Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

Can You Prevent Family Fights over Inheritance?

Inheritance battles can create new conflicts, inflame long-standing resentments and squander assets intended to make heir’s lives better. What can families do to prevent estate battles when a loved one’s intentions aren’t accepted is the question asked by the recent article, “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them,” from mondaq.com.

Here are the more common scenarios leading to family estate battles:

  • Siblings who are always fighting over something
  • Second or third marriages
  • Disparate treatment of children, whether real or perceived
  • Mental illness or additional issues
  • Isolation or estrangement
  • Economic hardship

There are steps to take to minimize, if not eliminate the likelihood of estate battles. The most important is to have an estate plan in place, including all the necessary documents to clearly indicate your wishes. You may want to include a letter of intent, which is not a legally enforceable document. However, it can support the wishes expressed in estate planning documents.

Update the Estate Plan. Does your estate plan still achieve the desired outcome? This is especially important if the family has experienced big changes to finances or relationships. An estate plan from ten years ago may not reflect current circumstances.

Make Distributions Now. For some families, giving with “warm hands” is a gratifying experience and can remove wealth from the estate to avoid battles as everything’s already been given away. The pleasure of seeing families enjoy the fruits of your labor is not to be underestimated, like a granddaughter who is able to buy a home of her own or an entrepreneurial loved one getting help in a business venture.

Appoint a Non-Family Member as a Trustee. Warring factions within a family are not likely to resolve things on their own, especially when cash is at stake. Appointing a family member as a trustee could cause them to become a lightning rod for all of the family’s tensions. Without the confidence of beneficiaries, accusations of self-dealing or an innocent mistake could lead to litigation. Removing the emotions by having a non-family member serve as a professional trustee can lessen suspicion and decrease the chances of legal disputes.

Communicate, with a facilitator, if necessary. Families with a history of disputes often do better when a professional is involved. Depending on the severity of the dynamics, this could range from annual meetings with an estate planning attorney to explain how the estate plan works and have discussions about the parent’s wishes to monthly meetings with a family counselor.

A No-Contest Clause. For some families, a no-contest clause in the will can head off any issues from the start. If people are especially litigious, however, this may not be enough to stop them from pursuing a case. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend the use of this provision, based on knowing the family and how much wealth is involved.

Addressing the problem now. The biggest mistake is to sweep the issue under the proverbial rug and “let them fight over it when I’m gone.” A better legacy is to address the problem of the family squabbles and know you’ve done the right thing.

As we head into the holiday season, efforts to bring families together and prepare for the future will allow parents, children and grandchildren to enjoy their time together.

Reference: mondaq.com (Nov. 4, 2022) “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them”

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”

Why are Trusts a Good Idea?

Estate planning attorneys know trusts are the Swiss Army knife of estate planning. Whatever the challenge is to be overcome, there is a trust to solve the problem. This includes everything from protecting assets from creditors to ensuring the right people inherit assets. There’s no hype about trusts, despite the title of this article, “Trusts—What Is The Hype?” from mondaq. Rather, there’s a world of benefits provided by trusts.

A trust protects assets from creditors. If the person who had the trust created, known as the “grantor,” is also the owner of the trust, it is best for the trust to be irrevocable. This means that it is not easily changed by the grantor. The trust also can’t be modified or terminated once it’s been set up.

This is the direct opposite of a revocable or living trust. With a revocable trust, the grantor has complete control of the trust, which comes with some downsides.

Once assets are transferred into an irrevocable trust, the grantor no longer has any ownership of the assets or the trust. Because the grantor is no longer in control of the asset, it’s generally not available to satisfy any claims by creditors.

However, this does not mean the grantor is free of any debts or claims in place before the trust was funded. Depending upon your state, there may be a significant look-back period. If this is the case, and if this is the reason for the trust to be created, it may void the trust and negate the protection otherwise provided by the trust.

Most people use trusts to protect assets for future generations, for a variety of reasons.

The “spendthrift” trust is created to protect heirs who may not be good at managing money or judging the character of the people they associate with. The spendthrift trust will protect against creditors, as well as protecting loved ones from losing assets in a divorce. The spouse may not be able to make a claim for a share of the trust property in a divorce settlement.

There are a few different trusts to be used in creating a spendthrift trust. However, the one thing they have in common is a “spendthrift clause.” This restricts the beneficiary’s ability to assign or transfer their interests in the trust and restricts the rights of creditors to reach the trust assets. However, the spendthrift clause will not avoid creditor claims, unless any interest in the trust assets is relinquished completely.

Greater protection against creditor claims may come from giving trustees more discretion over trust distribution. For instance, a trust may require a trustee to make distributions for a beneficiary’s support. Once those distributions are made, they are vulnerable to creditor claims. The court may also allow a creditor to reach the trust assets to satisfy support-related debts. Giving the trustee full and complete discretion over whether and when to make distributions will allow them to provide increased protection.

A trust requires the balance of having access to assets and preventing access from others. Your estate planning attorney will help determine which is best for your unique situation.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 9, 2022) “Trusts—What Is The Hype?”

What’s a ‘Pot Trust’?

A pot trust is a type of trust that names the children as beneficiaries and the trustee is given discretion to decide how the trust assets should be spent. This trust lets the grantor create a single pool of assets to be used for the benefit of multiple children. A pot trust can offer more flexibility as to how trust assets are used if you plan to leave your entire estate to your children, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How Does a Pot Trust Work?”

If you create a family pot trust for your three children and one of them experiences a medical emergency, the trustee would be able to authorize the use of trust funds or assets to cover those costs.

Flexibility is a key element of family pot trusts. Assets are distributed based on the children’s needs, rather than setting specific distribution rules as to who gets what. You might consider this type of trust over other types of trusts if:

  • You have two or more children;
  • At least one of those children is a minor; and
  • You plan to leave your entire estate to your children when you pass away.

Pot trusts can be created for children when you plan to leave all of your assets to them. Generally, a pot trust ends when the youngest included as a beneficiary reaches a certain age. As long as the trust is in place, the trustee can use his or her discretion to determine the way in which trust assets may be used to provide for the beneficiaries’ well-being. The aim is to satisfy the financial needs of individual children as they arise.

However, pot trusts don’t ensure an equal distribution of assets among multiple children. And a family pot trust can also put an increased burden on the trustee. In effect, the trustee has to take on a parental role for financial decision-making. That’s instead of adhering to predetermined directions from the trust grantor. And children may also not like at having to wait until the youngest child comes of age for the trust to terminate and assets to be distributed.

Setting up a pot trust isn’t that different from setting up any other type of trust. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Aug. 30, 2021) “How Does a Pot Trust Work?”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Perhaps getting hit by a cement truck is too blunt for some, but unexpected things happen all the time. An estate plan, including a will and other important documents, is good preparation, especially for caregivers of people with special needs. A recent article from Forbes titled “Where There is a Will, There is a Way” explains the steps everyone, especially caregivers, need to follow.

Creating a last will and testament

This is the foundation of an estate plan. Without a will, the court will distribute assets to children equally. If a disabled person receiving government benefits receives an inheritance, they will become ineligible and lose access to services. The court will also assign guardianship to minors or disabled individuals, if there is no will. A will, in tandem with proper estate planning, ensures protection for an individual with special needs, including naming a guardian of your choice.

Having a General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

A POA allows you to name a person you trust to manage finances, real estate property, investments, or any aspect of your life, if you become incapacitated. A POA should be created for your needs, so you may decide in advance what you do and do not want your agent to be able to do for you.

Creating a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This important legal document, paired with a HIPAA release form, allows someone of your choice to take charge of your healthcare, talk with healthcare providers and make decisions based on your expressed wishes. You may name more than one person for this role but doing so could make it harder if the two people don’t agree on your care.

Naming a Guardian

This is a critical step if you are a caretaker for a person who will likely be unable to manage their own affairs, even after attaining legal age. By naming a guardian in your will, you can select the people who will be in charge of your special needs family member or minor children. Without a guardian named in your will, the courts will make this decision.

