Choose Wisely and Protect Yourself When Naming a Power of Attorney

Deciding who to name as your power of attorney, or “agent” is not an easy decision. However, it is a necessary appointment, says this article “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney” from The Mercury. Disaster and disability strike without advance notice, so it’s important to make this decision while you are well and can think it through.

If you don’t have a power of attorney in place and the unexpected occurs, the only way for your family to obtain legal authority to act on your behalf is through a guardianship procedure. Even when not contested, guardianship is expensive, time consuming and can limit personal freedom. Not every court will award guardianship to a family member so the end result could be a stranger taking control of your decisions and property.

Having a power of attorney is a far better alternative, but there are seniors who are concerned about the power of a POA and how it might be abused. Here are some tips to keep you in control of your life even with a POA:

Choose wisely when you are well. Choose your agent when you are of sound mind and body. A common “test” is the checkbook test: could you, right now, hand this person your checkbook without a second thought? Do you believe this person would act responsibly, in your own best interest, follow through in paying bills, ask for help in areas they may not understand, record transactions and be scrupulously honest? If you hesitate to give them your checkbook today, you aren’t likely to trust them to run your life in the future.

Many people choose an agent based on whether the person is the oldest child or if there would be hurt feelings if the person was named. These are not good reasons. A person who has problems managing money, for whatever reason, is not a good candidate. Their own stress might make access to your funds too great to resist.

Name a secondary Power of Attorney. There should always be a back-up person named, if the person you name is not able to serve. The same goes for trustees and beneficiaries. Discuss these alternatives with your estate planning attorney to ensure the attorney knows the identities of the primary and secondary choices.

Have a Power of Attorney customized to your personal needs. Not all Powers of Attorney are the same, and one that is great for a friend may be a disaster for you. Limited powers, unlimited powers, powers to gift or powers only for a specific task or period of time are all options when creating a Power of Attorney. You may have a business to run or a partnership to dissolve. Gifting might be permitted to limit estate taxes, if that is your wish. Limited gifting generally means $15,000 a year, although your estate planning attorney can provide guidance on how to best structure gifting for you. If you own life insurance policies, you may want to permit your agent to cash in insurance policies but not allow the agent to change the named beneficiaries.

Two agents or one agent? Not all banks or investment companies will accept two agents. If they do, will the two people you select be able to work together? If not, naming two could create a financial and legal firestorm.

Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney can be two separate roles. One person might be terrific with managing money, while another could be better at understanding and managing healthcare providers. Naming different people for each task will allow both to participate in caring for you and draw on their unique skill sets.

Fire when necessary. You always have the right to remove someone from their role as your agent. Your estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly to protect you and other agents.

Reference: The Mercury (Aug. 3, 2021) “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney”

 

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family is to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to have a complete estate plan prepared that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

 

When to Use a QTIP Trust

Using trusts in an estate plan protects assets and financial legacies, explains Yahoo! Finance in a recent article titled “How Does a QTIP Trust Work? Married couples often use a QTIP trust to allow the grantor, the person creating the trust, to set aside assets for their spouse and establishing some control over the assets after the grantor has passed.

If you are concerned about what might happen to your spouse after you have died, a QTIP can provide some reassurance.

What is a Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust? A QTIP lets one spouse provide income for another and can be used to pass assets to other beneficiaries, including children. The QTIP has some similarities to a marital trust, which is also used to hold assets belonging to a spouse. However, the marital trust is not as restrictive as a QTIP. When the grantor of the QTIP dies, their assets are transferred into the trust, which then provides income for the surviving spouse.

How does a QTIP Trust Work? QTIPs are types of irrevocable trusts. Once assets are transferred to the trust, in most cases, the transfer can’t be reversed. This is especially useful for second marriages, where there are children from a prior marriage. The QTIP allows the grantor the ability to provide for their second spouse and protect children from the previous marriage.

Assets can be transferred to the QTIP when it is created, or they can be transferred at the time of death. Usually this is done through the creation of a separate will.

You’ll need to name a trustee for the QTIP, who will manage the trust and oversee distributions. You should also name a successor trustee, in case the original trustee cannot serve.

The spouse of a grantor is considered a lifetime beneficiary, as they may draw on the trust income as long as they are living. When the surviving spouse passes, the people who receive the assets left in the trust, or “remainder,” are known as “remainder beneficiaries.” They may be children from a prior marriage, or anyone else named by the grantor.

The surviving spouse benefits from the QTIP because it provides an income stream. Assets held in a QTIP may be investment properties and taxable investment accounts. The estate benefits from the QTIP because assets qualify for the marital deduction and are excluded from the estate at the grantor’s death. When the surviving spouse dies, the QTIP trust is dissolved, and assets are passed to remainder beneficiaries. At this point, assets in the trust are included in the surviving spouse’s estate for estate tax purposes.

A QTIP, and the separate will for it, should be established with an estate planning attorney to ensure it works with the rest of your estate plan. This is especially important when there are children from second marriages in the family.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 30, 2021) “How Does a QTIP Trust Work?

