What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA. Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion. In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation. If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”

 

Can a Person with Alzheimer’s Sign Legal Documents?

If a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia, it is necessary to address legal and financial issues as soon as possible. The person’s ability to sign documents and take other actions to protect themselves and their assets will be limited as the disease progresses, so there’s no time to wait. This recent article “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s” from Statesville Record & Landmark explains the steps to take.

Watch for Unusual Financial Activity

Someone who has been sensible about money for most of his life may start to behave differently with his finances. This is often an early sign of cognitive decline. If bills are piling up, or unusual purchases are being made, you may need to prepare to take over his finances. It should be noted that unusual financial activity can also be a sign of elder financial abuse.

Designate a Power of Attorney

The best time to designate a person to take care of finances is before she shows signs of dementia. It’s not an easy conversation, but it is very important. Someone needs to be identified who can be trusted to manage day-to-day money matters, who can sign checks, pay bills and supervise finances. If possible, it may be easier if the POA gradually eases into the role, only taking full control when the person with dementia can no longer manage on her own.

An individual needs to be legally competent to complete or update legal documents including wills, trusts, an advanced health care directive and other estate planning documents. Once such individual is not legally competent, the court must be petitioned to name a family member as a guardian, or a guardian will be appointed by the court. It is far easier for the family and the individual to have this handled by an estate planning attorney in advance of incompetency.

An often-overlooked detail in cases of Alzheimer’s is the beneficiary designations on retirement, financial and life insurance policies. Check with an estate planning attorney for help, if there is any question that changes may be challenged by the financial institution or by heirs.

Cost of Care and How It Will Be Paid

At a certain point, people with dementia cannot live on their own. Even those who love them cannot care for them safely. Determining how care will be provided, which nursing facility has the correct resources for a person with cognitive illness and how to pay for this care, must be addressed. An elder law estate planning attorney can help the family navigate through the process, including helping to protect family assets through the use of trusts and other planning strategies.

If the family has a strong history of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive diseases, it makes sense to do this sort of preparation far in advance. The sooner it can be addressed, even long before dementia symptoms appear, the better the outcome will be.

Reference: Statesville Record & Landmark (April 11, 2021) “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s”

 

Should Young Families have an Estate Plan?

Young families are always on the go. New parents are busy with diapers, feeding schedules and trying to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s hard to think about the future when you’re so focused on the present. Even so, young parents should think about estate planning.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled, “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan,” explains that the word “estate” might sound upscale, but estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. Your estate is simply all the assets you have when you die. This includes bank accounts, 401(k) plan, a home and cars. An estate plan helps to make certain that your property goes to the right people, that your debts are paid and your family is cared for. Without an estate plan, your estate must go through probate, which is a potentially lengthy court process that settles the debts and distributes the assets of the decedent.

Estate planning is valuable for young families, even if they don’t have extensive assets. Consider these key estate planning actions that every parent needs to take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future has in store.

Purchase Life Insurance. Raising children is costly, and if a parent dies, life insurance provides funds to continue providing for surviving children. For most, term life insurance is a good move because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect until the children grow to adulthood and are no longer financially dependent.

Make a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents, the most important reason to make a will is to designate a guardian for your children. If you fail to do this, the courts will decide and may place your children with a relative with whom you have not spoken in years. However, if you name a guardian, you choose a person or couple you know has the same values and who will raise your kids as you would have.

Review Your Beneficiaries. You probably already have a 401(k) or IRA that makes you identify who will inherit it if you die. You’ll need to update these accounts, if you want your children to inherit these assets.

Consider a Trust. If you die before your children turn 18, your children can’t directly assume control of an inheritance, which can be an issue. The probate court could name an individual to manage the assets you leave to your child. However, if you want to specify who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, consider asking an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust. With a trust, you can name a designated person to manage money on behalf of your children and provide direction regarding how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children as they grow. Trusts aren’t just for the very well-to-do. Anyone may be able to benefit from a trust. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (April 13, 2021) “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan”

 

What Should I Address Finances, If Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

Because of the debilitating nature of Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia on a loved one’s ability to make sound financial decisions, the sooner you can get financial matters in order the better. The Statesville Record & Landmark’s recent article entitled “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s” lists four important steps to take:

Keep an eye out for signs of unusual financial activity. Early signs of cognitive challenges for a senior include difficulty paying a proper amount for an item, leaving bills unpaid. or making strange purchases. If you see signs of a loss in judgment related to financial matters, additional action may be required.

Identify and name a power of attorney. Many people are hesitant to cede control of their personal finances to another. Therefore, have an honest discussion with your loved ones and help them appreciate the importance of having a trusted person in a position to look out for their interests. One person should be designated as financial power-of-attorney, who is authorized to sign checks, pay bills and help keep an eye on the finances of the affected persons.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about helping you draft this important document.

