Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

What If an Estate Owes Back Taxes?

If grandma did not finish up all of her duties as the executor of her husband’s estate before she passed away, it would be wise to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

An estate planning attorney can help with the issues with estate administration, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “My grandmother’s estate owes back taxes. What next?”

The fiduciary appointed to administer an estate—called an executor or personal representative—is responsible to make certain that all creditors are paid before making distribution of estate assets.

An executor of an estate is the person designated to administer the last will and testament of the decedent. His or her primary duty is to carry out the instructions to manage the affairs and wishes of the decedent.

An executor is appointed either by the testator of the will (the one who makes the will) or by a court, in situations where there is no will (also known as intestacy).

If there is a probate proceeding, the executor is required to officially notify creditors of it pursuant to the state probate statutes.

If there are not enough assets to pay all creditors, state statutes give a priority regarding how creditors are paid.

Funeral expenses and taxes are typically paid first.

Note that if the creditors are not paid, and money is distributed to beneficiaries, the creditors may seek the return of those distributions from the beneficiaries.

However, the executor’s individual assets would not be responsible for payment of estate debts. It is just the assets that are received from the decedent.

As far as taxes, the IRS is still legally entitled to the money owed by the decedent. The federal government will usually go to great lengths to collect it, even if the will instructs the remaining assets to be distributed elsewhere.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 3, 2022) “My grandmother’s estate owes back taxes. What next?”

Why Is Estate Planning Review Important?

Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced.

You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

Does Marriage have an Impact on a Will?

It is very difficult to challenge a marriage once it has occurred, since the capacity needed to marry is relatively low. Even a person who is under conservatorship because they are severely incapacitated may marry, unless there is a court order stating otherwise, says the article “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration” from Lake Country News. This unfortunate fact allows scammers to woo and wed their victims.

What about individuals who think they are married when they are not? A “putative” spouse is someone who genuinely believed they were married, although the marriage is invalid, void, or voidable because of a legal defect. An example of a legal defect is bigamy, if the person is already married when they marry another person.

Once a couple is married, they owe each other a duty to treat each other fairly. In certain states, they are prohibited from taking unfair advantage of each other. Depending on the state of residence, property is also owned in different ways. In a community property state, such as California, marital earnings and anything acquired while married is presumed to be community property.

In a community property state, debts incurred before or during the marriage are also shared. In a number of states, marriage is sufficient reason for a creditor to come after the assets of a spouse, if they married someone with pre-marital debts.

There are exceptions. If a married person puts their earnings during marriage into a separate bank account their spouse is not able to access, then those deposited earnings are not available for debtor spouse’s debts incurred before the marriage took place.

If a married person dies without a will, also known as “intestate,” the surviving spouse is the next of kin.  In most cases, they will inherit the assets of the decedent. If the decedent had children from a prior marriage, they may end up with nothing.

These are all reasons why couples should have frank discussions about finances, including assets and debts, before marrying. Coming into the marriage with debt may not be a problem for some people, but they should be advised beforehand.

A pre-nuptial agreement can state the terms of the couple’s financial health as individuals and declare their intentions. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pre-nuptial to align with the couple’s estate plan, so the estate plan and the pre-nuptial work together.

Marriage brings rights and responsibilities which impact life and death for a couple. Starting a marriage based on full disclosure and proper planning clears the way for a focus on togetherness, and not solely the business side of marriage.

Reference: Lake Country News (Feb. 12, 2022) “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration”

What Can’t I Forget in My Will Now that I’m 50?

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “If You’re Over 50, Don’t Leave This Out of Your Will, Expert Says” fills us in on what we can’t forget in a will after the big 5-0.

Incapacity. A 2021 survey from Caring.com says that almost two-thirds of adults do not have a will. Even those thinking about estate planning do not consider a plan for addressing the possibility of incapacity.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to create a power of attorney, so in the event you are incapable of making decisions because of your mental state or disability, you have someone you trust doing it for you.

More than a will. A will should be one component of a comprehensive estate plan that addresses who gets what when you die, but also who can take care of business, if you are not able to care for yourself. Naming a person in advance lets you to avoid having court involvement and lets you take control of your future.

