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Have a Plan for Life

Mistakes to Avoid when Planning Estates

Because estate planning has plenty of legal jargon, it can make some people think twice about planning their estates, especially people who believe that they have too little property to bother with this important task.

Comstock’s Magazine’s recent article entitled “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate” warns that without planning, even small estates under a certain dollar amount (which can pass without probate, according the probate laws in some states) may cause headaches for heirs and family members. Here are five mistakes you can avoid with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney:

Getting Bad Advice. If you want to plan an estate, start with a qualified estate planning attorney. There are plenty of other “experts” out there ready to take your money who don’t know how to apply the law and strategies to your specific situation.

Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. You might think that the most trustworthy trustee is yourself, the testator. However, the estate plans can break down, if dementia and Alzheimer’s disease leave a senior susceptible to outside influences. In California, the law requires a certificate of independent review for some changes to trusts, like adding a nurse or an attorney as a beneficiary. However, this also allows family members to take advantage of the situation. It’s wise to designate a co-trustee who must sign off on any changes — like a trusted adult child, financial adviser, or licensed professional trustee, providing an extra layer of oversight.

Misplacing Assets. It’s not uncommon for some assets to be lost in a will or trust. Some assets, such as 401(k) plans, IRAs, and life insurance plans have designated beneficiaries which are outside of a last will and testament or trust document. Stocks and securities accounts may pass differently than other assets, based upon the names on the account, and sometimes people forget to change the beneficiaries on these accounts, like keeping a divorced spouse on a life insurance policy. When updating your will or trust, make certain to also update the beneficiaries of these types of assets.

Committing to a Plan Without Thinking of Others. When it comes to estate planning, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For example, for entitlement or tax reasons, it may make sense to transfer assets to beneficiaries, while the testator is still living. This might also be a terrible idea depending on the beneficiaries’ situation and ability to handle a sum of money. He or she may have poor spending habits. Remember that estate planning is a personal process that depends on each family’s assets, needs and values. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure to consider all the angles.

Reference: Comstock’s Magazine “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate”

 

Do Unmarried Couples Need Estate Planning?

A couple that has no intention of ever getting married should know that they won’t get the automatic rights and protections that legally wed spouses get, particularly when it comes to death. Therefore, unmarried couples must make a concerted effort to cover all the bases, says CNBC’s recent article entitled “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.”

The number of unmarried couples who live together reached 18 million in 2016, a 29% increase from 14 million in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. Among adults age 50 and older, the increase was 75% with roughly 4 million cohabiting in 2016, compared to 2.3 million in 2007.

These couples still face some key differences from their married counterparts. For example, there’s no filing federal taxes as a couple, and if an employer allows health insurance for a partner, the amount the company contributes is taxable to the employee, rather than being tax-free for a spouse.

End-of-life considerations also need attention. Unmarried couples can sign some legal documents that will dictate what happens, if one of them either becomes incapacitated or passes away, which is a type of estate plan.

If you die without a will or intestate, the state probate court will decide how your assets are distributed. A will by itself also won’t address everything. If you want to make sure your tax-advantaged retirement accounts — like your Roth IRA and 401(k) plans — go to your partner, make sure that individual is the designated beneficiary on those accounts. Even if your will says otherwise, whoever’s listed as the beneficiaries on those accounts will get the money. It’s the same for insurance policies and annuities.

If both partner’s names are on checking, savings or investment accounts, the account will pass directly to the surviving partner. However, for an account with only one partner’s name on it ask the bank about the appropriate form to be completed, so the money is left directly to the surviving partner. This is what’s called a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death designation. Without this designation, the assets will end up in probate and distributed either in accordance with the will or intestacy state laws.

Regardless of how the mortgage is paid or whose name is on the loan, the person named on the deed is the owner. If the house in one partner’s name, it won’t automatically pass to the partner, as it would with a married couple (via joint tenancy with rights of survivorship). It would become part of the probate estate. To remedy this, you can retitle the home, so that both partners are listed as joint owners on the deed, “with rights of survivorship.” Each partner then equally owns the house and is entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other. Note that there could be other factors to consider before adding a partner’s name to an existing deed, such as expenses, tax implications and protection from potential creditors. Ask your estate planning or probate attorney before you make a change. A partner owning the house, could leave it to the surviving partner in the will. Remember, though, any asset passing via the will is subject to probate, which may lead to unforeseen issues.

