Estate Planning Blog Articles

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

executor selection

How Does Court Choose an Executor if a Will Isn’t Available?

An executor is the person who’ll manage your estate by protecting your assets, paying your debts and distributing the remaining property according to the terms in the will. But Programming Insider’s recent article, “Role of the Court When There is No Will For an Estate, asks “what would happen if someone dies without a will and, therefore, without appointing a personal representative?”

This is known as dying “intestate.” When it happens, the probate court must decide who will act as the estate’s administrator or personal representative. The judge’s decision will be based on state law, which will say how to prioritize potential fiduciaries in an administrator’s appointment. Every state has a prioritized list of preferred executors, and some states offer detailed guidance, like Oklahoma, which has a prioritized list. If more than one person is equally entitled to be appointed, a court has the option to appoint one or more executors.

The probate court has the final decision as to who will serve as the estate’s administrator or personal representative, even including a person who is named as executor in a will or is entitled to be chosen as a valid executor. The court will award authority to an administrator and will issue letters of administration or letters of testamentary. This authorizes the person to serve as an estate’s personal representative. Some people who might otherwise be entitled to serve as an executor may be disqualified based on state law. Here are some of the factors that a judge may consider when disqualifying a potential executor:

  • An executor must be an adult, who is at least 18 years old. However, some states require the minimum age of 21.
  • Criminal History. Some states don’t permit someone who’s been convicted of a serious crime to serve as the fiduciary representative of a decedent’s estate. Other states only require a potential executor to notify the court of any felony convictions.
  • Residency. This may be a factor in a person’s ability to serve as a personal representative. Some states let nonresidents serve in some circumstances. Some let nonresidents serve, if it’s a close relative. Finally, some other states require a nonresident executor to post a bond or use an agent within the state to process services and the court’s communication.
  • Business Relationship. There may be state laws as to who may be an executor if the decedent was an active member of a partnership; and
  • It also may be difficult for a noncitizen to serve as an estate’s personal representative.

Generally, probate judges have a lot of latitude and discretion on this selection.

Reference: Programming Insider (Nov. 9, 2020) “Role of the Court When There is No Will For an Estate

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 planning

Cornelius Vanderbilt Created an Estate Plan, but Should I?

AJC’s recent article entitled “Why Vanderbilts should inspire you to create an estate plan” explains that when Cornelius Vanderbilt died, his son, William, inherited most of the fortune and nearly doubled it within a decade. However, after that came a drop in the cash, and after just a few decades, the fortune had been spent. Therefore, none of Vanderbilt’s descendants stayed among the wealthiest people in the country.

When 120 Vanderbilt family members recently gathered for a reunion at Vanderbilt University, not one was a millionaire. In a century, the largest estate America has ever known had dwindled to next to nothing.

Let’s look at why this happens and how you can prevent this from happening to your estate.

America is currently in the midst of the greatest transfer of wealth ever. An estimated $59 trillion will be transferred to heirs, charities and taxes between 2007 and 2061. However, roughly 70% of wealth transfers aren’t successful. This means that sometimes heirs get practically nothing. There are three reasons for this failure:

  1. No trust and communication among heirs because they’re all concerned about their share.
  2. Heirs are unprepared to inherit an estate, which may include managing investments or a business. In many cases, other family members don’t know how it works.
  3. Heirs have no clue where the money should go and what purpose it should serve because no one is thinking long term about what is best for the family assets.

It’s common for business owners to believe that an estate plan is enough to keep everything in order, but they don’t consider their business. This is the reason why succession planning is vital. This planning determines what happens to the business itself and lays out the strategy, so it continues to operate smoothly after it’s passed to the heirs.

Let’s look at some tips for dealing with estate planning that should make for a smooth transition:

Create a plan. If you die without a will, state probate law will determine who gets your assets. This may not be what you want. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that everything is drawn up correctly.

Discuss the issues with your heirs. Talk to your family about the financial details. Make sure that your heirs know the details of your estate, so they can start to manage and oversee it once you die.

