Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Can You Prevent Family Fights over Inheritance?

Inheritance battles can create new conflicts, inflame long-standing resentments and squander assets intended to make heir’s lives better. What can families do to prevent estate battles when a loved one’s intentions aren’t accepted is the question asked by the recent article, “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them,” from mondaq.com.

Here are the more common scenarios leading to family estate battles:

  • Siblings who are always fighting over something
  • Second or third marriages
  • Disparate treatment of children, whether real or perceived
  • Mental illness or additional issues
  • Isolation or estrangement
  • Economic hardship

There are steps to take to minimize, if not eliminate the likelihood of estate battles. The most important is to have an estate plan in place, including all the necessary documents to clearly indicate your wishes. You may want to include a letter of intent, which is not a legally enforceable document. However, it can support the wishes expressed in estate planning documents.

Update the Estate Plan. Does your estate plan still achieve the desired outcome? This is especially important if the family has experienced big changes to finances or relationships. An estate plan from ten years ago may not reflect current circumstances.

Make Distributions Now. For some families, giving with “warm hands” is a gratifying experience and can remove wealth from the estate to avoid battles as everything’s already been given away. The pleasure of seeing families enjoy the fruits of your labor is not to be underestimated, like a granddaughter who is able to buy a home of her own or an entrepreneurial loved one getting help in a business venture.

Appoint a Non-Family Member as a Trustee. Warring factions within a family are not likely to resolve things on their own, especially when cash is at stake. Appointing a family member as a trustee could cause them to become a lightning rod for all of the family’s tensions. Without the confidence of beneficiaries, accusations of self-dealing or an innocent mistake could lead to litigation. Removing the emotions by having a non-family member serve as a professional trustee can lessen suspicion and decrease the chances of legal disputes.

Communicate, with a facilitator, if necessary. Families with a history of disputes often do better when a professional is involved. Depending on the severity of the dynamics, this could range from annual meetings with an estate planning attorney to explain how the estate plan works and have discussions about the parent’s wishes to monthly meetings with a family counselor.

A No-Contest Clause. For some families, a no-contest clause in the will can head off any issues from the start. If people are especially litigious, however, this may not be enough to stop them from pursuing a case. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend the use of this provision, based on knowing the family and how much wealth is involved.

Addressing the problem now. The biggest mistake is to sweep the issue under the proverbial rug and “let them fight over it when I’m gone.” A better legacy is to address the problem of the family squabbles and know you’ve done the right thing.

As we head into the holiday season, efforts to bring families together and prepare for the future will allow parents, children and grandchildren to enjoy their time together.

Reference: mondaq.com (Nov. 4, 2022) “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them”

Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

What Items Should Not Be Stored in a Safe Deposit Box?

We’re reminded daily about living in a digital world where anything of importance is stored in the cloud. However, if you were thinking about getting rid of your safe deposit box, says the article “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box,” from Kiplinger, think again.

By all means keep your prized possessions like baseball cards in a safe deposit box. Some documents also do belong in a bank vault. However, it’s not the right place for everything.

Even if the bank’s ATMs are open 24/7, access to the safe deposit box is limited to hours when the bank is open. If you need something in an emergency on a weekend, holiday or at night, you’re stuck. The same goes for natural disasters, which seem to be happening more frequently in certain parts of the country. Reduced operations and branch closures happened because of the pandemic and today’s hiring problems might mean a longer wait even during regular business hours at a bank branch.

Here’s a look at what not to put in your safe deposit box:

Cash money. Most banks are very clear: cash should not be kept in a safe deposit box. Read your contract with the bank. The FDIC does not protect cash, unless it’s in a bank account.

Passports. Unless you travel often enough to keep a passport next to your wallet, it may be tempting to put it in the safety deposit box. However, if an emergency arises, or you get a great last minute travel bargain, you won’t have quick access to your passport.