The law has many ways for you to select who will have authority and care for you, if you become incapacitated. This is something that you can and should discuss with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Will backups. Designating loved ones you trust should be the rule in all facets of estate planning. However, it is critical to be certain that you have backups (“successors” or “alternates”), in the event that a person you’ve selected can’t fulfill their role.

Many people around age 50 who see their thriving, productive children making their way in the world fail to consider the thought that their children may not be available or able to serve a role. Designating more than one backup might not seem like it is a big deal, but you should consider the possibility that a loved one might be incapacitated, predecease you, or be unavailable.

Keep your will current. As your life changes, so do your needs. Therefore, it is vital to be sure that your will is up-to-date. You should review your will regularly (at least every few years) to make sure that it still reflects your current thinking.

You should also be sure you know where an original copy of the will is located. It is important to keep track of it. You can leave it locked away with your attorney or some other secure place, but you need to know where it is.

Reference: Yahoo News (Feb. 6, 2022) “If You’re Over 50, Don’t Leave This Out of Your Will, Expert Says”

How Do I Write My Will?

Remember that if you don’t write your will correctly, your wishes could end up going unfulfilled, says Claremont Portside’s article entitled “A Guide for Writing Your Will: Steps You Need to Take.”

While there are a lot of tools online, your best bet is working with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Schedule a meeting with an estate planning attorney to discuss your final wishes. The process of writing a will is relatively straightforward:

  • Decide who you want to inherit your assets
  • Remember to include your favorite charities, if you want
  • Note if any of your heirs has special needs or requires extra planning (e.g., if they’re not good with money)
  • Note if you have minor children who will need a guardian and can’t inherit outright at their age
  • List the specific items or assets you want each person to inherit
  • List any debts or liabilities
  • Designate an executor or personal representative
  • Determine how your estate should be managed, until it is distributed; and
  • Ask your attorney about tax implications.

Once prepared, retain a copy in a safe place and make copies for your executor, your spouse or partner, children older than 18 years old and any other heirs who live in another state.

When you begin this process, create a list of what you own and how much it’s worth. This can help ensure that your estate is distributed according to your wishes.

The executor of your will is responsible for ensuring that everything goes according to plan, so choose someone you trust.

Reference: Claremont Portside “A Guide for Writing Your Will: Steps You Need to Take”

When Do I Need to Review Will?

You should take a look at your will and other estate planning documents at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more frequently. Some reasons to do it sooner include things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or even moving to another state where estate laws are different from where your will was drawn up.

CNBC’s recent article entitled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated” says that one of the primary considerations for a review is a life event — when there’s a major change in your life.

The pandemic has created an interest in estate planning, which includes a will and other legal documents that address end-of-life considerations. Research now shows that 18- to 34-year-olds are now more likely (by 16%) to have a will than those who are in the 35-to-54 age group. In the 25-to-40 age group, just 32% do, according to a survey. Even so, fewer than 46% of U.S. adults have a will.

If you’re among those who have a will or comprehensive estate plan, here are some things to review and why. In addition to reviewing your will in terms of who gets what, see if the person you named as executor is still a suitable choice. An executor must do things such as liquidating accounts, ensuring that your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, paying any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed) and selling your home.

Likewise, look at the people to whom you’ve assigned powers of attorney. If you become incapacitated at some point, the people with that authority will handle your medical and financial affairs, if you are unable. The original people you named to handle certain duties may no longer be in a position to do so.

Some assets pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA or 401(k)plans and life insurance proceeds. As a result, the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money, regardless of what your will says. Note that 401(k) plans usually require your current spouse to be the beneficiary, unless they legally agree otherwise.

Regular bank accounts can also have beneficiaries listed on a payable-on-death form, obtained at your bank.

If you own a home, make sure to see how it should be titled, so it is given to the person (or people) you intend.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 7, 2021) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated”

How Do I Write a Will?

