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Law Office of Michael D. DellaMonaca

Have a Plan for Life

Failure to Act on a Will Can Lead to a Loss of an Estate

Here’s a cautionary tale for family members who don’t know what to do when a parent or uncle dies. A man and his sister have an uncle, let’s call him George, who has no children. Uncle George had two siblings—the father of the man and his sister (who died before Uncle George made out his will)—and a brother. Let’s call the brother Jim. Uncle Jim lived in Uncle George’s house. Uncle George died, and the siblings didn’t do anything.

Five years went by and the siblings decided they wanted to sell the house to pay off some loans. When they told Uncle George their plans, he announced that he would not leave the house. As explained in the article “Wills are not self-enacting” from mySanAntonio.com, the nephew and niece have overlooked more than a few salient details.

The most important fact: wills are not self-enacting. Next, there is a legal time limit upon which an executor or an heir must take legal action and finally, state law for each state has a default inheritance plan, when there is no will in the public record after someone has died.

What does it mean for a will to not be “self-enacting”? While Uncle George may have had a will with instructions to leave his house to the siblings, they did not do anything to probate the will. The only people who knew about the will were the uncle, the attorney who prepared the will and maybe a few other family members. When a home is bought and sold, the transaction must be recorded in the county’s public records to inform the public of the change of ownership.

Not taking action on a will is a disservice to the decedent and their heirs. The will needs to go through probate, for the will to be deemed valid by the court and to allow the named executor to distribute assets, according to the terms of the will.

There are legal limits to when the will must be presented to the courts. A local estate planning attorney will know what those limits are, as they are different in each state. In Texas, where this took place, the will must be filed for probate within four years of the date that the will’s maker passed. After four years, the court is not allowed to appoint the named executor. The court may not recognize the will either, unless those who are late in presenting the will can explain the delay, the heirs agree that the will can be recognized and the will is limited to passing title to the named devisees.

Every state has a plan for how assets are distributed in the absence of a will. When the owner of something dies, the ownership passes to someone else. When there is no will, heirs-at-law receive the property. Each state has a statute that determines who the heirs are.

In this case, the will was not timely probated so the law defaults to giving ownership to the heirs-at-law. In Texas, when there is no surviving spouse and no descendants, the siblings of the deceased person are the heirs-at-law. That would be Uncle George, since the nephew and niece failed to file the will for probate in a timely manner.

When a family member passes, someone in the family must take steps to ensure that the will is probated, and the estate is properly settled. Failing to do so cost this brother and sister the inheritance that their uncle wanted them to have. Had they contacted a qualified estate planning attorney, the entire process would have been handled correctly, and they would have had ownership of their uncle’s home.

Reference: mySanAntonio.com (Dec. 23, 2019) “Wills are not self-enacting”

 

Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s

Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

 

Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks so they need to be someone you trust who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

 

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”