Still Procrastinating about Your Estate Plan?

The continuing escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to finalize estate planning documents, even as their estate planning attorneys are working from home. People are coming to terms with the stark reality: they could be struck by the disease and need to have a plan in place, reports the article “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid” from Financial Advisor.

Everyone should review their estate planning documents, including their wills, trusts and gifting techniques, to ensure that they are in line with their goals and the numerous tax law changes that have occurred in the last six months. The review of these estate planning documents is especially critical during these unpredictable times. Contact your estate planning attorney.

Here are the documents that may need to be updated:

Power of Attorney—This legal document gives a person you name the authority to handle financial affairs and protect property by acting on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.  Some of the typical tasks of your “agent” are paying bills, writing checks, selling or purchasing assets or signing tax returns.

You may name any competent adult you like. However, be certain to choose someone trusted who will put your interests above theirs. This person should possess common sense, ethics and financial acumen. Someone who lives near you, will be able to handle matters more expeditiously. Someone who is far away, may not be as effective. You should also name a back-up or secondary agent.  With no power of attorney, no one will be authorized to act on your behalf and your family will need to have the court appoint a conservator, which will take time and money.

Health-Care Proxy—This legal document gives an agent authority to make health-care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so. Without one, the family of anyone over the age of 18 will need to go to court and have a guardian appointed.

Last Will and Testament—Your last will is the legal document that gives directions to how you want your property to be distributed after you die. It is used to appoint an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. For parents of minor children, this is the document used to name a guardian to raise your children. If you don’t have a last will, the court will choose who will raise your child, who will distribute your assets and who will oversee your estate. It is much better to handle this in advance, so you are in control of these important decisions.

Living Trust—A revocable trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold title to your assets. As the grantor or creator of the trust, you can change it at any time. You can also set it to outlive you. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee then steps in and manages your affairs without any court intervention. A trust also gives you privacy, since it avoids the probate process.

There are many estate planning tools that may be used to pass wealth to the next generation, minimize taxes, and ensure that your legacy continues, even during these unprecedented times. Reach out to an experienced estate planning attorney to create your estate planning tools.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 16, 2020) “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid”

 

Why You Need an Estate Plan, Especially Now

Estate planning is an all-encompassing term that refers to the entire process of gathering and organizing assets and making preparations for when you die, including caring for minor children and heirs. It also includes putting protections into place if you should become incapacitated, says an article that covers estate planning basics from c|net titled “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents.” Your estate plan involves writing a will, power of attorney and funeral arrangements and especially now,  why you need an estate plan.

Here are some of the key steps:

Distributing assets. Your estate includes more than just real estate. It includes everything you own, including your car, jewelry, sentimental belongings and intangible assets, like investments and insurance. If you own a business, that is also part of your estate.

Preparing for family life without you. An estate plan sets out how you want to care for loved ones. A will is used to name a guardian for minor children, and to name someone to be in charge of their finances. One person can have both roles, but it is generally advised to name one person for each role. If you fail to name a guardian, the court will select one for your children.

Assign the tasks of handling the estate or your health, if you are incapacitated. An estate plan includes a Health Care Proxy or medical power of attorney and a financial power of attorney, so decisions can be made on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. You’ll also name an executor. This is the person who will be in charge of following the directions you leave in your will and distributing assets. Depending on your estate, the person may also be in charge of selling your home, negotiating with creditors, or managing the sale of your business. It’s a big assignment and requires someone who is organized and trustworthy.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. An estate planning lawyer will save you a lot of time, energy and effort in creating an estate plan. The attorney will also be able to help you manage estate, inheritance and gift taxes to minimize the impact of federal and state laws on your beneficiaries.

Document everything properly. Just stating your wishes won’t solve anything. You need an estate plan with all of the right documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state. An invalid will could create just as many problems as no will at all. You’ll need a last will and testament to appoint an executor, outline how you want assets to be distributed and see your will through the probate process.

If you want to avoid probate court, you may want your estate plan to include a trust. A “funded” revocable trust can be adjusted while you are living. When you die, the trust is managed by trustees of your trust.