Examine the costs of care and how it will be covered. A primary concern is to determine a strategy for how your loved one will be cared for, especially if their cognitive abilities deteriorate.

You will need to be able to determine whether specialized care will be needed, either in the home or in a nursing or assisted living facility. If the answer is yes, you’ll need to determine if there are resources or long-term care insurance policies in place to help deal with those costs, which will impact decisions on a care strategy. Ask an elder law attorney about trusts that can be established to provide for care for the disabled loved one, while still protecting the family’s assets.

Be proactive. Don’t delay too long in addressing financial issues after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This can compound an already stressful and emotional time.

Be prepared to take action to get on top of the situation as soon as you’re aware that it could be a problem. Even establishing a plan for addressing these issues before a form of dementia is firmly diagnosed can be helpful.

Ask an experienced elder law attorney for guidance on how to manage these challenging times.

Reference: Statesville Record & Landmark (April 11, 2021) “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s”

 

What Is a Living Trust Estate Plan?

Living trusts are one of the most popular estate planning tools. However, a living trust accomplishes several goals, explains the article “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate” from The Record Courier. A living trust allows for the management of a beneficiary’s inheritance and may also reduce estate taxes. A person with many heirs or who owns real estate should consider including a living trust in their estate plan.

A trust is a fiduciary relationship, where the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor,” “settlor,” “trustor” or “trustmaker,” gives the “trustee” the right to hold title to assets to benefit another person. This third person is usually an heir, a beneficiary, or a charity.

With a living trust, the grantor, trustee and beneficiary may be one and the same person. A living trust may be created by one person for that person’s benefit. When the grantor dies, or becomes incapacitated, another person designated by the trust becomes the successor trustee and manages the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary or heir. All of these roles are defined in the trust documents.

The living trust, which is sometimes referred to as an “inter vivos” trust, is created to benefit the grantor while they are living. A grantor can make any and all changes they wish while they are living to their trust (within the law, of course). A testamentary trust is created through a person’s will, and assets are transferred to the trust only when the grantor dies. A testamentary trust is an “irrevocable” trust, and no changes can be made to an irrevocable trust.

There are numerous other trusts used to manage the distribution of wealth and protect assets from taxes. Any trust agreement must identify the name of the trust, the initial trustee and the beneficiaries, as well as the terms of the trust and the name of a successor trustee.

For the trust to achieve its desired outcome, assets must be transferred from the individual to the trust. This is called “funding the trust.” The trust creator typically holds title to assets, but to fund the trust, titled property, like bank and investment accounts, real property or vehicles, are transferred to the trust by changing the name on the title. Personal property that does not have a title is transferred by an assignment of all tangible property to the trustee. An estate planning attorney will be able to help with this process, which can be cumbersome but is completely necessary for the trust to work.

Some assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, do not need to be transferred to the trust. They use a beneficiary designation, naming a person who will become the owner upon the death of the original owner. These assets do not belong in a trust, unless there are special circumstances.

Reference: The Record Courier (April 3, 2021) “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate”

 

Common Mistakes when Making Beneficiary Designations

Let’s say you divorce and remarry and forget to change your beneficiary from your ex-spouse. Your ex-spouse will be smiling all the way to the bank. There won’t be much that your new spouse could do, if you forgot to make that change before you die. Any time there is a life change, including happy events, like marriage, birth or adoption, your beneficiary designations need to be reviewed, says the article “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make” from Kiplinger. If there are new people in your life you would like to leave a bequest to, like grandchildren or a charitable organization you want to support as part of your legacy, your beneficiary designations will need to reflect those as well.

For people who are married, their spouse is usually the primary beneficiary. Children are contingent beneficiaries who receive the proceeds upon death, if the primary beneficiary dies before or at the same time that you do. It is wise to notify any insurance company or retirement fund custodian about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you have properly named contingent beneficiaries.

When there are multiple grandchildren, things can get a little complicated. Let’s say you’re married and have three adult children. The first beneficiary is your spouse, and your three children are contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say Sam has three children, Dolores has no children and James has two children, for a total of five grandchildren.

If both your spouse and James, die before you do, all of the proceeds would pass to your two surviving children, and James’ two children would effectively be disinherited. That’s probably not what you would want. However, there is a solution. You can specify that if one of your children dies before you and your spouse, their share goes to his or her children. This is a “per stirpes” distribution.

This way, each branch of the family will receive an equal share across generations. If this is what you want, you’ll need to request per stirpes, because equal distribution, or per capita, is the default designation. Not all insurance companies make this option available, so you’ll need to speak with your insurance broker to make sure this is set up properly for insurance or annuities.

