Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

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”

How Do I Stop Heirs from Foolishly Wasting Inheritance?

This is a problem solved by a trust—a “spendthrift” trust. With a spendthrift provision in a testamentary trust created under a will or an inheritance trust created under a revocable living trust, the trustee makes all decisions about distributions. This can be an effective means of controlling the flow of money.

A spendthrift trust, according to the article “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust” from Record Courier, is created for the benefit and protection of a financially irresponsible person.

For a spendthrift trust, it may be better not to choose a family member or trusted friend to serve as the trustee. Such person might not live long enough or have the capacity to serve as trustee for as long as required, especially if the heir is a young adult. Conflicts among family members are common, when money is involved. An independent and well-established trust company or bank may be a better choice as a trustee. Large estates often go this route, since their services can be expensive. However, some retail banks do have a private wealth division. All options need to be explored.

Another benefit to a spendthrift trust—funds are protected against current or future creditors of the beneficiary. Let’s say a parent wants to leave money to a child, but knows the child has credit card debt already. Unless they are co-signers, the parent and their estate do not have a duty to pay an adult child’s debts. The spendthrift trust will not be accessible to the credit card company.

It is difficult to set up a spendthrift trust to protect one’s own money from creditors. This is something that must be approached only with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is because the rules are complex and there are significant limitations. If you wanted to create a spendthrift trust for yourself, you would have to completely give over control of assets to the trustee. There is no way to predict whether a court will consider the person to have relinquished enough control to make the trust valid.

This type of spendthrift trust may not be created with an intent to defraud, delay or hinder creditors. Doing so may make the trust invalid and any possible protection will be lost.

A spendthrift provision in a will is a clause used to protect a beneficiary from a creditor attaching prior debts against the beneficiary’s future inheritance. This means that the creditor may not force an heir or the estate’s executor to pay the beneficiary’s inheritance to the creditor, instead of the beneficiary. It also prevents the beneficiary from procuring a debt based on a future inheritance.

It is important to be aware that a spendthrift provision in a will or a spendthrift trust has limitations. The assets are only protected when they are in the trust or in the estate. Once a distribution is received, creditors can seek payment from the assets owned by the beneficiary.

Another qualifying factor: the spendthrift provision in the will must prevent both the voluntary and involuntary transfer of a beneficiary’s interest. The beneficiary may not transfer their interest to someone else.

The spendthrift trust and clause are mainly intended to protect a beneficiary’s interests from present and future creditors. They are not valid if their intent is to defraud others and may not be created to avoid paying any IRS debts.

Reference: Record Courier (July 10, 2021) “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust”

If I Buy a House, Should I have an Estate Plan?

There’s been an unprecedented surge in home sales during the pandemic. A recent National Association of Realtors report revealed that since July, existing home sales have increased year over year reaching a pandemic high of over 25% in October. Forbes’s recent article entitled “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?” asks the important question: How has this past year’s surge in home sales impacted estate planning?

Estate planning is a way to protect your assets and your loved ones, no matter your age or income level. If you place your home into a trust, you ensure that the ownership of your home will be properly and efficiently transferred to a loved one, if anything happens to you unexpectedly. If your home isn’t included in your estate plan, it will go through probate. However, consider the potential pitfalls of a trust:

  1. Creating a trust, when you really only need a will. If you have less than $150,000 in assets and you don’t own a home, a trust likely isn’t really needed.
  2. Thinking that you automatically have asset protection. A trust can help to avoid probate. So, an irrevocable trust may be the right option for people who really need true asset protection.
  3. Not taking trust administration into account. The trustee must do many tasks when the creator of the trust dies. These aren’t much different from what an executor does, but it can be extra work.

If you already have an estate plan, you should review your estate planning documents every three to five years. Moreover, purchasing a home should also make you revisit your documents. When doing a review, take a look at the terms of the trust. Make certain that you have your house referenced by address and that you transfer the house to your spouse by name.

Most mortgages have a “due on sale” clause. This means if you terminate your ownership of your home, you have to immediately pay back the mortgage proceeds to the bank. If you place your home in a revocable trust, it lets you smoothly transfer ownership to your beneficiary. This prevents the bank from demanding payment, and your beneficiary would keep making the mortgage payments after you’re gone. However, it may be prudent to contact the lender in advance of the transfer, if you want to be sure.

If you bought a home in the pandemic and have not placed it in a trust yet, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney sooner rather than later.

Reference: Forbes (June 2, 2021) “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?”

Can Your Pandemic Pet Be in Your Estate Plan?

America’s love affair with pets grew during the pandemic, a heartfelt solution for individuals who are older and living without the comfort of seeing family on a regular basis. However, adopting a puppy when you are in your sixties or seventies must include some thought about the pet’s future. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article “So, you’ve got a pandemic support pet. Now what?” provides answers.

