Rhode Island laws may be unique in many respects, but when it comes to inheritance law, the state rules are pretty standard. If the deceased leaves a valid will, the probate court must distribute their assets according to the terms of the document. If the deceased dies without a will, or the will is found to be invalid, intestacy laws determine the heirs.
The most noteworthy part of estate laws in Rhode Island is the fact that the state imposes its own estate tax on top of the federal estate tax. Anyone residing in Rhode Island should get an overview of the inheritance laws.
What Is Inheritance Law?
Inheritance law is a general term that can refer to any and all aspects of probate matters. Inheritance law includes both the formal requirements for making a will and intestacy laws that govern heirs when there is no valid will.
But the term is also broad enough to encompass the taxes that will have to be paid on a Rhode Island resident's estate. And it can also refer to basic probate laws and procedures in the state.
Rhode Island Wills: Dying Testate
In the state of Rhode Island, like in every other state, there are statutes setting out rules for making a last will and testament. A will is a legal document written and signed by an individual that sets out who they wish to inherit their property, both real and personal.
A valid will is usually part of a good estate plan since it allows an individual to name their own beneficiaries, as well as an executor, the person who will shepherd their estate through probate.
Making a Valid Rhode Island Will
Anyone who is at least 18 years old and of sound mind can make a will in Rhode Island. They can dispose of all of the real property and personal property that they own at the time of death by means of a will, as long as they follow the state's rules regarding execution.
They can leave property to individuals and/or organizations, and also name a guardian for minor children as well as a person to manage the estate's probate process.
To be valid in Rhode Island, the will must be in writing and signed by the person making the will, called the testator. The signing must be witnessed by two adults who also must sign the will in front of the testator. A person who leaves a valid will is said to have died testate.
Rhode Island Laws: Dying Without a Will
When a Rhode Island resident dies without leaving a valid will, they are said to die intestate. This is the result if the person failed to make a will. But a person can also die intestate even if they made a will if it turned out not to be executed appropriately under state law.
For example, if a testator signed their will in the presence of only one witness, the will would not be valid, and state intestacy laws, also called laws of intestate succession, will determine the heirs.
Rhode Island intestate succession laws pertaining to real property provide that the property shall pass to:
- Deceased person's children in equal shares or, if a child is dead, to their descendants if there are any.
- To the deceased person's parents in equal shares, in the absence of children or grandchildren.
- To the deceased person's siblings and their descendants.
- To the deceased person's grandparents in the absence of any of these relatives.
Spousal Interests in a Rhode Island Intestacy
What about a surviving spouse? Their share is much more limited in Rhode Island than in some other states. If a Rhode Island resident dies intestate with real property, the law gives the deceased's spouse a life estate in all of the real property.
A life estate grants only the use of property during that spouse's lifetime, so they cannot leave their interest to a beneficiary when they die.
However, if the deceased leaves a surviving spouse and no children, the surviving spouse may petition the probate court for up to $150,000 worth of a deceased spouse's real estate to own outright.
Intestate Distribution of Personal Property
Regarding personal property – a term that includes stocks, bonds, bank accounts and liquid assets in an intestate estate – the first priority in probate is to pay the debts and taxes of the estate. Any personal property that is left over after debts are paid is distributed to the surviving spouse and surviving children.
Note that "surviving" under Rhode Island means that the person must have survived at least 120 hours after the death of the deceased. So if both spouses were in an automobile accident and one dies a few hours after the other, there would not be a surviving spouse under Rhode Island inheritance law.
The probate court must allow the surviving spouse the sum of $50,000 from the surplus personal property, plus half of the remainder of the personal property if there are no surviving children or grandchildren. If there are surviving children or grandchildren, the surviving spouse takes half of the personal property.
Surviving Children and No Surviving Spouse
If there is no surviving spouse, but there are surviving children, all personal property after debts are paid is divided in equal shares to the children. If a child died before the deceased but left children, those grandchildren split that child's share.
Surviving Children and a Surviving Spouse
If there is a surviving spouse who gets 50 percent of the personal property, the remainder of the personal property is split evenly between the surviving children. In other words, if a married parent dies intestate, the surviving spouse receives one-half of the personal property and the children split the remaining half equally.
Inheritance Taxes in Rhode Island
The world is full of so many different taxes that it can be hard to keep it all straight. What about an estate tax? This is a tax on property that is transferred at death. The federal government imposes an estate tax on large estates and a few states also collect estate taxes. Rhode Island is one of them.
However, the Rhode Island estate tax applies only to large estates. This can be large estates owned by Rhode Island residents or large estates of nonresidents who own real property or tangible personal property in Rhode Island.
The term "large estate" depends on a person's perspective, so here are the details: the state estate tax is imposed on the estates of decedents who die with a net taxable estate of $1,500,000 or more. That means that the estate tax exemption in Rhode Island is currently $1,500,000. An estate is only taxed on the amount by which it exceeds the exemption.
- Rhode Island State: Title 33 Probate Practice and Procedure
- Rhode Island State: Title 33-5-5 Execution of Will — Acknowledgment and Attestation
- Rhode Island State: Title 33-1-1 Real Estate Descending by Intestacy to Children or Descendants, Parents, or Brothers and Sisters
- Rhode Island State: Title 33-1-6 Widow's or Husband's Allowance of Real Estate in Fee
- Rhode Island State: Title 33-1-10 Surplus Personalty Not Bequeathed
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.