Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What You Should Never, Ever, Include in Your Will

A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be validated in a court of law before any property is distributed. The process, called probate, takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.

However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

tax planning

Is a Tax Change a Good Time to Check My Will?

A last will and testament can make certain that your goals for legacy and asset disposition are satisfied and carried out. However, what most people fail to grasp is that a will needs regular review—especially if the document was written or involved the creation of a trust prior to passage of tax reform, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), in 2017, says Financial Advisor’s recent article entitled “Tax Changes Make This A Good Time To Revise A Will.”

Wills can pass on assets, but taxes have come to greatly impact how much money is passed on. People usually understand the primary components, including the tax implications, of their wills.

These include:

  • The unlimited marital deduction
  • Applying current rules to make non-taxable gifts of up to $15,000 per person
  • The current estate tax exemption of $11.58 million
  • Health care directives
  • Naming trustees and executors; and
  • Creating long-term trusts with non-taxable asset transfers.

Wills and trusts were created prior to the passage of the TCJA may not consider that reform changed the amount which can be exempted from estate taxes.

The law more than doubled the amount that can be exempted from estate taxes. The potential tax changes could cause many more Americans to have a taxable estate, and it’s important to have a full understanding of your assets and carefully decide who you want to receive them. You must also decide if you want them passed outright or through a trust.

Privacy is a good reason why some people often prefer trusts. They also like the quick processing and avoiding probate.

Estate plans should be reviewed every few years, and wills should be reviewed more frequently because life changes are the biggest reason for trouble in revising wills.

Divorce, separation or marriage; the birth or adoption of children, as well as a child reaching adulthood; and changes to finances, location and health all can play important roles.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 9, 2020) “Tax Changes Make This A Good Time To Revise A Will”

estate plan

Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”

leave estate to pet

Can I Leave My Pet Some of My Estate?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s article entitled “Who will take care of Fido when you’re gone? Minnesotans put trust in trusts reports that Minnesotans are setting up trusts to care for their pets in the event they survive them.

This is a fairly new law in Minnesota. Since it was enacted in 2016, Minnesotans have been setting aside money to guarantee the care of their animals after they die or are incapacitated. With a pet trust, there’s a guarantee that the money earmarked to care for the animal will be there for the animal as intended. A trust can designate a separate caretaker, trustee and a trust enforcer to care for the animal, manage the money. and make certain the care is being provided as instructed in the trust.

A pet trust can contain instructions on the type of food, medical care, exercise and housing the pet will get, as well as the pet’s end of life and burial or cremation directions.

When the pet trust law was being debated in the Minnesota Legislature, there was the idea that pet trusts are frivolous, an option only for wealthy eccentrics like New York real estate and hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley. She died in 2007 leaving $12 million for the care of her dog, Trouble. The courts later reduced that amount to $2 million.

In the North Star State, the amount of money put into a trust to care for a pet can’t be excessive, or a judge might decrease the amount.

A pet trust can be used to care for an animal before the owner dies but is disabled or incapacitated. When the pet dies, depending on how the trust was created, the money left in the trust would be distributed to heirs or could go to another designated person or charity.

In states where pet trusts are not available, a person could write in their will that a relative will inherit a pet, and the pet owner could also leave the person money to pay for the animal’s care. However, because pets are legally considered personal property, they cannot own property or inherit assets themselves. As a result, there’s nothing that would prevent the relative designated to care for the animal to take it to the pound after you die and spend the cash on themselves.

A pet trust can provide a plan for animal lovers who want to own pets late in life but may be concerned the pet might outlive them. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about pet trusts in your state.

Reference: StarTribune (Sep. 23, 2020) “Who will take care of Fido when you’re gone? Minnesotans put trust in trusts”

estate plan audit

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

estate planning

Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife of Estate Planning

Trusts serve many different purposes in estate planning. They all have the intent to protect the assets placed within the trust. The type of trust determines what the protection is, and from whom it is protected, says the article “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms,” from The News Enterprise. To understand how trusts protect, start with the roles involved in a trust.

