What Is a Conservatorship?

A conservator is appointed by a judge. This person handles the estate of an incapacitated adult, as well as their finances, their basic affairs and everyday care. Administrative matters such as Medicare, insurance, pensions, and medical coverage are all also managed by the conservator. The conservator must keep meticulous records that are subject to review by the judge.

The Advocate’s recent article entitled “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?” explains that a conservatorship typically lasts as long as the individual lives. The conservator may change because of death, relocation, or an inability to manage the conservator duties and responsibilities. A judge also has the power to replace the conservator, if he or she is repeatedly making poor decisions or neglecting required responsibilities.

A conservator can be wise in some situations because it lets family members know that someone is making the decisions. It also provides clear legal authority to deal with third parties. There is also a process in which a judge will approve any major decisions. However, appointing a conservator can be expensive. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney must complete court paperwork and attend court hearings. A conservatorship can also be time-consuming due to the required ongoing paperwork.

A big question is when it is appropriate to seek conservatorship. If the individual has become mentally or physically incapable of making important decisions for himself or herself, then it would be smart to have a court-appointed guardian. Moreover, if the person does not already have legal documents in place, like a living will or power of attorney, then the conservatorship would benefit in covering decisions about personal and financial matters.

Even if the individual has a power of attorney for both health care and finances, he or she might need a conservator to make decisions about his or her personal life. This can include topics, such as living arrangements and who is allowed to visit. It is not always easy to determine if an individual can make decisions, but a judge understands that a conservator is viable for those with advanced Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Families that want to set up a conservatorship need to file formal legal papers and participate in a court hearing before a judge. Evidence of the physical and mental condition of the individual requiring conservatorship must be clearly presented. The person who is the subject of the conservatorship has the opportunity to contest it. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney who specializes in conservatorships about your specific situation.

Reference: The Advocate (Jan. 25, 2021) “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?”

 

There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused as there is a difference between probate and trust administration.   A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.  In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.  It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

In both instances, you will need the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

 

Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other Brain Diseases Require Special Estate Planning Steps

There are certain steps that can be taken by individuals, loved ones and family members to make this challenging time safer and smarter, advises an article “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease” from Forbes. Anyone living with a neurologic condition needs to be sure their planning reflects not only their condition but their personal experience of the condition. Alzeheimer’s, Dementia and other diseases required special estate planning steps. The variability of each person’s experience of a brain disease, from symptoms and severity to the progression rate and future prognosis to the possibility of any recovery, affects how they need to plan.

For an Alzheimer’s patient, in early stages there may be no problems in signing legal documents and putting legal safeguards in place to protect finances. Most people are not aware that the degree of competency to sign legal documents varies, depending upon the complexity of the documents to be signed and the circumstances. A relatively low level of competency is required to sign a will. This is known as “testamentary capacity.” A higher level of competency is required to sign something like a revocable trust, investment policy statement, etc. Therefore, a person who may be legally able to sign a will may not have the legal capacity to sign other documents. Alzheimer’s patients need to get their entire estate plan in order, as soon as a diagnosis is received. Safeguards are extremely important, including having an independent person, like a CPA, an experienced estate planning attorney or trusted family member receive copies of all monthly bank and brokerage statements in case abilities decline faster than anticipated.

Patients living with peripheral neuropathy may experience issues with balance, burning sensations, dizziness, hypersensitive skin and pain that make wearing socks or shoes impossible. If the condition becomes so severe that the person becomes homebound, they need to make changes: set up accounts, so bills can be paid online, have income streams set to automatic deposit and simplify and consolidate accounts. It is important to have a Power of Attorney (POA) that is effective immediately or a revocable living trust with a co-trustee. In this way, you do not have to leave home to conduct your business.

Parkinson’s disease may not be well understood by professional advisors. You’ll need to explain that your facial expression—Parkinsonian masked face—does not mean that you are not responding to a conversation. They need to know that your handwriting may change, becoming small and cramped. This can result in a bank or other financial institution refusing to accept your signature on documents. Your estate planning attorney can prepare a document that confirms you are living with Parkinson’s disease and that micrographia is one of your symptoms. The document should include three or four different signatures to reflect the variations. Have each signature witnessed and notarized.

People living with MS (multiple sclerosis) face the possibility of an exacerbation that could leave them incapacitated at any time. A revocable trust to coordinate financial management with trusted individuals as co-trustees should be in place.

For people with these and other brain illnesses, an emergency financial and legal road map needs to be prepared. It should include monthly recurring bills, non-recurring bills like life insurance, property taxes, etc. Contact information for key advisors, your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, banker, insurance agent, etc., needs to be shared. Your estate plan should be updated, if you haven’t reviewed it in three or four years. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, now is the time to have one created.

