Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

 

How Does Guardianship Work?

For the most part, we are free to make our own decisions regarding how we live, where we live, how we spend our money and even with whom we socialize. However, when we are no longer capable of caring for ourselves most commonly due to advancing age or dementia, or if an accident or illness occurs and we can’t manage our affairs, it may be necessary to seek a guardianship, as explained in the recent article “Legal Corner: A guardian can be a helpful tool in cases of incapacity” from The Westerly Sun. A guardianship is also necessary for the care of a child or adult with special needs.

If no proper estate planning has been done and no one has been given power of attorney or health care power of attorney, a guardianship may be necessary. This is a legal relationship where one person, ideally a responsible, capable and caring person known as a guardian is given the legal power to manage the needs of a ward, the person who cannot manage their own affairs. A guardianship appointment is usually supported through a court process, requires a medical assessment and comes before the probate court for a hearing.

Once the guardian is qualified and appointed by the court, they have the authority to oversee everything about the ward’s life. They have power over the ward’s money and how it is spent, health care decisions, residential issues and even with whom the ward spends time. At its essence, a guardianship is akin to a parent-child relationship.

Guardianships can be tailored by the court to meet the specific needs of the ward in each case, with the guardian’s powers either limited or expanded as needed and as appropriate.

The guardian must report to the court on a yearly basis about the ward’s health and health care and file an annual accounting of what has been done with the ward’s money and how much money remains. The court supervision is intended to protect the ward from mismanagement of their finances and ensure that the guardianship is still needed and maintained on an annual basis.

The relationship between the ward and the guardian is often a close one and can continue for many years. The guardianship ends upon the death of the ward, the resignation or removal of the guardian, or in cases of temporary illness or incapacity, when the ward recovers and is once again able to handle their own affairs and make health care decisions on their own.

If and when an elderly family member can no longer manage their own lives, guardianship is a way to step in and care for them if no prior estate planning has been done. It is preferable for an estate plan to be created and for powers of attorney be created, but in its absence, this is an option.

If you feel you need a guardianship in any case, reach out to an experienced estate planning or probate attorney.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (Sep. 19, 2020) “Legal Corner: A guardian can be a helpful tool in cases of incapacity”

 

Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate planning should be a business-like process where people evaluate the assets they have accumulated over time and make clear decisions about how to leave their assets and legacy to those they love. The reality, as described in the article “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe,” from Kiplinger, is not so straightforward. Emotions take over as does a feeling that time is running short which is sometimes the case.

Reactive decisions rarely work as well in the short and long term as decisions made based on strategies that are set in place over time. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make when creating an estate plan or revising one in response to life’s inevitable changes.

Estate plans are all about tax planning. Strategies to minimize taxes are part of estate planning, but they should not be the primary focus. Since the federal exemption is $11.58 million for 2020, and fewer than 3% of all taxpayers need to worry about paying a federal estate tax, there are other considerations to prioritize. If there is a family business, for example, what will happen to the business, especially if the children have no interest in keeping it? In this case, succession or exit planning needs to be a bigger part of the estate plan.

The children should get everything. This is a frequent response, but not always right. You may want to leave your descendants most of your estate, but ask yourself, could your lifetime’s work be put to use in another way? You don’t need to rush to an automatic answer. Give consideration to what you’d like your legacy to be. It may not only be enriching your children and grandchildren’s lives.

My children are very different but it’s only fair that I leave equal amounts to all of them. Treating your children equally in your estate plan is a lot like treating them exactly the same way throughout their lives. One child may be self-motivated and need no academic help, while another needs tutoring just to maintain average grades. Another may be ready to step into your shoes at the family business, with great management and finance skills, but her sister wants nothing to do with the business. The same family includes offspring with different dreams, hopes, skills and abilities. Leaving everyone an equal share doesn’t always work.

Having a trust takes care of everything. Well, not exactly. In fact, if you neglect to fund a trust, your family may have a mess to deal with. A sizable estate may need revocable or irrevocable trusts but an estate plan is more complicated than trust or no trust. First, when an asset is placed into an irrevocable trust, the grantor loses control of the asset and the trustee is in control. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, not the grantor of the trust. The beneficiaries include the current and future beneficiaries so the trustee may have to answer to more than one generation of beneficiaries. Problems can arise when one family member has been named a trustee and their siblings are beneficiaries. Creating that dynamic among family members can create a legacy of distrust and jealousy.