The person who creates the trust is called a “grantor” or “settlor.” The individuals or organizations receiving the benefit of the property or assets in the trust are the “beneficiaries.” There are two basic types of beneficiaries: present interest beneficiaries and “future interest” beneficiaries. The beneficiary, by the way, can be the same person as the grantor, for their lifetime, or it can be other people or entities.

The person who is responsible for the property within the trust is the “trustee.” This person is responsible for caring for the assets in the trust and following the instructions of the trust. The trustee can be the same person as the grantor, as long as a successor is in place when the grantor/initial trustee dies or becomes incapacitated. However, a grantor cannot gain asset protection through a trust, where the grantor controls the trust and is the principal recipient of the trust.

One way to establish asset protection during the lifetime of the grantor is with an irrevocable trust. Someone other than the grantor must be the trustee, and the grantor should not have any control over the trust. The less power a grantor retains, the greater the asset protection.

One additional example is if a grantor seeks lifetime asset protection but also wishes to retain the right to income from the trust property and provide a protected home for an adult child upon the grantor’s death. Very specific provisions within the trust document can be drafted to accomplish this particular task.

There are many other options that can be created to accomplish the specific goals of the grantor.

Some trusts are used to protect assets from taxes, while others ensure that an individual with special needs will be able to continue to receive needs-tested government benefits and still have access to funds for costs not covered by government benefits.

An estate planning attorney will have a thorough understanding of the many different types of trusts and which one would best suit each individual situation and goal.

Reference: The News Enterprise (July 25, 2020) “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms”

estate planning basics

Estate Planning Basics You Need to Know

The key reason for estate planning is to create a plan directing where your assets will go after you die. The ultimate goal is for wealth and real property to be given to the people or organizations you wish, while minimizing taxes, so beneficiaries can keep more of your wealth. However, good estate planning also reduces family arguments, protects minor children and provides a roadmap for end-of-life decisions, says the article “What is estate planning?” from Bankrate.

Whenever you’ve opened a checking and savings account, retirement account or purchased life insurance, you’ve been asked to provide the name of a beneficiary for the account. This person (or persons) will receive these assets directly upon your passing. You can have multiple beneficiaries, but you should always have contingent beneficiaries, in case something happens to your primary beneficiaries. Named beneficiaries always supersede any declarations in your will, so you want to make sure any account that permits a beneficiary has at least one and update them as you go through the inevitable changes of life.

A last will and testament is a key document in your estate plan. It directs the distribution of assets that are not distributed through otherwise designated beneficiaries. Property you own jointly, typically but not always with a spouse, passes to the surviving owner(s). An executor you name in your will is appointed by the court to take care of carrying out your instructions in the will. Choose the executor carefully—he or she will have a lot to take care of, including the probate of your will.

Probate is the process of having a court review your estate plan and approve it. It can be challenging and depending upon where you live and how complicated your estate is, could take six months to two years to complete. It can also be expensive, with court fees determined by the size of the estate.

Many people use trusts to minimize how much of their estate goes through probate and to minimize estate taxes. Assets that are distributed through trusts are also private, unlike probate documents, which become public documents and can be seen by anyone from nosy relatives to salespeople to thieves and scammers.

Trusts can be complex, but they don’t have to be. Trusts can also offer a much greater level of control over how assets are distributed. For instance, a spendthrift trust is used when an heir is not good with handling money. A trustee distributes assets, and a timeframe or specific requirements can be set before any funds are distributed.

Living wills are also part of an estate plan. These are documents used to give another person the ability to make decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated or if decisions need to be made concerning end-of-life care.

An estate plan can help prevent family fights over who gets what. Arguments over sentimental items, or someone wanting to make a grab for cash can create fractures that last for generations. A properly prepared estate plan makes your wishes clear, lessening the reasons for squabbles during a difficult period.

Protecting minor children and heirs is another important reason to have a well thought out estate plan. Your last will and testament is used to nominate a guardian for minor children and can also be used to direct who will be in charge of any assets left for the children’s care.

Reference: Bankrate (Aug. 3, 2020) “What is estate planning?”

update a will

When Exactly Do I Need to Update My Will?

Many people say that they’ve been meaning to update their last will and testament for years but never got around to doing it.

Kiplinger’s article entitled “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” gives us a dozen times you should think about changing your last will:

  1. You’re expecting your first child. The birth or adoption of a first child is typically when many people draft their first last will. Designate a guardian for your child and who will be the trustee for any trust created for that child by the last will.
  2. You may divorce. Update your last will before you file for divorce, because once you file for divorce, you may not be permitted to modify your last will until the divorce is finalized. Doing this before you file for divorce ensures that your spouse won’t get all of your money, if you die before the divorce is final.
  3. You just divorced. After your divorce, your ex no longer has any rights to your estate (unless it’s part of the terms of the divorce). However, even if you don’t change your last will, most states have laws that invalidate any distributive provisions to your ex-spouse in that old last will. Nonetheless, update your last will as soon as you can, so your new beneficiaries are clearly identified.
  4. Your child gets married. Your current last will may speak to issues that applied when your child was a minor, so it may not address your child’s possible divorce. You may be able to ease the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating a trust in your last will and including post-nuptial requirements before you child can receive any estate assets.
  5. A beneficiary has issues. Last wills frequently leave money directly to a beneficiary. However, if that person has an addiction or credit issues, update your last will to include a trust that allows a trustee to only distribute funds under specific circumstances.
  6. Your executor or a beneficiary die. If your estate plan named individuals to manage your estate or receive any remaining funds, but they’re no longer alive, you should update your last will.
  7. Your child turns 18. Your current last will may designate your spouse or a parent as your executor, but years later, these people may be gone. Consider naming a younger family member to handle your estate affairs.
  8. A new tax or probate law is enacted. Congress may pass a bill that wrecks your estate plan. Review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney every few years to see if there have been any new laws relevant to your estate planning.
  9. You come into a chunk of change. If you finally get a big lottery win or inherit money from a distant relative, update your last will so you can address the right tax planning. You also may want to change when and the amount of money you leave to certain individuals or charities.
  10. You can’t find your original last will. If you can’t locate your last will, be sure that you replace the last will with a new, original one that explicitly states it invalidated all prior last wills.
  11. You purchase property in another country or move overseas. Many countries have treaties with the U.S. that permit reciprocity of last wills. However, transferring property in one country may be delayed, if the last will must be probated in the other country first. Ask your estate planning attorney about having a different last will for each country in which you own property.
  12. Your feelings change for a family member. If there’s animosity between people named in your last will, you may want to disinherit someone. You might ask your estate planning attorney about a No Contest Clause that will disinherit the aggressive family member, if he or she attempts to question your intentions in the last will.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

estate planning mistakes

Which Stars Made the Biggest Estate Planning Blunders?

Mistakes in the estate planning of high-profile celebrities are one very good way to learn the lessons of what not to do.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Eight Lessons From Celebrity Estates” discussed some late celebrities who made some serious experienced estate planning blunders. Hopefully, we can learn from their errors.

James Gandolfini. The “Sopranos” actor left just 20% of his estate to his wife. If he’d left more of his estate to her, the estate tax on that gift would have been avoided in his estate. But the result of not maximizing the tax savings in his estate was that 55% of his total estate went to pay estate taxes.

James Brown. One of the hardest working men in show business left the copyrights to his music to an educational foundation, his tangible assets to his children and $2 million to educate his grandchildren. Because of ambiguous language in his estate planning documents, his girlfriend and her children sued and, years later and after the payment of millions in estate taxes, his estate was finally settled.

