Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Happens When Property Is Owned Jointly and an Owner Dies?

When property is owned jointly, the property may pass automatically to the other owner, passing without going through probate, according to a recent article titled “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills” from TBR News Media

Your will only concerns assets in your name alone without a designated beneficiary. Let’s say you have a joint checking account with another person. On your death, the account automatically becomes the property of the surviving owner. This is outside of probate, and any directions in your will won’t apply.

Real estate is most commonly owned jointly, in several different ways and each with its own set of laws.

Joint Tenancy or Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship. On the death of a joint owner, the owner’s share goes to the surviving joint owner. Simple. The main advantage is the avoidance of probate, which can be costly and take months to complete.

Tenancy by the Entirety. This type of joint ownership is only available between spouses and is not used in all states. A local estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you have this option. As with Joint Tenancy, when the first spouse passes, their interest automatically passes to the surviving spouse outside of probate.

There are additional protections in Tenancy by the Entirety making it an attractive means of ownership. One spouse may not mortgage or sell the property without the consent of the other spouse, and the creditor of one spouse can’t place a lien or enforce a judgment against property held as tenants by the entirety.

Tenancy in Common. This form of ownership has no right of survivorship and each owner’s share of the property passes to their chosen beneficiary upon the owner’s death. Tenants in Common may have unequal interests in the property, and when one owner dies, their beneficiaries will inherit their share and become co-owners with other Tenants.

The Tenant in Common share passes the persons designated according to their will, assuming they have one. This means the decedent’s executor must “probate” the will and file a petition with the court. However, a Tenant in Common may be able to avoid probate if their share of the property is held in trust, in which case the terms of the trust and not their will controls how the property passes at death. In this case, there’s no need for any court involvement.

There may be capital gains consequences when transferring ownership interests during and after life. Such gifts should never be made without speaking with an estate planning attorney. One of the more common errors occurs when the testator fails to account for the different types of ownership and how assets pass through the will. A comprehensive estate plan, created by an experienced estate planning attorney, ensures that both probate and non-probate assets work together.

Reference: TBR News Media (Dec. 27, 2022) “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills”

What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?

The executor’s job includes gathering all of the assets, determining the value and ownership of real estate, securities, bank accounts and any other assets and filing a formal inventory with the probate court. Every state has its own rules, forms and deadline for the process, says a recent article from yahoo! Finance titled “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate,” which recommends contacting a local estate planning attorney to get it right.

The inventory is used to determine the overall value of the estate. It’s also used to determine whether the estate is solvent, when compared to any claims of creditors for taxes, mortgages, or other debts. The inventory will also be used to calculate any estate or inheritance taxes owed by the estate to the state or federal government.

What is an estate asset? Anything anyone owned at the time of their death is the short answer. This includes:

  • Real estate: houses, condos, apartments, investment properties
  • Financial accounts: checking, savings, money market accounts
  • Investments: brokerage accounts, certificates of deposits, stocks, bonds
  • Retirement accounts: 401(k)s, HSAs, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pensions
  • Wages: Unpaid wages, unpaid commissions, un-exercised stock options
  • Insurance policies: life insurance or annuities
  • Vehicles: cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats
  • Business interests: any business holdings or partnerships
  • Debts/judgments: any personal loans to people or money received through court judgments

Preparing an inventory for probate may take some time. If the decedent hasn’t created an inventory and shared it with the executor, which would be the ideal situation, the executor may spend a great deal of time searching through desk drawers and filing cabinets and going through the mail for paper financial statements, if they exist.

If the estate includes real property owned in several states, this process becomes even more complex, as each state will require a separate probate process.

The court will not accept a simple list of items. For example, an inventory entry for real property will need to include the address, legal description of the property, copy of the deed and a fair market appraisal of the property by a professional appraiser.

Once all the assets are identified, the executor may need to use a state-specific inventory form for probate inventories. When completed, the executor files it with the probate court. An experienced estate planning attorney will be familiar with the process and be able to speed the process along without the learning curve needed by an inexperienced layperson.

Deadlines for filing the inventory also vary by state. Some probate judges may allow extensions, while other may not.

The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate to file the inventory without delay. The executor is also responsible for paying off any debts or taxes and overseeing the distribution of any remaining assets to beneficiaries. It’s a large task, and one that will benefit from the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 3, 2022) “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

Your Cryptocurrency and NFTs Need to Be Included in Your Estate Plan

As more people continue to purchase cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital assets are becoming a bigger part of the investment world and of people’s estate plans. If you want to pass these assets to loved ones upon death, you’ll need to plan for it, says the article “Got Cryptocurrency or NFTs? They Need to Be in Your Estate Planfrom Kiplinger. Otherwise, securing, transferring and gifting crypto and NFTs can create unsolvable problems and lost assets.

