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Law Office of Michael D. DellaMonaca

Have a Plan for Life

Think of Estate Planning as Stewardship for the Future

Despite our love of planning, the one thing we often do not plan for, is the one thing that we can be certain of. Our own passing is not something pleasant, but it is definite. Estate planning is seen as an unpleasant or even dreaded task, says The Message in the article “Estate planning is stewardship.” However, think of estate planning as a message to the future and stewardship of your life’s work.

Some people think that if they make plans for their estate, their lives will end. They acknowledge that this doesn’t make sense, but still they feel that way. Others take a more cavalier approach and say that “someone else will have to deal with that mess when I’m gone.”

However, we should plan for the future, if only to ensure that our children and grandchildren, if we have them, or friends and loved ones, have an easier time of it when we pass away.

A thought-out estate plan is a gift to those we love.

Start by considering the people who are most important to you. This should include anyone in your care during your lifetime, and for whom you wish to provide care after your death. That may be your children, spouse, grandchildren, parents, nieces and nephews, as well as those you wish to take care of with either a monetary gift or a personal item that has meaning for you.

This is also the time to consider whether you’d like to leave some of your assets to a house of worship or other charity that has meaning to you. It might be an animal shelter, community center, or any place that you have a connection to. Charitable giving can also be a part of your legacy.

Your assets need to be listed in a careful inventory. It is important to include bank and investment accounts, your home, a second home or any rental property, cars, boats, jewelry, firearms and anything of significance. You may want to speak with your heirs to learn whether there are any of your personal possessions that have great meaning to them and figure out to whom you want to leave these items. Some of these items have more sentimental than market value, but they are equally important to address in an estate plan.

There are other assets to address: life insurance policies, annuities, IRAs and other retirement plans, along with pension accounts. Note that these assets likely have a beneficiary designation and they are not distributed by your will. Whoever the beneficiary is listed on these documents will receive these assets upon your death, regardless of what your will says.

If you have not reviewed these beneficiary designations in more than three years, it would be wise to review them. The IRA that you opened at your first job some thirty years ago may have designated someone you may not even know now! Once you pass, there will be no way to change any of these beneficiaries.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create your last will and testament. For most people, a simple will can be used to transfer assets to heirs.

Many people express concern about the cost of estate planning. Remember that there are important and long-lasting decisions included in your estate plan, so it is worth the time, energy and money to make sure these plans are created properly.

Compare the cost of an estate plan to the cost of buying tires for a car. Tires are a cost of owning a car, but it’s better to get a good set of tires and pay the price up front, than it is to buy an inexpensive set and find out they don’t hold the road in a bad situation. It’s a good analogy for estate planning.

Reference: The Message (June 14, 2019) “Estate planning is stewardship.”

 

What Do I Need to Know About Trusts?

A trust is a fiduciary arrangement that lets a third party (the “trustee”) hold assets on the behalf of a beneficiary. Trusts can be drafted in a variety of ways and can specify exactly how and when the assets pass to the beneficiaries.

Because trusts usually avoid probate, the beneficiaries can get access to these assets more quickly than they might if the assets were transferred using a will. If it’s an irrevocable trust, it may not be considered part of the taxable estate, which means there will be fewer taxes due at your death.

FedWeek’s recent article, “The Basics of Trusts,” explains some of the benefits of having a trust in your estate plan. Trusts can offer the following:

  • Protection for possible incompetency. You can form a trust and transfer your assets into it. You can be the trustee, and you’ll have control of the trust assets and keep the income. A successor trustee will assume control, if you’re incapacitated.
  • Avoiding probate. The assets held in trust avoid probate, which can be expensive and time-consuming. In the trust documents, you can direct the trust and provide how the trust assets will be distributed at your death.
  • Protection for heirs. After death, a trustee can keep trust assets from being spent all at once or lost in a divorce, with specific instructions in the trust document.

A trust can be revocable or irrevocable. A revocable trust has to be created during your lifetime. If you change your mind, you can cancel the trust and reclaim the assets. With a revocable trust you can enjoy incapacity protection and probate avoidance—but not tax reduction. In contrast, an irrevocable trust can be created while you’re alive or at your death (a revocable trust becomes irrevocable at your death).

Assets transferred to an irrevocable trust during your lifetime may be shielded from creditors and divorce settlements. The same is true for the assets put into an irrevocable trust at your death.

