Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

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.”

Does My State Have an Inheritance Tax?

Real Simple’s recent article entitled “Here’s Which States Collect Zero Estate or Inheritance Taxes” explains that inheritance taxes are levies paid by the living beneficiary who gets the inheritance. And both federal and state governments can apply estate taxes, which are levied against the assets that are bequeathed.

Just five states apply an inheritance tax: New Jersey, Nebraska, Iowa, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. There are 12 states that have an estate tax: Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Maryland collects both. As a result, there are 32 states that don’t collect death-related taxes: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

To better estimate and project the possible outcomes, you should consider an intergenerational planning meeting. There are some families that like the transparency of establishing a trust. This can minimize fighting and avoid probate. Trusts are also taxed differently than individuals. There’s more certainty about who will bear the costs.

There are families that gift assets, while an elderly or chronically ill person is still alive. These gifts can be subject to taxation, but there are exceptions for tuition and medical expenses. Gifts to children may also be excluded.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to transferring valuable or sentimental assets. You can list the most important people and causes in your life. If that list has people in other states, it will be even more important to prepare everyone for their role and responsibilities with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

If inheritance tax sounds intimidating, start small with updating the beneficiary forms on your bank accounts and employer-led retirement accounts. Organize documents, such as insurance information and house titles and deeds. Make them secure but accessible to those who might need them, if you’re unavailable.

Even if you’re socially distancing, many estate planning attorneys offer consultations via video conferencing. There’s no reason to delay another year to clarify your inheritance and estate plans.

Reference: Real Simple (Nov. 24, 2021) “Here’s Which States Collect Zero Estate or Inheritance Taxes”

Is It Better to Inherit Stock or Cash?

To make an inheritance even more advantageous for heirs, it’s a good idea to streamline accounts and simplify what you own before you die, eliminating some complications during a very emotional time. The next three decades will see a massive transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, says a recent article “6 of the Best Assets to Inherit” from Kiplinger. If you might be among those leaving inheritances to loved ones, there are steps you can take to prevent emotional and even family-destroying fights resulting from problematic assets.

Cash is king of inheritance assets. It’s simplest to deal with and the value is crystal clear. If you have accounts in multiple financial institutions, consolidate cash into one account. Each bank may have different rules for distributing assets, so reducing the number of banks involved will make it easier. Just remember to stay within FDIC limits, which insures only $250,000 per bank per ownership category. Tell your children if they are going to receive a significant cash inheritance and discuss what they may want to do with it.

Cash substitutes. Proceeds from a life insurance policy are usually very cut and dried. When you pass away, the life insurance company pays beneficiaries the death benefit in cash, according to the beneficiaries named on the policy. Be sure to tell your heirs where the original policy is located. They’ll need to provide the insurance company with a death certificate and there may be a form or two involved. The proceeds are income tax free, although the death benefit itself is added to the value of your estate and might be charged estate taxes.

Bank products, like CDs and Money Market Accounts. You can set up these accounts to be Payable on Death (POD), so the person named can access the assets quickly after your death. Don’t put one person’s name on the account and hope they share with their siblings. That’s a recipe for family disaster. If your will has one set of instructions and the bank product names another owner, the bank will pay according to the titling of the account. The same goes for life insurance proceeds—the beneficiary designation supersedes instructions in a will.

Brokerage Accounts. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other assets held in a taxable brokerage account are easy to divide and value. They are also easy to sell and convert to cash. What’s more, they could give heirs a significant tax benefit. If you bought shares of Apple or IBM years ago and sold the stocks while you were living, you’d owe capital gains taxes. However, if the investments are inherited, the heir receives a step-up-in-basis, which means the investment basis goes to the market value on the day you die. It’s entirely possible for heirs to sell appreciated assets with no or little taxes due.

Assets that decrease in value fast: this is not for everyone. Let’s say you know your heir is going to take their inheritance and buy an over-the-top luxury item, like a new sports car or a yacht. You know the asset will lose value the minute it’s driven out of the showroom or launched for the first time. Rather than leave them cash to make a purchase, buy the car or boat yourself and leave it to them as an inherited asset. They lose value immediately, while reducing your taxable estate. You’ve always wanted a Lamborghini anyway.

Roth IRA—Best of All IRA Worlds. The Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars, and in exchange, retirement withdrawals and investment gains are income tax-free. If you leave a 401(k) or traditional IRA, heirs will owe taxes on withdrawals and unless they meet certain requirements, they have to empty the account within ten years.

Trust Fund Assets. This may be the best way to protect an inheritance from heirs. If you leave property outright to heirs, it’s subject to creditors and predators. Funds in a trust are carefully protected, according to the terms of the trust, which you determine. Your estate planning attorney can create the trust to achieve whatever you want. Inheritances in trusts are less likely to evaporate quickly and you get the final say in how assets are distributed.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 9, 2021) “6 of the Best Assets to Inherit”

Can I Claim Grandfather’s Unclaimed Insurance Policy?