In addition, a partner has no legal say in his or her partner’s medical treatment, if he or she is in a situation where they can’t make decisions for themselves. To give the partner that right, partners can grant each other a durable power of attorney over health care. This allows the partner to make important health-care decisions, if the one in the hospital is unable to do so. This is different from a living will, which states a person’s wishes if they are on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This document helps guide the agent’s decision-making. If no one is named, medical personnel must follow the instructions in that document.

Likewise, partners may want to give each other durable power of attorney for finances. This would let them handle one another’s money, including accessing accounts as necessary, if the incapacitated partner could not do so.  If the partners have dependents, name a guardian for them in the will. Otherwise, that decision will be left to the courts. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in preparation of these documents.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

 

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults which they are and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

 

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Millennials now in their 30s, need to begin thinking about caring for their boomer parents, as medical, financial and mental health needs come up. For lucky families this will mean conversations with travel agents and financial advisors. For those not so fortunate it will mean conversations with doctors, nursing home staff and in some cases, with lawyers regarding conservatorships, says KAKE.com in the article “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

A conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship of an adult. The conservator has legal authority over certain parts of the person’s life. It may be a “limited conservatorship,” where only specific matters are under the conservator’s control, like health or finances. The “full conservatorship” gives the conservator complete control over the person’s life, in the same way that a parent has legal control over a child.

Conservatorship is granted when the person no longer has the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf. In almost all cases, this is based on their mental capacity. While it can happen, physical incapacity rarely is acceptable for conservatorship to be awarded.

Some of the common reasons for conservatorship by way of mental incapacity, include if the person is in a coma, suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia or severe mental illness, or has a permanent or genetic mental disability that prevents them from ever reaching legal maturity or independence.

Conservatorship is a legal proceeding which must be granted by an officer or appointee of the court. It’s typically handled by a state probate court or family court. Hearings are usually held by a judge or a magistrate. A conservatorship may be part of estate planning. Most conservatorships require medical paperwork but in all instances, the potential ward must have the opportunity to be heard by the decision maker and to present their case, if they wish, as to why conservatorship should not be granted. An individual also has the right to challenge the conservatorship, in court, at any time, if they disagree.

Power of Attorney may be used to accomplish some of the things that would be accomplished by a conservatorship. A POA gives a person the ability to make legally binding decisions for someone else, and the scope can be narrow or broad. The POA, however, is granted at the discretion of the person giving another person this power.

An estate planning attorney will be able to discuss all of the rights, responsibilities and fiduciary obligations of a conservatorship. Most have had experience with conservatorship and will be able to help the family and the individual make informed decisions in the best interest of the individual.

Reference: KAKE.com (December 11, 2019) “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

 

Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet, just as so many Americans don’t have wills only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.  Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”

 

What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Really Do?

Vents Magazine’s recent article, “Understanding What an Estate Planning Attorney Does,” explains that estate planning is a legal set of instructions for your family about how to distribute your wealth and property after you die. Estate planning attorneys make sure the distribution of property happens according to the decedent’s will.

An estate planning attorney can provide legal advice on how to prepare your will after you pass away or in the event that you experience mental incapacity. She will have all the information and education on all the legal processes, beginning with your will and moving on to other important estate planning documents. She will also help you to understand estate taxes.

An estate planning attorney will also help to make certain that all of your savings and property are safe and distributed through the proper legal processes.

Estate planning attorneys can also assist with the power of attorney and health care directives. These documents allow you to designate an individual to decide issues on your behalf, in the event that you become mentally incapable of making decisions for yourself. They can also help you with a guardian who will look after your estate.

It’s important that you select the right estate planning attorney to execute the legal process, as you’ve instructed in your estate plan. You should only retain an attorney with experience in this field of law because other legal counsel won’t be able to help you with these issues—or at least, they may say they can, only to find out later that they’re not experienced in this area.

You also want to feel comfortable with your estate planning attorney because you must disclose all your life details, plans and estate issues, so she can create an estate plan that’s customized to your circumstances.

If you choose the right estate planning attorney, it will save you money in the long run. She will help you save from all the estate taxes and make all the processes smooth and easy for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Vents Magazine (December 12, 2019) “Understanding What an Estate Planning Attorney Does”

 

How Do I Tell If Dad Needs Caregiving Support?

When you’re visiting older family members, you have a chance to judge how they’re doing in terms of health, safety, and quality of life. AARP’s recent article, “5 Signs Your Loved One May Need Caregiving Support,” advises us that any of the following five red flags may indicate that your parent needs help.

  1. Falls and safety. Look for things like unsafe indoor or outdoor stairs, especially without railings or poor lighting, along with loose rugs, clutter, or a laundry room that makes your mom or dad carry laundry baskets up and down stairs. You should evaluate fall hazards with a certified aging in place specialist (CAPS), an aging life care specialist, or a physical or occupational therapist. They can help evaluate your parent’s needs, abilities and the home environment. Consider installing safety measures, such as ramps, handrails on both sides of stairs, grab bars in the bathroom, or a walk-in shower.
  2. Unfinished business. If you see a lot of unopened mail and unpaid bills, or key financial, home or legal documents that haven’t been addressed, your mom may be cognitively, physically, or emotionally unable to handle them. You may want to help your parent simplify her affairs or engage a financial manager. You can also volunteer to assist with the more complicated matters, while she continues handling day-to-day household and personal finances. You should also be sure your parent has advanced directives and other legal documents in place so you are able to help manage her affairs in an emergency. If you cannot locate legal documents or are unsure, please contact an experienced estate planning attorney.
  3. Auto accidents and moving violations. When you see multiple accidents—even minor fender benders—or several warnings or citations, scrapes, or dents on the car, it’s time to discuss driving. You can ride along and observe any health issues causing problems like vision, hearing or cognitive changes. You can suggest that he refresh his driving skills by taking a driver safety course, or if it’s time to stop driving, give him other viable transportation options.
  4. Isolation. Does your mom appear to be disconnected from friends, family and community? If her support system seems to be deteriorating, her physical and mental well-being are at risk. Discover with whom she regularly interacts. Ask if she feels lonely. Look for some activities she’d enjoy and help make arrangements for ongoing participation and transportation. Regular phone calls can help her connect, as well as using technology, including video chat, online communities and social media.
  5. A change in appearance. If you notice a change in your mom’s appearance, like a big gain or loss of weight, wearing the same clothes every day, or lack of personal hygiene, or if she appears sad, anxious, and distressed or has sleep issues—something is not right. Propose a complete medical and psychological evaluation to determine what’s normal for her, because there may be several reasons for these changes. Depression or anxiety may call for treatment.

Review her medications with a pharmacist and set up a pill organizer for her. Find out how she’s making or receiving meals. If appropriate, arrange for home-delivered meals, housekeeping, medication management and laundry assistance.

Tackle these conversations with love, concern, and a supportive attitude. Your objective is to help her remain as independent as possible, for as long as possible.

Reference: AARP (December 12, 2019) “5 Signs Your Loved One May Need Caregiving Support”

 

Not a Festive Thought, But A Kind One: Planning for Your Own Funeral

Leaving instructions for your funeral and burial wishes relieves loved ones of the burden of making decisions and hoping they are following your wishes. In addition, says the article “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes” from The Leader, it also prevents arguments between relatives and friends who have their own opinions about what they think you may have wanted.

What often happens is that people make this information part of their estate plan. However, the will is usually not looked at until after the funeral. If your loved ones don’t know where your will is, then they certainly won’t know what your wishes were for the funeral.  Without clear written directions, spiritual practices or cultural traditions that are important to you, may not be followed.

An estate planning attorney can help you create a document that outlines your wishes and will have suggestions for how to discuss this with your family and where it should be located. The documents are different in each state, so be sure to work with a local lawyer. In New York State, there is a form that allows you to name an agent who will be in charge of your remains. You can give your instructions to that person or you can leave them in charge to make arrangements in their discretion.

In New York State, if this form is not completed, the following people, in descending order, have the right to control your remains: spouse, domestic partner, children, other family members and others.

For funeral planning, one option is to go to the funeral home and arrange to pay for the funeral and go to the cemetery and purchase a plot. A pre-paid irrevocable funeral trust purchased at a funeral home can also protects assets from nursing home costs, when applying for Medicaid.

Some people wish to donate their organs, which can be done on a driver’s license or in another statement. Donating your body for medical research or education will require researching medical schools or other institutions and may require an application and other paperwork that confirms your intent to donate your body. When you pass, your family member or whoever is in charge will need to contact the organization and arrange for transport of your remains.

A comprehensive estate plan does more than distribute assets at death. It also includes what a person’s wishes are for their funeral and burial wishes. Think of it as a gift to loved ones.

Reference: The Leader (December 7, 2019) “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes”

 

How Estate Planning Keeps the Peace for Blended Families

With the IRS’s announcement that the first $11.58 million (in 2020) of a taxable estate is free from estate taxes most people won’t have to worry about paying estate taxes. Therefore, what’s the biggest reason to have an estate plan?

Earlier this year, a survey was conducted at the 53rd annual Heckerling Institute of Estate Planning, a prestigious legal and financial conference that attracts leaders in the field of estate planning. For the second year in a row, family conflict was identified as the biggest threat to estate planning, reports Investment News in the article Reducing potential family conflicts.”

Statistics show that there are more blended families in the U.S. than ever before.  The increase in blended families has led to an increase in family conflicts. While open and honest communication is the key to any kind of conflict resolution, it’s particularly sticky when it comes to blended families. For most families, it’s a good idea to talk openly about estate plans, rather than waiting until one of the spouses has passed and explaining to the biological and stepchildren how the assets are being distributed. Discussing the estate plan before anyone dies at the very least, gives everyone a chance to voice their opinions even if no changes to the spouse’s plans are made.

How do you minimize conflicts within blended families? One way is with a prenuptial agreement, which is executed before marriage and clarifies the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of divorce or death. This is especially useful, when there is a disparity in wealth or age between the couple.

However, not everyone is willing to have a prenup. And even if they do, family conflicts can still crop up. Let’s say Gary and Helen are married, each with children from a previous marriage. Gary wants to give his entire estate to Helen when he dies. If Gary dies first, there’s no legal reason for Helen to give any of Gary’s assets to his biological children.

There are any number of solutions. If Gary really wants to cut his children out of his will, he can talk with them and explain his thinking. He can also have an estate planning attorney include a “no contest” clause in his will. If any named beneficiary challenges the will, they will lose any inheritance and are treated legally, as if they have predeceased the decedent. Gary could also use a revocable living trust, which would avoid the estate being probated and deny the children an opportunity to challenge his will.

A better solution would be to craft an estate plan that benefits both Gary and Helen’s children. Harry’s children could receive a partial outright distribution when Gary dies, with the remaining estate passing to Helen. A trust could be created for Helen’s benefit, but the remaining trust assets could go to Gary’s children when Helen dies.

There are many different ways to resolve this issue with an eye to minimizing conflict among children in blended families. If the parents are truly invested in keeping their children together as a family, it is worth the effort to create an estate plan that cares for the spouses and all of the children. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a plan to accomplish your goals for the entire blended family.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) Reducing potential family conflicts

 

I’m a Fiduciary—What Does That Mean?

There are any number of pitfalls that may occur when administering an estate, a trust or another person’s finances under a Power of Attorney (POA). Fiduciary duties are the highest under the law and the fiduciary is legally required to put the interests of the person they are representing above their own. The most common problem for a fiduciary is not taking their responsibilities seriously enough, says the article “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary? from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

You can avoid some common pitfalls, if you keep the following in mind:

Know the governing instrument. A fiduciary must abide by the terms of the governing instrument, which might be a Power of Attorney (POA), trust, or another legal document. The powers you hold are limited to those granted in the document. There are times when even though you have a power or the ability to do something, it’s not in the best interest of the grantor. Let’s say the trust gives you as a trustee the power to make distributions to a beneficiary. If the beneficiary has sufficient independent resources, doing so might be a breach of your duties. In the same way, the ability to make gifts that is given by a POA, doesn’t mean you should automatically start making gifts.

Maintain extremely detailed records. Do this for two reasons. You have a duty to do so, and you need good records in case anyone claims that you did something wrong. Make sure that your records have enough details so that any expense or expenditure can be documented and explained.

Transparency is the best approach. Every situation is different, and family dynamics differs, but if you can, speak with family members before making any transactions. If they object, you can decide whether or not to proceed, or to petition the probate court to give the court’s blessing in advance. In this case, it is better to ask permission in advance, than ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Never mix your personal or business funds with that of the estate. This is one of the biggest problems for people who have never been a fiduciary before. If you are a fiduciary for more than one estate, then you’ll need to have funds and property completely separate from each other.

Fiduciary duties need to be treated with great care to avoid any liability and litigation. If you are not prepared to be a fiduciary, you could decide to decline the role. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you have any reservations about taking on this responsibility.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (December 7, 2019) “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary?