Three Advanced Questions and Answers Regarding Health Care Decisions for the Elderly

In a perfect world, every adult would have a will, advance care directive and financial and healthcare powers of attorney designated and updated on an annual basis. Unfortunately, more than half of adults in America haven’t gotten around to it. This can result in considerable stress and confusion, when a loved one becomes incapacitated due to illness, accidents or old age. In this article, we answer some of the more advanced questions we’ve had when it comes to caring for elderly loved ones.

Do Adult Children Have any Right to Information About Their Parents’ Medical Condition?

Unless their parent’s physician or other healthcare provider deems it necessary, or the parents have named the adult child as their personal representative for healthcare matters, they do not have any right to their parents’ personal medical information. The same goes for financial information. Unless the parents have named the adult child their power of attorney for financial matters, banks and other financial institutions will not provide any information. If you are concerned about these matters, ensure that your parents have designated a healthcare power of attorney and a financial power of attorney.

My mother had a stroke and is unable to make decisions for herself. What are my options?

If your mother has not designated a healthcare power of attorney or created an advance directive, your next best option is to petition the courts for guardianship over your mother. You will need to prove to the court that your mother lacks the capacity to make decisions on her own and that you are qualified to do so. If guardianship is granted, you will have the same powers over your mother’s healthcare (and likely, finances) as you would over a minor child. This is also a good time to ensure that you have designated a healthcare power of attorney and created an advance directive to ensure your needs are taken care of when the time comes.

Does my father’s power of attorney have the right to keep his medical information from the rest of the family?

No family is perfect. There are always certain dynamics that contribute to strife, especially when an elderly parent is concerned. If your father’s power of attorney is keeping you out of the loop on healthcare matters, the truth is, they have every right to. They alone have the authority to determine who has access to your father’s medical records. If you believe your father’s power of attorney is not acting in your father’s best interests, you may file a petition with the court to have that power of attorney removed.

The laws regarding healthcare powers of attorney and other estate-planning matters differ from state-to-state. If you have questions about these issues, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.

Resources:

ElderLawAnswers. (Accessed November 29, 2019) https://www.elderlawanswers.com/questions-and-answers/Health%20Care%20Decisions

A Place for Mom. “10 Essential Questions to Ask Your Aging Parents” (Accessed November 29, 2019)  https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/essential-questions-for-aging-parents/

AARP. “Haven’t Done A Will Yet?” (Accessed November 29, 2019)  https://www.aarp.org/money/investing/info-2017/half-of-adults-do-not-have-wills.html

 

Top 6 Questions (and Answers) about Conservatorships and Guardianships

What is a Guardian?

When someone becomes incapacitated due to illness, injury or disability, the court appoints a guardian to handle healthcare and certain non-financial decisions for that person. A guardian can be anyone over the age of 18, but must also be able to show that they are qualified to make these decisions for their loved one.  A guardian is not necessarily the person who is the caregiver over the incapacitated individual. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney who can discuss this with you.

What is a Conservator?

A Conservator is appointed by the court to make financial decisions for an incapacitated person. In some states, those who are appointed “conservator of the estate” are those who make financial decisions. Those who are appointed “Conservator of the person” handle the same issues as a “guardian.” Conservators can be expensive, as is the process to obtain one. There is also the potential that the incapacitated individual may be taken advantage of. To avoid a Conservatorship, designate a power of attorney for your financial and medical care. You should always speak with an experienced estate planning attorney who can explain this process to you should you think you need one.

Does my elderly loved one need a guardian

If your family member is unable to make healthcare decisions on her own, due to an injury following an accident, an illness, or disability, and she has not designated a healthcare power of attorney, she will need a guardian.

When is a Conservator more appropriate than a Guardian?

In some cases, someone may be perfectly capable of making her own healthcare decisions, but are unable to manage her finances. In this case, a Conservator would be more appropriate. If an individual cannot make financial or healthcare decisions, both may be appropriate.

Who does the court appoint as Guardian or Conservator?

A court will appoint the person it deems most competent to fill the role of conservator or guardian. In general, the person must be over the age of 18. The court’s first choice is a spouse, or other close family member. If none of those is available or is unwilling to serve, then they may consider extended family or friends. If those are unwilling or unavailable, then the court will appoint a neutral third party, such as an attorney, to act as Conservator or Guardian.

How do I relinquish Guardianship over my wife?