Drafting a “Letter of Intent”

A letter of intent is a guide with important information only you know. It is especially important for caretakers. Explaining in detail your disabled individual’s preferences can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives when you are no longer available. What are their likes and likes, what people do they enjoy spending time with and what foods do they prefer, etc. If your children are minors, this letter is an opportunity to describe your preferences for how they should be raised, including religious preferences, vocational choices and even nighttime rituals.

Providing Financial Security

If your family includes a loved one with Special Needs, you can protect their ability to have funds for things not covered by government benefits through a Special Needs Trust. Your estate planning attorney will create an SNT with a trustee and a secondary trustee to oversee the funds and ensure that they are used for qualified expenses.

Reference: Forbes (July 6, 2022) “Where There is a Will, There is a Way,”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

What Is the Best Way to Leave Money to Children?

Parents and grandparents want what’s best for children and grandchildren. We love generously sharing with them during our lifetimes—family vacations, values and history. If we can, we also want to pass on a financial legacy with little or no complications, explains a recent article titled “4 Tax-Smart Ways to Share the Wealth with Kids” from Kiplinger.

There are many ways to transfer wealth from one person to another. However, there are only a handful of tools to effectively transfer financial gifts for future generations during our lifetimes. UTMA/UGMA accounts, 529 accounts, IRAs, and Irrevocable Gift Trusts are the most widely used.

Which option will be best for you and your family? It depends on how much control you want to have, the goal of your gift and its size.

UTMA/UGMA Accounts, the short version for Uniform Transfers to Minor or Uniform Gift to Minor accounts, allows gifts to be set aside for minors who would otherwise not be allowed to own significant property. These custodial accounts let you designate someone—it could be you—to manage gifted funds, until the child becomes of legal age, depending on where you live, 18 or 21.

It takes very little to set up the account. You can do it with your local bank branch. However, the funds are taxable to the child and if an investment triggers a “kiddie tax,” putting the child into a high tax bracket and in line with income tax brackets for non-grantor trusts, it could become expensive. Your estate planning attorney will help you determine if this makes sense.

What may concern you more: when the minor turns 18 or 21, they own the account and can do whatever they want with the funds.

529 College Savings Accounts are increasingly popular for passing on wealth to the next generation. The main goal of a 529 is for educational purposes. However, there are many qualified expenses that it may be used for. Any income from transfers into the account is free of federal income tax, as long as distributions are used for qualified expenses. Any gains may be nontaxable under local and state laws, depending on which account you open and where you live. Contributions to 529 accounts qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion but can also be used for other gift and estate tax planning methods, including letting you make front-loaded gifts for up to five years without tapping your lifetime estate tax exemption.

You may also change the beneficiary of the account at any time, so if one child doesn’t use all their funds, they can be used by another child.

From the IRS’ perspective, a child’s IRA is the same as an adult IRA. The traditional IRA allows an immediate deduction for income taxes when contributions are made. Neither income nor principal are taxed until funds are withdrawn. By contrast, a Roth IRA has no up-front tax deduction. However, any earned income is tax free, as are withdrawals. There are other considerations and limits.  However, generally speaking the Roth IRA is the preferred approach for children and adults when the income earner expects to be in a higher tax bracket when they retire. It’s safe to say that most younger children with earned income will earn more income in their adult years.

The most versatile way to make gifts to minors is through a trust. There’s no one-size-fits-all trust, and tax rules can be complex. Therefore, trusts should only be created with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney. A trust is a private agreement naming a trustee who will manage the assets in the trust for a beneficiary. The terms can be whatever the grantor (the person creating the trust) wants. Trusts can be designed to be fully asset-protected for a beneficiary’s lifetime, as long as they align with state law. The trust should have a provision for what will occur if the beneficiary or the primary trustee dies before the end of the trust.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 15, 2022) “4 Tax-Smart Ways to Share the Wealth with Kids”

What Is the Purpose of a Pet Trust?