A poorly written or out-of-date will can be costly and ruin an otherwise well-planned estate. Yahoo Entertainment’s recent article entitled “11 Steps to Writing a Will” tells you how to get started and complete your will in 10 simple steps:

  1. Hire an Estate Planning Attorney. Individuals or families with relatively simple financial situations may be able to use an online, reputable software program to complete their wills. However, many situations require an estate planning attorney, such as blended families.
  2. Choose your Beneficiaries. A big mistake people make when planning their estate is failing to name or update beneficiaries on key accounts that work with the plans outlined in their wills. The beneficiary designation on an account supersedes the will, but it’s good to be consistent.
  3. Name an Executor. The executor is responsible for carrying out the wishes expressed in your will.
  4. Select a Guardian for Your Minor Children. It’s common to name multiple guardians, in case one of them named isn’t able to accept the responsibility of guardianship.
  5. Be Specific About Your Bequests. One of the most time-consuming aspects of creating a will can be deciding which assets to include and determining who will get what.
  6. Be Realistic About your Bequests. Practically consider how assets will be distributed. A big reason children stop speaking after a parent’s death is because of boilerplate language directing tangible assets, such as artwork or jewelry, to be divided equally among children.
  7. Attach a Letter of Last Instruction. You can attach an explanatory letter to your will that can serve as a personal way to say goodbye and also provide additional details about certain wishes.
  8. Sign the Will Properly. If you don’t, a will may be declared invalid. Witnesses must sign your will, and in many states, the witnesses can’t be under 18 and those who stand to inherit (“interested parties”).
  9. Keep Your Will in a Safe and Accessible Spot. Make certain that someone you trust knows where to find your will and other important papers and passwords to financial institutions.
  10. Review and Keep Your Up-to-date. Wills should be updated every five years or so, or sooner if you have a major life event, such as the birth or adoption of a new child or grandchild, a divorce, or the death of a spouse or parent.
  11. Add Other Important Estate Planning Documents. A will by itself may not meet all of your estate planning needs. A trust is another estate planning tool that lets you transfer assets when and how you want. A living will communicates your desires for medical treatment or a power of attorney that allows a third party to make financial and legal decisions, along with the will and should be your next step after writing your will.

Reference: Yahoo Entertainment (Jan. 4, 2022) “11 Steps to Writing a Will”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

One of the goals of estate planning is to care for loved ones, particularly those who depend on us for care after we have passed on. Wills, trusts, life insurance and beneficiary designations are all used to provide support to people—but what about pets? There is something you can do to protect your furry companions, says a recent article from The Sentinel, “Elder Care: Estate planning for your furry friends.”

We love our pets, to the tune of $103.6 billion in expenditures in 2020, including everything from pet food, toys, bedding, veterinary care, grooming, training and even Renaissance style portraits of pets. Scientific studies have proven the emotional and physical advantages pet ownership confers, not to mention the unconditional love pets bring to the household. So why not protect your pets, as well as other family members?

Many people rely on informal agreements with good friends or family members to take care of Fluffy or Spice, if the owner dies or becomes sick to take care of their pet. Here’s the problem: these informal agreements are not binding. Even if you’ve left a certain sum of money to a person in your will and ask it to be used solely for the care and well-being of your pet, it’s not enforceable.

We know all things change. What if your chosen pet caretaker has a child or a new romance with someone with a deathly allergy to pet dander? Or if their pet, who always used to play well during your visits, won’t tolerate your beloved pet as a housemate?

The informal agreement won’t hold the person accountable, and the funds may be spent elsewhere.

A better option is to use a pet trust. These have been recognized in all fifty states as a lawful way to provide for your animal companion’s needs. A pet trust can be created to provide for your pet during your lifetime, as well as after you have passed, allowing for continuity of care if you become incapacitated and need someone else to have the resources and guidance to care for your pet.

A pet trust is a legal document, prepared by an estate planning attorney and usually includes financial accounts in the name of the trust. Note the pet does not own the trust (animals may not own property), nor do you as the creator of the trust (the grantor). The trust is a legal entity, managed by the trustee.

A few of the things you’ll need to consider before having a pet trust created:

Who is to be the pet’s guardian? Have more than one person in mind, in case the primary pet guardian cannot serve or changes their mind.

