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”

 

What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some errors to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. Yes, even justices make mistakes with estate planning! He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared will could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety. Use an experienced estate planning attorney.

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions. If you are leaving more money to one child than to another, it would be a great kindness to the children’s relationship, if you explained why you are doing so. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan and a valid will in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have a HIPAA release form and Power of Attorney for Health Care, so you are able to speak with each other’s medical providers. You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare these documents.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.

Please don’t be naive about caregivers with designs on your assets or relatives, who appear after long periods of estrangement.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances. However, this must remain front and center during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

 

Financial Elder Abuse Is Growing

Financial elder abuse is defined as the “fraudulent or otherwise illegal, unauthorized or improper act or process of an individual, including a caregiver or fiduciary, that uses the resources of an older individual for monetary or personal benefit, profit or gain, that results in depriving an older individual of rightful access to, or use of, benefits, resources, belongings or assets.” That’s from The Older Americans Act of 2006.  Consumers Digest estimates that there are at least five million cases of financial elder abuse in America every year. An article titled “Population ages, financial abuse rises” from the Reading Eagle wisely notes that seniors are not just being targeted, they are the bull’s eye.

One of the reasons is because many older Americans live in isolation. A person who spends most of their time alone will welcome any simple human interaction including talking to anyone who calls on the phone, unknown neighbors introducing themselves, marketing mail or interactions on the internet. This desire for company makes seniors more likely to ignore warning signs and to hand over money and control of their assets.

Do you wonder what kind of person would hand over their power of attorney to a stranger? The plain truth is that most financial elder abuse is committed by people who are closest to the senior. Family members are far more likely to prey on seniors than a stranger.

One financial advisor notes an instance where a scammer forged a check for $25,000 in a senior’s name, then kept doing it until she had stolen up to $75,000. She did it repeatedly, because she knew that she could get away with it.

The key to prevention is planning. First, seniors should simplify their financial and legal matters. Surrounding yourself with trusted advisors and family members who serve as checks and balances for each other is a good idea. It’s sometimes hard to know who to trust sometimes, especially family members. An estate planning attorney should be part of your team and everyone should work together.

If you become suspicious that financial fraud is happening to you or a loved one, you may want to reach out to the Adult Protective Services office in your community. They will be able to advocate on behalf of the senior.  Treat everything and everyone with a degree of suspicion. If someone knocks on the front door and says they can offer you a discount on tree removal or roof repair because they are in the neighborhood, don’t believe them. You should also have an estate plan in place that protects your assets, so they are less vulnerable to a scammer.  Contact and experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Reading Eagle (Feb. 9, 2020) “Population ages, financial abuse rises”

 

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”

 

Kids Going to the Mom and Dad ATM One Time Too Many?

Parenting is supposed to be a process of teaching children how to be self-sufficient. However, it’s not always easy to go from being dependent on parents to being independent. If you think you’re still doing too much, says Newsday, you need to ask “Good to Know: Are your grown-up children taking advantage of you?”

Plenty of parents don’t know what to do when they are asked too many times for too many financial favors. They may feel pressured to agree, worried that they may see their grandchildren or their children less, if they say no. That’s a bad reason for generosity. If the parent is asked to co-sign for a large purchase, like a home or a car, they need to put the brakes on and discuss this thoroughly with their child. It may also be a good idea to speak with an estate planning attorney, for an objective viewpoint.

There needs to be recognition of the child’s creditworthiness. Have they borrowed money from their parents or other family members and failed to pay it back completely, or made only partial payments, and only after being reminded repeatedly? Don’t expect behavior to change. Parents facing this example also need to discuss this between themselves. They should only “lend” money that they can afford to lose.

If the child has been turned down for credit through regular financial channels and the bank of Mom and Dad is the only option, find out why. Ask them for a credit report and be transparent about your concerns. Can you afford to pick up the mortgage payments, if the child fails to make them? What about car loan payments?

Taking advantage of parents can extend past money. Some families welcome their grandchildren with open arms for unlimited times. However, if you find yourself babysitting on weekends and several week nights during the week, it’s time for a discussion. For one family, whose son was interested in spending time with a new fiancé more than with his two toddlers, the situation went on for nearly a year, until the parents gathered the courage to speak up.

They added up all the time they were spending each week taking care of the children. It turned out that they were watching the children for fifteen hours or more each week. This was discussed calmly. They then made it clear that they were happy to continue caring for the children, but for a far more reasonable period of time.

If you feel that your children are taking advantage of you, you’ll need to have a discussion in a calm and reasonable manner. If there are financial matters that are spinning out of control, speak with your estate planning attorney about how to create a plan to stop the flow of money. Elder financial abuse sometimes begins as a “favor.” However, it can escalate, if it is allowed to grow unchecked.

Reference: Newsday (April 14, 2019) “Good to Know: Are your grown-up children taking advantage of you?”