To relinquish Guardianship over any loved one, you must go to court and petition to do so. It is best if you have someone else in mind to take over when you submit your petition to ensure your loved one’s needs are met.

Whether you are considering a Guardianship or Conservatorship for a loved one, it is important to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney who can discuss these important concepts and filings with you.

Resources:

ElderLawAnswers. (Accessed November 29, 2019) https://www.elderlawanswers.com/questions-and-answers/Guardianship/Conservatorship

LawHelp.org. (Accessed November 29, 2019) https://www.lawhelp.org/dc/resource/guardianship-and-conservatorship-frequently-a

 

How Do I Avoid Unintentionally Disinheriting a Family Member?

When an account owner dies, their assets go directly to beneficiaries named on the account. This bypasses and overrides the will or trust. Therefore, you should use care in coordinating your overall estate plan. You don’t want the wrong person ending up with the financial benefits.

The News-Enterprise recent article, “Don’t accidentally leave your estate to the wrong person,” tells the story of the widower who remarried after the death of his first wife. Because he didn’t change his IRA beneficiary form, at his death, his second wife was left out. She received no money from the IRA, and the retirement money went to his first wife, the named beneficiary. Many types of accounts have beneficiary forms, like U.S. savings bonds, bank accounts, certificates of deposit that can be made payable on death, investment accounts that are set-up as transfer on death, life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts.

Remember that beneficiary designations don’t carry over, when you roll your 401(k) to a new plan or IRA. You can name as your beneficiaries individuals, trusts, charities, organizations, your estate, or no one at all. You can name groups, like “all my living grandchildren who survive me.” However, be certain that the beneficiary form lets you to pass assets “per stirpes,” meaning, equally among the branches of your family. For example, say you’re leaving your life insurance to your four children. One predeceases you. Without the “per stirpes” clause, the remaining three remaining children would divide the death proceeds. With the “per stirpes” clause, the deceased child’s share would pass to the late child’s children (your grandchildren).

Don’t leave assets to minors outright, because it creates the process of having a court appointed guardian care for the assets, until the age of 18 in most states. Instead, you might create trusts for the minor heirs, have the trust as the beneficiary of the assets, and then have the trust pay the money to heirs over time, after they have reached legal age or another milestone.

You should also not name disabled individuals as beneficiaries, because it can cause them to lose their government benefits. Instead, ask your estate planning attorney about creating a special needs or supplemental needs trust. This preserves their ability to continue to receive the government benefits.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (November 30, 2019) “Don’t accidentally leave your estate to the wrong person”

 

Can I Place My IRA in a Trust?

Unfortunately, you can’t place an individual retirement account (IRA) in a trust while you’re alive. This rule applies to all types of IRAs including traditional, Roth, SEP, and SIMPLE IRAs says Investopedia’s article, “How Can I Put My IRA In a Trust?”

However, if you establish a trust as part of your estate plan and want to include your IRA assets, you need to look at the characteristics of an IRA and tax consequences concerning certain transactions.

IRA accounts were designed to achieve two goals. First, they provided tax-deferred retirement savings for individuals not covered under an employer-sponsored plan. For those who were covered, IRAs provided a spot for retirement-plan assets to continue to grow, when and if the account holder changed jobs via an IRA rollover.

IRA accounts can only be owned by an individual. They can’t be held in joint name and can’t be titled to an entity, like a trust or small business. Contributions can also only be made, if certain criteria are met, such as the owner must have taxable earned income to support the contributions. A non-working spouse can own an IRA but must receive contributions from the working spouse and the working spouse’s income must satisfy the criteria.

No matter the source of the contributions, the IRA owner must remain constant. Only certain ownership transfers are permitted to avoid being categorized as a taxable distribution. If transferred to a trust, IRA assets become taxable, because this transfer is seen as a distribution by the IRS. In addition, if the owner is under age 59½ at the time of distribution, there’s an early withdrawal penalty. The trust can accept IRA assets of a deceased owner, however, and establish an inherited IRA.

Naming a trust as the beneficiary to an IRA can be a good idea, because owners can instruct the beneficiaries on how to use their savings. A trust can be created, so that special provisions for inheritance apply to specific beneficiaries. This can be a helpful option, if the beneficiaries vary greatly in age, or if some of them have special needs to be addressed.