What if you recently discovered some old life insurance accounts being held by the state for your grandfather, who passed away in 1977.

It looks like the funds were never disbursed because the address was spelled wrong. As a result, the insurance accounts were considered unclaimed.

None of his children—including your mom—is alive today, and there are a number of adult grandchildren besides you.

How do you get your hands on this money? How is it disbursed?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “I found two old life insurance policies. How can we collect?” says that insurance claims can be made at any time, even years after the death of the policy holder.

The first step is to make contact with the life insurance company that issued the policy.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has a website to help people locate insurance policies.

Even if the policy proceeds reverted to the state, you can still claim it through the Unclaimed Property Administration.

The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, which is a network of the National Association of State Treasurers, says that about one in 10 people have unclaimed cash or property waiting for them.

Unclaimed or “abandoned” property is defined as property or accounts within financial institutions or companies with no activity generated (or contact with the owner) as to the property for one year or a longer period.

After a designated period of time—known as “the dormancy period”— with no activity or contact, the property becomes “unclaimed” and—by law—must be turned over to the state.

There are billions of dollars in unclaimed property that’s held by state governments and treasuries across the country.

As far as who would get your grandfather’s insurance policy proceeds, the distribution of the life insurance proceeds are governed by the contract of the life insurance policy.

Reference: nj.com (Nov. 18, 2021) “I found two old life insurance policies. How can we collect?”

How Can I Clean Up My Estate Plan?

Chicago Business Journal’s recent article entitled “8 steps to tidy up your estate plan now” gives you some items to think about when working through your affairs.

Make certain that your plan is accurate and up to date. Your basic documents, which include your will, health care directive and power of attorney, should be in place and up-to-date. Review them to confirm that they’re consistent with your wishes and the current laws.

Review your named beneficiaries and fiduciaries. Confirm that the names of designated beneficiaries and fiduciaries are accurate. Most assets will pass under your will or through trusts, other accounts such as retirement, or life insurance may pass directly to a named (or contingent) beneficiary. If your planning circumstances have changed since creating these designations, update them.

Review your life and property insurance coverage. Be sure that these policies offer adequate coverage and meet their intended purpose. As your wealth increases, the planning purposes behind a term policy for risk mitigation purposes or a whole life policy to ensure ample liquidity upon death may become unnecessary. However, if your assets’ value has grown, you may need to re-examine if the current property coverage is sufficient to minimize your increased potential liability.

Ensure that your beneficiaries have enough liquidity. The estate administration process can be slow and tiresome. It’s possible that a person may not have immediate access to liquidity after a spouse’s death, depending on how assets are titled. A temporary (but major) burden can be avoided, by confirming at least some liquidity will be titled in or directly available to your spouse after you have passed.

Locate and compile important information and account identification. A difficult step in estate administration is locating a decedent’s assets. Make this process easier for loved ones, by creating a list of your accounts, property of significant value, liabilities and contacts at each financial institution. Make the list easily accessible to your family or executor, and update it whenever opening or closing an account.

Review digital assets and online accounts. These assets are frequently overlooked as to access and ownership after death. Instead of divulging passwords or allowing account access, you can add a “digital assets clause” to your planning documents. This lets named parties access specific items within the bounds of accepted legal standards.

Draft a letter of wishes. This document allows you to fully express your intentions and hopes, as well as any explanations or instructions you want to impart to your loved ones.

Plan to review. Repeat the review process regularly and calendar a reminder to give yourself an annual financial and planning checkup.

Reference: Chicago Business Journal (Dec. 2, 2021) “8 steps to tidy up your estate plan now”

What are Earnings Limits for Disability Retirees?

If you are 60 or older, there’s no restriction on the amount of income you can earn while receiving disability retirement.

However, if you’re under age 60, you can earn income from work while also receiving disability retirement benefits. Note that your disability annuity will cease, if the United States Office of Personnel Management determines that you’re able to earn an income that’s near to what your earnings would be if you’d continued working.

Fed Week’s recent article entitled “The Limits on Earnings for Disability Retirees” says that the retirement law has set an earnings limit of 80% for you to still keep getting your disability retirement. You reach the 80% earnings limit (or are “restored to earning capacity”) if, in any calendar year, your income from wages and self-employment is at least 80% of the current rate of basic pay for the position from which you retired.

All income from wages and self-employment that you actually get plus deferred income that you actually earned in the calendar year is considered “earnings.” Any money received before your retirement isn’t considered “earnings.”

The government says that income from wages includes any salary received while working for someone else (including overtime, vacation pay, etc.). Income from self-employment is any net profit you made from working or managing your own business—whether at home or elsewhere. Net profit is the amount that’s left after deducting business expenses and before the deduction of any personal expenses or exemptions as allowed by the IRS. Deferred income is any income you earned but didn’t receive in the calendar year for which you’re claiming income below the 80% earnings limitation.

