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Law Office of Michael D. DellaMonaca

Have a Plan for Life

What If Grandma Didn’t Have a Will and Died from COVID-19?

The latest report shows about 1.87 million reported cases and at least 108,000 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to data released by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Here’s a question that is being asked a lot these days: What happens if someone dies “intestate,” or without having established a will or estate plans?

If you die without a will in California and many other states, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” statutes.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “My loved one died without a will – now what?” explains that there are laws in each state that will dictate what happens, if you die without a will.

In Pennsylvania, the laws list the order of who receives upon your death, if you die without a will: your spouse, your children, and then your parents (if still alive), your siblings, and then on down the line to cousins, aunts and uncles, and the like. Typically, first on every state’s list is the spouse and the children.

You may also have some valuable assets that will not pass via your will and aren’t affected by your state’s intestate succession laws. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Any property that you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • Your life insurance proceeds
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • A payable-on-death bank account
  • Your vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration; or
  • Property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship.

These types of assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

It’s quite unusual for the government to claim a deceased person’s estate. While it might be allowed in some states, it’s considered a last resort. Typically, we all have some relatives.

If you have a loved one who has died without a will, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your next steps.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (June 1, 2020) “My loved one died without a will – now what?”

What If the Coronavirus Leaves Me Critically Ill?

The smartest time to get your affairs in order, is when you’re healthy, regardless of a pandemic, advises NBC Bay Area’s recent article entitled “3 Steps to Take Now in Case COVID-19 Leaves You Critically Ill.”

You should talk to an estate planning attorney and think about these three steps to consider taking yourself before you meet:

  • Prepare your end-of-life care
  • Decide what your wishes are for your assets; and
  • Plan your funeral or memorial service if one is desired.

Prepare End-of-Life Care. For end-of-life care, many people have what’s sometimes called a “living will”. In California, it’s often a six-page form called the Advanced Health Care Directive. With it, you can set forth your wishes about your end-of-life care and designate a decision-maker.

In California, you can download an advanced health care directive form for free, via the California Courts website. It’s actually pretty easy to read. Note: you’ll need two witnesses to sign it with you.

Decide what your wishes are for your assets. This is where an attorney can really be key. You can discuss who you’ll want as an executor to coordinate your estate and probate. You can also think about who you want to receive your home, vehicles, funds in your bank accounts and other assets.

There are a number of important legal aspects to consider, and you can talk to your legal counsel about the process.

Your Funeral Plans. You also need to be certain that the details of your final wishes are known. It’s a good idea to write down exactly what you want or don’t want.

It’s not uncommon for families to have a hard time with these choices, when someone dies without a plan. Prevent conflict and stress, by writing your wishes down now.

It’s best to work with an attorney who specializes in estate planning, wills and trusts.

Reference: NBC Bay Area (April 15, 2020) “3 Steps to Take Now in Case COVID-19 Leaves You Critically Ill”

What Is a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney is a legal document that permits an agent or attorney-in-fact to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

WTOP’s recent article “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney” says that the rules for designating power of attorney vary from state to state. Because of this, you should speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your state’s laws.

Power of attorney is revocable. Therefore, if you’re mentally competent and believe you can no longer count on the person you designated as your agent, you can update your documents and select another person.

The individual you choose as your attorney-in-fact will depend to a large extent on the type of power you’re granting — whether it’s general or limited — and your relationship. For general power of attorney, people often go with their spouses or sometimes their children. However, you can choose anyone, as long as it’s someone you trust.

In many cases, designating general power of attorney is a component of a larger estate plan, so when you talk to your estate planning lawyer about your estate plan, you can add this to the conversation.

You may want to have your attorney draft a limited or special power of attorney. This lets your agent complete restricted transactions, like selling a piece of property. It’s limited in scope. In contrast, a general power of attorney lets your agent do about anything you could do. A general power of attorney is usually part of an estate plan, in the event you’re unable to handle your own financial matters as you age or become incapacitated.

A springing power of attorney goes into effect in a predetermined situation, and it will specify the circumstances under which the power takes effect. An immediately effective or non-springing power of attorney is in place once the paperwork is signed.

Powers of attorney typically end when the principal is unable to make decisions on his or her own. However, for some, becoming incapacitated is just the type of circumstances when they want someone they trust to have power of attorney.

A durable power of attorney continues after the individual is incapacitated. Therefore, if you’re unable to make financial or medical decisions on your own after an accident or illness, the POA will remain in effect.

You are generally also able to name a medical power of attorney. That’s a person who knows your wishes and can make health care decisions for you as a proxy. It’s also known as a health care proxy. If you can’t make decisions on your own, the health care proxy kicks in. Your health care proxy should know your wishes, as far as how you’d like doctors to treat you, if you can’t make decisions on your own. This may also accompany a living will, which expresses your wishes on continuing life support, if you’re terminally ill or being kept alive by machines.

Reference: WTOP (May 21, 2020) “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney”

Should Nursing Homes Plan for Future Pandemics?

Roughly 6,000 nursing home residents have died during the pandemic in New York State.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities for one of the country’s most high-risk populations: our senior citizens.

Spectrum News reports in the article “Nursing Homes Could Be Required to Have Pandemic Plan” reports that a proposed bill in that state would require nursing homes to have plans for future pandemics, make those plans readily available on websites, provide regular updates on the status of patients and establish protection plans for staff and residents.

In addition, communication via videoconferencing must be made available for residents.

The bill would also mandate that a pandemic plan preserve a resident’s place in a nursing home after hospitalization is through. It would also include provisions for the facilities to have a minimum two-month supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The New York State Department of Health will be required to audit facilities annually for compliance.

“The nature of COVID19 exposed a tragic vulnerability among one of our most high-risk populations: our elderly,” said Assemblyman Joe Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat. “The rapid spread of the virus in nursing homes exposed a fatal flaw in pandemic planning and it is clear that more has to be done to protect nursing home residents and its healthcare workers.”

New York’s response to nursing homes during the crisis has come under some scrutiny. Part of that has been a March 25 order that required the facilities to take in COVID-positive patients.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has partially reversed that directive, by banning hospitals from discharging people to nursing homes who are still positive for the virus.

Cuomo has also placed some of the blame on the CDC guidelines for permitting nursing homes to take COVID residents. However, he didn’t raise the issue in a recent meeting with President Trump.

Twice weekly testing of nursing home and adult care facility staff is now underway. The testing capacity and supply has increased in New York over the past month.

The bill must still be considered by Governor Cuomo for approval.

If you have questions about a loved one who is being transferred to a nursing home, make sure you speak with your estate planning attorney.

Reference: Spectrum News (May 28, 2020) “Nursing Homes Could Be Required to Have Pandemic Plan”

What You Need to Do after a Loved One Dies

The Dallas Morning News’ recent article entitled “Three things to do on the death of a loved one” explains the steps you should take if you are responsible for a family member’s assets after they die.

Be sure the property is secured. A deceased person’s property becomes a risk in some instances. Friends and family will help themselves to what they think they should get, including the deceased’s personal property. Once it is gone, it is hard to get it back and into the hands of the individual who’s legally entitled to receive it.

Criminals also look at the obituaries and while everyone is at the funeral or otherwise unoccupied, burglars can break into the house and steal property. Assign security or ask someone to stay at the house to protect the property. You can also change the locks. Credit cards, debit cards, and checks need to be protected. The deceased’s mail must be collected, and cars should be locked up.

Make funeral plans. If you’re lucky, the deceased left a written Appointment of Burial Agent with detailed instructions, which can make your job much easier.

For example, Texas law lets a person appoint an agent to be in charge of funeral arrangements and to describe the arrangements. An estate planning attorney can  draft this document as part of an estate plan. You should see if this document was included. If you’re listed as the agent, present the paper to the funeral home and follow the instructions. If there are no written instructions, the law will say who has the authority to make arrangements for the disposition of the body and to plan the funeral.

Talk to an experienced attorney. When a person dies, there is often a lapse in authority. The decedent’s power of attorney is no longer in effect, and the executor designated in the will doesn’t have any authority to act, until the will is admitted to probate and the executor is appointed by the probate judge and qualifies by taking the oath of office and filing a bond, if required. Direction is needed earlier rather than later, on what you’re permitted to do. The probate of a will takes time.

It is best to get started promptly, so that there’s an executor in place with power to handle the affairs of the decedent.

Reference: Dallas Morning News (April 10, 2020) “Three things to do on the death of a loved one”

 

Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other Brain Diseases Require Special Estate Planning Steps

There are certain steps that can be taken by individuals, loved ones and family members to make this challenging time safer and smarter, advises an article “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease” from Forbes. Anyone living with a neurologic condition needs to be sure their planning reflects not only their condition but their personal experience of the condition. Alzeheimer’s, Dementia and other diseases required special estate planning steps. The variability of each person’s experience of a brain disease, from symptoms and severity to the progression rate and future prognosis to the possibility of any recovery, affects how they need to plan.

For an Alzheimer’s patient, in early stages there may be no problems in signing legal documents and putting legal safeguards in place to protect finances. Most people are not aware that the degree of competency to sign legal documents varies, depending upon the complexity of the documents to be signed and the circumstances. A relatively low level of competency is required to sign a will. This is known as “testamentary capacity.” A higher level of competency is required to sign something like a revocable trust, investment policy statement, etc. Therefore, a person who may be legally able to sign a will may not have the legal capacity to sign other documents. Alzheimer’s patients need to get their entire estate plan in order, as soon as a diagnosis is received. Safeguards are extremely important, including having an independent person, like a CPA, an experienced estate planning attorney or trusted family member receive copies of all monthly bank and brokerage statements in case abilities decline faster than anticipated.

Patients living with peripheral neuropathy may experience issues with balance, burning sensations, dizziness, hypersensitive skin and pain that make wearing socks or shoes impossible. If the condition becomes so severe that the person becomes homebound, they need to make changes: set up accounts, so bills can be paid online, have income streams set to automatic deposit and simplify and consolidate accounts. It is important to have a Power of Attorney (POA) that is effective immediately or a revocable living trust with a co-trustee. In this way, you do not have to leave home to conduct your business.

Parkinson’s disease may not be well understood by professional advisors. You’ll need to explain that your facial expression—Parkinsonian masked face—does not mean that you are not responding to a conversation. They need to know that your handwriting may change, becoming small and cramped. This can result in a bank or other financial institution refusing to accept your signature on documents. Your estate planning attorney can prepare a document that confirms you are living with Parkinson’s disease and that micrographia is one of your symptoms. The document should include three or four different signatures to reflect the variations. Have each signature witnessed and notarized.

People living with MS (multiple sclerosis) face the possibility of an exacerbation that could leave them incapacitated at any time. A revocable trust to coordinate financial management with trusted individuals as co-trustees should be in place.

For people with these and other brain illnesses, an emergency financial and legal road map needs to be prepared. It should include monthly recurring bills, non-recurring bills like life insurance, property taxes, etc. Contact information for key advisors, your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, banker, insurance agent, etc., needs to be shared. Your estate plan should be updated, if you haven’t reviewed it in three or four years. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, now is the time to have one created.

Reference: Forbes (May 17, 2020) “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease”

 

What’s the Difference between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts?

A trust is an estate planning tool that you might discuss with an experienced estate planning attorney.  Beyond drafting a last will and testament and to your benefit, you may want to find want to ask about the difference between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust. KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts” explains that a living trust can be revocable or irrevocable.  You can act as your own trustee or designate another person. The trustee has the fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the trust beneficiaries. These are the people you name to benefit from the trust.

There are three main benefits to including a trust as part of an estate plan.

  1. Avoiding probate. Assets held in a trust can avoid probate. This can save your heirs both time and money.
  2. Creditor protection. Creditors can try to attach assets held outside an irrevocable trust to satisfy a debt. However, those assets titled in the name of the irrevocable trust may avoid being accessed to pay outstanding debts.
  3. Minimize estate taxes. Estate taxes can take a large portion from the wealth you may be planning to leave to others. Placing assets in a trust may help to lessen the effect of estate and inheritance taxes, preserving more of your wealth for future generations.

What’s the Difference Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts?

A revocable trust is a trust that can be changed or terminated at any time during the lifetime of the person making the trust. When the grantor dies, a revocable trust automatically becomes irrevocable, so no other changes can be made to its terms.

An irrevocable trust is essentially permanent. Therefore, if you create an irrevocable trust during your lifetime, any assets you place in the trust must stay in the trust. That’s a big difference from a revocable trust: flexibility.

Whether a trust is right for your estate plan, depends on your situation. Discuss this with a qualified estate planning attorney. This has been a very simple introduction to a very complex subject.

Reference: KAKE.com (March 31, 2020) “Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts”

 

Do You have an Estate Plan Blueprint?

Your assets can go to one of four places: family, friends, charity or the government. You should work with a qualified estate planning attorney to make certain that you have the instructions set up correctly in your will and perhaps a trust and create an estate plan for yourself.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “How To Create An Estate Planning Blueprint” emphasizes that you need to make sure your plan is optimized, so your beneficiaries can sidestep the pain of probate and you can be certain that you make the most of the gifts you plan to leave them.

Let’s look at some tips on how to make sure your estate is as planned as best as it possibly can be.

Conduct Regular Check-ups. You should review your estate plan every few years. Things change, like laws and regulations, family situations, wealth and more. This needs to be reflected in your planning.

Think of the Future. Failing to plan now, can mean headaches in the future for your family after you’re gone.

Look at Your Options. If you and your estate planning attorney decide to set up a trust, know your options and discuss them, along with their tax implications.

Plan Your Charitable Gifts. Ask your estate planning attorney whether lifetime gifting makes sense. The unified exemption amount is at $23.16 million per couple, when it comes to lifetime and at-death gifts. If you have an estate valued in excess of that per-couple threshold, consider making lifetime gifts now before the possible future decrease in this exemption!

Inform Your Beneficiaries of Your Wishes. Let you family know what you’re planning to do with your estate to avoid hurt feelings and fighting after you’re gone. That way, there will be no surprises. You do not need to spell out all the financial details. However, you should provide a general summary of what you anticipate, as well as details about who will be the trustees and executors of your estate.

When planning your estate plan strategy, paying for the services of a legal professional now can help you avoid problems in the future. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (April 1, 2020) “How To Create An Estate Planning Blueprint”

 

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best answer is the use of a trust. By leaving money to an heir in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a three or a thirty-year period. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.  The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

If the funding for the trust will come from proceeds from a life insurance policy, it may be necessary to have your estate planning attorney contact the insurance company to be sure that the insurance company will permit a testamentary trust to be the beneficiary of the life insurance and avoid probate altogether.

Not all insurance companies will permit this. There may be some other changes that need to occur for this to work and be in compliance with your state’s laws. However, your estate planning attorney will be able to resolve the issue for you.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”