Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Why Is a Will So Important?

A 2020 Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans have a will or have made plans regarding how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have a will.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will” says that no matter your age, it’s important to have a will to be in control of what happens with your own assets. A will is a legal document that establishes a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.

Without a will, state law may control who gets your “probate” assets and when. Having a will can save an enormous amount of time and money in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children, if needed.

There’s a big difference between a will and a living will. A living will is a document that lets you state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical situations, if you’re unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.

These differ by state law. However, they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options. General medical decisions unrelated to end of life care are typically covered in a health care power of attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive.

Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, a will lets you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate. If you have minor children, a will also allows you to nominate a guardian for them.

When creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.” To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What assets do you have?
  • To whom do you want to leave them?
  • Who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
  • Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
  • How do you want the assets transferred?

Reference: Yahoo News (Aug. 17, 2022) “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will”

When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

When Should I Revise My Will?

Just as your life changes, so should your will. You may need to replace an executor, update accounts, or adjust heirs. If you have an estate plan with greater wealth or need more complex arrangements, such as trusts or guardianship provisions, may want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney, says US News’ March 2018 article entitled “4 Times It Makes Sense to Revise Your Will.” Let’s look at the four events:

  1. You’ve experienced a significant life event. This may be a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, remarriage or the death of a loved one. These changes may require that new heirs be added to a will or others removed. These life events may also influence how assets are divided in the will. In addition, if you move to a new state, update your will to ensure it adheres to the laws there.
  2. A person in your will has experienced a significant life event. Wills also include executors, trustees and guardians. These individuals may move, get married or become sick or disabled, all of which could change whether they are appropriate for the role listed in your will.
  3. The tax laws have changed. A will may be written to minimize the effects of estate taxes. When laws change, the provisions of the will may need to be updated. For example, in 2017, $5.49 million of a person’s estate was exempt from the 40% federal estate tax. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, $12.06 million of an estate is currently exempt from the tax in 2022. This could mean that some families no longer need to worry about paying an estate tax and could eliminate the need for some trusts or other provisions in a will.
  4. If it’s been three to five years. It’s smart to review a will at least every three to five years and ensure that all provisions are still in line with your wishes.

While you’re reviewing your will, don’t forget to also review beneficiaries on bank accounts, retirement funds and life insurance. Remember that a named beneficiary trumps the will.

Make sure that all that hard work on your will does not go to waste, by reviewing and updating the document periodically to make sure it reflects the changing landscape of your life.

When you have the will updated, be sure to store it in a secure location, like a fire-proof safe, and let your executor know where to find it. If an attorney drew up your will, they’ll be happy to store at least a digital copy for you.

Reference: US News (March 30, 2018) “4 Times It Makes Sense to Revise Your Will”

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?”

Why Shouldn’t I Wait to Draft my Will?

There are countless reasons why people 50 and over fail to write a will, update a previous one, or make other estate planning decisions. Market Watch’s recent article entitled “We beat up 6 of your excuses for not writing a will (or updating an old one)” takes a closer look at those six reasons, and how to help overcome them.

Excuse No. 1: You have plenty of time. Sure, you know you need to do it. However, it’s an easy thing to move down on your priority list. We all believe we have time and that we’ll live to be 100. However, that’s not always the case. Set up an appointment with an experienced estate planning lawyer ASAP because what gets scheduled gets done.

Excuse No. 2: You don’t have a lot of money. Some think they have to have a certain amount of assets before estate planning matters. That isn’t true. Drafting these documents is much more than assigning your assets to your heirs: it also includes end-of-life decisions and deciding who would step in, if you were unable to make financial decisions yourself. It’s also wise to have up-to-date documents like a power of attorney and a living will in case you can’t make decisions for yourself.

Excuse No. 3: You don’t want to think about your death. This is a job that does require some time and energy. However, think about what could happen without an up-to-date estate plan. Older people have seen it personally, having had friends pass without a will and seeing the children fighting over their inheritance.

Excuse No. 4: It takes too much time. There’s a misconception about how time-consuming writing a will is. However, it really can be a fairly quick process. It can take as little as 2½ hours. First, plan on an hour to meet with the lawyer; an hour to review the draft; and a half-hour to sign and execute your documents. That is not a hard-and-fast time requirement. However, it is a fair estimate.

Excuse No. 5: You’d rather avoid making difficult decisions. People get concerned about how to divide their estate and aren’t sure to whom they should leave it. While making some decisions in your estate plan may seem final, you can always review your choices another time.

Excuse No. 6: You don’t want to pay an attorney. See this as investment in your loved ones’ futures. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney helps you uncover and address the issues you don’t even know you have. Maybe you don’t want your children to fight. However, there can be other issues. After all, you didn’t go to law school to learn the details of estate planning.

Reference: Market Watch (March 12, 2022) “We beat up 6 of your excuses for not writing a will (or updating an old one)”

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”

What Can’t I Forget in My Will Now that I’m 50?

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “If You’re Over 50, Don’t Leave This Out of Your Will, Expert Says” fills us in on what we can’t forget in a will after the big 5-0.

