Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Is Needed in Estate Plan Besides a Will?

Having a will is especially important if you have young children, says FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning Doesn’t Stop with Making a Will.”  In your will, you can nominate guardians, who would raise your children in the event neither you nor your spouse is able to do so.

When designating a guardian, try to be practical.

Remember, your closest relatives—like your brother and his wife—may not necessarily be the best choice.

And keep in mind that you’re acting in the best interests of your children.

Be sure to obtain the consent of your guardians before nominating them in your will.

Also make sure there’s sufficient life insurance in place, so the guardians can comfortably afford to raise your children.

Your estate planning isn’t complete at this point. Here are some of the other components to consider:

  • Placing assets in trust will help your heirs avoid the hassle and expense of probate.
  • Power of Attorney. This lets a person you name act on your behalf. A “durable” power will remain in effect, even if you become incompetent.
  • Life insurance, retirement accounts and payable-on-death bank accounts will pass to the people you designate on beneficiary forms and won’t pass through probate.
  • Health care proxy. This authorizes a designated agent to make medical decisions for you, if you can’t make them yourself.
  • Living will. This document says whether you want life-sustaining efforts at life’s end.

Be sure to review all of these documents every few years to make certain they’re up to date and reflect your current wishes.

Reference: FedWeek (Dec. 28, 2022) “Estate Planning Doesn’t Stop with Making a Will”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

For one woman in the middle of preparing for a no-contest divorce, the idea of a pet trust was a novel one. She was estranged from her sister and didn’t want her ex-husband to gain custody of her seven horses, three cats and five dogs if she died or became incapacitated. Who would care for her beloved animals?

The solution, as described in the article “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family” from AARP, was to form a pet trust, a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of a person’s disability or death.

Creating a pet trust and establishing a long-term plan requires state-specific paperwork and funding mechanisms, which are different from leaving property and assets to human family members. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to ensure that the protections in place will work.

Shelters nationally are seeing a big increase in animals being surrendered because of COVID or people who are simply not able to take care of their pets. Suddenly, a companion pet accustomed to being near its human owner 24/7 is left alone in a shelter cage.

When pet parents have not made plans for their pets, more often than not these pets end up in shelters. However, not all animal shelters are no-kill shelters. In 2021, data from Best Friends Animal Society shows an increase in the number of pets euthanized in shelters for the first time in five years.

For pet owners who can’t identify a caregiver for their companions, the best option may be to find an animal sanctuary or a shelter providing perpetual care.

The woman described above had a pet trust created and funded it with a long-term care and life insurance policy. The trust was designed with a board of three trustees to check and balance one another to determine how the money will be allocated and what will happen to her assets. Her horse property could be sold, or a long-term student or trainer could be brought in to run her barn.

It is not legally possible to leave money directly to an animal, so setting up a trust with one trustee or a board is the best way to ensure that care will be given until the animals themselves pass away.

The stand-alone pet trust (which is a living trust) exists from the moment it is created. A dedicated bank account may be set up in the name of the pet trust or it could be named as the beneficiary of a life insurance or retirement plan.

A pet trust can also be set up within a larger trust, like a drawer within a dresser. The trust won’t kick in until death. These plans prevent the type of delays typical with probate but is problematic if the person becomes incapacitated.

If a trust is created as part of another trust, there can still be delays in accessing the month, if the pet trust is getting money from the larger trust.

With costlier animals likes horses and exotic birds, any delay in funding could be catastrophic.

How long will your pet live? A parrot could live for 80 years, which would need an endowment to invest assets and earn income over decades. A long-living pet also needs a succession of caregivers, as a tortoise with a 150 year lifespan will outlive more than one caregiver.

Reference: AARP (Sep. 14, 2022) “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family”

What are Mistakes to Avoid with Beneficiary Designations?

Many people don’t know that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they die. Some assets pass by beneficiary designation. Assets like life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts all pass by beneficiary designation.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid” lists five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to designate any beneficiary at all. Many people forget to name a beneficiary for retirement accounts or life insurance. They may forget, didn’t know they had to, or just never got around to filling out the forms. If you don’t name a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement accounts, the company will apply its rules about where the assets will go after you die. For life insurance, the proceeds will typically be paid to your probate estate. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely receive the assets. However, if you’re unmarried, the retirement account will likely be paid to your probate estate, which has negative income tax ramifications.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every family member should get an asset directly. This includes minor children, those with specials needs and people who can’t manage assets or with creditor issues.
  3. Misspelling a beneficiary’s name. Beneficiary designation forms can be filled out incorrectly and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names through marriage or divorce, or assumptions can be made about a person’s legal name that later prove incorrect. Failing to have names match exactly can cause delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, it can result in a court case.
  4. Forgetting to update your beneficiaries. Your choice of beneficiary may likely change over time as circumstances change. Naming a beneficiary is part of an overall estate plan, and just as life changes, so should your estate plan. Beneficiary designations are an important part of that plan—make certain that they’re updated regularly.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary choices with legal and financial advisers. How beneficiary designations should be completed is a component of an overall financial and estate plan. Involve your legal and financial advisers to determine what’s best for your circumstances. Note that beneficiary designations are designed to guarantee that you have the ultimate say over who will get your assets when you pass away. Taking the time to carefully (and correctly) choose your beneficiaries and then periodically reviewing those choices and making any necessary updates will allow you to remain in control of your money.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 6, 2022) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

Do I Need an Estate Plan If I’m 25?