Reference: Forbes (May 17, 2020) “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease”

 

Five Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

While it’s true that no estate is completely bulletproof, there are mistakes that people make that are big enough to walk through, while others are more like a slow drip, draining retirement finances in a slow but steady process. There are mistakes that can be easily avoided, reports Comstock Magazine in the article “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate.”

  1. Misunderstanding Estate Law. Some people are so thrown by the idea of an estate plan, that they can’t get past the word “estate.” You don’t need a mansion to have an estate. The term is actually used to refer to any and all property that a person owns. Even modest people need a plan to help beneficiaries avoid unnecessary costs and stress. Talk with an estate planning attorney to learn what your needs are, from a will to trusts. Make sure that this is the attorney’s key practice area. A real estate or personal injury attorney won’t have the same knowledge and experience.
  2. Getting Bad Advice. It takes a team to create a strong estate plan. That means an estate planning attorney, a financial advisor and an accountant. Be wary of firms that focus entirely on selling trusts. There’s definitely a role for trusts in estate plans, but there are many other tools that are needed. Buying an insurance policy or an annuity is not an estate plan.
  3. Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. Naming yourself as a sole trustee puts you and your estate in a precarious position. What if you develop Alzheimer’s or are injured in an accident? A trusted individual, a family member, a longstanding friend or even a professional trustee, needs to be named to protect your interests, if you should become incapacitated.
  4. Losing Track of Assets. Without a complete list of all assets, it’s nearly impossible for someone to know what you own and who your heirs may be. Some assets, including retirement funds, life insurance policies, or investment accounts, have named beneficiaries. Those people will inherit these assets, regardless of what is in your will. If your heirs can’t find the assets, they may be lost. If you don’t update your beneficiaries, they may go to unintended heirs—like ex-spouses.
  5. Deciding on Options Without Being Fully Informed. When it comes to estate planning, the natural tendency is to go with what we think is the right thing. However, unless you are an estate planning attorney, chances are you don’t know what the right thing is. For tax reasons, for instance, it may make sense to transfer assets, while you are still living. However, that might also be a terrible idea, if you choose the wrong person to hold your assets or don’t put them in the right kind of trust.

Estate planning is still a highly personal process that depends upon every person’s unique experience. Your family situation is different than anyone else’s. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan and help you to avoid the big, most commonly made mistakes.

Reference: Comstock Magazine (Dec. 2019) “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate”

Trusts Make Sense Even When You Aren’t a Billionaire

Trusts are used to solve problems in estate planning, giving great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate, according to an article titled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch. Don’t worry about anyone thinking your children are “trust fund babies.” Using trusts in your estate plan is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor.” These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control, while you are living. It’s as if you owned the asset, but you don’t—the trust does.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime. A real estate trust can be used for real property.  Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, but Massachusetts exempts $1 million. An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”

 

Be Prepared, Because The Future Comes Sooner Than You Think

When children are born, many people make sure to have their wills prepared so they can name a guardian in the event both parents die. Usually those documents are not reviewed, says the article “Preparations for the Future” from the Montevideo American-News, and this can lead to problems.

Legal and medical experts encourage people to review their estate planning documents from time to time to be sure that their wishes have not changed.

When people are diagnosed with a serious illness, they are also encouraged to examine their legal and healthcare documents. It’s also important to have plans in place for people diagnosed with dementia as soon as possible as long as that person is still deemed mentally competent to make these decisions for themselves.

According to the National Institute on Aging, advance planning should take place immediately after a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s, while the person can participate in discussions. People with early stage disease can often understand many aspects and consequences of legal decision making. However, as the disease progresses the ability to make decisions becomes difficult and the validity of the document may come into question.

Advance directives for healthcare documents that communicate healthcare wishes are just part of the legal documents that need to be created. Other documents include a Living Will, which records a person’s wishes for medical treatment, a Health Care Proxy for Healthcare, which designates a person to make healthcare decisions on your behalf and a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.

Estate planning also needs to be done. An estate planning attorney can help the individual and the family create their plan for the future. There will need to be a Last Will and Testament created, as well as a Power of Attorney for finances, so someone can handle the financial aspect of their life.

A Living Trust may need to be created, to provide instructions about the person’s estate and appoint someone to hold title and property for the beneficiaries. It may be necessary for trusts to be created and funded to protect the family’s assets.

Having an estate planning attorney who has worked with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia will allow the family to focus on caregiving.

Reference: Montevideo American-News (September 25, 2019) “Preparations for the Future”

 

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

  • Post category:Alzheimers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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