Michael Jackson.  Jackson created a trust but never funded the trust during his lifetime. This has led to a long and costly battle in the California Probate Court over control of his estate.

Howard Hughes. Although he wanted to give his $2.5 billion fortune to medical research, there was no valid written will found at his death. His fortune was instead divided among 22 cousins. The Hughes Aircraft Co. was bequeathed to the Hughes Medical Institute before his death and wasn’t included in his estate.

Michael Crichton. The author was survived by his pregnant second wife, so his son was born after his death. However, because his will and trust didn’t address a child being born after his death, his daughter from a previous marriage tried to cut out the baby boy from his estate.

Doris Duke. The heir to a tobacco fortune left her $1.2 billion fortune to her foundation at her death. Her butler was designated as the one in charge of the foundation. This led to a number of lawsuits claiming mismanagement over the next four years, and millions in legal fees.

Casey Kasem. The famous DJ’s wife and the children of his prior marriage fought over his end-of-life care and even the disposition of his body. It was an embarrassing scene that included the kidnapping and theft of his corpse.

Prince and Aretha Franklin. Both music legends died without a will or intestate. This has led to a very public, and in the case of Prince, a very contentious and protracted settlement of their estates.

So, what did we learn? Even the most famous (and the richest) people fail to carefully plan and draft a complete estate plan. They make mistakes with tax savings (Gandolfini), charities (Brown and Hughes), providing for family (Crichton), whom to name as the manager of the estate (Duke) and failing to prevent family disputes, especially in mixed marriages (Kasem).

If you have an estate plan, be sure to review your existing documents to make certain that they still accomplish your wishes. Get the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2020) “Eight Lessons From Celebrity Estates”

estate plan check up

A Non-Medical Check Up – For Your Estate Plan

An estate plan isn’t just for you—it’s for those you love. It should include a will and possibly, trusts, a power of attorney for financial affairs and a health care directive. As many as 60% of all Americans don’t have a will. However, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted for everyone the need to have those documents. For those who have an estate plan, the need for a tune-up has become very clear, says the article “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

With any significant change in your life, a review of your estate plan is in order. Keep in mind that none of your estate planning documents are written in stone. They should be changed when your life does. COVID-19 has also changed many of our lives. Let’s take a look at how.

Has anyone you named as a beneficiary died, or become estranged from you? Will everyone who is a beneficiary in your current estate plan still receive what you had wanted them to receive? Are there new people in your life, family members or otherwise, with whom you want to share your legacy?

The same applies to the person you selected as your executor. As you have aged over the years, so have they. Are they still alive? Are they still geographically available to serve as an executor? Do they still want to take on the responsibilities that come with this role? Family members or trusted friends move, marry, or make other changes in their lives that could cause you to change your mind about their role.

Over time, you may want to change your wishes for your children, or other beneficiaries. Maybe ten years ago you wanted to give everyone an equal share of an inheritance, but perhaps circumstances have changed. Maybe one child has had career success and is a high-income earner, while another child is working for a non-profit and barely getting by. Do you want to give them the same share?

Here’s another thought—if your children have become young adults (in the wink of an eye!), do you want them to receive a large inheritance when they are young adults, or would you want to have some control over when they inherit? Some people stagger inheritances through the use of trusts, and let their children receive significant funds, when they reach certain ages, accomplishments or milestones.

Have you or your children been divorced, since your estate plan was last reviewed? In that case, you really need to get that appointment with an estate planning attorney! Do you want your prior spouse to have the same inheritance you did when you were happily married? If your children are married to people you aren’t sure about, or if they are divorced, do you want to use estate planning to protect their inheritance? That is another function of estate planning.

Taking out your estate plan and reviewing it is always a good idea. There may be no need for any changes—or you may need to do a major overhaul. Either way, it is better to know what needs to be done and take care of it, especially during a times like the one we are experiencing right now.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 27, 2020) “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will”