My estate advisors are all working well with each other and looking out for me. In a perfect world, this would be true but it doesn’t always happen. You have to take a proactive stance, contacting everyone and making sure they understand that you want them to cooperate and act as a team. With clear direction from you, your professional advisors will be able to achieve your goals.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 17, 2020) “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe”

 

When Do We Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Kiplinger’s article “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice” explains that this is when a lot of panicked calls are made to elder law attorneys. These attorneys specialize in planning for the legal complications that can arise in old age. However, seldom do people think to consult one preemptively to avoid making that panicked phone call in the first place.

Elder care lawyers work in the best interests of the older person, although how that is accomplished may differ. If the senior is competent and contacts the attorney it can be fairly straightforward. However, if an adult family member or friend is an agent or has power of attorney for an elderly person—and asks for help, the attorney is representing the agent. In any event, anyone who has power of attorney has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the elderly person granting them that authority.

If a power of attorney isn’t in place and the elderly parent is incapable of giving it, the family is required to go to court to have someone appointed as a guardian which can be a time-consuming option. If a parent is cognitively capable and doesn’t want help there’s nothing an attorney can do about it.

Although state laws vary, elder law primarily concerns these topics:

  • The client’s wishes and health
  • Family dynamics; and
  • The client’s financial assets and income.

An elder care attorney will also make sure that all important documents are in place and up-to-date according to state laws. This may include a will, a trust, a power of attorney and an advance directive that includes a health care proxy.

Elder law attorneys also help moderate tough decisions, like when family members can’t agree about how a loved one wanted to be buried.  In addition, elder care lawyers understand the complex laws for Medicaid and VA benefits. An elder care lawyer can speak to many other issues ranging from long-term care insurance to capital gains taxes.

A key when meeting with an elder law attorney is that you feel comfortable, that you’re not rushed and that your questions are answered.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 15, 2020) “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice”

 

What’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates and the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

We suggest that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in the probate process.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

 

Will a ‘Will’ Really Pay Off?

Wills are often seen as a something that only comes up when an elderly person passes away. Because of this notion, many people think that a will is something they’ll only need to worry about decades from now. However, even young adults can benefit from currently having a will.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s recent article entitled “Don’t have a will? Now might be the time to change that” explains that having a will provides you with a layer of security for your family.

The process of drafting a will itself is pretty simple. A person can get a sense of comfort knowing that their final wishes and requests will be known and respected. The creation of most wills starts with a person contacting an experienced estate planning attorney. He or she will usually send them a questionnaire to complete that asks about the spelling of their names and those of family members, as well as the items and properties they want to list. Once the attorney has that information, the client and the attorney meet to talk about the goals of the client. The attorney will get back to the client in a few weeks with a draft or estate plan. After a review, the client returns to execute the document before witnesses and a notary.

It truly is important for young people to have wills, especially those who are unmarried or have children. If you have young children, your will states the guardians for your children.  If a parent without a spouse doesn’t name a guardian in a will for their child, the court will make a selection.

Estate planning attorneys usually will charge a flat fee for a drafting will. While there are alternatives to the traditional process, going online to find a will-making program isn’t recommended, especially if you have a complex estate. These should be left to experienced estate planning attorneys. However, even for a Regular Joe, most experts say to avoid these sites entirely.

Attorneys can make a lot of money from these do-it-yourself will websites, because they often result in litigation. Some of these websites can cause errors in the drafting of a will. This leads to law firms making far more money than they would have, if the client had simply drafted the will through them in the first place.

Death is an uncomfortable topic for many people. Many people don’t know what options are available, and they’re often scared to ask. However, with COVID-19, people are beginning to realize the importance of a will and a complete estate plan.

Reference: The Charleston Gazette-Mail (Aug. 23, 2020) “Don’t have a will? Now might be the time to change that”

 

How to Keep Track of Mom’s Healthcare Information if She Gets Sick or Injured

It’s common for seniors to have several chronic medical conditions that must be closely monitored and for which they take any number of prescription medications. Family caregivers usually are given a crash course in nursing and managing medical care, when they start helping an aging loved one. The greatest lesson is that organization is key, which is especially true when a senior requires urgent medical care.

