What Are the Common Myths of Powers of Attorney?

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s recent article entitled “Five common myths about powers of attorney” explains away some misconceptions about powers of attorney.

  1. There’s just one uniform power of attorney document. No, there are many types. However, they can vary by state. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to draft a document to meet your specific needs.
  2. It’s OK to sign a power of attorney, even if I lack mental capacity. No, to be valid, the person granting the rights (the principal) must have mental capacity to execute the document. A power of attorney can be valid for an individual with mental incapacity, provided the document was signed before the occurrence. That’s a key reason to have a durable power of attorney in place.
  3. A durable power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney are the same thing. No, a durable power of attorney grants rights to an agent to act on your behalf, regarding your assets. These rights can be general to all assets for an unlimited time, or the POA can be limited as to the time frame and assets included. A medical power of attorney grants an agent the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.
  4. Senior citizens are the ones who need a power of attorney. Not true, because accidents and unforeseen illness can strike at any age. You need to have a plan in place to ease the burden of one aspect of an already stressful and complicated situation. Don’t assume your spouse has automatic power to make decisions on your behalf. It can be much more difficult, unless you have given them the power of attorney.
  5. A power of attorney can be used to handle my relative’s estate at death. Again, not true. Although there are other ways to structure an estate to avoid probate, a power of attorney isn’t one of them. A power of attorney lets the agent to stand in the place of the principal to make decisions. It doesn’t continue beyond the death of the principal.

If you avoid these common misconceptions, a power of attorney prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney can be a very useful tool to meet your needs.

Reference: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (March 15, 2019) “Five common myths about powers of attorney”

 

What is a Life Estate?

The question of a life estate may arise, when adult children are discussing the possibility of moving a parent into an assisted-living facility and selling the family home.

The Spokesman-Review’s recent article asks: “Does a life estate have cash value?”

The article explains that a life estate is a form of co-ownership. A person’s interest in property is limited to his life, with the property passing to other recipients at his death. The person who holds the life estate is called a life tenant, and those who receive the property at the death of the life tenant are called remaindermen.

The life tenant and the remaindermen both have real interests in the property, but unlike other partnerships or other forms of co-ownership, the life tenant and remaindermen don’t have rights in the property at the same time. Only the life tenant has a current right to possession. The remaindermen’s interest doesn’t become activated, until the death of the life tenant.

A life estate is an actual form of ownership, rather than a right to use. The life tenant—in many cases the parent—“owns” the house until her death. The parent will need to pay the taxes and keep the property in reasonable condition. The life tenant could sell the property, but the buyer would only have rights until she dies. There would be few people who would ever buy the property. No lender would loan mom money against the property because their interest would go away when the life tenant died.

But there is a value to a life estate, and upon sale, the life tenant must be compensated for the sale of their interest. Life estates are valued using the age of the life tenant and the present fair market value of the property.

Although life estates typically end when the life tenant (or another specified person) dies, some specify conditions that can trigger termination. These would cause the life estate to be terminated, even though the life tenant is still alive and well. For example, a life estate may terminate, if the life tenant leaves the home for more than six months. The actual life estate document details any conditional limits that define when the life estate terminates.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a life estate makes sense for your situation, or if there are alternative strategies that would be better suited.

Reference: The Spokesman-Review (March 17, 2019) “Does a life estate have cash value?”

 

What Are the Biggest Threats to Estate Planning?

A recent survey conducted by TD Wealth at the 53rd Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning found that nearly half (46%) of respondents said that family conflict was the biggest threat to estate planning in 2019, followed by market volatility (24%) and tax reform (14%).

Insurance News Net’s recent article, “Family Conflict Reigns As Greatest Threat To Estate Planning, Survey Finds,” reported that the survey also looked at the various causes of family conflict, when engaging in estate planning. They said that the designation of beneficiaries (30%) was the most common cause of conflict. Other leading factors included not communicating the plan with family members (25%) and working with blended families (21%).

Family dynamics have always played a crucial part in estate planning. With an increase in blended families, many experts think that these conversations will become even more frequent and challenging. Estate planning comes with the responsibility of motivating families to communicate through difficult times. This requires regular conversations and total transparency. To minimize risk, families should include everyone at the table to participate in an open and honest conversation about their shared goals and objectives.

Market volatility was also a big concern of the respondents for 2019. Almost 25% said that identifying volatile markets was the biggest threat to estate planning this year, up from 12% in 2018.

Market fluctuations are worth watching and can cause worry for potential gift givers. It’s best to maintain a long-term view when investing, and know that short-term market movements are no match for a robust estate plan and a well-balanced portfolio.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act continues to have a large-scale effect on estate planning. After the increase in the federal gift and estate tax exemption, there are some new strategies to allow people to take advantage of the exemption. About one third of respondents (31%) propose that their clients consider creating trusts to protect assets. About 26% say their clients plan to minimize future capital gains tax consequences and 21% agree to gift now, while the exemption is high.

Experts are stressing the importance of creating trusts for the benefit of family, so assets can be protected from future claims.

A total of 40% of estate planners think their clients will continue to give the same amount to charities as they did in 2018, with 21% expecting them to donate more.

Reference: Insurance News Net (March 13, 2019) “Family Conflict Reigns As Greatest Threat To Estate Planning, Survey Finds”

 

Why Would a Guy Like Me Need a Will?

Wills don’t have to be complicated, but it’s best to work with a seasoned estate planning attorney. Wills must be dated, signed, witnessed and notarized. If you don’t have a will, it delays the process considerably and may delay payment of the deceased’s assets to his or her heirs. To eliminate some of the mystery from the will creation process, here are several items that all wills need to have to be legally binding. The Daily Advertiser’s recent article, “Where there is a will, there is a plan in place“ provides some definitions for key concepts and reminders for the estate planning process.

Testator. The creator of the will must provide his name, address and intention to create a distribution process for his assets. He must also state that the will being made is his last will and testament, revoking any other prior wills. Revocation of prior wills is important to show that the decisions made in the current will are final and the recent date on the will evidences how current the will is and to know which will (if there are others) supersedes all others.

Debts. The will must explain how any outstanding bills will be paid. These include the funeral costs, medical costs, taxes, court costs for settling the estate, and any other expenses the deceased may have at his death.

Heirs. A will should detail who gets what. Specific bequests should state a full description of the physical asset or, if money is to be distributed, then a percentage of the estate’s value or specific amount should be listed. Most testators don’t know the effect that death taxes or final expenses will have on an estate. Therefore, percentages work better, because it’s a percentage of what is available to be distributed.

Executor. This is the person who will take the will through the probate process, account for the decedent’s personal property, pay taxes and debts, and distribute the assets to the heirs, according to the will. Choosing an executor is an important decision. He or she should be trustworthy and knowledgeable about financial matters.

Guardian. A guardian needs to be named to care for minor children. This person should mirror the parents’ values and ideas as to the care and raising of the minor children. A relative or parent shouldn’t be selected just based on kinship. If a guardian isn’t selected, the court will choose one, and that person may not be capable of handling young children over the long-term.

Funeral Arrangements. You may not want a big expensive funeral, but without specific instructions, your funeral arrangements might be overly grand and out of character with your personality. Just add a paragraph detailing your wishes.

Reference: Daily Advertiser (March 10, 2019) “Where there is a will, there is a plan in place“

 

As a New Parent, Have You Updated (or Created) Your Estate Plan?

You just had a baby. Now you’re sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and frazzled. Having a child dramatically changes one’s legacy plan and makes having a plan all the more necessary, says ThinkAdvisor’s recent article, “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents.”

