Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

Should You Add Someone to Your Bank Account?

Adding another person to your bank account provides both of you with complete access to the account. A person can be a power of attorney and a joint account holder, but the two are very different roles, explains the article “What are my rights when someone adds me to a bank account?” from Lehigh Valley Live.

A joint account is a bank or investment account shared by two individuals, although more than two people may be on an account. They have equal access to funds, as well as equal responsibilities for any fees or expenses associated with the account. If there are transactions, depending upon the rules of the institution, all owners may be required to sign documents. The key is how the account is titled. That’s the controlling factor in determining how the assets in the account are divided, if one of the owners dies. There are several different types of joint ownership.

One is “Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship,” or JTWROS. If one of the account owners should die, the assets in the account go directly to the surviving account holder. These assets do not go through probate.

Then there’s “Tenants in Common,” or TIC. With TIC, each individual account owner has the right to designate a beneficiary for their portion of the assets upon their death. The assets might not be split 50/50. How the account is titled lets the account owners divide ownership however they want.

Another one: “Joint Tenants by the Entirety.” This describes a married couple who own real estate or a financial account as a legal entity with equal ownership. Neither person may transfer their half of the property during their lifetime or through a will or a trust. When one spouse dies, the entire account goes to the surviving spouse and it transfers without passing through probate.

In the example given at the start of the article, the establishment of a joint account gives both the father and son equal access to the account. If the father is unable to handle the account at any time in the future, for whatever reason, the son will be able to step in.

Power of Attorney or POA is a completely different thing. A POA is a legal document giving a person the authority to act on behalf of another person for a specific transaction or general legal and financial matters. Just as there are numerous types of joint ownership, there are numerous types of POA.

A general POA gives a person the power to act on behalf of the principal for all legal, property and financial matters, as long as the principal’s mental capacity is sound. The Durable POA gives authority to a person to act on behalf of the principal, even after the principal becomes mentally incapacitated. Special or limited power of attorney gives authority to act only for specific matters or transactions. A Springing Durable POA provides authority to act only under certain events or levels of incapacitation, which is defined in detail in the document.

You can be both a joint owner of an account and a power of attorney. These are two different ways to help a parent with financial and legal activities. An estate planning attorney can help create the POA that best fits the situation.

Reference: Lehigh Valley Live (June 10, 2021) “What are my rights when someone adds me to a bank account?”

How to Protect Digital Property

When people built wealth, assets were usually tangible: real estate, investments, cash, or jewelry. However, the last year has seen a huge jump in digital assets, which includes cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Combine this growing asset class with the coming biggest wealth transfer in history, says the article “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?” from Tech Crunch, and the problems of inheriting assets will take more than a complete search of the family attic.

One survey found only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows the details of their digital assets, from the location of the online accounts to passwords. However, digital assets that require two factor authentication or biometrics to gain access may make even this information useless.

There are many reports about people who purchased digital assets like Bitcoin and then lost their passwords or threw away their computers. More than $250 million in client assets vanished when a cryptocurrency exchange founder died and private keys to these accounts could not be found.

Digital assets need to be a part of anyone’s estate plan. A last will and testament is used to dictate how assets are to be distributed. If there is no will, the state’s estate law will distribute assets. A complete list of accounts and assets should not be part of a will, since it becomes a public document when it goes through probate. However, a complete list of assets and accounts needs to be prepared and shared with a trusted person.

Even traditional assets, like bank accounts and investment accounts, are lost when no one knows of their existence. If a family or executor doesn’t know about accounts, and if there are no paper statements mailed to the decedent’s home, it’s not likely that the assets will be found.

Things get more complicated with digital assets. By their nature, digital assets are decentralized.  This is part of their attraction for many people. Knowing that the accounts or digital property exists is only part one. Knowing how to access them after death is difficult. Account names, private keys to digital assets and passwords need to be gathered and protected. Directives or directions for what you want to happen to the accounts after you die need to be created, but not every platform has policies to do this.

Password sharing is explicitly prohibited by most website and app owners. Privacy laws also prohibit using someone else’s password, which is technically “account holder impersonation.” Digital accounts that require two factor authentication or use biometrics, like facial recognition, make it impossible for an executor to gain access to the data.

Some platforms have created a means of identifying a person who may be in charge of your digital assets, including Facebook and more recently, LinkedIn. Some exchanges, like Ethereum, have procedures for death-management. Some will require a copy of the will as part of their process to release funds to an estate, so you will need to name the asset (although not the account number).

A digital wallet can be used to store access information for digital assets, if the family is reasonably comfortable using one. A complete list of assets should include tangible and digital assets. It needs to be updated annually or whenever you add new assets.

Reference: Tech Crunch (April 5, 2021) “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?”

How to Avoid Medicaid Estate Recovery

Medicaid is a government program that helps seniors and others pay for long term care. However, it’s not always free, explains the article “What Is Medicaid Estate Recovery?” from AOL.com. The Medicaid Estate Recovery Program (MERP) is used by states to recover costs from estates with funds. The goal of Medicaid estate recovery is to make the program affordable for the government, but it can have a severe impact on the beneficiaries of Medicaid recipients. An estate planning elder law attorney should be contacted, if you believe you or a loved one may need Medicaid.

Seniors are eligible for Medicare when they turn 65. This program pays for many healthcare expenses, but not for long-term care in a nursing home. Medicaid is used when someone does not have long term care insurance or enough money to pay for long-term care out of pocket. Medicaid can also be used for long-term or nursing home care, if steps have been taken to protect assets. This usually includes strategies, like trusts and Medicaid Asset Protection Trusts (MAPT).

A federal law passed in 1993 (the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) requires states to attempt to seek reimbursement from a Medicaid beneficiary’s estate after they have died. Some of the costs that the state will try to recover include:

  • Nursing home costs
  • Home and community-based services
  • Medical services received through a hospital where the recipient is a long-term care patient
  • Prescription drug services for long-term care recipient

The recovery program lets Medicaid pursue any eligible assets owned by the estate. While this depends upon where you live, any assets that are part of the probate estate could be attached, including:

  • Bank accounts
  • Your home or other real estate
  • Vehicles or other real property

In addition, some states allow Medicaid to recover assets that are not subject to probate, including jointly held accounts, Payable-On-Death (POD) bank accounts, real estate owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship, living trusts and any other assets that the Medicaid recipient had a legal interest in.

An estate planning elder care attorney in your state will know what types of assets your state tends to pursue and will help you understand what can and cannot be used for Medicaid benefit recovery.

Note that while Medicaid cannot take the primary residence while the recipient is still living, they can place a lien on the home. If the recipient passes away and a beneficiary inherits the home, they will not be able to sell the property until the lien has been satisfied.

For beneficiaries, Medicaid recovery means a smaller inheritance. However, that’s not the only thing to be mindful of. There are laws known as “filial responsibility laws” that allow healthcare providers to sue the children of long-term care recipients to recover nursing care costs. This is not commonly done as of this writing, but the costs of COVID may change this in the near future.

Strategic planning can help you or loved ones avoid the financial impact of Medicaid estate recovery. If you are eligible and can afford to buy a long-term care policy, that may help to cover most of the cost of care. Another option is to remove as many assets from the probate process as possible. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan to protect your assets.

Reference: AOL.com (February 5, 2021) “What Is Medicaid Estate Recovery?”

 

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or administrator) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or administrator will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or administrator’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or administrator is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

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”

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC.

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to die, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, a state court may decide who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan also includes a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to die.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”