If you’re reemployed in federal service, and your salary is reduced by the gross amount of your annuity, the gross amount of your salary before the reduction is considered “earnings” during the calendar year.

The following aren’t considered earnings:

  • Gifts
  • Pensions and annuities
  • Social Security benefits
  • Insurance proceeds
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Rents and royalties not involving or resulting from personal services
  • Interest and dividends not resulting from your own trade or business
  • Money earned prior to retirement
  • Inheritances
  • Capital gains
  • Prizes and awards
  • Fellowships and scholarships; and
  • Net business losses.

If you’re under age 60 and reemployed in a position equivalent to the position you held at retirement, the Office of Personnel Management will find you recovered from your disability and will cut off your annuity payments.

Reference: Fed Week (Nov. 4, 2021) “The Limits on Earnings for Disability Retirees”

Will Vets Get More Time to Apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance?

The Department of Veterans Affairs has extended the deadline to apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance to include service members leaving the military through Dec. 11, 2021. During the pandemic, the VA provided more application time to anyone leaving the military from June 11, 2020, through June 11, 2021. The move allows troops leaving in the second half of last year to also get some extra time.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance” tells us how it works for those whose separation dates are between June 11, 2020, and Dec. 11, 2021:

  • To apply for VGLI without a health review to provide proof of good health, service members will be allowed to 330 days after they separate from the military, an increase of 90 days over the standard period of 240 days and
  • To apply with a health review of good health, service members will have up to one year and 210 days after leaving the service—an increase of 90 days over the standard period of one year and 120 days.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that the extension is aimed at relieving some of the financial effects of the pandemic for former service members, “especially those with disabilities incurred while in service, since many of these former members would otherwise not qualify for a private commercial plan of insurance due to such disabilities,” the VA states. Some troops may also have challenges with visiting their health care provider to get their medical records, according to the VA.

The Veterans’ Group Life Insurance coverage is an option for those who have Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. This permits them to convert their existing SGLI coverage to VGLI coverage. Both programs are administered by the Office of Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, and are supervised by the VA.

VGLI coverage is more expensive than Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. It increases in cost every five years up to age 80. Therefore, for instance, $400,000 worth of SGLI coverage costs the same — $25 a month — regardless of age. VGLI coverage of $400,000 at age 30 costs $36 a month, and at age 40 costs $64 a month. However, life insurance policies can be purchased in increments of $10,000 up to $400,000. Thus, a $10,000 policy would cost $1.60 a month for a 40-year-old.

Service members should shop around for life insurance and have a policy in hand well before their VGLI application deadline to ensure they have coverage, if there are health conditions that might make them ineligible for commercial life insurance coverage.

Reference: Military Times (June 18, 2021) “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance”

Have You Considered Estate Planning for Fido?

In Montana, a pet is “any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of its owner.” In Kansas, the statutes define an “animal” as “any live dog, cat, rabbit, rodent, nonhuman primate, bird or other warm blooded vertebrate or any fish, snake, or other cold-blooded vertebrate.”

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning For Pets” explains that a pet is tangible personal property—just like guns, cars, or jewelry. When a pet owner passes away, pets pass to beneficiaries by provisions in an owner’s will, by directives in an owner’s trust document, or by a priority list of heirs contained in the state probate laws, if an owner does not have a will or a trust.

Pet owners should select a willing care giver and make a care plan for their pet that will lower the pet’s stress in the first days after you are gone. Writing down your wishes can help your heirs avoid potential problems, if there is a need to cover expenses for food, medical requirements and transportation of the pet to the beneficiary.

For example, in Montana, an honorary trust for pets is valid for only 21 years, no matter if a pet owner writes a longer term in the trust document. As a result, the trust terminates the earlier of 21 years or when the pet dies. Unless indicated in the trust document, the trustee may not use any portion of the principal or income from the trust for any other use than for the pet’s care.

Pet owners have options, when funding a pet trust. Funds could come from a payable on death (POD) designation on financial accounts to the pet trust. Another option is a transfer on death (TOD) registration with the pet trust as beneficiary for stocks, bonds, mutual funds and annuities. The pet owner could also direct the trustee in the pet trust document to sell assets, like a vehicle, house, or  boat, and place those funds in the trust for the care of the pet.

Life insurance is perhaps another option for funding for a pet’s care. States typically do not consider a pet to be a “person,” so Puffball cannot be a beneficiary of a life insurance policy. A pet owner can fund a living or testamentary pet trust, by naming the trustee of the trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. As an alternative, a pet owner may have a certain percentage of an existing policy payable to the pet trust.

Pet owners should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best way of naming the trustee of a pet trust as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 14, 2021) “Estate Planning For Pets”