A living will details your healthcare preferences, in case you are not able to communicate or make decisions on your own. If you require life support, or life saving measures, the living will specifically outlines what you want to have done—or not done—rather than having children or relatives guess at your wishes.

Having an estate plan is not a set-it-and-forget-it plan. As you proceed through life, getting married, having children, divorcing, buying property, etc., the estate planning documents need to be revised, so they continue to reflect your wishes. Whenever there are big changes to the law, you may also need to revise the will, so you don’t miss out on any planning opportunities. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you need to get your affairs in order.

Reference: c|net (June 8, 2020) “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents”

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An Estate Plan Is Necessary for the Unthinkable

An estate plan is necessary considering the recent death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. This reminds us that we never know what fate has in store for us. A recent article from The Press Enterprise titled Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst” explains the steps.

Put an appointment in your schedule. Make an appointment with a qualified estate planning attorney. If you make the call and have an actual appointment, you have a deadline and that’s a start. The attorney may have a planning worksheet or organizer that he or she can send to you to guide you.

Start getting organized. If this seems overwhelming, break it out into separate parts. Begin with the easy part: a list of names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses for family members. Include any other people who you intend to include in your estate plan.

Next, list your assets and an estimated value of each. It doesn’t have to be to the penny. Include the account numbers, name of the institution, phone number and, if you have a personal contact, a name. Include bank accounts, real estate holdings, timeshares, stocks, bonds, personal property, vehicles, RVs, any collectibles of value (attach appraisals if you have them), life insurance and retirement accounts. List the professionals who you rely on—your estate planning lawyer, CPA, financial advisor, etc.

If you own a firearm, include your license and make sure your spouse is aware of the information. In certain states, having possession of a firearm without being the licensed owner is against the law.

Name an executor or personal representative. Estate planning is not just for death. It is also for incapacity. Who will act on your behalf, if you are not able to do so? Many people name their spouse, a long-time trusted friend or a family member. Be certain that person will be willing to act on your behalf. Have a second person also named, in case something occurs, and your first choice cannot serve.

If you have minor children, your estate plan will include a guardian who will be responsible for raising them. Talk about that with your spouse and that person to make sure they are willing to serve. You can also name a second person to be in charge of finances for the children. Your estate planning lawyer will talk with you about the role of trusts to provide for the children.

Think about your overall goals. How do you see your legacy? Do you want to leave some funds for a charity that has meaning to you and your family? Do you want your children to receive equal shares of your entire estate? Does one child require special needs planning or are you concerned that one of your children may not be able to manage an inheritance? These are all topics to discuss with your estate planning attorney. Their experience will help clarify your goals and create a plan.

Reference: The Press Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2020) Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst”

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Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks so they need to be someone you trust who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

 

Estate Planning Is for Everyone, at Every Age

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All new adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow someone else to step in, if something occurs.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be merged, and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets in case someone needs to access accounts.

When children join the family. Whether born or adopted, the entrance of children into the family makes an estate plan especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for more than half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any controlling-on-death accounts are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

Contacting an experienced estate planning attorney to help assist you is your best bet.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

 

More Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan

Every estate planning attorney will tell you that they meet with people every day who sheepishly admit that they’ve been meaning to review their estate plan but just haven’t gotten to it. Let the guilt go.

Attorneys know that no one wants to talk about death, taxes or illness, says Wicked Local in the article “Five Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan.” However, there are five times when even an appearance before the Queen of England has to come second to reviewing your estate plan.

You have minor children. An estate plan for a couple with young children must do two very important things: address the care and custody of minor children should both parents die and address the management and distribution of the assets that the children will inherit. The will is the estate planning document used to name a guardian for minor children. The guardian is the person who will determine where your children will live and go to school, what kind of health care they receive and make all daily decisions about their care and upbringing.

If you don’t have a will, the court will name a guardian. You may not like the court’s decision. Your children might not like it at all. Having a will takes care of this important decision.