Your heirs can be the beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust. The trustee you’ve designated will be tasked with distributing funds to the beneficiaries. The trustee will be responsible for protecting trust assets.

Contact an experienced trust attorney with your questions about possibly creating a trust for your situation.

Reference: FedWeek (May 9, 2019) “The Basics of Trusts”

 

What Should I Look for in a Trustee?

Selecting a trustee to manage your estate after you pass away is an important decision. It’s common for people to choose either a friend or family member, a professional trustee or a trust company or corporate trustee for this critical role. Depending on the type of trust you’re creating, the trustee will be in charge of overseeing your assets and the assets of your family.

Forbes’s recent article, “How To Choose A Trustee,” helps you identify what you should look for in a trustee.

If you go with a family member or friend, she should be financially savvy and good with money. You want someone who is knows something about investing, and preferably someone who has assets of their own that they are investing with a qualified professional investment advisor.

A good thing about selecting a friend or family member as trustee, is that they’re going to be most familiar with you and your family. They will also understand your family’s dynamics.  Family members also usually don’t charge a trustee fee (although they are entitled to do so).  However, your family may be better off with a professional trustee or trust company that has expertise with trust administration. This may eliminate some potentially hard feelings in the family. Another negative is that your family member may be too close to the family and may get caught up in the drama.They may also have a power trip and like having total control of your beneficiary’s finances.

The advantage of an attorney serving as a trustee, is that they have familiarity with your family, if you’ve worked together for some time. There will, however, be a charge for their time spent serving as trustee.

Trust companies will have more structure and oversight to the trust administration, including a trust department that oversees the administration. This will be more expensive, but it may be money well spent. A trust company can make the tough decisions and tell beneficiaries “no” when needed. It’s common to use a trust company, when the beneficiaries don’t get along, when there is a problem beneficiary or when it’s a large sum of money. A drawback is that a trust company may be difficult to remove or become inflexible. They also may be stingy about distributions, if it will reduce the assets under management that they’re investing. You can solve this by giving a neutral third party, like a trusted family member, the ability to remove and replace the trustee.

Talk to your estate planning attorney and go through your concerns to find a solution that works for you and your family.

Reference: Forbes (May 31, 2019) “How To Choose A Trustee”

 

Is My Spouse Responsible for My Auto Lease When I Die?

A recent nj.com article asks “What happens to my car lease when I die?” According to the article, in New Jersey the laws are not on the side of the wife. She may be at the mercy of the car dealership and its financing company.

Remember that a vehicle lease is a contract, so if you’re the executor who’s managing the deceased person’s affairs, you should review the terms of the vehicle lease. In some instances, death may be classified as an “early termination” of the lease, and payment obligations may continue.

If there is a co-signer on the lease, such as the deceased’s spouse, he or she may be liable for future payments. If not, typically they’re likely to be the responsibility of the deceased’s estate.

In 2017, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill that would permit early termination of an auto lease upon the death of the lessee and prohibit the imposition of fees as a result. However, that piece of legislation didn’t make it out of the state Senate. There are plans to reintroduce the bill this session, but nothing has been done as of this date.

As a result, there is no law in New Jersey that keeps a car company from charging fees for early termination upon the death of the lessor.

While some car companies have policies allowing for early termination upon death, in many instances, because a lease is a contract, it continues. The deceased lessee’s estate is liable for making the payments. Therefore, if the written lease doesn’t have a clause dealing with early termination without fees, the lessee’s estate may be required to continue making the payments.

California and New York laws say the same thing: leasing companies can legally claim unpaid obligations from the estate of the deceased.

The car dealer isn’t required to, but it’s not unheard of for a sympathetic car company to be compassionate and just put the car up for sale, so actual losses would be minimal.

The executor should speak to an experienced estate planning attorney to see what options they might have in their specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 24, 2019) “What happens to my car lease when I die?”

 

Top Four Facts to Know about Estate Planning

Estate planning can save your family the stress of court cases and family feuds before the process of settling your estate begins. A plan that you create will provide tremendous peace of mind to those who are left behind. The sorrow of losing a loved one is more than enough for a family to experience, says NewsGram, in the article 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.” You had better to have a plan to ensure that your estate is executed with as little acrimony as possible.