Florida Today’s recent article entitled “No matter your age, income or crushing debt, you should have an estate plan” explains that the purpose of a good estate plan is that it allows you to maintain control over how your assets are distributed if you die.

It names someone to make decisions for you, if you can no longer act for yourself. Let’s look at the different documents that are necessary.

Power of attorney: If you become incapacitated, someone still needs to pay your bills and handle your finances. A POA names the person you’d want to have that responsibility.

Health care surrogate: This document is used if you become incapacitated and appoints the individual whom you want to make health care decisions on your behalf.

Last will and testament: This document designates both who oversees your estate, who gets your assets and how they should be transferred.

Beneficiary designations: Part of your planning is to name who should receive money from life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts and other financial accounts.

HIPAA Waiver: This is a legal document that allows an individual’s health information to be used or disclosed to a third party. Without this, loved ones may not be able to be a part of decisions and treatment.

Trust. A trust can facilitate passing property to your heirs and potentially provide tax benefits for both you and your beneficiaries.

As you can see, there are a number of reasons to have an estate plan.

Estate planning isn’t only for the rich, and it doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

An experienced estate planning lawyer, also called a trusts and estates attorney, can work with you to create an estate plan customized to your needs, financial affairs and family situation.

Putting your wishes in writing will make certain that your affairs are in order for now and in the future and help your family.

Reference: Florida Today (May 28, 2022) “No matter your age, income or crushing debt, you should have an estate plan”

How Do I Conduct an Estate Inventory?

When a loved one dies, it may be necessary for their estate to go through probate—a court-supervised process in which his or her estate is settled, outstanding debts are paid and assets are distributed to the deceased person’s heirs. An executor is tasked with overseeing the probate process. An important task for an executor is submitting a detailed inventory of the estate to the probate court.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?” looks at the estate inventory. During probate, the executor is charged with several duties, including collecting assets, estimating the fair market value of all assets in the estate, ascertaining the ownership status of each asset and liquidating assets to pay off outstanding debts, if needed. The probate court will need to see an inventory of the estate’s assets before distributing those assets to the deceased’s heirs.

An estate inventory includes all the assets of an estate belonging to the individual who’s passed away. It can also include a listing of the person’s liabilities or debts. In terms of assets, this would include:

  • Bank accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs
  • Investment accounts
  • Business interests
  • Real estate
  • Pension plans and workplace retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457 plans
  • Life insurance, disability insurance, annuities and long-term care insurance
  • Intellectual property, such as copyrights, trademarks and patents
  • Household items
  • Personal effects; and

Here’s what’s included in an estate inventory on the liabilities side:

  • Home mortgages;
  • Outstanding business loans, personal loans and private student loans;
  • Auto loans associated with a vehicle included on the asset side of the inventory
  • Credit cards and open lines of credit
  • Any unpaid medical bills
  • Unpaid taxes; and
  • Any other outstanding debts, including unpaid court judgments.

There is usually no asset or liability that’s too small to be included in the estate inventory.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 15, 2022) “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?”

What Should I Know about Estate Planning before ‘I Do’?

Romance is in the air. Spring is the time for marriages, and with America coming out of the pandemic, wedding calendars will be filled.

AZ Big Media’s recent article entitled “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds” gives those ready to walk down the aisle a few things to consider.

  1. Prenuptial Agreement. Commonly referred to as a prenup, this is a written contract that you and your spouse enter into before getting legally married. It provides details on what happens to finances and assets during your marriage and, of course, in the event of divorce. A prenup is particularly important if one of the spouses already has significant assets and earnings and wishes to protect them in the event of divorce or death.
  2. Review you restate plan. Even if you come into a marriage with an existing plan, it’s out of date as soon as you’re wed.
  3. Update your beneficiary designations. Much of an individual’s estate plan takes place by beneficiary designations. Decide if you want your future spouse to be a beneficiary of life insurance, IRAs, or other pay on death accounts.
  4. Consider real estate. A married couple frequently opts to live in the residence of one of the spouses. This should be covered in the prenup. However, in a greater picture, decide in the event of the death of the owner, if you’d want this real estate to pass to the survivor, or would you want the survivor simply to have the right to live in the property for a specified period of time.
  5. Life insurance. You want to be sure that one spouse is taken care of in the event of your death. A married couple often relies on the incomes of both spouses, but death will wreck that plan. Think about life insurance as a substitute for a spouse’s earning capacity.