Incapacity. A 2021 survey from Caring.com says that almost two-thirds of adults do not have a will. Even those thinking about estate planning do not consider a plan for addressing the possibility of incapacity.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to create a power of attorney, so in the event you are incapable of making decisions because of your mental state or disability, you have someone you trust doing it for you.

More than a will. A will should be one component of a comprehensive estate plan that addresses who gets what when you die, but also who can take care of business, if you are not able to care for yourself. Naming a person in advance lets you to avoid having court involvement and lets you take control of your future.

The law has many ways for you to select who will have authority and care for you, if you become incapacitated. This is something that you can and should discuss with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Will backups. Designating loved ones you trust should be the rule in all facets of estate planning. However, it is critical to be certain that you have backups (“successors” or “alternates”), in the event that a person you’ve selected can’t fulfill their role.

Many people around age 50 who see their thriving, productive children making their way in the world fail to consider the thought that their children may not be available or able to serve a role. Designating more than one backup might not seem like it is a big deal, but you should consider the possibility that a loved one might be incapacitated, predecease you, or be unavailable.

Keep your will current. As your life changes, so do your needs. Therefore, it is vital to be sure that your will is up-to-date. You should review your will regularly (at least every few years) to make sure that it still reflects your current thinking.

You should also be sure you know where an original copy of the will is located. It is important to keep track of it. You can leave it locked away with your attorney or some other secure place, but you need to know where it is.

Reference: Yahoo News (Feb. 6, 2022) “If You’re Over 50, Don’t Leave This Out of Your Will, Expert Says”

How Do I Write My Will?

Remember that if you don’t write your will correctly, your wishes could end up going unfulfilled, says Claremont Portside’s article entitled “A Guide for Writing Your Will: Steps You Need to Take.”

While there are a lot of tools online, your best bet is working with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Schedule a meeting with an estate planning attorney to discuss your final wishes. The process of writing a will is relatively straightforward:

  • Decide who you want to inherit your assets
  • Remember to include your favorite charities, if you want
  • Note if any of your heirs has special needs or requires extra planning (e.g., if they’re not good with money)
  • Note if you have minor children who will need a guardian and can’t inherit outright at their age
  • List the specific items or assets you want each person to inherit
  • List any debts or liabilities
  • Designate an executor or personal representative
  • Determine how your estate should be managed, until it is distributed; and
  • Ask your attorney about tax implications.

Once prepared, retain a copy in a safe place and make copies for your executor, your spouse or partner, children older than 18 years old and any other heirs who live in another state.

When you begin this process, create a list of what you own and how much it’s worth. This can help ensure that your estate is distributed according to your wishes.

The executor of your will is responsible for ensuring that everything goes according to plan, so choose someone you trust.

Reference: Claremont Portside “A Guide for Writing Your Will: Steps You Need to Take”

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”

How Do I Write a Will?

A poorly written or out-of-date will can be costly and ruin an otherwise well-planned estate. Yahoo Entertainment’s recent article entitled “11 Steps to Writing a Will” tells you how to get started and complete your will in 10 simple steps:

  1. Hire an Estate Planning Attorney. Individuals or families with relatively simple financial situations may be able to use an online, reputable software program to complete their wills. However, many situations require an estate planning attorney, such as blended families.
  2. Choose your Beneficiaries. A big mistake people make when planning their estate is failing to name or update beneficiaries on key accounts that work with the plans outlined in their wills. The beneficiary designation on an account supersedes the will, but it’s good to be consistent.
  3. Name an Executor. The executor is responsible for carrying out the wishes expressed in your will.
  4. Select a Guardian for Your Minor Children. It’s common to name multiple guardians, in case one of them named isn’t able to accept the responsibility of guardianship.
  5. Be Specific About Your Bequests. One of the most time-consuming aspects of creating a will can be deciding which assets to include and determining who will get what.
  6. Be Realistic About your Bequests. Practically consider how assets will be distributed. A big reason children stop speaking after a parent’s death is because of boilerplate language directing tangible assets, such as artwork or jewelry, to be divided equally among children.
  7. Attach a Letter of Last Instruction. You can attach an explanatory letter to your will that can serve as a personal way to say goodbye and also provide additional details about certain wishes.
  8. Sign the Will Properly. If you don’t, a will may be declared invalid. Witnesses must sign your will, and in many states, the witnesses can’t be under 18 and those who stand to inherit (“interested parties”).
  9. Keep Your Will in a Safe and Accessible Spot. Make certain that someone you trust knows where to find your will and other important papers and passwords to financial institutions.
  10. Review and Keep Your Up-to-date. Wills should be updated every five years or so, or sooner if you have a major life event, such as the birth or adoption of a new child or grandchild, a divorce, or the death of a spouse or parent.
  11. Add Other Important Estate Planning Documents. A will by itself may not meet all of your estate planning needs. A trust is another estate planning tool that lets you transfer assets when and how you want. A living will communicates your desires for medical treatment or a power of attorney that allows a third party to make financial and legal decisions, along with the will and should be your next step after writing your will.

Reference: Yahoo Entertainment (Jan. 4, 2022) “11 Steps to Writing a Will”