Estate planning focuses on planning for how an individual’s assets will be preserved, managed and distributed after their death. It also addresses how the person’s financial life, including their property, is to be managed, in the event they become incapacitated because of an accident or an illness. This is done with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

The core of estate planning while you are living, is to protect your assets, protect your estate from having to pay unnecessary taxes and protects you and your wishes, if you are incapacitated or pass away. Here are four key things everyone should keep in mind while preparing their estate plan.

Age should not be a factor. Anyone who is of legal age and owns anything has an estate. An estate refers to anything of value that you own. It does not mean a $10 million mansion. A home, a car, bank accounts, retirement accounts and personal possessions make up an estate, regardless of their size or value. Once you have assets, you need an estate plan. We don’t know when we are going to die, but we can be sure that if you have no estate plan, the state will determine who receives your assets. You may want to make those decisions for yourself. That’s what an estate plan does.

You need an estate planning attorney. Estate planning crosses into several different legal practice areas. Asset management, tax planning, real estate, guardianship and other areas need to be addressed by a legal professional who understands how these elements all work together. An estate planning attorney has a professional responsibility to help you document your wishes for incapacity and death.

However, they do more than that. The estate planning attorney will help you fine-tune your wishes, gain clarity on what you want to happen during life and death and translate that into the legal language that ensures that your wishes are achieved.

Planning helps avoid or minimize probate. Depending on where you live, probate can be a simple process or one that takes a long time. The estate planning attorney will help you plan to pass your assets to your spouse or the next generation to avoid going through the court process known as probate. This is a process of authenticating your will, verifying that the assets in the will are correctly named, paying off any outstanding tax balances and approving the distribution of the assets. With a good estate plan, you can make this a simple process.

An estate plan works to minimize family squabbles. Disagreements over estates, including personal possessions as well as money, routinely tears families apart. You don’t have to be wealthy or even a celebrity to have a family that is fractured over a misunderstanding or someone feeling like they were not treated fairly. This is another area where an experienced estate planning attorney can help bring you through the process of distributing assets, with a deep dive into how your decisions may be received by various family members.

To get started, contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your community. If you have an estate plan but haven’t reviewed it in more than four years, it’s time for an update. A number of laws have changed on the federal level that may require some changes to your estate plan. If you have had any major life events, you also need a review.

Reference: NewsGram (June 5, 2019) 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.”

 

Here’s Why a Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a form?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem to be attractive, are also the things that make it very dangerous for your family. A form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general, so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan, including a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, has been properly prepared, that your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and that your family is protected from the stress, cost and struggle that can result when wills are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how the basic, inexpensive form created chaos for one family. After the father died, the will was unclear, because it was not prepared by a professional. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his sons felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation, and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This was not what their father had intended.

Other issues that are created when forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

 

Long-Term Care Costs and Your Estate Plan

There are many misunderstandings about long-term or nursing home care and how to plan from a financial and legal standpoint. The article “Five myths about nursing home costs and estate planning” from The Sentinel seeks to clarify the facts and dispel the myths. Some of the truths may be a little hard to hear, but they are important to know.

Myth One: Before any benefits can be received for nursing home care, a married couple must have spent at least half of their assets and everything but $120,000. If the person receiving nursing home care is single, they must spend almost all assets on the cost of care, before they qualify for aid.

Fact: Nursing homes have no legal duty to advise anyone before or after they are admitted about this myth.

Several opportunities to spend money on items other than a nursing home, include home improvements, debt retirement, a new car and funeral prepayment. An elder law attorney will know how to use a Medicaid-compliant annuity to preserve assets, without spending them on the cost of care, depending on state law.

There are people who say that an attorney should not help a client take advantage of legally permitted methods to save their money. If they don’t like the laws, let them lobby to change them. Experienced elder law and estate planning attorneys help middle-class clients preserve their life savings, much like millionaires use CPAs to minimize annual federal income taxes.

Myth Two: The nursing home will take our family’s home, if we cannot pay for the cost of care.

Fact: Nursing homes do not want and will not take your home. They just want to be paid. If you can’t afford to pay, the state will use Medicaid money to pay, as long as the family meets the eligibility requirements. The state may eventually attach a collection lien against the estate of the last surviving homeowner to recover funds that the state has used for care.