Planning should consider how beneficiaries will take possession of IRA assets and over what time period. Get professional advice from a trust and estate planning lawyer. Ask the attorney about getting the maximum stretch option for the distribution of the account. The trust will need to have specific terms, such as “pass-through” and “designated beneficiary.” If it doesn’t have terms for inheriting an IRA, it should be rewritten, or specific people should instead be named as beneficiaries.

While moving all assets into the name of a trust and designating it as the beneficiary on retirement accounts is common, it is not always a good decision. Trusts, like other non-individuals that inherit IRA assets, are subject to accelerated withdrawal requirements. Most of the time, these must take place within five years from the original IRA owner’s death. Without the proper “pass-through” terms, stretching the withdrawals over a lifetime isn’t an option. Depending on the size of the account, this could place a major burden on the beneficiaries. It’s especially detrimental to eliminate the spousal inheritance provisions by designating a trust, instead of a spouse as the beneficiary.

Reference: Investopedia (November 26, 2019) “How Can I Put My IRA In a Trust?”

 

What Estate Planning Documents Do You Need?

Wouldn’t your children be relieved to learn that you’ve done all the necessary advance planning so that if you should become incapacitated, someone has been properly appointed to help with health care and financial decisions? The Tennessean suggests that you “Give your loved ones peace of mind with legal documents” so that your spouse and your family will be able to take the necessary steps to give you the care and dignity you (and they) deserve.

Here’s a checklist of the documents that everyone should have in place:

Power of Attorney for Health Care. When you have mental capacity, you can make your own decisions. When you do not, you need someone to be appointed who knows your beliefs and wishes and has the ability to advocate for you. Ideally, you should name one person to be your agent to minimize arguments. Talk with your family to explain who has been named your power of attorney for health care, and if need be, explain why that person was chosen.

Power of Attorney for Finances. There are different kinds of POA for finances. The goal of the POA for finances is so they can make decisions on your behalf, when you become incapacitated. Some states use “springing” POA—but that may mean your family has to go through a process to prove you are incapacitated. Check with an estate planning elder law attorney in your state to see what the laws are.

Advance Directive. This describes what kind of life sustaining treatment you do or do not want if you are in a coma, are terminally ill or have dementia. You can direct whether you want CPR, tube feeding, and other life-sustaining procedures to be withheld, if your quality of life is diminished and there is no hope of improvement. This will help your family to know what you want in a time when emotions are running high.

Last Will and Testament. Have a will created, if you don’t already have one. This directs distribution of your assets to your wishes and does not leave them to the laws of your state. Not having a will means your family will have to go through many more court proceedings and people you may not want to receive your worldly possessions may get them.

Trusts. Talk with your estate planning attorney about placing assets in trust, so they are not subject to the public process of probate. Your wishes will be followed, and they will remain private.

Reference: Tennessean (Nov. 16, 2019) “Give your loved ones peace of mind with legal documents”

What Happens If a Spouse Is Not on the Deed?

When one spouse has paid for or inherited the family home and the other spouse has not contributed to its purchase or upkeep, the spouse who purchased the home has to take proactive steps. Otherwise, the other spouse will inherit the home and have the right to live in it, lease it, visit once a year or do whatever he or she wishes to.

It’s their home, says a recent article from the Houston Chronicle titled “Navigating inheritance when husband is not on the deed,” and remains so, until they die or abandon the property.

In this case, the woman is the buyer of the home and she wants her son to have the house. The son will eventually own the home, but as long as the husband is alive, the son can’t take possession of the home or use it, unless given permission to do so by the husband.

The husband may remarry, and if so, he and his new wife may live in the home. If she dies before he does, according to Texas’ homesteading laws, the homestead rights don’t transfer to her. At that point, the son would inherit the home and the new wife would have to move out.

The husband doesn’t get to live in the house for free. He is responsible for paying property taxes and maintaining the house. If there is a mortgage, he must pay the interest on the mortgage, but the woman’s son would have to make principal payments. The son would also have to pay for the homeowner’s insurance.

However, there are options:

  • Move to another state, where the laws are more in the woman’s favor.
  • Sell the home.
  • Ask the husband to sign a post-nuptial agreement, where he waives his homestead right.
  • Get divorced.
  • Gift or sell the home to the son now and rent from him.