Let’s say you become ill or disabled and can’t care for your pet. Neither your family nor friends want the pet. A starting point is to have a general power of attorney created that is limited to the care of your pet. Make sure the person (or persons) you have selected to care for your pet are willing and able, of course. Tell them how and what you would like them to do with your pet. Should they try to find another home? Is there a no-kill shelter you would want your pet to go to? Write out your wishes, so they know exactly what you want.

However, what happens if you die?

All states now accept the use of a pet trust, which can be in your will or in a separate document. A pet trust is created to provide for the care of an animal that is living during your lifetime. The trust ends when the pet dies, or, if your trust is for more than one pet, then the trust lasts until the last pet dies.

Selecting the trustee for a pet trust is just as important as naming a trustee for any kind of trust. You might decide to designate more than one trustee if the original trustee is unable to fulfill their role.

The trustee is legally responsible for following your directions as expressed in the trust. That also means the assets in the trust are for the pet’s benefit. Therefore, you want to be specific about what kind of care you want your pet to have.

In some states, you can name another person who will monitor the care of your pets and require annual veterinary checkups. If this role is appointed in the trust, they may be able to remove the trustee if they deem that the person is not taking good care of the pet.

Deciding how to fund the trust is an important decision. How old is your pet, and how long do you expect them to live? A large dog won’t likely live for as long as a large bird, for instance. How much money will be needed for the care of a pet that might live several decades after you pass?

Consider a fee to be paid to the guardian from the trust. Caring for some pets is a long-term commitment, and they will appreciate an acknowledgment of their dedication to your beloved animal companion.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 20, 2021) “So, you’ve got a pandemic support pet. Now what?”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.

The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

Should Young Families have an Estate Plan?

Young families are always on the go. New parents are busy with diapers, feeding schedules and trying to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s hard to think about the future when you’re so focused on the present. Even so, young parents should think about estate planning.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled, “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan,” explains that the word “estate” might sound upscale, but estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. Your estate is simply all the assets you have when you die. This includes bank accounts, 401(k) plan, a home and cars. An estate plan helps to make certain that your property goes to the right people, that your debts are paid and your family is cared for. Without an estate plan, your estate must go through probate, which is a potentially lengthy court process that settles the debts and distributes the assets of the decedent.

Estate planning is valuable for young families, even if they don’t have extensive assets. Consider these key estate planning actions that every parent needs to take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future has in store.

Purchase Life Insurance. Raising children is costly, and if a parent dies, life insurance provides funds to continue providing for surviving children. For most, term life insurance is a good move because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect until the children grow to adulthood and are no longer financially dependent.

Make a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents, the most important reason to make a will is to designate a guardian for your children. If you fail to do this, the courts will decide and may place your children with a relative with whom you have not spoken in years. However, if you name a guardian, you choose a person or couple you know has the same values and who will raise your kids as you would have.

Review Your Beneficiaries. You probably already have a 401(k) or IRA that makes you identify who will inherit it if you die. You’ll need to update these accounts, if you want your children to inherit these assets.

Consider a Trust. If you die before your children turn 18, your children can’t directly assume control of an inheritance, which can be an issue. The probate court could name an individual to manage the assets you leave to your child. However, if you want to specify who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, consider asking an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust. With a trust, you can name a designated person to manage money on behalf of your children and provide direction regarding how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children as they grow. Trusts aren’t just for the very well-to-do. Anyone may be able to benefit from a trust.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (April 13, 2021) “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

If I Move to a New State, Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

The U.S. Constitution requires states to give “full faith and credit” to the laws of other states. As a result, your will, trust, power of attorney, and health care proxy executed in one state should be honored in every other state.

Although that’s the way it should work, the practical realities are different and depend on the document, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Moving to a New State? Be Sure to Update Your Estate Plan.”

Your last will should still be legally valid in the new state. However, the new state may have different probate laws that make certain provisions of the will invalid. This can also happen with revocable trusts.

However, it’s not as common with powers of attorney and health care directives. These estate planning documents should be honored from state to state, but sometimes banks, medical professionals, and financial and health care institutions will refuse to accept the documents and forms. They may have their own, as is the case frequently with banks.

You should also know that the execution requirements of your estate planning documents may be different, depending on the state.

For example, there are some states that require witnesses on durable powers of attorney, and others that do not. A state that requires witnesses may not allow a power of attorney without witnesses to be used to convey real estate, even though the document is perfectly valid in the state where it was drafted and signed.

With health care proxies, other states may use different terms for the document, such as “durable power of attorney for health care” or “advance directive.”

When you move to a different state, it’s also a smart move to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that your estate plan in general is up to date. There are also other changes in circumstances—like a change in income or marital status—that can also have an impact on your estate plan. Moreover, there may be practical changes you may want to make. For example, you may want to change your trustee or agent under a power of attorney based on which family members will be closer in proximity.

For all these reasons, when you move out of state it’s wise to have an experienced estate planning attorney in your new home state review your estate planning documents.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Moving to a New State? Be Sure to Update Your Estate Plan”