A good elder law attorney will know how to help the family meet those requirements, so that the adult children are not sued by the nursing home for filial responsibility collection rights, if applicable under state law. The attorney will also know what exceptions and legal loopholes can be used to preserve the family home and avoid estate recovery liens.

Myth Three. We’ve promised our parents that they’ll never go to a nursing home.

Fact: There is a good chance that an aging parent, because of dementia or the various frailties of aging, will need to go to a nursing home at some point, because the care that is provided is better than what the family can do at home.

What our loved ones really want is to know that they won’t be cast off and abandoned, and that they will get the best care possible. When home care is provided by a spouse over an extended period of time, often both spouses end up needing care.

Myth Four: I love my children equally, so I am going to make all of them my legal agent.

Fact: It’s far better for one child to be appointed as the legal agent, so that disagreements between siblings don’t impact decisions. If health care decisions are delayed because of differing opinions, the doctor will often make the decision for the patient. If children don’t get along in the best of circumstances, don’t expect that to change with an aging parent is facing medical, financial and legal issues in a nursing home.

Myth Five. We did our last will and testament years ago, and nothing’s changed, so we don’t need to update anything.

Fact: The most common will leaves everything to a spouse, and thereafter everything goes to the children. That’s fine, until someone has dementia or is in a nursing home. If one spouse is in the nursing home and receiving government benefits, eligibility for the benefits will be lost, if the other spouse dies and leaves assets to the spouse who is receiving care in the nursing home.

A fundamental asset preservation strategy is to make changes to the will. It is not necessary to cut the spouse out of the will, but a well-prepared will can provide for the spouse, preserve assets and comply with state laws about minimal spousal election.

When there has been a diagnosis of early stage dementia, it is critical that an estate planning attorney’s help be obtained as soon as possible, while the person still has legal capacity to make changes to important documents.

The important lesson for all the myths and facts above: see an experienced estate planning elder law attorney to make sure you are prepared for the best care and to preserve assets.

Reference: The Sentinel (May 10, 2019) “Five myths about nursing home costs and estate planning”

 

What Does ‘Getting Your Affairs in Order’ Really Mean?
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What Does ‘Getting Your Affairs in Order’ Really Mean?

That “something” that happens that no one wants to come out and say is that you are either incapacitated by a serious illness or injury or the ultimate ‘something,’ which is death. There are steps you can take that will help your family and loved ones, so they have the information they need and can help you, says Catching Health’s article “Getting your affairs in order.”

Start with the concept of incapacity, which is an important part of estate planning. Who would you want to speak on your behalf? Would that person be the same one you would want to make important financial decisions, pay bills and handle your personal affairs? Does your family know what your wishes are, or do you know what your parent’s wishes are?

Financial Power of Attorney. Someone needs to be able to pay your bills and handle financial matters. That person is named in a Financial Power of Attorney, and they become your agent. Without an agent, your family will have to go to court and get a conservatorship. This takes time and money. It also brings in court involvement into your life and adds another layer of stress and expense.

It’s important to name someone who you trust implicitly and whose financial savvy you trust. Talk with the person you have in mind first and make sure they are comfortable taking on this responsibility. There may be other family members who will not agree with your decisions, or your agent’s decisions. They’ll have to be able to stick to the course in the face of disagreements.

Health Care Directive, Health Care Proxy or Living Will. The name of these documents and what they serve to accomplish does vary from state to state, so speak with an estate planning attorney in your state to determine exactly what it is that you need.

Health Care Proxy. This is the health care agent who makes medical decisions on your behalf, when you can no longer do so. In Maine, that’s a health care advance directive. The document should be given to the named person for easy access. It should also be given to doctors and medical providers.

DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is a document that says that if your heart has stopped working or if you stop breathing, not to bring you back to life. When an ambulance arrives and the EMT asked for this document, it’s because they need to know what your wishes are. Some folks put them on the fridge or in a folder where an aide or family member can find them easily. If you are in cardiac arrest and the DNR is with a family member who is driving from another state to get to you, the EMT is bound by law to revive you. You need to have that on hand, if that is your wish.

How Much Should You Tell Your Kids? While it’s really up to you as to how much you want to share with your kids, the more they know, the more they can help in an emergency. Some seniors bring their kids with them to the estate planning attorney’s office, but some prefer to keep everything under wraps. At the very least, the children need to know where the important documents are, and have contact information for the estate planning attorney, the accountant and the financial advisor. Many people create a binder with all of their important documents, so there are no delays caused in healthcare decisions.