The last option is risky. If the son owns the home, there is no protection from the son’s creditor’s claims, if any, and the woman would lose her property tax homestead exemptions. If the son needs to declare bankruptcy or sell the home, or dies before his mother, there would be nothing she could do. If the son married, his wife would be an owner of the home. He (or she) could even force his mother out of the home.

Speak with an estate planning lawyer to see if gifting the house to your son is a good idea for your situation.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (Nov. 13, 2019) “Navigating inheritance when husband is not on the deed”

Should I Use a Bank as My Executor Instead of a Family Member?

You can choose anybody you like to be the executor of your will but consider who will do the best job.

Executors are legally responsible for several tasks, including identifying everything in the estate, collecting all the assets and paying the debts and liabilities. Finally, the executor makes distributions to beneficiaries, in accordance with the terms of the will.

nj.com’s recent article on this topic asks “Should I choose a bank to be the executor of my will?” The article explains that there are a few advantages to designating a bank as an executor.  Banks are in the business of managing money and are experienced in administering estates. This typically means they may be able to settle the estate more quickly and efficiently than a family member. However, this isn’t always true.

Banks have policies and procedures in place to make certain that the assets are protected from mismanagement and theft. Banks are impartial parties that cannot be influenced by beneficiaries. This can be a big headache for a family member asked to be executor. Relationships can deteriorate over the enforcement of the terms of a will especially when one sibling is named executor and has the authority over the administration of the estate—perhaps to the detriment of her brothers and sisters.

One distinction from using a family member is that while an executor is entitled to compensation, family members frequently waive this. However, banks charge fees for serving as executors, and these fees may be higher than you’d expect.  For example, the bank’s fee might be up to 4% of the first $100,000, then decrease incrementally until it’s just 0.5% of values over $9 million.

One other note to keep in mind is that many banks won’t serve as executor unless the estate is substantial enough to meet the minimum fees charged by the bank to serve as the executor.  You should speak with your estate planning attorney to determine who would be best to serve your needs.

Reference: nj.com (November 5, 2019) “Should I choose a bank to be the executor of my will?”

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When Can Parent Legally Make an End-Of-Life Decision?

Twenty-one-year-old Damaire was brought to Erie County Medical Center in the early morning hours. Damaire’s father was told that the person found Gordon on the side of the road, wrapped in a blanket and dropped him off at the hospital. He was brain dead. He had no gunshot or stab wounds and there were no signs of blunt-force trauma.

“I thought I would be seeing my son hurt some type of way that was very bad,” said Gordon’s father Mister Sommerville. “But, when I got there I saw my son had no trauma…and they can’t explain to me why he’s lifeless.”

Sommerville was told by his son’s mother Regina Gordon-Sayles that their boy was brain-dead at the hospital.

WKBW’s recent article, “A man was found brain-dead, but neither parent could legally make an end-of-life decision” reports that Gordon-Sayles said that she was a single mother of five and said that Sommerville had not been involved in Damaire’s life. However, he became very involved when it came time to make a decision about his passing.  Damaire’s mother was set to remove her son off the respirator, but his father refused to consent. “I was so confused about why I needed another consent,” said Gordon-Sayles.

The problem is that neither parent could give legal consent to take their son off life support because Damaire hadn’t designated either parent as his health care proxy. Under Article 81 of the New York State Mental Hygiene Law, the matter would have to go to a judge who would start the process to appoint the best person to handle end-of-life decisions.

A medical power of attorney, also called an “Advance Directive” or “Health Care Proxy,” is a document that allows a person to provide someone with the authority to address health care decisions on their behalf, if they’re not able to do so themselves. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare a Health Care Proxy.

Unfortunately, these situations occur more frequently than we would wish. Making a bad situation more heartbreaking is traumatic for the family.

The situation is a matter of liability for the hospital. Every person has the right to due process, when it comes to making decisions for themselves, even in death. However, if that person can’t make a decision for herself, a judge must intervene and appoint an appropriate party.

Damaire’s father didn’t like the care his son was getting at ECMC and wanted more of an investigation into why the young man was in a brain-dead state, when doctors found only marijuana in his system. Doctors told both parents that they were restricted in the type of drugs for which they could screen, without an autopsy.

Damaire’s case went before a judge to appoint a proxy. The judge decided to continue his investigation into the case and didn’t take any action for more than a week. Damaire’s heart stopped beating the next day. His mom said a friend of his told her the truth about what happened to him, days later.