Take time to talk through two high-priority items. Create a staggered checklist—starting with today—and set attainable dates to complete the rest of the tasks. Here are five things to put on that list:

  1. Will. This gives the probate court your instructions on who will care for your children, if something happens to both you and your spouse. A will also should name a guardian to be responsible for the children. Parents also should think about how they want to share their personal belongings and financial assets. Without a will, the state decides what goes to whom. Lastly, a will must name an executor.
  2. Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations when you who will care for your children because you don’t want your will and designations (on life insurance policies and investments) telling two different stories. If there’s an issue, the beneficiary designation overrides the will.
  3. Trust. Created by an experienced estate planning attorney, a trust has some excellent benefits, particularly if you have young children. Everything in a trust is shielded from probate court, including property. This avoids court fees and hassle. A trust also provides some flexibility and customization to your plan. You can instruct that your children get a sum of money at 18, 25 or 30, and you can say that the money is for school, among other conditions. The trustee will distribute funds, according to your instructions.
  4. Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy. These are two separate documents, but they’re both used in the event of incapacitation. Their power of attorney and health care proxy designees can make important financial and medical decisions, when you’re incapable of doing so.
  5. Life Insurance. Most people don’t think about purchasing life insurance, until they have children. Therefore, if you haven’t thought about it, you’re not alone. If you are among the few who bought a policy pre-child, consider increasing the amount so your child is covered, if something should happen.

Reference: ThinkAdvisor (March 7, 2019) “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents”

 

Why Do I Need A Will?

Writing a will is one of life’s unpleasant tasks. Maybe that is why just 36% of American adults with children under 18 have estate plans in place.

The Boston Globe’s recent article, “The end may not be near, but you still need a will,” says that estate planning is essential, because dying without a will means that certain property is subject to intestate succession laws. That’s where the state distributes your assets to your heirs, according to state intestacy laws in predetermined percentages.

Assets for which you’ve assigned a beneficiary, like your 401(k) or life insurance, won’t meet the same end, because these are outside of probate. However, non-beneficiary accounts, like checking accounts or property, could. Even if you’re not wealthy, it’s important to plan ahead. Consider these thoughts:

  • A will. If you have assets that you want to leave to another person, you need a will. It’s your instructions on what should happen upon your death. You’ll also name an executor or a personal representative who’s responsible for tending to your assets, when you pass away.
  • Beneficiary designations. Some assets don’t pass through a will, like life insurance and retirement plans. For these, you must name a beneficiary.
  • Health care proxies and powers of attorney. An estate planning attorney will help you with a health care proxy, HIPAA forms and durable power of attorney. The power of attorney lets someone else handle your legal and financial matters, if you’re unable to do so. The health care proxy lets a trusted person make decisions about your medical care, when you are incapacitated.
  • Guardian for minor children. Select a person who shares your values and parenting style, regardless of their financial background.
  • A living will. A will takes effect at death. A living will, a type of advanced directive, is not legally binding in Massachusetts, for example, but it’s a great help for your health care proxy. It states your wishes, like not wanting life support and donating organs.

Finally, discuss your plans with your family. With the proper documents, make certain that your will and other documents are safely stored and easily accessible. You should also be sure that you’ve given your power of attorney and health care agent copies. Your physicians should also have a copy of your health care proxy and living will, and your attorney should keep a copy on file.

Reference: Boston Globe (February 25, 2019) “The end may not be near, but you still need a will”

 

What are the “Must Have” Estate Planning Documents?

What do Aretha Franklin, Kurt Cobain, and Prince have in common? Aside from being famous and talented, each of these stars passed away without a will. All three had the money and attorneys to draft a proper estate plan, but for whatever reason, they didn’t draft one. It’s a good lesson to not neglect your estate plan.

Motley Fool reports in the article, “3 Must-Have Estate Planning Documents To Get Done This Year,” that dying without a will creates numerous problems for your family. If there are no legal instructions in place, probate law dictates the distribution of your assets and selection of guardians for your minor children, which can cause problems. Regardless of your personal situation, you should think about creating these three important estate planning documents.

Will. A will is used to distribute your estate, according to your instructions. A will can say how much and what type of asset each heir will receive, to minimize family fighting after your death. If you have young children, you can designate guardians in your will to be in charge of their care. If you die without a will, the probate judge will order who becomes their guardian.

You also need a will to make charitable bequests, to expedite the probate court process and to reduce or eliminate estate taxes. When you draft your will, you’ll appoint trusted people to serve as the executor and the trustee.