You don’t have to be a billionaire to want to protect your pets. However, you do need to plan for their well-being, if something happens to you. Since pets are considered property, they can’t inherit money to be used for their care. Instead, as explained in a recent article from Barron’s Penta “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust” titled owners can create pet trusts to protect them, if something happens to their humans. With close to 70% of American households having pets, pet trusts have now become mainstream.

Owners need to designate a reliable caregiver, just as they would designate a guardian for minor children. If you don’t have family members or friends who love animals, contact a local animal rescue group to learn if they have a life-long care program for animals. Many do, with programs incorporating Charitable Remainder Trusts to cover the cost of the pet’s care.

If you want a friend or relative to care for your pet, make sure they are willing and able to do so.  You should have another person as a back-up, in case something happens to them. Circumstances change, and someone who wants to take care of your pet now may not be able to in future years. How long you need to plan for depends upon the lifespan of your pet.

An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pet trust. Because state law enforces conditional distributions from the trust, the care of your pet can be enforced in court, if necessary. The pet owner names a beneficiary, the caregiver and funds the trust with enough assets to care for the pet.

The pet owner also names a trustee. They are a responsible person who will be in charge of distributing funds and making sure they are used for the pet’s well-being. The trustee also makes sure that the pet is healthy and being properly cared for, following the directions of the trust.

Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are regarding pet trusts, which varies from state to state. For instance, Pennsylvania requires a pet trust to end when the last pet in the trust dies, while other states may limit the trust’s length to 21 years. For dogs and cats, 21 years is a reasonable period of time. However, for other pets, like birds who can live to 100 years, this won’t be long enough.

You’ll need to fund the trust, making sure that there’s enough money to cover the pet’s needs throughout their lifetime. You may also consider the caregiver’s needs, depending on circumstances. How much is reasonable will depend upon the type of pet and the lifestyle of the caretaker. An apartment dweller caring for an elderly cat will need a different level of resources than a person tasked to care for a young horse.

Some states limit the amount of money in a pet trust and will penalize overfunding. Making sure your pet trust is appropriately funded may limit the likelihood of its being challenged.

Reference: Barron’s Penta (April 18, 2022) “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust”

Is Putting a Home in Trust a Good Estate Planning Move?

A typical estate at death will include a personal residence. It’s common for a large estate to also include a vacation home, or family retreat. Leaving real property in trust is common.

Estate plans that include a revocable trust will fund the trust by a pour-over, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should You Own Your Home in Your Trust?”

A settlor (the person establishing a trust) often will title their home to the revocable trust, which becomes irrevocable at death.

Another option is a Qualified Personal Residence Trust, which is irrevocable, to gift a valuable home to a trust for the settlor’s children. With a QPRT, the house is passed over a term of years while the original owner continues to live there, so the gift passes with little or no gift or estate tax.

Some trusts arising from a decedent estate will hold the home belonging to the settlor without any instructions for its disposal or retention. Outside of very large trusts, a requirement to actually purchase homes for beneficiaries in the trust is far less common.

It is more common in a large trust to have terms that let the trustee buy a home for a beneficiary outside the trust or keep the settlor’s home in the trust for a beneficiary’s use, including purchasing a replacement home when requested.

The trustee will hopefully propose a plan that will satisfy the beneficiary without undue risk to the trust estate or exceeding the trustee’s powers. The most relevant considerations for homeownership in a trust are:

  • The competing needs of other trust beneficiaries
  • The purchase price and costs of maintaining the home
  • The size of the trust as compared to those costs
  • Other sources of income and resources available to the beneficiary; and
  • The interests of the remaindermen (beneficiaries who will take from the trust when the current beneficiaries’ interests terminate).

The terms of the trust may require the trustee to ignore some of these considerations.

Each situation requires a number of decisions that could expose the trustee to a charge that it has acted imprudently.

Those who want to create a trust should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to avoid any issues.

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2022) “Should You Own Your Home in Your Trust?”