There are many different kinds of crypto and NFTs, with Bitcoin, Ethereum, Binance Coin, Thether among them. An NFT is a unique, collectable, and tradable digital asset, like digital art or a photo. NFTs are purchased through a bidding process in this universe and in the metaverse, an online world where people are buying homes, real estate and more in the shape of NFTs. Sales of NFTs are estimated to have reached more than $17 billion in 2021. For better or worse, the future is here.

Cryptocurrency is accessed through a private key. This is a series of alphanumeric characters known only to the owner and stored in cold storage or a digital wallet. Whoever has possession of the key can buy, sell and spend the digital currency. If you have crypto, your family or fiduciary needs to know what you have, where to find the assets and what to do with them.

One option is to share the private key or place crypto assets and NFTs in custody, using a software application or a hardware wallet. There are a number of companies now offering these services. An old-school option for this new world asset is to create a secure spreadsheet of your digital assets and list the login protocols for each account.

For now, it is difficult to open crypto accounts and NFTs in the name of a revocable or irrevocable trust. However, digital wallets allowing you to open an account in the name of a trust do exist, if the company handling the digital asset permits. This is a very new, rapidly evolving asset class. Beneficiaries may not yet be named for crypto accounts. However, this may change in the future.

With no trust account and no named beneficiary, what happens to your crypto and NFTs when you die? For now, they must pass through your probate estate under the will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure your estate plan includes the correct way to give digital asset powers for the fiduciary handling your estate and include digital asset powers in your will, trust, and durable power of attorney.

If your state has adopted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) or the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA)—46 states have—then it will be easier for loved ones to manage digital assets in case of incapacity or when you pass, as long as your estate plan addresses them.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 23, 2022) “Got Cryptocurrency or NFTs? They Need to Be in Your Estate Plan

What about House Contents when Someone Dies?

Probate law does not allow anyone to take items from a loved ones’ home after they die, until the will has been probated. Learning about probate, what it entails and how to prepare for it may make it a little easier when a family member dies, says a recent article titled “Can you empty a house before probate? from Augusta Free Press. Knowing what to expect can avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, some of which often lead to family fights and even litigation.

Probate is a court-supervised period when the estate of the decedent is on pause. Assets may not be distributed, including personal items in the home. The goal is to ensure that assets are distributed only after the will has been ruled valid by the court and following the instructions in the will.

Probate includes the legal appointment of the executor, who is named in the will with specific statutory responsibilities, to include ultimately distributing assets.

For many people, estate planning includes preparing assets to avoid the probate process. An estate plan includes a review of the entire estate to see which assets are best suited to be taken out of the estate. Living trusts, joint ownership, transfer-on-death (TOD) and many other estate planning strategies can be used, depending on the person’s finances.

Certain tasks can be accomplished during probate relating to the home and other property. This includes changing the locks on the home to protect it from criminals and unauthorized people who have keys. The decedent’s mail can be forwarded to the executor or another family member’s address. A review of the decedent’s bills, especially monthly payments, can take place. If there’s a mortgage on the home, the mortgage company needs to be contacted and the payments need to be made.

As the end of the probate period nears, it may be time to contact an appraiser to get an unbiased, professional appraisal of the home’s value. This will be needed if the home is to be sold, or if the estate plan needs a valuation of the home.

Probate is often a necessary process. It can create challenges for the family, especially if no estate planning has been done. In some jurisdictions, probate is quick and painless, while in others it is a long and expensive process. Prior planning by an experienced estate planning attorney prevents many of the issues presented by probate.

After probate has been completed, the executor distributes the assets, including the personal property in the home. Personal property with sentimental value often sparks more family fights than assets of greater value. Administering an estate when emotions are running high is a challenge for all concerned.

Another reason to have an estate plan in place is to delineate very specifically what you want to occur after your death. That way there is no room for family members to stake a claim and do something contrary to your wishes.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (May 13, 2022) “Can you empty a house before probate?

Can a Vacation Home Be Kept in the Family for Generations?

Many family traditions include gatherings at vacation homes. However, leaving these properties to the next generation is not always in the best interest of the family. Some people try to make a simple solution work for a complex problem, leading to more challenges, as explained in the article “Succession planning for the family lakehouse” from NH Business Review.

Joint ownership among siblings can lead to disputes about how the home is used, operated and maintained. Some children want to continue using the house, while others may see it as an income stream for a rental property. There may be siblings who cannot afford to participate in the house’s upkeep and need the cash more than the tradition. When joint ownership is presented as a surprise in a will, the adult children may find themselves fighting about the vacation home, with no parent around to tell them to knock it off.