Get heirs involved in the process. Likewise, heirs can help plan based on their knowledge, future availability and expectations. By planning now, no one will be caught unaware about what to do with the estate.

Ready your heirs. Educate your heirs on how to manage and oversee your assets, especially if you have a succession plan for a business. Discuss the company’s mission and vision, and what you want the company to achieve.

Organize your financial documents. Get all financial documents in a single location and label everything clearly to help out your heirs. Keep this in a safe location, and let your heirs know where it’s located. Your attorney should also have a copy of your will, estate plan and succession plan (if applicable).

Get help from experts. Help forge a relationship between your heirs and your financial team, which may include a financial adviser, an estate planning attorney and an accountant. This will allow your heirs to know who to call, if things get complicated. It’ll also help to prepare them for what they’re supposed to be doing, once they get their inheritance.

Communication is the key. Talking with your experts and your heirs will make certain that everyone understands each other’s roles, regardless of whether it’s a small business or a multimillion-dollar empire.

Reference: AJC (Sep. 25, 2020) “Why Vanderbilts should inspire you to create an estate plan”

estate planning documents

What Estate Planning Documents Do I Need for a Happy Retirement?

Estate planning documents are made to help you and your family, in the event of your untimely demise or incapacitation.

These documents will give your family specific instructions on how to proceed.

The Winston-Salem Journal’s recent article entitled “4 Must-Have Documents for a Peaceful Retirement” looks at these critical documents in constructing an effective estate plan.

  1. Power of Attorney (POA). If you become incapacitated or become unable to make your own financial decisions, a POA will permit a trusted agent to manage your affairs. Have an estate planning attorney review your POA before it’s executed. You can give someone a limited POA that restricts their authority to specific transactions. You can also create a springing POA, which takes effect only at the time of your incapacitation.
  2. Will. About 40% of Americans actually have a will. Creating a valid will prevents you from leaving a mess for your heirs to address after you die. A will appoints an executor who will manage your affairs in a fiduciary manner. The will also details your plan for the distribution of your property. Make certain that your will is also in agreement with other documents you’ve set up, so it doesn’t create any questions.
  3. TOD/POD Designation Forms. A Transfer-on-Death (TOD) or Payable-on-Death (POD) designation lets you to assign your investment accounts to a named beneficiary. The big benefit here is that accounts with a named TOD/POD beneficiary pass directly to that person when you die. Any accounts without a TOD/POD beneficiary will be subject to the terms of your will and will be required to go through the probate process.
  4. Healthcare POA/Advance Directives. These are significant health-related documents. A healthcare POA allows your named agent to communicate your wishes to medical professionals, if you are unable. They also include instructions as to whether you want to have life-saving measures performed, if you have a cardiac or respiratory arrest. These healthcare documents also remove the need for your family to make difficult decisions for you.

Reference: Winston-Salem Journal (Sep. 20, 2020) “4 Must-Have Documents for a Peaceful Retirement”

Picasso's estate

Dividing Pablo Picasso’s Estate, a Disaster

Picasso left behind 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, as well as tens of thousands of prints, thousands of ceramic works and 150 sketchbooks when he passed away in 1973. He owned five homes and a large portfolio of stocks and bonds. “The Master” fathered four children with three women. He was also thought to have had $4.5 million in cash and $1.3 million in gold in his possession when he died. Once again, Picasso did not leave a will. Distributing his assets took six years of contentious negotiations between his children and other heirs, such as his wives, mistresses, legitimate children and his illegitimate ones.

Celebrity Net Worth’s recent article entitled “When Pablo Picasso Died He Left Behind Billions Of Dollars Worth Of Art … Yet He Left No Will” explains that Picasso was creating art up until his death. Unlike most artists who die broke, he had been famous in his lifetime. However, when he died without a will, people came out of the woodwork to claim a piece of his valuable estate. Only one of Picasso’s four children was born to a woman who was his wife. One of his mistresses had been living with him for decades. She had a direct and well-documented influence on his work. However, Picasso had no children with her. Dividing his estate was a disaster.

A court-appointed auditor who evaluated Picasso’s assets after his death said that he was worth between $100-$250 million (about $530 million to $1.3 billion today, after adjusting for inflation). In addition to his art, his heirs were fighting over the rights to license his image rights. The six-year court battle cost $30 million in legal fees to settle. But it didn’t settle for long, as the heirs began fighting over the rights to Picasso’s name and image. In 1989, his son Claude sold the name and the image of Picasso’s signature to French carmaker Peugeot-Citroen for $20 million. They wanted to release a sedan called the “Citroen Xsara Picasso.” However, one of Picasso’s grandchildren tried to halt the sale because she disagreed with the commission paid to the agent who brokered the deal—but oddly enough, the consulting company was owned by her cousin, another Picasso.

Claude created the Picasso Administration in Paris in the mid-90s. This entity manages the heirs’ jointly owned property, controls the rights to exhibitions and reproductions of the master’s works, and authorizes merchandising licenses for his work, name and image. The administration also investigates forgeries, illegal use of the Picasso name and stolen works of art. In the 47 years since his death, Picasso has been the most reproduced, most exhibited, most stolen and most faked artist of all time.

Pablo Picasso’s heirs are all very well off as a result of his art. His youngest daughter, Paloma Picasso, is the richest, with $600 million. She’s had a successful career as a jewelry designer.  She also enjoys her share of her father’s estate.

Reference: Celebrity Net Worth (Sep, 13, 2020) “When Pablo Picasso Died He Left Behind Billions Of Dollars Worth Of Art … Yet He Left No Will”

fighting over inheritance

How Can Siblings Settle Disputes over an Estate?

When your parents pass away, their assets are often divided between their children. However, if there’s no will to answer any legal questions that may arise, siblings can fight over the assets. Some even take the matter to court. It would be great to avoid these battles because, in many cases, a fight over an estate between the siblings can end their good relationship and enrich attorneys, instead of family members.

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle” says that the following tips can help people in this situation or assist them in preventing the fight entirely, when there are no instructions for the distribution of certain assets.

Use a Family Auction. With a family auction, siblings use agreed upon “tokens” to bid for the estate items they want.

Get an Appraisal. The division of an estate between the siblings can get complicated and end in a fight, if the siblings want different pieces of the estate and have to work out the value difference. If, for example, the siblings decide to split the estate unevenly, and one gets a car and another a house, it’s worthwhile to engage the services of an appraiser to calculate the value of these assets. That way, those pieces of smaller value can be deducted from ones of higher value for fairer distribution.

Mediation. If siblings historically don’t get along, they may battle over every trinket left as an inheritance, no matter how immaterial. In that case, you should use a mediator to help divide the estate fairly without a court battle.

Take Turns! Sometimes, if there are several siblings involved in the division of assets, they can take turns in claiming the items within the estate. All siblings naturally have to agree to the idea with no hard feelings involved. Just like Mom would have wanted!

Asset Liquidation. If everything else fails, the easiest way to divide the assets and the estate between the siblings is to go through asset liquidation and split the proceeds.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to deal with the division of the estate and assets and prevent the legal battle between the siblings. To avoid hard feelings, stay calm, be reasonable and ask your siblings to act the same way.

Reference: The Legal Reader (Aug. 24, 2020) “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle”

sole beneficiary sharing

What If a Sole Beneficiary Wants to Share?

That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, right?

However, Morningstar’s recent article entitled “3 Strategies to Consider When Sole Beneficiaries Want to Share the Wealth” says that there are a few hurdles to clear, such as the IRA administrator’s policies, income tax consequences, transfer tax consequences and the terms of the decedent’s will.

Here’s a scenario: Uncle Buck dies and leaves his IRA to his niece, Hope. Buck’s will leaves all his other assets equally to all three of his nieces: sisters Hope, Faith and Charity. However, the three agree that Buck’s IRA should be shared equally, like the rest of the estate. What do they do?

The Easy Way. Hope keeps the IRA, withdraws from it when she wants (and as required by the minimum distribution rules), pays the income tax on her withdrawals and makes cash gifts to Faith and Charity (either now or as she withdraws from the IRA) in an agreed upon the amount. It would mean giving her two sisters ⅓ of the after-tax value of the IRA. There is no court proceeding or issue with the IRA provider. There are no income tax consequences because Hope will pay the other girls only the after-tax value of the IRA distributions she receives. However, there’s a transfer tax consequence: Hope’s transfers would be considered as gifts for gift tax purposes because she has no legal obligation to share the IRA with the other nieces. Any gift over the annual exclusion amount in any year ($15,000 as of 2020) will be using up some of Hope’s lifetime gift and estate tax exemption. This easy answer may work well for a not-too-large inherited IRA.

The Expensive Method: Reformation. If there is evidence that Buck made a mistake in filling out the beneficiary form, a court-ordered reformation of the document may be appropriate. Therefore, if Hope, Faith, and Charity have witnesses who would testify that the decedent told them shortly before he died, “I’m leaving all my assets equally to my three nieces,” it could be evidence that he made a mistake in completing the beneficiary designation form for the IRA. The court could order the IRA provider to pay the IRA to all three girls, and the IRS would probably accept the result. By accepting the result, the IRS would agree that the nieces should be equally responsible for their respective shares of income tax on the IRA and for taking the required distributions, and that no taxable gift occurred. However, as you might expect, the IRS isn’t legally bound by a lower state court’s order. If the reformation is based on evidence, the parties may want the tax results confirmed by an IRS private letter ruling, which is an expensive and time-consuming task.

The In-Between. The final possible solution is a qualified disclaimer. Hope would “disclaim” two thirds of the IRA (and keep a third). A qualified disclaimer (made within nine months after Buck’s death) would be effective to move two thirds of the IRA (and the income taxes) from Hope without gift taxes. A qualified disclaimer involves a legal fee but no court or IRS involvement. As a result, it can be fairly simple and cost-effective. However, there may be an issue: when Hope disclaims two thirds of the IRA, that doesn’t mean the disclaimed share of the IRA automatically goes to the other nieces. Instead, the disclaimed portion of the IRA will pass to the contingent beneficiary of the IRA. Hope needs to see where it goes next, prior to signing the disclaimer. If there’s no contingent beneficiary named by Buck, the disclaimed portion will pass to the default beneficiary named in the IRA provider’s plan documents. That’s typically the decedent’s probate estate. If the disclaimed portion of the IRA passes to the uncle’s estate, and Hope is a one-third beneficiary of the estate, she will also need to disclaim her estate-derived share of the IRA. A “simple disclaimer” can be complicated, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help.

Even if Hope disclaims two thirds of the IRA, so that it passes to Faith and Charity through the estate, the other girls won’t receive as favorable income tax treatment as Hope. Hope inherits her share as designated beneficiary, while an estate (the assumed default beneficiary), which isn’t a designated beneficiary, can’t qualify for that.

Reference: Morningstar (Aug. 13, 2020) “3 Strategies to Consider When Sole Beneficiaries Want to Share the Wealth”

inheritance acceptance

Do I Have to Accept an Inheritance?

Most people don’t use a disclaimer because they’re not entitled to other assets to offset the value of the asset disclaimed. They don’t get to decide who gets their disclaimed asset.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Can I reject an inheritance?” explains that the details can be found in Internal Revenue Code §2518. However, here are some of the basics about disclaimers.

In most states, a qualified disclaimer can be filed within nine months of an asset owner’s death. This disclaimer is irrevocable. Therefore, once it’s done, it’s done. This can create problems with IRAs because they have beneficiary designations, and the death claim can be processed with a few forms. As soon as the funds are transferred to an inherited IRA, disclaiming is no longer an option.

When a person disclaims an asset, the asset is distributed as though that beneficiary had died prior to the date of the benefactor’s death. Therefore, with an IRA, it is pretty simple. If you disclaim all or a part of the IRA, the funds pass on, based on the beneficiary designation.

The IRA usually has a secondary beneficiary named. If the beneficiaries in line to inherit the account are who you would want to inherit the account, disclaiming should transfer the account to them. However, if they’re not who you want to get the funds, you have little leverage to do anything about it.

If there are no other beneficiaries and you disclaimed, the money goes back into the decedent’s estate.

The funds would go through probate and be directed based upon his will. If there was no will (intestacy), the probate laws of the decedent’s state will dictate how the assets are distributed.

Having an IRA go through an estate is inefficient, time consuming and adds additional costs beyond the taxes.

All these drawbacks can be avoided, by properly designating beneficiaries.

Being wise with your beneficiary designations, also provides flexibility in your estate plan.

For example, you can set up beneficiary designations to purposely give an inheritor the option to disclaim to other family members, which is done when the primary beneficiary can disclaim to a family member that is in greater need of funds or is in a lower tax bracket.

Reference: MarketWatch (Aug. 25, 2020) “Can I reject an inheritance?”

estate planning

How Do I Keep My Spendthrift Son-in-Law from Getting the Money I Give my Daughter in My Estate?

Say that you were to name your daughter as the beneficiary on your Roth IRA and 401(k) accounts, as well as your house and other investments. Her husband would not be a beneficiary.

His only source of income is a monthly stipend that he receives from a trust and earned income from being a rideshare driver. He has at least $5,000 in credit card debt.

Can Mom use a “bloodline trusts” to prevent her son-in-law from inheriting or getting her money when she dies?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?” explains that “bloodline trusts” were created for this very reason.

Note first that retirement assets can’t be re-titled to a trust. However, a home can be, and investments can be, if they’re not tax deferred.

For assets that can’t be re-titled to the bloodline trust during your lifetime, you can name the trust as the payable-on-death (POD) beneficiary of those assets.

You also should take care in deciding on who you choose as a trustee.

In the situation above, depending on applicable law for your state of residence, the daughter may not be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary under this form of trust arrangement. However, in all instances, a bank or attorney can be a co-trustee.

This trust arrangement ensures that assets distributed to the daughter aren’t commingled with the assets of her husband with extravagant tastes and an open checkbook. In addition, those assets would not be subject to equitable distribution in the event of a divorce.

If the daughter is the sole trustee over a bloodline trust, then all the planning will be out the window, if the daughter does not agree to this set-up.

For example, if she takes distributions from the trust and deposits them in a joint account with her husband, the money is available for equitable distribution.

This means the daughter arguably has indicated that she does not think of her inheritance as a non-marital asset.

A divorce court would see it the same way and award a portion to the husband in a break-up.

Reference: nj.com (July 21, 2020) “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?”

state laws and estate planning

State Laws Have an Impact on Your Estate

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Will N.J. or Florida’s tax laws affect this inheritance?” notes that first, the fact that the individual from Florida isn’t legally married is important.

However, if she’s a Florida resident, Florida rules will matter in this scenario about the vacation condo.

Florida doesn’t have an inheritance tax, and it doesn’t matter where the beneficiary lives. For example, the state of New Jersey won’t tax a Florida inheritance.

Although New Jersey does have an inheritance tax, the state can’t tax inheritances for New Jersey residents, if the assets come from an out-of-state estate.

If she did live in New Jersey, there is no inheritance tax on “Class A” beneficiaries, which include spouses, children, grandchildren and stepchildren.

However, the issue in this case is the fact that her “daughter” isn’t legally her daughter. Her friend’s daughter would be treated by the tax rules as a friend.

You can call it what you want. However, legally, if she’s not married to her friend, she doesn’t have a legal relationship with her daughter.

As a result, the courts and taxing authorities will treat both persons as non-family.

The smart thing to do with this type of issue is to talk with an experienced estate planning attorney who is well-versed in both states’ laws to determine whether there are any protections available.

Reference: nj.com (July 23, 2020) “Will N.J. or Florida’s tax laws affect this inheritance?”