getting in and out of bed, eating and dressing.

If possible, develop a list of neighbors, friends or fellow worshippers who might create a local support system. If you are not able to visit with any degree of frequency, find a way to see your loved ones on a regular basis through video calls. It is impossible to accurately assess a person’s well-being, without being able to see them. In the past, dramatic changes weren’t revealed until family members made a trip. Today, you’ll be able to see your loved one using technology.

You may need to purchase a smartphone or a tablet, but it will be worth the investment. A medical alert system will provide further peace of mind for all concerned. Regular conference calls with caregivers and your loved one will keep everyone in touch.

Caring from a distance is difficult, but a well-thought out plan and preparing for all situations will make your loved one safer.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Sep. 28, 2020) “When your parent is far away and you are trying to care for them”

protect estate plan

Protect Your Estate with Five Facts

It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. Only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. By gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

 

digital property protection

Does Your Estate Plan Include Digital Property Protection?

One of the challenges facing estate plans today is a new class of assets, known as digital property or digital assets. When a person dies, what happens to their digital lives? According to the article “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning” from the Cleveland Jewish News, digital assets need to be included in an estate plan, just like any other property.

What is a digital asset? There are many, but the basics include things like social media—Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat—as well as financial accounts, bank and investment accounts, blogs, photo sharing accounts, cloud storage, text messages, emails and more. If it has a username and a password and you access it on a digital device, consider it a digital asset.

Business and household files stored on a local computer or in the cloud should also be considered as digital assets. The same goes for any cryptocurrency; Bitcoin is the most well-known type, and there are many others.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) has been adopted by almost all states to provide legal guidance on rights to access digital assets for four (4) different types of fiduciaries: executors, trustees, agents under a financial power of attorney and guardians. The law allows people the right to grant not only their digital assets, but the contents of their communications. It establishes a three-tier system for the user, the most important part being if the person expresses permission in an online platform for a specific asset, directly with the custodian of a digital platform, that is the controlling law. If they have not done so, they can provide for permission to be granted in their estate planning documents. They can also allow or forbid people to gain access to their digital assets.

If a person does not take either of these steps, the terms of service they agreed to with the platform custodian governs the rights to access or deny access to their digital assets.

It’s important to discuss this new asset class with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan addresses your digital assets. Having a list of digital assets is a first step, but it’s just the start. Leaving the family to fight with a tech giant to gain access to digital accounts is a stressful legacy to leave behind.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 24, 2020) “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning”

unintended heirs

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Disinheritance, Omitted, Decedent, Will, Trust, Appellate Court, Unknown Child, Last Will and Testament, Appeal

estate planning basics

Estate Planning Basics You Need to Know

The key reason for estate planning is to create a plan directing where your assets will go after you die. The ultimate goal is for wealth and real property to be given to the people or organizations you wish, while minimizing taxes, so beneficiaries can keep more of your wealth. However, good estate planning also reduces family arguments, protects minor children and provides a roadmap for end-of-life decisions, says the article “What is estate planning?” from Bankrate.

Whenever you’ve opened a checking and savings account, retirement account or purchased life insurance, you’ve been asked to provide the name of a beneficiary for the account. This person (or persons) will receive these assets directly upon your passing. You can have multiple beneficiaries, but you should always have contingent beneficiaries, in case something happens to your primary beneficiaries. Named beneficiaries always supersede any declarations in your will, so you want to make sure any account that permits a beneficiary has at least one and update them as you go through the inevitable changes of life.

A last will and testament is a key document in your estate plan. It directs the distribution of assets that are not distributed through otherwise designated beneficiaries. Property you own jointly, typically but not always with a spouse, passes to the surviving owner(s). An executor you name in your will is appointed by the court to take care of carrying out your instructions in the will. Choose the executor carefully—he or she will have a lot to take care of, including the probate of your will.

Probate is the process of having a court review your estate plan and approve it. It can be challenging and depending upon where you live and how complicated your estate is, could take six months to two years to complete. It can also be expensive, with court fees determined by the size of the estate.

Many people use trusts to minimize how much of their estate goes through probate and to minimize estate taxes. Assets that are distributed through trusts are also private, unlike probate documents, which become public documents and can be seen by anyone from nosy relatives to salespeople to thieves and scammers.

Trusts can be complex, but they don’t have to be. Trusts can also offer a much greater level of control over how assets are distributed. For instance, a spendthrift trust is used when an heir is not good with handling money. A trustee distributes assets, and a timeframe or specific requirements can be set before any funds are distributed.

Living wills are also part of an estate plan. These are documents used to give another person the ability to make decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated or if decisions need to be made concerning end-of-life care.