Any assets that have a named designated beneficiary are not controlled by your will. Consequently, when you are creating or reviewing your estate plan, create a list of all of your assets and the desired beneficiaries for them. Your estate planning attorney will help review all of your assets and means of distribution, so your wishes for your family are clear.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 23, 2021) “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make”

 

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.  One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.  If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”

 

Should I Discuss Estate Planning with My Children?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children” says that staying up-to-date with your estate plan and sharing your plans with your children could make a big impact on your legacy and what you’ll pay in estate taxes. Let’s look at why you should consider talking to your children about estate planning.

People frequently create an estate plan and name their child as the trustee or executor. However, they fail to discuss the role and what’s involved with them. Ask your kids if they’re comfortable acting as the executor, trustee, or power of attorney. Review what each of the roles involves and explain the responsibilities. The estate documents state some critical responsibilities but don’t provide all the details. Having your children involved in the process and getting their buy-in will be a big benefit in the future.

Share information about valuables stored in a fireproof safe or add their name to the safety deposit box. Tell them about your accounts at financial institutions and the titling of the various accounts, so that these accounts aren’t forgotten, and bills get paid when you’re not around.

Parents can get children involved with a meeting with their estate planning attorney to review the estate plan and pertinent duties of each child. If they have questions, an experienced estate planning attorney can answer them in the context of the overall estate plan.

If children are minors, invite the successor trustee to also be part of the meeting. Explain what you own, what type of accounts you have and how they’re treated from a tax perspective.

Discussing your estate plan with your children provides a valuable opportunity to connect with your loved ones, even after you are gone. An individual’s attitudes about money says much about his or her values. Sharing with your children what your money means to you, and why you are speaking with them about it, will help guide them in honoring your memory.

There are many personal reasons to discuss your estate plans with your children. While it’s a simple step, it’s not easy to have this conversation. However, the pandemic emphasized the need to not procrastinate when it comes to estate planning. It’s also provided an opportunity to discuss these estate plans with your children and discuss them with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: US News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

 

How can I Revoke an Irrevocable Trust?

Is there a way to get a house deed out of the trust?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?” says that prior to finalizing legal documents, it is important to know the purpose and consequences of the plan.

An experienced estate planning attorney will tell you there are a variety of trust types that are used to achieve different objectives.

There are revocable trusts that can be created to avoid probate, and others trusts placed in a will to provide for minor children or loved ones with special needs.

Irrevocable trusts are often created to shield assets, including the home, in the event long-term nursing care is required. Conveying assets to an irrevocable trust typically starts the five-year “look back” period for Medicaid purposes, if the trust is restricted from using the assets for, or returning assets to, the individual who created the trust (known as the “grantor”).

When you transfer assets to a trust, control of the assets is given to another person (the ‘trustee”).

This arrangement may protect assets in the event long-term care is required. However it comes with the risk that the trustee may not always act how the grantor intended.

For instance, the grantor can’t independently sell the house owned by the trust or compel the trustee to purchase a replacement residence, which may cause a conflict between the grantor and trustee. Because the trust is irrevocable, it could be difficult and expensive to unwind.

In light of this, it’s important to designate a trustee who will work with and honor the wishes of the grantor.

An experienced estate planning attorney retained for estate and asset planning should provide clear, understandable and thoughtful advice, so the client has the information needed to make an informed decision how to proceed.

Reference: nj.com (April 6, 2021) “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?”

 

Why are Beneficiary Designations Important in Estate Planning?

Not having your beneficiary designations set up correctly can cause a lot of trouble after you pass away. A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy or on a financial account as the person who will receive those assets, in the event of the account holder’s death. This person usually must file a claim with a copy of the death certificate to receive the assets.

NJ Money Help’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary designation – specific or not?” says that naming a beneficiary takes a little consideration. When naming the beneficiaries on your accounts or insurance policies, you should always consider a primary and secondary (or contingent) beneficiary. The owner of a policy or account can name multiple beneficiaries. The proceeds or assets can be divided among more than one primary beneficiary. Likewise, there can also be more than one secondary beneficiary.

The primary beneficiary or beneficiaries are the first ones to receive the asset. The secondary beneficiary is second next in line, if the primary beneficiary dies before the owner of the asset, can’t be found, or refuses to accept the asset. Note that simply naming beneficiaries in generic terms, such as “wife,” “spouse”’ or “children,” may create legal issues, if there’s a divorce or in case someone becomes disenfranchised. It is always best to name your beneficiaries specifically and if they are minors, make certain you have designated a guardian.

Because our lives are constantly changing, you should review your life insurance policies, IRAs, 401(k)s, and any other instruments that require beneficiary designations every couple of years to make certain that everything is exactly the way you want. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss any changes you wish to make as it may affect the outcome.

Reference: NJ Money Help (Oct. 2017) “Beneficiary designation – specific or not?”