Your estate is worth more than $1 million. While the federal estate plan exemptions currently are at levels that remove federal tax from most people’s estate planning concerns, there are still state estate taxes. Some states have inheritance taxes. Whether you are married or single, if your assets are significant, you need an estate plan that maps out how assets will be left to your heirs and to plan for taxes.

Your last estate plan was created before 2012. There have been numerous changes in state estate tax laws regarding wills, probate and trusts in Massachusetts. This is not the only state that has seen major changes. There have been big changes in federal estate taxes. Strategies that were perfect in the past, may no longer be necessary or as productive because of these changes. While you’re making these changes, don’t forget to deal with digital assets. That includes email accounts, social media, online banking, etc. This will protect your fiduciaries from breaking federal hacking laws that are meant to protect online accounts, even when the person has your username and password.

You have robust retirement plans. Your will and trust do not control all the assets you own at the time of death. The first and foremost controlling element in your asset distribution is the beneficiary designation. Life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement accounts will be paid to the beneficiary named on the account, regardless of what your will says. Part of a comprehensive will review is to review beneficiary designations on each account.

You are worried about long-term care costs. Estate planning does not take place in a vacuum. Your estate plan needs to address issues like your plan, if you or your spouse need care. Do you intend to stay in your home? Are you going to move to live closer to your children, or to a Continuing Care Retirement Community? Do you have long-term insurance in place? Do you want to plan for Medicaid eligibility?

All of these issues need to be considered when reviewing and updating your estate plan. If you’ve never had an estate plan created, this is the time. Put your mind at ease, by getting this off your “to do” list and contact an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wicked Local (Aug. 29, 2019) “Five Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan”

 

Understanding Why a Will is Important

These questions presented by The Westerly Sun in the article “Making a will is an important legal step,” may seem very basic but many people don’t really understand how wills work and why they are such an important part of estate planning. Let’s go through these fundamentals about wills.

A will is a legal document that must be prepared under very strict standards to explain your wishes about how you want your estate–that is, your property, money, tangible possessions, and real estate—distributed after you die. A will also does more than that. A will, which is sometimes referred to as a “Last Will and Testament,” also makes clear who you want to be in charge of your minor children, if both parents should die. It also is how you name a person to be in charge of your affairs after death, by naming them as executor of your estate.

A complete estate plan includes a will, and several other documents, including a power of attorney, trusts and a health care proxy. The goal of all of these documents is to make it easier for your surviving spouse or loved ones to take care of you and your possessions, if you become too ill to speak on your own behalf, or when you die.

Your will provides instructions about what happens to your estate. Who should receive your money and property? These instructions must be followed by the person you choose as your executor. The local probate court must give its approval, and then the estate can be distributed.

If you have a valid will, it is admitted to probate (a court process) upon your death, and then your wishes are followed. If you don’t have a will, you are said to have died “intestate.” The laws of the state will decide what will happen to everything you own that is subject to probate. Usually this means that assets are distributed to family members based on their degree of kinship with you.  This may not be what you wanted. If you have children, and especially if you have children with special needs, the court will appoint a guardian for those children. You may not want Aunt Jennifer raising your daughters, but that may end up happening.

Properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, a will is a binding legal document that carries great significance. No one likes to think about dying, or becoming incapacitated, but by planning ahead, you can determine what you want to happen, and protect those you love.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (August 18, 2019) “Making a will is an important legal step”

 

Why We All Need to Have an Estate Plan

Putting off estate planning is never a good idea. Life happens, and before you know it, “someday” arrives. Having an estate plan is advisable for everyone, says the South Florida Reporter in the article “Why Estate Planning is so Important.” It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor—you need an estate plan. People with families who depend upon them, as well as singles who don’t, need an estate plan.

What exactly does estate planning mean? Estate planning is planning for the disposition of your assets, when you have died. It’s also done to protect you and your family, in the event you become incapacitated and cannot convey your wishes to others. It protects your family from complications, unnecessary costs and delays about distributing your estate.

Having an estate plan means that you have taken the time to plan out what you want to happen to your property and how you want to take care of your family when you are gone. For those who have young children, your last will and testament is the document used to name the person who will raise your children. It also lets you appoint a separate person (although it can be the same person) who will look after your finances, with regard to your children.