Physicians encounter countless patients and families who struggle to convey important medical details to health care staff, according to The (Battle Ground, WA ) Reflector’s recent article titled “The emergency medical file every caregiver should create.”

A great solution is to create a packet that contains information that caregivers should have. Here’s what should be in this emergency file:

Medications. Make a list of all your senior’s prescription and over-the-counter medications, with dosages and how frequently they’re taken.

Allergies. Note if your loved one is allergic to any medications, additives, preservatives, or materials, like latex or adhesives. You should also note the severity of their reaction to each of these.

Physicians. Put down the name and contact info for the patient’s primary care physician, as well as any regularly seen specialists, like a cardiologist or a neurologist.

Medical Conditions. Provide the basics about your senior’s serious physical and mental conditions, along with their medical history. This can include diabetes, a pacemaker, dementia, falls and any heart attacks or strokes. You should also list pertinent dates.

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order. If a senior doesn’t want to receive CPR or intubation if they go into cardiac or respiratory arrest, include a copy of their state-sponsored and physician-signed DNR order or Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form.

Medical Power of Attorney. Keep a copy of a medical power of attorney (POA) in the packet. This is important for communicating with medical staff and making health care decisions. You should also check that the contact information is included on or with the form.

Recent Lab Results. Include copies of your senior’s most recent lab tests, which can be very helpful for physicians who are trying to make a diagnosis and decide on a course of treatment without a complete medical history. This can include the most recent EKGs, complete blood counts and kidney function and liver function tests.

Insurance Info. Provide copies of both sides of all current insurance cards. Include the Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap) and Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D) cards (if applicable). This will help ensure that the billing is done correctly.

Photo ID. Emergency rooms must treat patients, even if they don’t have identification or insurance information However, many urgent care centers require a picture ID to see patients. You should also include a copy of their driver’s license in the folder.

Once you have all the records, assemble the folder and put it in an easily accessible location. Give the packet to paramedics responding to 911 calls. It should also be brought to any visits at an urgent care clinic.

Reference: The (Battle Ground, WA ) Reflector (Sep. 14, 2020) “The emergency medical file every caregiver should create”

Suggested Key Terms: Elder Law Attorney, Elder Care, Estate Planning, Power of Attorney, Living Will, Advance Directive, Caregiving, Medicare, Medigap, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order, Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Form

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?

The story takes an unpleasant twist, after Cindy’s stepsister Charlotte suggests that she be given power of attorney to help Cindy with her business matters. When Cindy agrees, Charlotte’s attorney creates a Statutory Durable Power of Attorney that names Charlotte as her agent. What happened next, according to the Glen Rose Reporter in the article “Guarding against the evil stepsister,” was a nightmare.

A few weeks later, Cindy’s brother Prince found that Charlotte had moved money from Cindy’s personal bank accounts into a completely different bank, setting up joint accounts in Cindy and Charlotte’s names and granting Charlotte right of survivorship (ROS). This made Charlotte the legal owner of the account at the time of Cindy’s passing. Charlotte had also contacted Cindy’s former employer and was attempting to wrest control of Cindy’s pension. It wasn’t clear whether she was attempting to obtain the entire amount in a lump sum, but she was attempting to gain control.  Cindy realized that Charlotte was not to be trusted. However, Charlotte had the power of attorney and all of these actions were legal. Could the power of attorney that she had signed be revoked? The answer is yes which is important to know.

There were two paths available to Cindy: she could immediately execute a revocation of the Statutory Durable Power of Attorney that had been used to give Charlotte authority, or have her attorney create a new power of attorney granting power of agency to another person. Either way, Charlotte would be stripped of the legal authority to act on Cindy’s behalf.

Cindy had a new POA created naming her brother Prince as her agent. The new POA had to immediately be presented to all of the financial institutions she deals with. She contacted her former employer and gave them proper notice that Charlotte no longer had authority to represent her. The new joint accounts that Charlotte had opened were then closed and individual accounts in her name only were open, which also ended the ROS. She could have returned her accounts back to the old bank or stayed with the new bank where Charlotte had opened new accounts. Cindy decided to stay with the new bank.