“He got ahold of some fentanyl, and I don’t know if my baby was laced…I don’t know if he took it himself, but it had something to do with fentanyl.”

“I was told when it happened, my son went into attack mode, he dropped, and they put him on the porch because they didn’t want to be charged with it.”

Reference: WKBW (November 5, 2019) “A man was found brain-dead, but neither parent could legally make an end-of-life decision”

 

Why Shouldn’t I Delay Making Big Gifts?

The unified federal estate and gift tax exemption for 2020 will jump up to $11.58 million or effectively $23.160 million for married couples.

Market Watch’s recent article, “Get your estate plan in order (this means you),”says that, despite these huge big exemptions and the fact you’re not currently exposed to the federal estate tax, your estate plan may still need updating to reflect the current tax rules.

You may be exposed to the federal estate tax in the future, even though you’re okay right now.

Let’s look at some issues, regardless of whether or you’re “rich” enough to be worried about exposure to the federal estate tax. Year-end is a good time to conduct your estate planning self-check, so let’s get started.

Update beneficiary designations. A will or living trust doesn’t override the beneficiary designations for life insurance policies, retirement accounts and other types of investment accounts. This includes accounts, such as life insurance policies, annuities, IRAs, other tax-favored retirement accounts and employer-sponsored benefit plans. The person(s) named on the most-recent beneficiary form will get the money automatically if you die, regardless of what your will or living trust document might state.

Designate secondary beneficiaries. Designate one or more secondary (contingent) beneficiaries to inherit, if the primary beneficiary dies before you do. Consider this possibility.

Update property titles. If you’re married and own property with your spouse as joint tenants with right of survivorship (JTWROS), the surviving spouse will automatically get sole ownership of the property when the other spouse dies. The major advantage of JTWROS ownership is that it avoids probate. The property automatically goes to the surviving joint tenant.

Name guardians. One of the main purposes of a will, is to designate a guardian for your minor children (if any). The guardians must care for your children, until they reach adulthood.

Any life event could require changes in your estate plan. In addition, the federal and estate and gift tax rules have been unpredictable in the past, along with the state death tax rules. Talk with your estate planning attorney today.

Reference: Market Watch (November 11, 2019) “Get your estate plan in order (this means you)”

 

Death Is Very Taxing — What you Need to Know

When a person dies, their assets are gathered, their debts are paid, business affairs are settled and assets are distributed, as directed by their will. If there is no will, the intestate laws of their state will be used to determine how to distribute their assets. A big part of the process of settling an estate is dealing with taxes. A recent article from Wicked Local Westwood, titled “Five things to know about taxes after death,” explains the key things an executor or personal representative needs to know.

The Deceased Final Income Tax Returns. Yes, the dead pay taxes. The personal representative is responsible for filing the deceased final income tax return for both the year of death and prior year, if those returns have not been filed. The final income tax return includes any income earned or received by the decedent from January 1 of the year of death through the date of death. It’s common for a deceased person who is ill during the last months or year of their life to fail to file tax returns, so the executor needs to find out about the decedent’s tax status. Failure to do so, could lead to the representative being personally liable for paying those taxes.

Filing a Federal Estate Tax Return. The personal representative must file a federal estate tax return, if the value of the estate assets exceeds the federal estate tax exemption, which is $11.4 million in 2019. Even if the value of the estate does not exceed the federal estate tax exemption amount, a federal estate tax return should be filed if the decedent is survived by a spouse. This way, the deceased’s unused exemption can be used by the spouse at their death. Note that the filing deadline for the federal estate tax return is nine months after the date of death. An estate planning attorney can help with this.

Fiduciary income tax returns. A personal representative and trustee may have to file fiduciary income tax returns for an estate or a trust. The estate is a taxpayer and the representative must get a tax identification number and file a fiduciary income tax return for the estate, if income is earned on estate assets or received during the administration of the estate. A revocable trust becomes irrevocable after the death of the trust creator. A tax identification number must be obtained, and a fiduciary income tax return must be filed for any income earned by trust assets.

Estate taxes and trust taxes can become complex and confusing for people who don’t do this on a regular basis. An estate planning attorney can be a valuable resource, so that taxes are properly paid and to make the most of any tax planning opportunities for estates, trusts and their beneficiaries.

Reference: Wicked Local Westwood (Nov. 5, 2019) “Five things to know about taxes after death”