An original will. Keeping copies of your will in a safe deposit box is fine, but not the original. After death, the bank seals the safe deposit box until an executor can prove they have the legal right to access it.

Letters of Intent. A letter of intent, or letter of instruction, is a letter to your family, telling them what your wishes are for your funeral or memorial service and giving details on specific bequests. However, if it’s locked up in a safe deposit box, your final wishes may not see the light of day for months. Keep the letter of intent with your original will. You might also wish to send the letter of intent to anyone who is designated to receive a specific item.

Power of Attorney. Similar to the will, the POA needs to be accessible any time, day, or night. Keep it with your original will and provide copies to anyone who might need it. The same goes for your Advance Directives for Health Care or Living Will. It won’t do you any good to say you don’t want to be kept alive on a heart and lung machine if your agents can’t get to these documents.

Valuables, Jewelry or Collectibles. The FDIC does not insure safe deposit boxes or their contents. There are no federal laws governing safe deposit boxes and no law says the bank has to reimburse you for stolen items. Protect valuables with a supplemental policy or a rider to your homeowner’s insurance policy and keep them at home.

Spare House Keys. How likely are you to be able to get to your house keys even if the bank is open, if your key to the safe deposit box is in your home? Enough said.

Illegal, Dangerous, or Liquid Items. When you opened your safe deposit box, you signed a contract listing what you may and may not keep in a safe deposit box. Firearms, explosive, illegal drugs, and hazardous materials are among the things prohibited from being kept in a safe deposit box. The same goes for less dramatic items: if you have a collection of rare whiskey, keep it at home.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 24, 2021) “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box”

letter of instruction

Should You Include a Letter of Instruction with Your Estate Plan?

A letter of instruction, or LOI, is a good addition to the documents included in your estate plan. It’s commonly used to express advice, wishes and practical information to help the people who will be taking care of your affairs, if you become incapacitated or die. According to this recent article “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information” from the Times Herald-Record, there are many different ways an LOI can help.

In our digital world, you might want to use your LOI to record website names, usernames and passwords for social media accounts, online accounts and other digital assets. This helps loved ones who you want to have access to your online life.

If you have minor children who are beneficiaries, the LOI is a good way to share your priorities to the trustee on your wishes for the funds left for their care. It is common to leave money in trust for HEMS—for “Health, Education, Maintenance and Support.” However, you may want to be more specific, both about how money is to be spent and to share your thoughts about the path you’d like their lives to take in your absence.

Art collectors or anyone who owns valuable items, like musical instruments, antiques or collectibles may use the LOI as an inventory that will be greatly appreciated by your executor. By providing a carefully created list of the items and any details, you’ll increase the likelihood that the collections will be considered by a potential purchaser. This would also be a good place to include any resources about the collections that you know of, but your heirs may not, like appraisers.

Animal lovers can use an LOI to share personalities, likes, dislikes and behavioral quirks of beloved pets, so their new caregivers will be better prepared. In most states, a pet trust can be created to name a caregiver and a trustee for funds that are designated for the pet’s care. The caregiver and the trustee may be the same person, or they may be two different individuals.

For families who have a special needs member, an LOI is a useful means of sharing important information about the person and is often referred to as a “Letter of Intent.” It works in tandem with a Special Needs Trust, which is created to leave assets to a person who receives government benefits without putting means-tested benefits in jeopardy. If there is no Special Needs Trust and the person receives an inheritance, they could lose access to their benefits.

Some of the information in a Letter of Intent includes information on the nature of the disability, daily routines, medications, fears, preferred activities and anything that would help a caregiver provide better care, if the primary caregiver dies.

The LOI can also be used to provide basic information, like where important documents are kept, who should be notified in case of death or incapacity, which bills should be paid, what home maintenance tasks need to be taken care of and who provides the services, etc. It is a useful document to help those you leave behind to adjust to their new responsibilities and care for loved ones.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 8, 2020) “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information”

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