What You Need to Know about Probate

We often read about celebrities who die without an estate and how everything they own must go through probate. The article titled “What to know about probate” from wmur.com explains what that means, and what you need to understand about wills, probate and estate planning.

Probate is a process used to prove that a person’s will is valid and to supervise how their estate is handled. It involves a court that focuses on this area. Much about the process depends upon the state in which it’s taking place, since these laws vary from state to state.

When someone dies without a will, they have failed to provide instructions for the distribution of their property. Their assets will still be distributed, but the laws of the state will determine what happens next. The state follows intestacy laws, which outline pre-set patterns of distributing property. In one state, property will go to the spouse and children. In others, the spouse may get everything.

Other decisions are made for your family when there is no will. If you have not named an executor, the court will appoint someone to oversee your estate. The court will also appoint a person to raise your children, if no guardian has been named for minor children. A family member may be chosen, but it may not be the family member you wanted to raise your kids, or it may be a stranger in a foster home.

Another reason to have a will is that probate can take a few months, or, depending on where you live, a few years, to complete. If there is litigation, and not having a will makes that more likely, it would take longer and will undoubtedly cost more. While this is going on, assets may lose value and heirs may suffer from not having access to assets.

Probate is also costly. There are legal notices to be published, court fees, executor fees and bond premiums, appraisal fees and attorney expenses.

Having an estate plan also means tax planning. While the federal estate tax as of this writing is $11.7 million per individual, it will not be that high forever. If the proposals to lower the federal estate tax to $3.5 million per person come to pass, will your estate escape estate taxes? What about your state’s estate or inheritance taxes?

Probate is also a very public process. Once a will is admitted as valid by the court, it becomes a public document. Anyone and everyone can view it and learn about your net worth and who got what.

With all these drawbacks, are there good reasons to allow your estate to go through probate? In some cases, yes. If multiple wills have been found, probate will be needed to establish which will is the correct one. If the will is confusing or complex, probate could provide the clarity needed to settle the estate. If beneficiaries are litigious, probate may be the voice of authority to quell some (but not all) disputes. And if the estate has no money and a lot of debt, it may be the probate court that sorts out the situation.

Every estate is different. Therefore, it is important to speak with an estate planning attorney to have a will, power of attorney and any health care directives created and properly executed. Every few years, these documents should be reviewed and revised to keep up with changes in the law and in your personal life.

Reference: wmur.com (July 29, 2021) “What to know about probate”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

Estate Planning for Couples with Big Age Differences

Seniors who are married to younger spouses have a special situation for estate planning, a situation that’s become more common, according to Barron’s recent article “Couples with Big Age Gaps Require Special Attention.”

This kind of family requires planning for the older spouse’s retirement needs and healthcare costs, while determining how much of the older spouse’s wealth should go to the children from any previous marriages while balancing the needs of a future child with a younger spouse. Beneficiaries for all financial accounts, last wills and all estate documents need to be updated to include the new spouse and child. The same goes for medical directives and power of attorney forms.

Social Security and retirement account considerations differ as well. The younger spouse may begin receiving their own Social Security at age 62, or a portion of the older spouse’s Social Security, whichever is greater. If the older spouse can wait to file for Social Security benefits at age 70, the younger spouse will receive more spousal benefits than if the older spouse claims earlier. Social Security pays the survivor’s benefit, typically based upon the older spouse’s earnings.

Pension plans need to be reviewed for a younger spouse. If the pension plan allows a survivor benefit, the surviving spouse will receive benefits in the future. IRAs have different beneficiary distribution rules for couples with significant age differences. Instead of relying on the standard Uniform Lifetime Tables, the IRS lets individuals use the Joint Life and Last Survivor Expectancy Table, if the sole beneficiary is a spouse who is more than ten years younger. This allows for smaller than normally Required Minimum Distributions from the IRA, allowing the account a longer lifetime.

Families that include children with special needs also benefit from trusts, as assets in the trust are not included in eligibility for government benefits. Many families with such family members are advised to use an ABLE Savings Account, which lets the assets grow tax free, also without impacting benefit eligibility. There are limits on the accounts, so funds exceeding the ABLE account limits may be added to special needs trusts, or SNTs.

A trustee, who may be a family member or a professional, uses the SNT assets to pay for the care of the individual with special needs after the donor parents have passed. The child is able to maintain their eligibility.

For same sex couples, revocable or irrevocable trusts may be used, if the couple is not married. Nontraditional families of any kind with children require individual estate plans to protect them,  which usually involves trusts.

Trusts are also useful when there are children from different marriages. They can protect the children from the first marriage and subsequent marriages. A wisely constructed estate plan can do more than prevent legal battles among children—they can preserve family harmony in the non-traditional family after parents have passed. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference: Barron’s (July 27, 2021) “Couples with Big Age Gaps Require Special Attention”

 

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare this document for you.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

 

What are the Basics of a Successful Estate Plan?