If you are soon-to-be-married or recently married and want to discuss it with an expert, make an appointment with a skilled estate planning attorney.

Reference:  AZ Big Media (March 23, 2022) “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”

Why Is Estate Planning Review Important?

Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced.

You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

When Do I Need to Review Will?

You should take a look at your will and other estate planning documents at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more frequently. Some reasons to do it sooner include things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or even moving to another state where estate laws are different from where your will was drawn up.

CNBC’s recent article entitled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated” says that one of the primary considerations for a review is a life event — when there’s a major change in your life.

The pandemic has created an interest in estate planning, which includes a will and other legal documents that address end-of-life considerations. Research now shows that 18- to 34-year-olds are now more likely (by 16%) to have a will than those who are in the 35-to-54 age group. In the 25-to-40 age group, just 32% do, according to a survey. Even so, fewer than 46% of U.S. adults have a will.

If you’re among those who have a will or comprehensive estate plan, here are some things to review and why. In addition to reviewing your will in terms of who gets what, see if the person you named as executor is still a suitable choice. An executor must do things such as liquidating accounts, ensuring that your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, paying any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed) and selling your home.

Likewise, look at the people to whom you’ve assigned powers of attorney. If you become incapacitated at some point, the people with that authority will handle your medical and financial affairs, if you are unable. The original people you named to handle certain duties may no longer be in a position to do so.

Some assets pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA or 401(k)plans and life insurance proceeds. As a result, the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money, regardless of what your will says. Note that 401(k) plans usually require your current spouse to be the beneficiary, unless they legally agree otherwise.

Regular bank accounts can also have beneficiaries listed on a payable-on-death form, obtained at your bank.

If you own a home, make sure to see how it should be titled, so it is given to the person (or people) you intend.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 7, 2021) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

One of the goals of estate planning is to care for loved ones, particularly those who depend on us for care after we have passed on. Wills, trusts, life insurance and beneficiary designations are all used to provide support to people—but what about pets? There is something you can do to protect your furry companions, says a recent article from The Sentinel, “Elder Care: Estate planning for your furry friends.”

We love our pets, to the tune of $103.6 billion in expenditures in 2020, including everything from pet food, toys, bedding, veterinary care, grooming, training and even Renaissance style portraits of pets. Scientific studies have proven the emotional and physical advantages pet ownership confers, not to mention the unconditional love pets bring to the household. So why not protect your pets, as well as other family members?

Many people rely on informal agreements with good friends or family members to take care of Fluffy or Spice, if the owner dies or becomes sick to take care of their pet. Here’s the problem: these informal agreements are not binding. Even if you’ve left a certain sum of money to a person in your will and ask it to be used solely for the care and well-being of your pet, it’s not enforceable.

We know all things change. What if your chosen pet caretaker has a child or a new romance with someone with a deathly allergy to pet dander? Or if their pet, who always used to play well during your visits, won’t tolerate your beloved pet as a housemate?

The informal agreement won’t hold the person accountable, and the funds may be spent elsewhere.

A better option is to use a pet trust. These have been recognized in all fifty states as a lawful way to provide for your animal companion’s needs. A pet trust can be created to provide for your pet during your lifetime, as well as after you have passed, allowing for continuity of care if you become incapacitated and need someone else to have the resources and guidance to care for your pet.

A pet trust is a legal document, prepared by an estate planning attorney and usually includes financial accounts in the name of the trust. Note the pet does not own the trust (animals may not own property), nor do you as the creator of the trust (the grantor). The trust is a legal entity, managed by the trustee.

A few of the things you’ll need to consider before having a pet trust created:

Who is to be the pet’s guardian? Have more than one person in mind, in case the primary pet guardian cannot serve or changes their mind.

If all of your guardians end up unable or unwilling to serve, name a no-kill animal shelter or rescue organization to take your pet. They may require you to plan in advance to cover the cost of caring for your pet. Larger organizations may have a process for a charitable remainder trust (CRT) as part of this type of arrangement.

Give details about pet preferences. If they are AKC registered, use their formal name as well as their regular name. People often fail to use the correct name in legal documents, even for humans, which can lead to legal challenges.

Do you want the same person to serve as trustee, managing funds for the pet, as the guardian? This is a similar decision for naming a guardian for minor children. Sometimes the person who is wonderful with care, is not so skilled at handling finances.

Finally, include instructions about what should happen to the money left after the pet passes. It may be used as a thank you to the person who cared for your beloved companion, or a gift to an animal organization.

Reference: The Sentinel (Jan. 7, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning for your furry friends.”