An estate plan can help prevent family fights over who gets what. Arguments over sentimental items, or someone wanting to make a grab for cash can create fractures that last for generations. A properly prepared estate plan makes your wishes clear, lessening the reasons for squabbles during a difficult period.

Protecting minor children and heirs is another important reason to have a well thought out estate plan. Your last will and testament is used to nominate a guardian for minor children and can also be used to direct who will be in charge of any assets left for the children’s care.

Reference: Bankrate (Aug. 3, 2020) “What is estate planning?”

changing a will

What Happens When a Will Is Challenged?

What happens when estate planning doesn’t go according to plan? A last will and testament is a legally binding contract that determines who will get a person’s assets. However, according to the article “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?” in the Augusta Free Press, it is possible for someone to bring a legal challenge.

Most will contests are centered around five key reasons:

  • The deceased had a more recent will.
  • The will was not signed voluntarily.
  • The deceased was incapacitated, when she signed the will.
  • The will was not signed in front of the right number of witnesses.
  • The will was signed under some kind of duress or mental impairment.

What is the best way to lessen the chances of someone challenging your will? Take certain steps when the will is created, including:

Be sure your will is created by an estate planning attorney. Just writing your wishes on a piece of paper and signing and dating the paper is not the way to go. Certain qualifications must be met, which they vary by state. In some states, one witness is enough for a will to be properly executed. In others, there must be two and they can’t be beneficiaries.

The will must state the names of the intended beneficiaries. If you want someone specific to be excluded, you’ll have to state their name and that you want them to be excluded. A will should also name a guardian, if your children are minors.  It should also contain the name of an alternate executor, in case the primary executor predeceases you or cannot serve.

What about video wills? First, make a proper paper will. If you feel the need to be creative, make a video. In many states, a video will is not considered to be valid. A video can also become confusing, especially if what you say in the paper will is not exactly the same as what’s in the video. Discrepancies can lead to will contests.

Don’t count on those free templates. Downloading a form from a website seems like a simple solution, but some of the templates online are not up to date. They also might not reflect the laws in your state. If you own property, or your estate is complex, a downloaded form could create confusion and lead to family battles.

Tell your executor where your will is kept. If no one can find your will, people you may have wanted to exclude from your estate will have a better chance of succeeding in a will challenge. You should also tell your executor about any trusts, insurance policies and any assets that are not listed in the will.

Don’t expect that everything will go as you planned. Prepare for things to go sideways, to protect your loved ones. It is costly, time-consuming and stressful to bring an estate challenge, but the same is true on the receiving end. If you want your beneficiaries to receive the assets you intend for them, a good estate planning attorney is the right way to go.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (July 12, 2020) “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?”

disinherit someone

Can I Disinherit Anyone I Want?

If there’s someone you believe is more deserving or needs more of your help, that may mean someone else in your life may receive little or nothing from you when you die. However, be careful—disinheriting an heir is not as simple as leaving them out of your will, explains the article “How to Disinherit an Heir” from smart asset.

Disinheriting an heir means you’ve prevented them from receiving a portion of your estate, when you die. A local estate planning lawyer will know what your state requires, and every state’s laws are different.

One way is by leaving the person out completely. However, this could also leave your will up for interpretation, as there may be questions raised about your intent. A challenge could be raised that you didn’t mean to leave them out—and that could create stress, expenses and family fights.

You may also disinherit a person, by stating in your will that you do not wish to leave anything to this specific person. You might even provide information about why you are doing this, so your intent is clear. There could still be challenges, even with your providing reasons for cutting the person out of your will.

Disinheriting someone can be a tricky thing to do. It requires professional help. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who has experience in will contests, may be your best choice for an estate planning attorney.

There are instances where relatives known and unknown to you are entitled to make a claim on your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney may suggest a search for relatives to ensure that no surprises come out of the woodwork, after your passing.

There are some relatives who cannot be disinherited, even in a legally binding last will and testament. In many states, you may not disinherit your spouse or children. Most states protect spouses from being disinherited, and in some states, children are legally entitled to a certain amount of your property. However, in most states, you may disinherit parents, if they outlive you.

There are many reasons you may want to disinherit someone. You may have been estranged from a child or a cousin for many years, or you may believe they have enough financial resources and want someone else to receive an inheritance from you.

Many high-profile individuals have declared that their children will not receive an inheritance, preferring to give their assets to charitable foundations or organizations working for causes they support.

Whatever your reasons for disinheriting someone, make sure you go about it with professional help to ensure that your wishes are followed after you die.

Reference: smart asset (June 1, 2020) “How to Disinherit an Heir”