Reference: Catching Health (May 28, 2019) “Getting your affairs in order.”

 

What Happens If I Write a Handwritten Will?

Aretha Franklin died last August, and it was first reported that she didn’t have a will.

However, recent news reports from Detroit say that, as her estate is being thoroughly reviewed, relatives have discovered a total of three different wills—one of which was located under some seat cushions!

Each of Aretha’s wills is handwritten. The three documents have been submitted as part of the probate process to have the court determine if any of them will have legal standing.

Aretha Franklin’s actions—or her lack of the right actions—may could cost her heirs a considerable amount of money in legal fees. It also will make the probate process longer and more stressful. In addition, the ultimate court decision concerning her estate may not be consistent with her wishes.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no,” asks what can we learn from the Queen of Soul’s Estate Planning blunders?

First, do it right and ask an estate planning attorney to help you draft your will. He or she will make sure that your will and estate plan comply with the laws on your state. Probate and estate laws may be slightly different in every state, so be certain your will reflects your location and circumstances to be valid.

Don’t make a handwritten or “holographic” will. A handwritten will is valid in a surprisingly large number of states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney in your state, if you have questions about a holographic will.

Spend the money and do it right. Hire a qualified estate planning attorney to make certain that everything is done correctly, so it’s the way you want it, and it will be upheld if questioned in court after you’re gone. That includes having the will witnessed and/or notarized.

Of course, while you can download a free form from the internet or pay $50 to buy a package, you should invest the extra funds to hire a legal professional to help can save your family a big expense in future extra legal fees.

Further, you should review your will at least every few years to make sure it accurately reflects your current wishes and to be certain that everything is consistent between the will and other documents, like beneficiaries listed on your insurance policies or investment accounts.

You also need to make sure your heirs can find the will. Hiding it in the sofa isn’t the recommended procedure, because who’s to say that Franklin didn’t stash a fourth or fifth handwritten will in a wardrobe or in the food pantry!

Lastly, be sure you let your family and loved ones know your wishes as you prepare these documents. Be proactive about estate planning and do it right.

Reference: Fox Business (May 22, 2019) “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no”

 

How Do I Choose a Guardian in My Estate Plan?

Selecting a guardian to care for your minor child after you die isn’t a lot of fun. Who wants to think about a situation where their young children are left to mourn their parents and live with friends or relatives? However, choosing a guardian to raise your children and manage their inheritance is crucial. If you don’t do it, you leave the decision to the court.

U.S. News and World Report’s recent article “How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child” says that, at worst, forgetting to name a guardian can mean a long court proceeding. This can be expensive, cause stress in family relationships and put your children in guardianship limbo.

There are two types of guardianship to consider when deciding who will care for your children: guardian of the estate and guardian of the person. The guardian of the estate is a person who’ll manage the minor child’s inheritance on their behalf. It’s a fiduciary responsibility, and this guardian must make sure he or she carefully and appropriately manages accounts, keeps receipts, reports back to the court and doesn’t co-mingle the child’s assets with his or her own. Another option is for a parent is to set up a trust and have a trustee manage the funds for the child. This can allow the parent more control over how and when money is distributed, especially if you anticipate leaving a substantial inheritance.

The guardian of the person is the daily caretaker who’ll make sure your child gets health care, educational, housing and has all other needs met.

These two guardians can be the same person or different people, depending on the skills and abilities of your family members and friends. A separate person managing the estate can provide a series of checks and balances that can help, if you are concerned about the misuse of your child’s funds.

You may want the guardian of the estate to have good money-management skills. The guardian of the person may be someone who shares your same values, has the energy to raise a child, and is close by so that your child doesn’t have to lose the familiar comforts of their school and neighborhood.

You should also name backup guardians, in the event that the primary guardian is unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility. You should also be sure to speak with your guardians ahead of time and make certain they understand the responsibility and are willing to take on the task of helping care for your children, if you pass away.

In most states, you’ll need to name your guardian or guardians as part of your will.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney with any questions and draft a legal will with the terms of guardianship included, along with a power of attorney and health care proxy. If you need to create a trust for your children, don’t forget to fund it.

Reference: U.S. News and World Report (June 4, 2019) “How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child”