Cindy had to anticipate another challenge—that Charlotte might attempt to have Cindy declared incompetent and have herself named as Cindy’s legal guardian. To protect herself, Cindy’s estate planning attorney drew up documents stating that in the event Cindy ever needed someone to be her guardian, she did not want Charlotte to be named. In addition, she named the person she would want to be her guardian, if that is necessary in the future. While a judge ultimately has final discretion, the courts generally prefer naming a guardian as requested by an individual.

Your estate planning attorney can revoke a power of attorney, if it becomes clear that the person you’ve named is not acting in your best interests. Having an estate plan in place in advance of any medical or mental challenges is always better, so that you are less vulnerable to anyone trying to take advantage of you during a difficult time.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Sep. 10, 2020) “Guarding against the evil stepsister”

 

How Can Siblings Settle Disputes over an Estate?

When your parents pass away, their assets are often divided between their children. However, if there’s no will to answer any legal questions that may arise  siblings can fight over the assets. Some even take the matter to court. It would be great to avoid these battles because, in many cases, a fight over an estate between the siblings can end their good relationship and enrich attorneys instead of family members.

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle” says that the following tips can help people in this situation or assist them in preventing the fight entirely, when there are no instructions for the distribution of certain assets.

Use a Family Auction. With a family auction, siblings use agreed upon “tokens” to bid for the estate items they want.

Get an Appraisal. The division of an estate between the siblings can get complicated and end in a fight if the siblings want different pieces of the estate and have to work out the value difference. If, for example, the siblings decide to split the estate unevenly and one gets a car and another a house, it’s worthwhile to engage the services of an appraiser to calculate the value of these assets. That way, those pieces of smaller value can be deducted from ones of higher value for fairer distribution.

Mediation. If siblings historically don’t get along, they may battle over every trinket left as an inheritance, no matter how immaterial. In that case, you should use a mediator to help divide the estate fairly without a court battle.

Take Turns! Sometimes, if there are several siblings involved in the division of assets, they can take turns in claiming the items within the estate. All siblings naturally have to agree to the idea with no hard feelings involved. Just like Mom would have wanted!

Asset Liquidation. If everything else fails, the easiest way to divide the assets and the estate between the siblings is to go through asset liquidation and split the proceeds.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to deal with the division of the estate and assets and prevent the legal battle between the siblings. To avoid hard feelings, stay calm, be reasonable and ask your siblings to act the same way. Perhaps it also might be a good time to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney and create estate planning documents now to avoid arguments.

Reference: The Legal Reader (Aug. 24, 2020) “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle”

 

How Important Is Estate Planning in the Pandemic?

Waiting to create a will leaves nothing but headaches for your heirs and relatives. With nearly 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in the U.S. alone, we are reminded of how fast our lives can change.  The Street’s recent article entitled “Life Changes Fast: The Importance of Estate Planning and Health Care Directives” also notes that this reminds us how important it is to make sure we have current estate planning decisions and end-of-life decisions in place.

Here is a basic overview of some important areas of estate and health care planning you should consider:

Your Assets and Belongings

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you determine if a will or a trust would best take care of your objectives and needs. Don’t make this decision on your own because there are major differences between these two types of documents.

Some people use a living trust instead of a will because it avoids the publicity and expense that comes with the probate process. Ask your attorney what is best for your family and situation.  You’ll need to name an executor who will be in charge of making sure your requests are carried out, including the division of assets. In addition to your will or trust, be sure the beneficiaries on your life insurance and accounts such as your bank and retirement accounts are current. You should also see how the title is held on any real estate property you own.

Health Care and Your Body

Make certain that it’s super clear and in writing as to what your final wishes are for your medical treatment and final arrangements. Your documents need to address what type of medical treatment you want, if you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. It should also be clear as to any specific life-preserving measures you would want taken.

A power of attorney for healthcare lets you name an agent to make health-related decisions for you, if you’re unable to do so. Some states combine both the power of attorney for health care and a living will into one document, which is called an advance directive. If you want to be an organ donor, make sure this is recorded and your wishes are known (some states have directories or it’s on a person’s driver’s license). Be sure that your hospital and doctor are aware of your wishes and they have copies of any necessary documents.

Guidance and Financial Help. Always consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that your wishes and objectives are properly spelled out and legally binding.

Reference:  The Street (Aug. 28, 2020) “Life Changes Fast: The Importance of Estate Planning and Health Care Directives”