Living will. A living will can take effect while you are still alive. This is a legal document that sets out your instructions for medical treatment, if you become unable to communicate, such as whether or not you want to be placed on life support. A living will can relieve the emotional burden from your family of having to make difficult decisions.

Power of attorney. This legal document helps in the event you’re incapacitated or in the hospital in an unresponsive state. A power of attorney gives the individual you designate the authority to transact financial and legal matters on your behalf. Set up a power of attorney, before you need it. If you don’t and you’re unable to make decisions, your family may have to petition the court to get those powers, which costs time and money.

Estate planning is a huge favor that you’re doing for your family. Get these three legal documents in place.

Reference: Motley Fool (February 18, 2019) “3 Must-Have Estate Planning Documents To Get Done This Year”

 

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

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”

 

Can I Draft My Own Will?

A common question among people is “Can I write my own will?” or “Do I really need a lawyer to do my estate planning?”

The Frisky‘s recent article, “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan,” says that writing your own estate plan can be a complicated thing—and one that a non-attorney may find very difficult.

It’s More Than a Will. Many people believe that a will and an estate plan are the same. This is not true. An estate plan is a legal strategy that prepares you for potential incapacity and eventual death. A will is a legal document that’s part of the estate plan.

Money, Time and Energy Savings. Creating your own estate plan will be more time-consuming than you may have thought. Hiring a lawyer to do this will cost you—but it will cost you more, if you decide to do it on your own. Hiring a lawyer for your estate plan will save you time, because he or she is trained in the law to do it the right way.

If you do finish your own estate plan and you realize that it really is a mess, you can hire a lawyer to do it over for you. However, calculate how much time, energy, and resources you’ve spent on making on your quick DIY estate plan. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and create a sound estate plan.

It’s Complicated. If you don’t fully understand what you’re doing, estate planning can drive you nuts. That’s because every word you write is crucial. Everything you write counts and may be interpreted differently. The law in this area also changes all the time. Agencies in the federal government, the IRS and the courts are always creating new regulations and decisions. Your estate planning attorney monitors all of this, makes sure your estate plan is in compliance and takes the best advantage of the current law.

Objectivity. Another thing your attorney adds to the mix—in addition to legal expertise—is objectivity. Your estate planning attorney will give you a clean, unbiased view of your current situation, along with a fair and honest assessment of your options.

Reference: The Frisky (February 6, 2019) “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan”

 

When Should I Start My Estate Planning?

Only 42% of Americans have a will or other estate planning documents, according to a 2017 Caring.com study. Among parents of children under 18, only 36% have created a will.

USA Today’s recent article, “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die,” explains that if you die without a will, state laws will decide what happens to your property or who should be legally responsible for minor children. That might be OK in some circumstances, but in others, a grandchild with special needs might not receive the resources you want him to have, or an estranged family member might get your house.

For some reason, people believe that if they don’t do anything, things will “work out.” They often do not. Here is what you should consider:

Create a will. This document states who should get your money and possessions, as well as who would become a guardian to your minor children, if both parents die.

A living will. This legal document states what medical procedures you want or don’t want, if you’re incapacitated and can’t speak for yourself, such as whether to continue life-sustaining treatment. Powers of attorney let you appoint someone you trust to make legal, financial and health care decisions for you, if you are unable.

Trust. This is a legal entity that holds any property you want to leave to your beneficiaries. With a trust, your family won’t have to go through probate. Trusts also let you to set up instructions for how and when property is distributed. A trustee will manage the trust. Make sure you let people know, when you’ve designated them as a trustee. Name a secondary trustee, in case the primary trustee cannot or will not serve.

Beneficiaries. If you have investment accounts and retirement plans like a 401(k), make certain that the individual you’ve listed as the beneficiary is the person you want to receive those funds.  Remember to appoint a contingency or secondary beneficiary, just in case.

Work with an experienced attorney. Estate planning can be complicated, so get some professional legal help.

End-of-life planning isn’t really fun, but it’s necessary, if you want to have full control over your life and your assets.

Reference: USA Today (April 1, 2019) “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die”