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Rhode Island Inheritance Laws

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In 2023, five individuals were charged with multiple crimes in relation to one case. It involved a man who died and left behind an estate with a variety of assets. These range from over $100,000 in firearms to sports card collections valued at over $1 million.

The man who owned these assets died without a will. Two days before his passing, three of the charged individuals — the deceased’s close friend, her daughter, and the daughter’s boyfriend — started removing and selling the sports cards and firearms.

Another person, the owner of a firearms store, received the stolen guns. He knowingly sent the Cranston Probate Court a false accounting of these items’ value after it requested information about the estate in a subpoena.

A probate judge was additionally charged. By filing an application with the court for fees related to the estate’s management, she attempted to receive payment for work she did not actually perform.

The crimes involved in this case included larceny, conspiracy, and unlawful appropriation. As one can see, the complications stemming from the lack of a will can be as numerous and tangled as one’s assets. Hence, it is important to understand how inheritance laws work in Rhode Island.

This article provides an overview of the rules in place when someone dies with or without a will. It also lists various resources for individuals seeking further assistance related to their probate-related concerns.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Rhode Island?

When a person with a will passes away, their assets are entered into probate. The will provides specific instructions on how the personal and real properties of the decedent — or the person who died — are to be distributed.

A will is valid if it satisfies the following conditions:

  • The document must be in writing.

  • The document must be signed by the testator, otherwise known as the person who made it. They can also direct somebody else to sign it in their presence.

  • The testator must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind.

Moreover, at least two witnesses should sign a will for it to be valid. Rhode Island does not allow electronic wills, so these individuals must be physically present when the will is created.

A witness can either be an interested or disinterested party. Interested parties are those named in a will. However, if they decide to become a witness, their right to the inheritance is no longer valid. Meanwhile, disinterested parties refer to people who gain nothing from the will.

Role of Executors

After a person with a will dies, their estate is managed by the executor. They act as the personal representative of the decedent and are generally named in the will.

The role of executors is crucial in estate distribution; they secure assets, notify creditors, and pay debts. As such, Rhode Island requires these individuals to be legally competent and at least 18 years of age.

Additionally, a probate court may need executors to file a bond before they can fulfill their duties. The purpose of this financial requirement is to compensate creditors and beneficiaries if the executor fails to abide by their responsibilities.

In some cases, an executor may pass away before the decedent or refuse to accept their duties. A probate court may then appoint an alternate executor if such a person is named in the will. If none exists, then the surviving spouse or eldest child is chosen. Should nobody be selected, the court may require a third party with a fiduciary duty to the estate to become the executor.

Admitting the Will to Probate

When the executor admits the will to probate, this means they are submitting that document to a court-supervised process so that the decedent’s wishes are carried out.

The probate process begins with a petition to the court that contains various information, including:

  • Details about the petitioner, like their name and address.

  • Details about the decedent, like their permanent residence before their death.

  • Details about the heirs, like their names and addresses.

Keep in mind that a petition serves as an individual’s request to the probate court that they should be appointed as the executor. This step is necessary since naming a person as an executor in a will does not automatically mean they become one.

Rhode Island’s Probate Process

After someone dies, the named executor cannot immediately file the will with the court and start the probate process. They have to obtain a death certificate first and attach it to the petition.

Executors have 30 days from the decedent’s death to present the will. If they initially did not possess the will, they must submit it within 30 days after receiving it.

The will must be filed in a probate court. There is one in each of the eight cities and 31 towns across Rhode Island. If the decedent was 55 or older at the time of their death, the executor must send a copy of the petition and death certificate to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

One thing to note is that a person may make simple changes to their will. To do so, they must create a separate document called a codicil. When they die, the will and the codicil will be used to determine how to distribute their properties.

Another thing to remember is the probate fee, which is 1% of the value of the decedent’s personal property. Per state law, this fee can only range from $30 to $1,500.

There are also different fees for estates with intangible personal properties worth $15,000 or less. Such estates are known as small estates. The person in charge of these has to pay a $30 filing fee. They must also send a $5 payment to receive a certification that they are the estate’s administrator.

Intangible personal properties pertain to assets that cannot be touched physically. These include life insurance contracts, royalty agreements, and patents.

After the executor files the will, they need to advertise the petition through a notice in the applicable newspaper. The question of when the notice should be published depends on the town or city. Some examples include:

  • Providence: At least four weeks before the probate court hearing.

  • Warwick: At least three weeks before the hearing.

  • Pawtucket: Depends on the court.

At least 10 days before the hearing date, the executor must also send a mailed notice to the individuals named in the petition. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether the will and petition comply with Rhode Island law. Court judges will also ask about the estate size during the proceedings. If everything is satisfactory, the court appoints the executor.

The executor must then notify the estate’s creditors within a reasonable time from their appointment date. Creditors, meanwhile, are given six months to file claims against the estate. Within 90 days of being appointed for the role, executors must also submit an inventory of tangible and intangible personal properties to the court. 

After the executor files tax returns and pays debts, they can submit a final accounting to the court. Before this account is approved, an affidavit of no real property or certificate of descent must be submitted. The former shows that the decedent did not own real estate, while the latter expresses that they did.

When the final accounting is accepted, executors may request that the court distribute the estate assets to the beneficiaries. The whole probate process may take six months to two years or longer for larger estates. One may obtain the services of an experienced Rhode Island probate attorney to understand how the process works.

Non-probate Assets

Some assets do not have to go through the probate process. These include: 

  • Assets placed in trusts, including life insurance policies. 

  • Jointly owned properties.

  • Retirement accounts.

  • Bank accounts with pay-on-death designations.

  • Securities with transfer-on-death designations.

Contesting a Will

Contesting a will means claiming that it cannot go to probate. To do so, one must submit a claim in writing to the probate court where the will was submitted. Keep in mind that during regular sessions, courts hear uncontested matters first before contested ones. Nevertheless, they can hold additional sessions if necessary so that contested matters are heard.

There are different reasons why someone contests a will, including: 

  • Evidence of undue influence: A person may claim that an individual used their relationship with the testator to illegally manipulate them into writing a will that is unfair to other beneficiaries.

  • Lack of testamentary capacity: A person may claim that the testator was not of sound mind when they wrote the will.

  • Presence of coercion or duress: A person may claim that the testator was threatened with harm when the will was made.

  • Proof of unlawful execution: A person may claim that the will was not properly created. For example, only one witness attested to and signed the document.

These grounds for contesting a will require evidence, which a litigation lawyer can help identify and present in court. Whether you’re defending or opposing a will, a  legal professional can better assist you in navigating the legal process than having to go through it alone.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Rhode Island?

When someone dies intestate, it means they failed to create a will before passing away.

Unlike executors, the people in charge of an estate without a will are known as administrators. Rhode Island courts typically appoint surviving family members, like an adult child or spouse, for the role.

Whether a will exists or not, assets that are required to go through probate must undergo the process. Given this, the responsibilities of administrators are similar to those of executors. 

Spousal Rights

What a decedent’s surviving spouse receives depends on multiple factors. For instance, if they do not have children, widowers or widows receive $50,000 from the personal properties that remain after taxes or debts have been paid. They also obtain half of the remaining estate. 

If there are surviving children, the spouse's share is half of the decedent’s personal property.

Widowers or widows may petition the probate court for $150,000 from the decedent’s real estate properties. Remember that, under state law, such properties transfer upon death to the surviving spouse. In other words, they enjoy the benefits of ownership until they pass away. 

One right that spouses must also be aware of is elective share. This pertains to the ability of individuals to petition the court for a fixed fraction of the estate. The right to an elective share may be used if the surviving spouse feels that their share is insufficient. 

A unique aspect of Rhode Island is its continued recognition of common-law marriages. These are situations wherein a couple acts as if they are married — like by cohabiting or filing taxes jointly — despite not obtaining a marriage license or going through a ceremony solemnized by a religious leader.

But although common-law marriages are recognized, this area of the law is murky, and the services of a family lawyer might be needed. A couple can maintain a joint bank account and live together. But they may also file taxes separately and not wear wedding bands. Given these circumstances, a Rhode Island court can decide not to acknowledge the marriage.

This may prove problematic in many ways. For instance, the surviving spouse may not have the right to own a certain property if the court does not consider them the husband or wife of the decedent. Another example would be related to sickness; if a partner becomes ill, decisions over their health may be granted to others rather than the supposed spouse. 

Children’s Rights

Similar to surviving spouses, how much children receive depends on different circumstances. If the parent is unmarried, their children obtain all the estate’s real and personal properties. Meanwhile, if there is a spouse, the descendants of the decedent inherit half their personal properties.

There are other situations where different children have varying rights to the estate, as exhibited in the table below:

Potential Inheritor

Description

Adopted children

Receive a share as if they are biological children of the decedent

Children legally adopted by a different family 

Receive a share

Stepchildren

Receive a share if the decedent had no other family members

Children born out of wedlock

Receive a share if paternity was acknowledged

Grandchildren

Receive a share if their parent is not alive

Children born through assisted reproduction, where the genetic material came from a parent who died before the child was born

Receive a share if either condition is met:

The decedent consented through a record that they would be the child’s parent.

The decedent intended to become the child’s parent based on evidence.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

In cases where there are no surviving children or spouses, other relatives may receive a share. The order of priority involving their inheritance is as follows:

  • Parents.

  • Siblings or their descendants. 

  • Grandparents. 

  • Aunts and uncles or their descendants. 

  • Great grandparents.

Estates With No Heirs

If no relatives exist, the estate is escheated. This means that the assets are transferred to the state government.

This scenario is unlikely, though, since the state will search thoroughly for surviving family members and may even contact very distant relatives.

Unique Situations in Rhode Island Inheritance Law

Inheritance laws can be complex. In some cases, this complexity increases as new factors are added that may affect one’s inheritance.

For Non-residents

In 2022, over 40,000 people moved to Rhode Island from other states. Most of these newcomers arrived from Massachusetts, Florida, Connecticut, Texas, and New York. Besides the challenges of starting a new life, they also face issues related to estate planning.

One such issue involves foreign wills. If these are already admitted to probate in the decedent’s former state, they do not need to go through probate in Rhode Island. There are three exceptions to this, however. These are:

  • If the ancillary probate, or the secondary proceeding, is inconvenient or expensive.

  • If the will requires it to be admitted to probate in Rhode Island.

  • If the laws of the former state are unfair to beneficiaries or fiduciaries in Rhode Island.

For LGBTQIA+ Parents

Rhode Island is a favorable state for the queer community. Same-sex marriage has been legal in the Ocean State since 2013, and at least 19% of its LGBTQIA+ population raises kids. In addition, it ranks 13th among states with the most equitable climate for LGBTQIA+ individuals.

However, as parents, they have to contend with a different set of challenges. As such, the Rhode Island Uniform Parentage Act, or RIUPA, was established. It allows same-sex parents to establish parentage through voluntary acknowledgment after the birth of the child involved.

This acknowledgment is crucial because it gives same-sex couples the ability to make decisions regarding their child’s healthcare. It also gives their child the right to inherit their assets and insurance benefits.

Does Rhode Island Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Yes, Rhode Island has an estate tax. However, it does not have an inheritance tax. It is essential to note the difference between the two:

  • Inheritance taxes refer to the liability charged to an estate’s beneficiaries and heirs.

  • Estate taxes refer to the liability charged to the estate.

Starting January 1, 2023, estates worth less than $1,733,264 are exempt from taxation. If an estate’s value exceeds that amount, the inheritance tax rate varies between 0.8% and 16%.

Federal estate taxes also apply if an estate's value exceeds $12.92 million. If you have tax issues, related to inheritance, hiring a tax attorney or a real estate lawyer is worth considering.

Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Rhode Island

Rhode Island Bar Association

The Rhode Island Bar Association has been promoting justice in the state since 1898. As part of its efforts to maintain the public's confidence in justice administration, the organization runs the Client Reimbursement Fund. This gives individuals who lost money because of misappropriation or theft by their attorney a way to reimburse their losses. One may call 401-421-5740 or email info@ribar.com to inquire about the program.

Personal Lifetime Advocacy Networks of Rhode Island

Personal Lifetime Advocacy Networks of Rhode Island, or PLAN RI, comprises families looking to secure the future of their loved ones with disabilities. Members receive support in different areas, including employment. The organization also conducts webinars about how families can access inclusive housing options in the country. For more information, call 401-785-9541 or email planri@gmail.com.

Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General

The Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General advocates for and protects locals throughout the Ocean State. One of the ways the office fulfills its mission is through the Charitable Trust unit. It enforces regulations involving the operation and administration of such trusts. It also runs a database that contains information regarding the finances of each registered charitable trust. One may call 401-274-4400 to ask questions about such matters.

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