If all of your guardians end up unable or unwilling to serve, name a no-kill animal shelter or rescue organization to take your pet. They may require you to plan in advance to cover the cost of caring for your pet. Larger organizations may have a process for a charitable remainder trust (CRT) as part of this type of arrangement.

Give details about pet preferences. If they are AKC registered, use their formal name as well as their regular name. People often fail to use the correct name in legal documents, even for humans, which can lead to legal challenges.

Do you want the same person to serve as trustee, managing funds for the pet, as the guardian? This is a similar decision for naming a guardian for minor children. Sometimes the person who is wonderful with care, is not so skilled at handling finances.

Finally, include instructions about what should happen to the money left after the pet passes. It may be used as a thank you to the person who cared for your beloved companion, or a gift to an animal organization.

Reference: The Sentinel (Jan. 7, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning for your furry friends.”

Can I Avoid Password Problems for My Family in Estate Planning?

Barron’s recent article entitled “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” explains that even financial planners may not consider until too late, how difficult it can be to recover and access a loved one’s accounts after they pass away. Since we are much more paperless with our finances, getting access to these accounts can be extremely hard for heirs, if they don’t have the right information. That’s because digital accounts are protected by encryption, multifactor authentication and federal data privacy laws.

Create a list of digital accounts and instructions on how to access them. The list should include not only financial assets but social media and other accounts. Digital accounts that loved ones or advisors may need to access following a death include:

  • Traditional financial accounts
  • Cryptocurrency accounts
  • Home payment and utilities accounts
  • Health insurance benefits
  • Email accounts
  • Social media
  • Smartphone accounts
  • Storage and file-sharing
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • E-commerce accounts
  • Subscriptions to streaming services, such as Netflix, newspapers, music services; and
  • Loyalty/rewards programs for airlines and hotels.

Create a list of accounts, passwords and access information, keeping it up to date as information changes and letting a trusted person, such as an executor or estate planning attorney, know its location. Without a password list, it can be a nightmare.

Note that with every digital account, there’s a specific process that heirs must undertake to gain access, which should then be communicated clearly in your estate plan. Make a list of all digital assets and their access information, but don’t include this in the will itself, since the document is part of the public record in probate.

Being prepared well ahead of time can help your family avoid additional stress and delays as they probate your estate. It also ensures that they don’t forfeit significant financial assets concealed behind an impenetrable digital wall.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

Why Do I Need an Estate Planning Attorney?

Pennsylvania News Today’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons You Need An Estate Lawyer says that when you think about hiring a real estate lawyer, it might seem a little unsettling. However, let’s look at these reasons and why you might require them.

Estate Planning. You might want to consider this, but everyone passes away. It’s important that your family is ready for this. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make certain everything is prepared. You should have a will. This document says what should happen with your assets when you pass away.

Trusts. A trust helps manage assets before someone dies. If you only have one or two assets you want given to someone, a will is adequate. However, if you own extensive property, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about setting up a trust. This will help your family keep living in your home, even after you’re gone without worrying about it being sold out from under them.

Probate. The probate court oversees the distribution of a person’s estate according to the instructions in their will. Probate can be a lengthy and expensive process, depending on where you live and the complexity of your assets or family situation. An estate planning attorney can help you with strategies to avoid it. A probate attorney can help you, so your family doesn’t have to worry about dealing with that stress or spending a vast amount of money necessary to do this correctly.

Guardianship. Guardianships are used when parents pass away and leave minor children behind. You can designate a guardian for your minor children in your will.

Elder Law Services. Seniors frequently need help managing finances and health care decisions. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney can help your loved ones through these complicated matters.

Estate Investments. An experienced attorney can also advise you on how to make smart investments for your family and can make certain that the transaction goes smoothly, and that any moves work with your estate planning objectives.

Tax Issues. Taxes may be owed on estates worth more than five million dollars. This can make it hard for heirs who don’t have access to this much money upfront. An estate planning attorney can help you avoid taxes, so your family doesn’t have to deal with this problem.

Estate planning is a process that should be started as soon as possible. You’ll need an estate planning lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced to help.

Reference: Pennsylvania News Today (Nov. 11, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons You Need An Estate Lawyer”