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 Does a Last Will and Testament Do?

Your will is the foundation of an estate plan, used to instruct your executor on distributing property, naming a guardian for minor children, creating a legacy and ensuring that your beneficiaries receive what you want. The will can also serve to disinherit a family member, as explained in the recent article “Last will can both include and exclude heirs” from The Record-Courier.

The process of cutting someone out of a will is known as “disinheriting.” Hurt feelings and tension among family members are inevitable when someone is disinherited. However, if the goal is to avoid litigation between family members, an experienced estate planning attorney will be needed. It takes careful planning to avoid creating a will contest. Disinheriting adult children increases the likelihood of them contesting the validity of the will.

Laws concerning inheritance rights vary. In Nevada, for instance, unless there is a prenuptial agreement, you cannot completely disinherit a spouse. Even if your will attempts to disinherit a spouse, in some cases the law will actually override the instructions in the will or trust and award a portion of the estate, known as the elective share, to a surviving spouse. If this is a concern, check with your estate planning attorney.

Adult children can be disinherited. However, minor children are often protected against disinheritance.

Parents can be disinherited if they outlive the decedent, since they are not always legally entitled to a share of their children’s estate.

Extended relatives can also be disinherited. Some estate planning attorneys will conduct a search for missing heirs or beneficiaries while preparing an estate plan to be sure there are no unknown legal heirs who might make themselves known to a decedent’s surviving spouse or other heirs.

Estranged biological children can be disinherited. However, the last will and testament must be properly prepared.

The reasons for disinheritance very from estrangement to the decedent believing their family member is financially secure and doesn’t need the inheritance. It is not necessary for the last will and testament to explain the reason for the disinheritance. However, it is advised to use a disinheritance clause to ensure the heir or beneficiary is removed and will not inherit under the will.

To protect the integrity of the will, it is also advised to include a no-contest clause in the will. This is a provision expressing a directive to eliminate the share allocated to any beneficiary who takes action to contest the testator’s intents as expressed in the will.

The last will and testament is the person’s last communication with loved ones. There is no further opportunity for clarification once they have passed. This is why it’s so important to have a will and for the will to explicitly state the names of the beneficiaries and the names of any disinherited persons.

When you meet with your estate planning attorney to create or update your last will and testament, be prepared to tell them if there are any family members who you want to disinherit, so they can create a last will and testament and an estate plan designed to withstand challenges.

Reference: The Record-Courier (Dec. 17, 2022) “Last will can both include and exclude heirs”

Estate Planning Considerations for Minor Children

Creating an estate plan with minor children in mind has a host of variables quite different than one where all heirs are adults. If the intention is for the minor children to be beneficiaries, or if there is a remote chance a minor child might become an unintended beneficiary, different provisions will be needed. A recent article titled “Children need special attention in estate planning” from The News-Enterprise explains how these situations might be addressed.

Does the person creating the will—aka, the testator—want property to be distributed to a minor child? If so, how is the distribution is to occur, tax consequences and safeguards need to be put into place. Much depends upon the relationship of the testator to the minor child. An older individual may want to leave specific dollar bequests for minor children or great-grandchildren, while people with younger children generally leave their entire estate in fractional shares to their own minor children as primary beneficiaries.

While minor children and grandchildren beneficiaries are excluded from inheritance taxes in certain states, great- grandchildren are not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide details on who is subject to inheritance, federal and state estate taxes. This needs to be part of your estate plan.

If minor children are the intended beneficiaries of a fractional share of the estate in its entirety, distributions may be held in a common trust or divided into separate share for each minor child. A common trust is used to hold all property to benefit all of the children, until the youngest child reaches a determined age. When this occurs, the trust is split into separate shares according to the trust directions, when each share is managed for the individual beneficiary.

Instructions to the trustee as to how much of the income and principal each beneficiary is to receive and when, at what age or intervals each beneficiary may exercise full control over the assets and what purposes the trust property is intended for until the beneficiary reaches a certain age are details which need to be clearly explained in the trust.

Trusts for minor children are often specifically to be used for health, education, maintenance, or support needs of the beneficiary, within the discretion of the trustee. This has to be outlined in the trust document.

Even if the intention is not to make minor children beneficiaries, care must be taken to include provisions if they are family members. The will or trust must be clear on how property passed to minor child beneficiaries is to be distributed. This may be done through a requirement to put distributions into a trust or may leave a list of options for the executor.

Testators need to keep in mind the public nature of probate. Whatever is left to a minor child will be a matter of public record, which could make the child vulnerable to scammers or predatory family members. Consider using a revocable living trust as an alternative to safeguard the child and the assets.

Regardless of whether a will or trust is used, there should be a person named to act as the child’s guardian and their conservator or trustee, who manages their finances. The money manager does not have to be a parent or relative but must be a trustworthy person.

Review your specific situation with your estate planning attorney to create a plan to protect your minor children, ensuing their financial and lifestyle stability.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 10, 2022) “Children need special attention in estate planning”

What Sparks the Contesting of a Will?

A last will and testament is the document used to direct your executor to distribute assets and property according to your wishes. However, it’s not uncommon for disgruntled or distant family members or others to dispute the validity of the will. A recent article titled “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested” from Vents Magazine explains the top five factors to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Undue influence is a commonly invoked reason for a challenge. If a potential beneficiary can prove the person making the will (the testator) was influenced by another person to make decisions they would not have otherwise made, a will challenge could be brought to court. Undue influence means the testator’s decision was significantly affected by a person who stood to gain something by the outcome of the will and made a concerted effort to change the testator’s mind.

Even if there was no evidence of fraud, any suspicion of the testator’s being influenced is enough for a court to accept a case. If you think someone unduly influenced a loved one, especially if they suffer from any mental frailties or dementia, you may have cause to bring a case.

Outright fraud or forgery is another reason for the will to be contested. If there have been many erasures or signature styles appear different from one document to another, there may have been fraud. An estate planning attorney should examine documents to evaluate whether there is enough cause for suspicion to challenge the will.

Improper witnesses. The testator is required to sign the will with witnesses present. In some states, only one witness is required. In most states, two witnesses must be present to sign the will in front of the testator. A beneficiary may not be a witness to the signing of the will. Some states have changed laws to allow for remote signings in response to COVID. If the rules have not been followed, the will may be invalid.

Mistaken identity seems farfetched. However, it is a common occurrence, especially when someone has a common name or more than one person in the family has the same name, and the document has not been properly signed or witnessed. This could create confusion and make the document vulnerable to a challenge. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to prepare documents to withstand any challenges.

Capacity in the law means someone is able to understand the concept of a will and contents of the document they are signing, along with the identities of the people to whom they are leaving their assets. The person doesn’t need to have perfect mental health, so people with mild cognitive impairments, such as depression or anxiety, may make and sign a will. A medical opinion may be needed, if there might be any doubt as to whether a person had testamentary capacity when the will is signed.

A will contest can be time-consuming and expensive, so keep these issues in mind, especially if the family includes some litigious individuals.

Reference: Vents Magazine (May 6, 2022) “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested”

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”

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