Whether you have a whole lot of money or a little, an estate plan is an essential. It protects you and your loved ones, and can also minimize taxes, expenses, fees and the loss of your privacy. A solid estate plan is created by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state, reports the recent article titled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” from Bankrate.com.

All good estate plans have three key elements: a will, power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive. Each serves a different purpose. Some estate plans also include trusts, but every situation is different. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the right estate plan for you.

A Will. The will, also known as the last will and testament, is the foundation of all estate plans. It directs your assets to be distributed as you wish. Without an estate plan, the court decides who will receive your assets. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. It’s called dying intestate. Your heirs will be burdened with additional court costs, delays and the stress of not knowing what you might have wanted.

However, financial accounts and property aren’t the only valuable thing protected by your will. If you have a minor child or children, the will is used to name a guardian who will take care of them. It also names a conservator who will manage the child’s financial assets, until they are of legal age. The guardian and conservator may be the same person, or they might be two different people. If you opt to split the roles, be sure the two people work well together.

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney, or POA, is used to give another person legal authority to take care of financial and legal matters, while you are still living. If you are incapacitated, a POA gives someone else the ability to pay bills and manage your affairs. A medical POA gives another person the ability to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. The POA is completely customizable: you can use it to give someone else broad powers to do everything, or narrow powers so they are in charge of only one bank account, for instance. It is very important to have a detailed discussion with the person before you name them. It’s a big responsibility and you want to be certain they are comfortable carrying out all of the tasks.

The Advance Healthcare Directive. This document lays out in detail what you want to happen to you if you are not able to make decisions because of severe illness or injury. If you don’t want to be resuscitated after a heart attack, for instance, you would state that in your advance care directive. It includes a list of treatments you do and do not want. Your family will be able to use it as a guide to help them make difficult decisions regarding sustaining your life, managing pain and providing end-of-life care.

Trusts in Estate Planning. The three elements above form the base of an estate plan, but there are other tools used to achieve your goals. Depending on your circumstances, you will want to incorporate trusts, useful tools for transferring assets of all types. For example, when assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they are no longer part of your estate, thereby minimizing your estate tax liability. Trusts are also used when parents wish to exert control over how and when money is distributed to children. If the parents should both die, a trust can prevent an entire inheritance coming into the hands of an 18-year-old who is legally old enough to inherit property, but likely not ready for the responsibility.

Trusts also transfer assets outside of the probate process, so they protect the family’s privacy. No one outside of the trustees know how much money is in the trust and how the money is being distributed. Trusts are not just for the very wealthy. They can help you protect assets from creditors, ex-spouses and litigious family members.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in preparing your plan.

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

 

Do Estate Planning before Golden Age Ends

Unfortunately, the changes that may be coming to estate planning are likely to be felt by not just ultra-high-net-worth families, but by upper middle-class families whose net worth is comfortable, but not in the stratosphere. Estate planning lawyers are talking with their clients now about how to plan for transferring assets to families without overly aggressive tax avoidance strategies, according to the article “Are We Leaving a ‘Golden Age’ For Estate Planning?” from Financial Advisor Magazine.

The lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person and $23.4 million for couples for 2021, which touched only the extremely wealthiest Americans. However, new tax policies are being debated in Congress, including the possible rollback of those estate tax exemptions. Tax-aware estate planning has already gotten underway for many Americans who are not in the top 1%.

There are two proposed changes that may push more families into using trusts and other planning strategies. The first is a proposed increase in the capital gains tax rate for high earners to bring it more in line with their income tax bracket. That would mean they might lose the advantage of deriving income from investments versus a salary.

The second is the possible elimination of step-up in cost basis for assets upon death. Other changes under discussion have been the elimination or decrease of valuation discounting within an estate.

The rush to change estate plans has begun. Estate plans are being revised, trusts are being created and giving strategies are being planned to remove assets from the grantor generations’ estates and take advantage of the current high tax exemption.

Congress is still figuring out what changes will be made. In addition, no one knows if these changes will be retroactive to 2021 if they are made in the third quarter of 2021, or if they will be enacted on January 1, 2022.

Without knowing what the final changes will be, any planning now should be made with a long-term framework for the family.

Estate planning can be considered in three steps:

The grantor generation needs to consider the purpose of their wealth. Do they want to continue a family business, give the majority of their wealth to a charitable organization, or pass it all to their children and grandchildren?

What does it mean to treat beneficiaries fairly? If one child is teacher, while the other has built and grown a highly successful business, do both children inherit the same amount? What if one of the children has a child with Special Needs?

The grantor generation needs to communicate with their heirs. Heirs often don’t learn about their parent’s intentions, tax planning or charitable giving, until after they have passed. It’s far better to talk about the parent’s wishes and their reasoning while they are living. Without these conversations, families suffering from loss must add sibling quarrels and sometimes, estate litigation, to an already difficult time. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney who can directly you.

Financial Advisor Magazine (May 20, 2021) “Are We Leaving a ‘Golden Age’ For Estate Planning”

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