Making matters more complicated, if the siblings live in different states and the house is in a neighboring state, ownership of the real estate at death may subject the decedent’s estate to estate taxes where the property is located. As a result, the property may need to go through probate in an additional state. Every state has its own tax rules, so the transfer of joint property will have to be analyzed by an estate planning attorney knowledgeable about the laws in each state involved.

A sensible alternative is creating a Limited Liability Corporation, ideally while the original owners—the parents—are still living. The organizational documents include a certificate of organization to file with the Secretary of State and an operating agreement. The LLC will need its own taxpayer identification number, or EIN.

The operating agreement governs the management of the property and addresses the operating expenses and maintenance of the property. It should also address the process for a child to cash in on their ownership to other children. LLC operating agreements often include these items:

  • Responsibilities for operating expenses
  • Process to transfer member units or interests
  • Duties for regular maintenance, budgeting and approval of property improvements
  • Development of a property use schedule
  • Establishing rules for the home’s use

There are some costs associated with creating an LLC, including annual filing requirements. However, these will be small, when compared to the cost of family fights and untangling joint ownership.

An LLC can also offer personal liability protection from lawsuits brought by renters, creditors, or any litigants. If there is an accident resulting from work being done on the property, the owners may be shielded from the liability because they do not personally own the property, the LLC does.

In the case of divorce, bankruptcy filing, or a large judgement being filed against one of the children, the LLC will protect their interest in the property.

The real estate owned by the LLC is not part of the owner’s probate estate. This avoids the need for a second probate in the state where the property is located. Some states have adopted the Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act, and the LLC membership interest can be assigned along to the terms of the beneficiary designation.

Planning for what will happen to a vacation home after death provides peace of mind for all in the family. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the property and the family’s peace is preserved.

Reference: NH Business Review (March 23, 2022) “Succession planning for the family lakehouse”

Is It Important for Physicians to Have an Estate Plan?

When the newly minted physician completes their residency and begins practicing, the last thing on their minds is getting their estate plan in order. Instead, they should make it a priority, according to a recent article titled “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead” from Medical Economics. Physicians accumulate wealth to a greater degree and faster than most people. They are also in a profession with a higher likelihood of being sued than most. They need an estate plan.

Estate planning does more than distribute assets after death. It is also asset protection. An estate planning attorney helps physicians, dentists and other medical professionals protect their assets and their legacies.

Basic estate planning documents include a last will and testament, financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. However, the physician’s estate is complex and requires an attorney with experience in asset protection and business succession.

During the process of creating an estate plan, the physician will need to determine who they would want to serve as a guardian, if there are minor children and what they would want to occur if all of their beneficiaries were to predecease them. A list should be drafted with all assets, debts, including medical school loans, life insurance documents and retirement or pension accounts, including the names of beneficiaries.

The will is the center of the estate plan. It will require naming a person, typically a spouse, to be the executor: the person in charge of administering the estate. If the physician is not married, a trusted relative or friend can be named. There should also be a second person named, in case the first is unable to serve.

If the physician owns their practice, the estate plan should be augmented with a business succession plan. The will’s executor may need to oversee decisions regarding the sale of the practice. A trusted friend with no business acumen or knowledge of how a medical practice works may not be the best executor. These are all important considerations. Special considerations apply when the “business” is a professional practice, so do not make any moves without expert estate planning assistance.

The will only controls assets in the individual’s name. Assets owned jointly, or those with a beneficiary designation, are not governed by the will.

Without a will, the entire estate may need to go through probate, which is a lengthy and expensive process. For one family, their father’s lack of a will and secrecy took 18 months and cost $30,000 in legal fees for the estate to be settled.

Trusts are an option for protecting assets. By placing assets in trust, they are protected from creditors and provide control in complex family situations. The goal is to create a trust and fund it before any legal actions occur. Transferring assets after a lawsuit has begun or after a creditor has attached an asset could lead to a physician being charged with fraudulent conveyance—where assets are transferred for the sole purpose of avoiding paying creditors.

Estate planning is never a one-and-done event. If a doctor starts a family limited partnership to transfer wealth to the next generation but neglects to properly maintain the partnership, some or all of the funds may be vulnerable.

An estate plan needs to be reviewed every few years and certainly every time a major life event occurs, including marriage, divorce, birth, death, relocation, or a significant change in wealth.

When consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, a doctor should ask about the potential benefits of revocable living trust planning to avoid probate, maintain privacy and streamline the administration of the estate upon incapacity or at death.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 22, 2022) “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead”

Does the Executor Control Bank Accounts?

Executors administering probate assets usually have to deal with several different financial institutions. If good planning has been done by the decedent, the executor has a list of assets, account numbers, website addresses and phone numbers. Otherwise, the personal representative or successor trustee starts by gathering information and identifying the accounts, as described in a recent article “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages” from Lake Country News.

The accounts must be identified, retitled to become part of the estate, or liquidated and moved into the estate account.

If the decedent had a financial advisor who handled all of their investments, the process may be easier, since there will only be one person to deal with.

If there is no financial advisor who can or will personally manage the assets, the executor starts by contacting the back office department of the institution, often referred to as the “estates department.” The contact info can usually be found on the institutions’ website or on the paper statements, if there are any.

Expect to spend a lot of time on hold, especially in the beginning of the week. It may be better to call on a Wednesday or Thursday.

The first call is to introduce the executor, advise of the death of the decedent and learn about the company’s procedures for transferring, retitling, or otherwise gaining control of the account. The bank usually assigns a case number, to be used on all future communications.

If possible, obtain their name, direct dial, and direct email of whoever you speak with. It may only be with one assigned representative, or a different person every time. It depends upon the organization. Take careful notes on every interaction. You may need them.

Some of the documents needed to complete these transactions include an original death certificate, a court certified letter of administration or trustee’s certification of trust and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the institution to communicate with the executor or successor trustee.

Financial institutions will often only accept their own forms, which then need to be prepared for completion and signature. Expect to be asked to notarize some documents. In many cases, the institution will require a new account be opened and the assets transferred to the new account.

Be organized—you may find yourself needing to submit the documents multiple times, depending on the financial institution. If hard copy documents are sent, use registered or express mail requiring a signature on delivery. If documents are sent by email, they should only be sent via an encrypted portal to protect both estate and executor.

This is not a quick process and requires diligent follow up, with multiple emails and phone calls. If the value of the estate is large and the assets are complex, it may be better to have the estate planning attorney handle the process.

Reference: Lake Country News (Jan. 15, 2022) “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages”

What Power Does an Executor Have?

Being asked to serve as an executor is a big compliment with potential pitfalls, advises the recent article “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” from U.S. News & World Report. You are being asked because you are considered trustworthy and able to handle complex tasks. That’s flattering, of course, but there’s a lot to know before making a final decision about taking on the job.

An executor of an estate helps file paperwork, close accounts, distribute assets of the deceased, deal with probate and any court filings and navigate family dynamics. Some of the tasks include:

  • Locating critical documents, like the will, any trusts, deeds, vehicle titles, etc.
  • Obtaining death certificates.
  • Overseeing funeral arrangements and memorial services, if any.
  • Filing the will in probate court.
  • Creating an estate bank account, after obtaining an estate tax number (EIN).
  • Notifying organizations, including Social Security, pension accounts, etc.
  • Paying creditors.
  • Distributing assets.
  • Overseeing the sale or transfer of real estate
  • Filing estate tax returns and final tax returns.

If you are asked to become the executor of an estate for a loved one, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible while the person is still living. It will be far easier to tackle the tasks, if you have been set up to succeed. Find out where their estate planning documents are and read the documents to make sure you understand them. If you don’t understand, ask, and keep asking until you do. Similarly, obtain information about all assets, including joint assets. Find out if there are any family members who may pose a challenge to the estate.

Today’s assets include digital assets. Ask for a complete list of the person’s online accounts, usernames and passwords. You will also need access to their devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone and smart watch. Discuss what they want to happen to each account and see if there is an option for you to become a co-owner of the account or a legacy contact.

Many opt to have an estate planning attorney manage some or all of these tasks, as they can be very overwhelming. Frankly, it’s hard to administer an estate at the same time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.

As executor, you are a fiduciary, meaning you’re legally required to put the deceased’s interests above your own. This includes managing the estate’s assets. If the person owned a home, you would need to secure the property, pay the mortgage and/or property taxes and maintain the property until it is sold or transferred to an heir. Financial accounts need to be managed, including investment accounts.

The amount of time this process will take, depends on the complexity and size of the estate. Most estates take at least twelve months to complete all of the administrative work. It is a big commitment and can feel like a second job.

A few things vary by state. Convicted felons are never permitted to serve as executors, regardless of what the will says. A sole executor must be a U.S. citizen, although a non-citizen can be a co-executor, if the other co-executor is a citizen. Rules also vary from state to state regarding being paid for your time. Most states permit a percentage of the size of the estate, which must be considered earned income and reported on tax returns.

Be very thorough and careful in documenting every decision made as the executor to protect yourself from any future challenges. This is one job where trying to do it on your own could have long-term effects on your relationship with the family and financial liability, so take it seriously. If it’s too much, an estate planning attorney can help.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate”