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Have a Plan for Life

Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

 

How Does a Life Estate Deed Work for an Executor?

What should this person do next? What is allowed and what is not? This complex question is addressed in My San Antonio’s article, “Life estate deed by agent must preserve estate plan.” First, let’s clarify what a life estate deed is, and why it was used in this person’s estate plan.

A life estate deed is a real estate ownership arrangement, by which the owner gifts or sells to someone, in this case to the beneficiary child, a “remainder interest” in a piece of real estate property. The owner of the property holds a “life estate” in the real estate, which includes the right to live in the property, use it and even profit from it, as long as the life estate holder is alive. The remainder interest holder, the heir, can’t interfere with the life estate holder’s use of the property, while they are living.

The remainder interest holder does have an ownership interest in the property, which is granted in the life estate deed. The IRS publishes a table so that the value of the remainder interest can be calculated. Here’s why that matters:

  • If the remainder is gifted, then the IRS table determines the gift tax amount.
  • If the property is sold while the life holder is alive, the proceeds are split with the remainder holder, with the value determined from the IRS tables.
  • If the life estate holder needs to apply for Medicaid, the gift value of the remainder will cause a disqualification.

If the life estate holder decides to sell the property, permission from the remainder holder is required. The life estate holder may not have to pay taxes, but the remainder interest holder is likely to owe capital gain taxes, if the property is sold.

There is a special type of estate deed which changes the description above. Known as an enhanced life estate deed, or a “lady bird deed,” the owner is given the right to cancel the deed at any time. Since there is no value transferred to the remainder holder, there is no gift tax, no disqualification from Medicaid and the life estate holder can sell without needing to obtain permission from the remainder holder.

In the example above, the father did not sell his life estate interest, but retained it until the date of his death. The first challenge is proving ownership of the property. The original life estate deed should be proof of the ownership, but it must be combined with proof of death. The official death certificate will be needed to be presented to the title company, which will establish ownership under the original life estate deed.

The Alzheimer’s diagnosis creates another hurdle. Title companies are cautious when circumstances could be interpreted as self-dealing. They may ask if the agent had preserved the principal’s estate plan. In other words, did the father’s will give the house to the agent or to someone else? The agent may not act in a way that violates the existing estate plan. The durable power of attorney must be recorded with the county clerk for the life estate deed to be valid.

This is a situation where a qualified estate planning attorney will be able to ensure that proper measures are taken to protect the heir, as well as the estate.

Reference: My San Antonio (Feb. 11, 2019) “Life estate deed by agent must preserve estate plan”

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What are the “Must Have” Estate Planning Documents?

What do Aretha Franklin, Kurt Cobain, and Prince have in common? Aside from being famous and talented, each of these stars passed away without a will. All three had the money and attorneys to draft a proper estate plan, but for whatever reason, they didn’t draft one. It’s a good lesson to not neglect your estate plan.

Motley Fool reports in the article, “3 Must-Have Estate Planning Documents To Get Done This Year,” that dying without a will creates numerous problems for your family. If there are no legal instructions in place, probate law dictates the distribution of your assets and selection of guardians for your minor children, which can cause problems. Regardless of your personal situation, you should think about creating these three important estate planning documents.

Will. A will is used to distribute your estate, according to your instructions. A will can say how much and what type of asset each heir will receive, to minimize family fighting after your death. If you have young children, you can designate guardians in your will to be in charge of their care. If you die without a will, the probate judge will order who becomes their guardian.

You also need a will to make charitable bequests, to expedite the probate court process and to reduce or eliminate estate taxes. When you draft your will, you’ll appoint trusted people to serve as the executor and the trustee.

Living will. A living will can take effect while you are still alive. This is a legal document that sets out your instructions for medical treatment, if you become unable to communicate, such as whether or not you want to be placed on life support. A living will can relieve the emotional burden from your family of having to make difficult decisions.

Power of attorney. This legal document helps in the event you’re incapacitated or in the hospital in an unresponsive state. A power of attorney gives the individual you designate the authority to transact financial and legal matters on your behalf. Set up a power of attorney, before you need it. If you don’t and you’re unable to make decisions, your family may have to petition the court to get those powers, which costs time and money.

Estate planning is a huge favor that you’re doing for your family. Get these three legal documents in place.

Reference: Motley Fool (February 18, 2019) “3 Must-Have Estate Planning Documents To Get Done This Year”

 

Power of Attorney, Living Wills: Before a Crisis Strikes

The last thing you want to be doing at three in the morning when you are heading to the hospital to meet up with your frail mother-in-law, is wondering if anyone has signed a health care directive.  However, all too often, this is how the scenario unfolds, says Expert Click in the article “How to Get Power of Attorney for Aging Parents.

A medical power of attorney permits another individual to make medical decisions, when a person is unconscious or unable to make a medical decision. Other documents that are often completed in a hospital setting are the MOLST (Medical Order for Life Sustaining Treatment) or POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment). This is also often the time the adult child is asked, if there is a living will.

Both the living will, and the medical and financial power of attorney documents should be created and executed well in advance of the emergency trip to the hospital. However, unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Planning for unexpected medical situations, by having the power of attorney and living will in place in advance is better. Even young people need these documents, since accidents happen.

The problem of having these documents for elderly people, is that they are sometimes resistant to having them created. You may need to have more than one discussion before they agree to complete the forms. While you are working on getting these documents for your parents, have them prepared for yourself and for your adult children.

No one plans to become sick, or to be in an accident. However, the reality is, even if we are lucky enough to avoid accidents or illness, we all age. By having these documents in place, we can be assured that when help is needed, decisions can be made by someone you choose.

The power of attorney and living will require more than just signing off on a piece of paper. They need to include the person’s understanding of what the documents mean, finding the right person to appoint and discussing the medical and financial desires of the person, so the power of attorney agent agrees to fulfill that person’s wishes and has no qualms about following their directions.

Sometimes the person named on these two important documents is not a family member, but a respected and trusted friend or even a professional. Family members are often overcome by emotion at the time of a medical crisis and are unable to make critical decisions. You know your family best: will they be able to act in a time of crisis? If not, you’ll want to name someone else in these documents.

These decisions should be done in conjunction with preparing a will, so the estate plan is in place. An estate planning attorney can take you and your family through the process and will be able to answer any questions you or your aging parent may have.

Reference: Expert Click (Feb. 12, 2019) “How to Get Power of Attorney for Aging Parents.

 

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

Can your mom just sell her house, despite her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

The (Bryan TX) Eagle reports in the recent article “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents” that the concept of “mental capacity” is complicated. There’s considerable confusion about incapacity. The article explains that different legal documents have a different degree of required capacity. The bar for signing a Power of Attorney, a Warranty Deed, a Contract, a Divorce Decree, or a Settlement Agreement is a little lower than for signing a Will. The individual signing legal documents must be capable of understanding and appreciating what he or she is signing, as well as the effect of the document.

The answer to the question of whether the mom can sign the deed to her house over to the buyer is likely “yes.” She must understand that she’s selling her house, and that, once the document is signed, the house will belong to someone else. A terminal diagnosis or a neurodegenerative disease doesn’t automatically mean that an individual can’t sign legal documents. A case-by-case assessment is required to see if the document will be valid.

The fact that a person is unable to write his or her name doesn’t mean they lack capacity. If a senior can’t sign her name (possibly due to tremors or neurodegeneration), she can sign with an “X”. She could place her hand on top of someone else’s and allow the other person to sign her name. If this is completed before witnesses and the notary, that would be legal.

Capacity can be fluid in the progress of a neurodegenerative or other terminal disease. Because of this, the best time to sign critical documents is sooner rather than later. No one can say the “window of capacity” will remain open for a certain amount of time.

Some signs should prompt you to move more quickly. These include things like the following:

  • Short-term memory loss;
  • Personality changes (e.g., unusual anger);
  • Confusing up or forgetting common-usage words and names; and
  • Disorientation and changes in depth perception.

Any of the signs above could be caused by dementia or many other problems. Talk to your parent’s physician and an elder law attorney. He or she can discuss the options, document your parent’s legal capacity, and get the right documents drafted quickly.

Reference: The (Bryan TX) Eagle (February 7, 2019) “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents”

 

What Do Parents Need to Know About Writing a Will?

Who wants to think about their own mortality? No one. However, it’s a fact of life. If you die without a will, it can mean conflict among your survivors, as they attempt to see how best to divide up your assets.

Fatherly’s recent article, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know” says that families can battle over big assets like cars to small assets like a collection of supposedly rare books. They can fight over anything and everything. Therefore, remember to prepare and sign a last will and testament to dispose of your property the way you want.

Dying without a will means your estate will be disposed of according to the intestacy laws. That could leave your loved ones in the lurch. For instance, in some states, your spouse may only get half your estate, with the remainder going to your parents.

Writing a will is essential, and you should not try to do it yourself. Instead, hire an experienced estate planning lawyer. Along with this, keep these items in mind.

Plan for Every Scenario. When doing your estate planning, consider the various scenarios and contingencies that can happen after you’re gone. A well prepared will includes when and where you want your assets to go. Be wise in how to distribute your assets, to whom they will be going and the timing.

Family Dynamics. You must be very specific when drafting up a will, especially if family circumstances are unique, such when there are children from previous marriages who aren’t legally adopted by a spouse. They could be disinherited. Work with an attorney to make sure they receive what you intend with specific details. If you and your partner aren’t legally married, your significant other could find himself or herself disinherited from your assets after you’re dead.

Designating Your Children’s Guardian. If you don’t name a guardian for your children (in cases of either single parenthood or where both parents pass away), the state will determine who gets your children.

Specificity. Your will is a chance to say who gets what. If you want your brother to get the baseball card collection, you should write it down in your will or it’s not enforceable. In some states, you can attach a written list of these personal items to your will.

Health Care. Begin planning your will when you’re healthy so that, in the event of disaster, you will have a financial power of attorney and a health care agent in place. If you become too ill to make decisions yourself, you’ll need to appoint someone to make those decisions for you.

Rules for Minors. Minors can own property, but they’ll have no control over it until they turn 18. If parents leave their home to their minor child, the surviving spouse will have issues if they want to sell it. Likewise, if a child is named the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, IRA, or 401(k), those assets will go into a protected account.

Don’t Do It Yourself. This cannot be emphasized enough. It’s tempting to create a will from a generic form online. But this may be a recipe for disaster. If your will is drafted poorly, your family will suffer the consequences. Generic forms found online are just that—generic. Families are not generic. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with what can be a complex process.

Reference: Fatherly (February 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

 

Can I Draft My Own Will?

A common question among people is “Can I write my own will?” or “Do I really need a lawyer to do my estate planning?”

The Frisky‘s recent article, “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan,” says that writing your own estate plan can be a complicated thing—and one that a non-attorney may find very difficult.

It’s More Than a Will. Many people believe that a will and an estate plan are the same. This is not true. An estate plan is a legal strategy that prepares you for potential incapacity and eventual death. A will is a legal document that’s part of the estate plan.

Money, Time and Energy Savings. Creating your own estate plan will be more time-consuming than you may have thought. Hiring a lawyer to do this will cost you—but it will cost you more, if you decide to do it on your own. Hiring a lawyer for your estate plan will save you time, because he or she is trained in the law to do it the right way.

If you do finish your own estate plan and you realize that it really is a mess, you can hire a lawyer to do it over for you. However, calculate how much time, energy, and resources you’ve spent on making on your quick DIY estate plan. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and create a sound estate plan.

It’s Complicated. If you don’t fully understand what you’re doing, estate planning can drive you nuts. That’s because every word you write is crucial. Everything you write counts and may be interpreted differently. The law in this area also changes all the time. Agencies in the federal government, the IRS and the courts are always creating new regulations and decisions. Your estate planning attorney monitors all of this, makes sure your estate plan is in compliance and takes the best advantage of the current law.

Objectivity. Another thing your attorney adds to the mix—in addition to legal expertise—is objectivity. Your estate planning attorney will give you a clean, unbiased view of your current situation, along with a fair and honest assessment of your options.

Reference: The Frisky (February 6, 2019) “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan”

 

The Dark Side of Reverse Mortgages for Seniors

It sounds great, even if you know that the reverse mortgages are known to be a little on the pricey side. However, unexpected circumstances can make this last-chance-to-save-your-They should also have an attorney review the contract from the reverse mortgage company. backfire in a big way. Just ask Evelyn Boice, who is still wearing the same clothing that she brought to babysit her grandchildren last February. The Union Leader shares her story in the article “Silver Linings: Reverse mortgages for seniors–Lifestyle Maintenance or money pit?”

It seems that a flood at Evelyn’s retirement home caused by burst pipes led to a financial disaster. She’s 83 and didn’t expect to spend her last years living in an apartment attached to her daughter’s home. She’s got a chair, a TV, a bed and a kitchen stool. Everything she owned was destroyed in the flood.

She does have a lot of notebooks—stacks of confusing and incomplete financial statements loaded with indecipherable charges, including a $35 charge every time she calls the reverse mortgage company for help. She’s got threatening letters about being in default, while she waits for the mortgage lender to release an insurance check for $48,651 that she would use to salvage what’s left of her home.

When she called the insurance company, she heard an awful comment from someone at the office: “Why doesn’t she just hurry up and die?”

Boice took out a reverse mortgage in 2007 and used $50,000 of a $200,000 loan to make emergency repairs after Hurricane Wilma struck her home, blowing out windows and doors. However, the danger comes, when homeowners don’t have enough money to live on and maintain their homes, make essential repairs or pay for insurance and property taxes. That’s non-negotiable with a reverse mortgage. Any kind of default can lead to a cascade of new expenses for appraisals, property inspections and legal work to protect the lender. The lender has all the power and all the fine print.

Her case is an extreme example of what can go wrong. In 12 years, an unbelievable amount of paperwork has accumulated. One document shows that she owes $265,000, a number that keeps increasing. The monthly interest charges range from $100 to more than $1,000, and lump sums of more than $2,500, reflecting property taxes.

Boice is getting some help from the Claremont office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance. They are helping her work through the issue, but it may only come in the form of tax deferment or reductions.

Before taking out a reverse mortgage, seniors should look at all available options. They should also have an attorney review the contract from the reverse mortgage company. One small mistake can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Reference: Union Leader (Feb. 2, 2019) “Silver Linings: Reverse mortgages for seniors–Lifestyle Maintenance or money pit?”

 

Your Most Important Asset Is Not Your Bank Account

It’s hard to think about getting older. When something is challenging, the usual human response is to procrastinate. We can’t slow down the aging process, but we can prepare for it. One of the things that needs to be done to prepare for aging, is discussed in the article from The Mercury titled “REINVENTING RETIREMENT: Your most important asset—it’s not what you think.” Good health is definitely important, but there’s something else to consider: your independence.

We hate to think about becoming dependent upon others, but that is often what occurs with aging. This is an asset that needs to be planned for and managed, like any other. Here are some tips for each decade:

Health Care Directives in Your 50s. You need to have a will and you need to have it updated, as the years go by. However, in mid-life you need to make sure to have a living will and power of attorney. Estate planning is a tool used to protect your independence and your wishes as you grow older. These two documents are a critical part of your estate plan. A health crisis or an accident can happen to anyone, but planning can ensure that your wishes are followed. Put your wishes on paper, with an attorney, so that they are enforceable. Just telling someone what you want, is not going to do it.

Home and Belongings in Your 60s. The kids are out of college and have their own careers and families. Do you still need that big house? Downsizing could bring you tremendous freedom now. Yes, you have to go through all of your belongings which is a lot of work. However, consider how your life would change if you had less stuff, a smaller home and lower bills? This one move could change how your retirement succeeds—or fails.

Stay Connected in your 70s and 80s. Connecting with your community is critical at this time of life. When you are actively engaged with your community, you’ll be busy with activities that you enjoy. You will hopefully be making contributions that draw on your years of experience and knowledge. Hope and having a purpose in life is not just for the young. The healthiest and most independent lives, are lived when people are engaged with other people, with a life that has meaning and purpose.

Planning for your retirement is about much more than your bank account. Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure that your estate plan protects your independence, conveys your wishes and plans the coming stages of your life to be as rewarding—or maybe more fulfilling—than the past.

Reference: The Mercury (Feb. 10, 2019) “REINVENTING RETIREMENT: Your most important asset—it’s not what you think”

 

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?

If you haven’t had a talk with your estate planning attorney since before the TCJA act went into effect, now would be a good time to do so, says The Kansas City Star in the article “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” While most of the news about the act centered on the increased exemptions for estate taxes, there are a number of other changes that may have a direct impact on your taxes.

Start by looking at any wills or trusts that were created before the tax act went into effect. If any of the trusts use formulas that are tied to the federal estate tax exemption, there could be unintended consequences because of the higher exemption amounts.

The federal estate tax exemption doubled from $5.49 million per person in 2017 to $11.18 million per person in 2018 (or $22.36 million per couple). It is now $11.2 million per person in 2019 (or $22.4 million per couple).

Let’s say that your trust was created in 2001, when the estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Your trust may have stipulated that your children receive the amount of assets that could be passed free from federal estate tax, and the remainder, which exceeded the federal estate tax exemption, goes to your spouse. At the time, this was a perfectly good strategy. However, if it hasn’t been updated since then, your children will receive $11.4 million and your spouse could be disinherited.

Trusts drafted prior to 2011, when portability was introduced, require particular attention.

Two other important factors to consider are portability and step-up of cost basis. In the past, many couples relied on the use of bypass or credit shelter trusts that pay income to the surviving spouse and then eventually pass trust assets on to the children, upon the death of the surviving spouse. This scenario made sure to use the first deceased spouse’s estate exemption.

However, new legislation passed in 2011 allowed for portability of the deceased spouse’s unused estate exemption. The surviving spouse’s estate can now use any exemption that wasn’t used by the first spouse to die.

A step-up in basis was not changed by the TCJA law, but this has more significance now. When a person dies, their heir’s cost basis of many assets becomes the value of the asset on the date that the person died. Highly appreciated assets that avoided income taxes to the decedent, could avoid or minimize income taxes to the heirs. Maintaining the ability for assets to receive a step-up in basis is more important now, because of the size of the federal estate tax exemption.

Beneficiaries who inherit assets from a bypass or credit shelter trust upon the surviving spouse’s death, no longer benefit from a “second” step-up in basis. The basis of the inheritance is the original basis from the first spouse’s death. Therefore, bypass trusts are less useful than in the past, and could actually have negative income tax consequences for heirs.

If your current estate plan has not been amended for these or other changes, make an appointment soon to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney. It may not take a huge overhaul of the entire estate plan, but these changes could have a negative impact on your family and their future.

Reference: The Kansas City Star (Feb. 7, 2019) “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”