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Preparation of wills, trusts, and the division of a family estate can be a difficult matter, which often leads to contention after a family member with property passes away. A recently decided case by the Rhode Island Supreme Court demonstrates the importance of having a professionally prepared and unambiguous estate plan in place to prevent confusion and legal battles after a loved one’s passing.

The primary issue in the recently decided case surrounds joint bank accounts that a woman opened with two of her daughters shortly before her death. The woman’s two other daughters, who are the plaintiffs in the action, challenged the probate court’s division of these accounts, which were each awarded to the joint account holder and not divided by the surviving children as remaining property in the decedent’s will.

According to the appellate ruling, the decedent went to the bank with one of her daughters with the intention of opening two accounts that would pass on to each of the joint account holder daughters upon the woman’s death. Under Rhode Island law, these accounts would need to be designated as joint accounts with a right of survivorship in order to pass to the joint account holder and not to other heirs through probate. For an unknown reason, the bank agent failed to designate these accounts as such.

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Anyone who is interested in sharing ownership of Rhode Island real estate will discover that there are various ways for multiple parties to share a piece of real estate, each of them with benefits and disadvantages to the parties, depending on the situation. The most common types of shared property ownership in Rhode island are joint tenancy and tenancy-in-common.

The most common form of joint possession of real property in Rhode Island is called a tenancy-in-common. Under state law, any property that is sold, given, or otherwise conveyed to two or more persons is presumed to be a tenancy-in-common, unless the conveyance expressly states otherwise. Under tenancy-in-common, two or more tenants each own a partial share of the entire property, although they each have the right of possession and use of the entire property. Tenants in common do not need to hold equal shares of a property, and their individual shares can be transferred or sold to another party without the consent of the other owners. If a tenant in common dies while in possession of the property, her portion of the property will go to her heirs.

The second most common form of joint possession of real property in Rhode Island is joint tenancy. Joint tenancy is the primary form of joint property ownership for married couples, although any group of two or more persons may elect to hold property as joint tenants if they desire and the other requirements for a joint tenancy are met. Joint tenancy is similar to a tenancy-in-common, however, there are a few key differences.

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The idea behind owning and maintaining Rhode Island rental properties is to make a profit. Indeed, managing a rental portfolio is a good way to earn passive income. Like any business, one of the primary challenges as a landlord is to ensure that a property is generating a positive cash flow. Everyday expenses such as maintenance, taxes and registration requirements can quickly eat away at rental income. Landlords may also be liable for any injuries that occur on their property. If landlords are not property protected, their personal assets can be put in jeopardy. Thus, taking steps to manage the risks associated with rental properties is a crucial step that Rhode Island landlords should consider.

Whenever someone is injured on another’s property, the injured party may pursue a Rhode Island premises liability claim against the landlord. Figuring out who is liable in a slip and fall accident involving a landlord/tenant relationship is not always straightforward. For example, courts will look to how the injury occurred, who is in charge of maintaining the premise, and whether the landlord had any knowledge of the hazard that caused the tenant’s injuries.

The first person a tenant will look to after being injured at a rented home or apartment is likely the landlord. Rhode Island landlords have a few options when it comes to dealing with these risks. Two of the most common ways to deal with these risks are forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or purchasing an umbrella insurance policy.

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A variety of Rhode Island property law issues that require legal advice can affect property owners in the state. One such issue is eminent domain, which is the way that a state, municipality, or other entity granted eminent domain power by statute can take personal property for government use. Government entities must follow state and federal law in exercising eminent domain power, and the laws are designed to be fair to the private property owner who is giving up their property.

A commonly recognized use of eminent domain powers is for the construction or widening of roadways, however, there are several acceptable uses that allow the government to take private land. Rhode Island General Laws section 42-64.12-6 lists these uses as:

  • Providing for the public’s ownership and use;
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The term equitable distribution refers to how a court divides up a couple’s assets in a Rhode Island divorce. Rather than split a couple’s assets down the middle 50/50, courts consider a variety of factors when determining how to divide assets and liabilities. The concept behind the doctrine of equitable distribution is that marriage is viewed as an “economic partnership” between two people. Thus, courts attempt to award marital property according to the contributions each party made to the “partnership” during the marriage. Most types of property can be subject to equitable distribution, including real estate, cars, artwork, furniture, bank accounts, business interests, and even retirement accounts.

The equitable distribution process requires Rhode Island family law judges to engage in a multi-step analysis. First, the judge must determine what constitutes marital property. Courts consider marital property any property that was acquired during the marriage, with a few exceptions. While property that was owned by one spouse before the marriage is not typically considered marital property, any increase in value that occurred during the marriage may be subject to equitable distribution. Inherited property is not considered marital property, nor is any income received from such property. However, gifts between spouses are marital property.

Once a judge determines which of the couple’s assets are marital property, she will then consult the list of factors contained in Rhode Island General Laws section 15-5-16.1, including:

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For the most part, property owners can do what they wish with their property. However, Rhode Island property law steps in to provide some guidance and regulation of how landowners use their land. For the most part, this is to ensure that others who own nearby property are not negatively affected by a landowner’s decisions.

One of the more common issues that arise between neighbors involves the lawfulness of a property owner’s fence. In many situations, fences are necessary to keep people or animals out; however, fences can also have a deleterious effect on the “feel” of an area or neighborhood. Fences can also obstruct nearby homeowners’ view, or, interrupt their access.

It may come as a surprise to some homeowners, but Rhode Island fencing law outlines precisely what types of fences are permitted. For example, below is a list of permissible fences, discussed in terms of minimum height:

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One of the more complex areas of Rhode Island real estate law is zoning. Zoning refers to the process in which a city or town divides land and designates certain permissible or prohibited use. For example, Rhode Island zoning laws govern whether a homeowner can run a retail business out of the first floor of their home or whether a manufacturer can construct a factory on a specific plot of land.

Historically, the state government allowed local municipalities to make their own zoning decisions. However, after being confronted by the reality of having a total lack of a uniform zoning system, the state government passed the Rhode Island Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act (the Act). The Act was designed to implement a state-wide zoning system while still allowing municipal discretion.

The Rhode Island zoning laws impose several layers of restrictions. First, all land is broadly classified into the following categories, known as zoning districts:

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Rhode Island tenants may wonder whether they can recover compensation for injuries incurred on their leased premises by filing a Rhode Island personal injury claim. Under the common law, a landlord could not be held liable for injuries sustained by a tenant or a guest on the premises, unless the landlord breached a covenant to repair in the lease or if the injuries resulted from a latent defect that was known to the landlord. However, this changed through the passage of Rhode Island’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.

The Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (the “Act”), which took effect on January 1, 1987, was meant to update and clarify the laws regarding rentals and the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants. The Act applies to rental agreements for residential dwelling units that were entered into, extended, or renewed after January 1, 1987. It also applies to most rental agreements involving public housing or federal subsidized or regulated housing, subject to some exceptions.

Under the Act, a landlord has the responsibility to maintain the premises in a fit and habitable condition. Under section 34-18-22 of the Act, a landlord must comply with applicable building and housing codes, make necessary repairs to keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition, supply running hot water, maintain common areas in a clean and safe condition, and maintain all facilities and appliances supplied by the landlord in good and safe working order, among other duties. These standards were adopted in conformity with the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA).

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When someone is injured in a serious Rhode Island car accident, they will likely incur significant medical expenses, miss time away from work, and may also experience pain and suffering as a result of the accident. Rhode Island accident victims can pursue a claim against an at-fault driver to recover compensation for these damages.

While a Rhode Island personal injury lawsuit is technically filed against the at-fault driver, the claim will most likely be defended by that driver’s insurance company. In Rhode Island, all drivers and owners must be financially responsible, meaning they must obtain a certain amount of car insurance to cover the costs of a potential accident. Rhode Island uses a fault-based system, under which drivers will obtain insurance coverage to pay for the damages that they cause. This is referred to as liability coverage.

Most Rhode Island car insurance policies contain three parts: liability for bodily injury, liability for property damage, and un/underinsured motorist protection (UIM). As mentioned above, bodily injury liability coverage protects the insured against damages to other people they cause. Similarly, property damage liability coverage pays for damage to property caused by the insured. Notably, both bodily injury and property damage liability will cover damages caused by the insured, up to the policy limit. However, neither covers injuries suffered by the insured.

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Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Not only that, but it seems that lately Rhode Island property taxes move in one direction: up. Rhode Island property taxes average 1.53%, which puts the state at the 10th highest property tax rate in the country.

While property tax may be a certainty, there are some steps homeowners can take in the face of a mounting tax bill. One option is to apply for a property assessment freeze. The most common reason for a property tax increase is a reassessment of the property value. In Rhode Island, cities and towns are required to perform a statistical update every third and sixth year, and a full re-evaluation every ninth year. A property assessment freeze prevents a home from being reassessed at a higher value in the future.

Another option is to apply for a property tax freeze. Rhode Island is one of just six states that allows some residents to freeze their property tax rate. To qualify for a Rhode Island property tax freeze, a homeowner must be at least 65 years old and earn an annual income of less than $4,000. Those who have recently become totally disabled may also qualify for a tax freeze. In neighboring Connecticut, the rules are more favorable, allowing any homeowner over the age of 70 to apply for a tax freeze, regardless of income.

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