Without a will, a court will decide what should happen to your children and your property. The court must follow the laws of your state, which may not be what you had in mind. Let’s say you have a brother who lives far away and from whom you are estranged. If you don’t have a will and he is your legal next-of-kin, in some states he will inherit everything you own. It’s far better to have a will.

Estate planning also includes tax planning. Having an estate plan that is created by an experienced estate planning attorney with knowledge of tax planning will allow you to minimize your tax liability and make sure more of your assets are passed to the next generation, than are passed to the government.

Having an estate plans gives you the opportunity to take a long look at your life and your legacy. How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to leave behind part of your estate to a charity, a school or a healthcare facility that has been important to you or another family member? Planning for charitable giving is also part of an estate plan. Some people give because they are seeking tax benefits, but many are generous because they are creating a legacy.

Your estate plan can include a letter to your heirs explaining why you have made the decisions you have about your possessions and assets. This kind of letter is not a legally enforceable document. However, if there is a dispute about your will, it can be used to support your intentions.

Note that even the best estate plan needs to be updated every few years. Tax laws have changed with the new federal tax laws that were adopted in 2017. If your estate plan has not been reviewed by your estate planning attorney since 2017, it’s time for a review.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (June 12, 2019) “Why Estate Planning is so Important.”

 

Special Needs Families and Special Needs Trust

If nothing prepares a person for parenting, consider how much harder it is to be prepared to raise a child with special needs. Parents often sink in uncharted waters. It’s not just a matter of negotiating all of the day-to-day details, says Newsday in the article “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.” Special needs families need to plan for what will happen as the parents age, become ill or die.

As an adult child with disabilities ages, eventually there will be medical issues. If the parents are gone, who will be able to make medical decisions? Where they live, who will oversee their finances and who will be there for them to rely on in a parenting role? There are many questions and they all need answering.

For one family, raising their special needs daughter was a full-time challenge. Their daughter, now 24, has autism. The couple sought out others in their same situation, noting that often even their own family members could not relate to their daily experiences.

It takes a village for special needs families to do more than survive. That includes estate planning and elder law attorneys with deep experience in special needs planning, social workers, therapists and medical professionals. Here’s what needs to be top-of-mind:

Don’t wait to plan. Families often think they have time, but you never know when unexpected events occur. Have a plan in place for legal guardianship, finances and health care.

Work with experienced legal help. You want to work with an attorney who has a great deal of experience and knowledge in special needs law and estate planning. Someone who dabbles on the side of a real estate practice is not the right professional for the task.

Stay in control. When children turn 18, they are adults. Parents and guardians will need to go through probate court to become the child’s guardian. Unless that is done, the parents and guardians will have no legal rights about the child’s medical, financial or other affairs. A successor guardian also needs to be named, so that when the parents are no longer able to serve, someone is in place to care for the child.

Create a Special Needs Trust. A trusts attorney with experience in Special Needs planning will be able to work with the family to create and structure a Special Needs Trust (SNT). A disabled person usually cannot earn enough to support himself, or the caregiver who remains at home to care for them and care-related expenses. The SNT helps to meet current needs and plan for future needs. The trust is used to preserve eligibility for any means-tested state and federal benefits. It allows the individual to have a better quality of life, by providing for expenses that are not covered by their benefits.

It’s very important that no assets be left to the child in an inheritance. Any assets must be placed in the trust. A well-meaning relative could put their eligibility for aid in jeopardy.

Parents and guardians also need to name a trustee and a successor trustee. The person needs to be competent, good with money management, organized and focused on caring for the loved one. It cannot be an emotional decision.

Parents of special needs children are advised to create a Letter of Intent, a narrative that outlines their child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, activities and friends they enjoy and other details that will help them to continue an enjoyable life, when their parents are gone.

Parent’s own estate planning must be done with an eye to maintaining the SNT and caring for their other children. This is a case when assets need to be distributed in a realistic and fair manner. If one sibling is the successor trustee, for example, they may need a larger portion of an estate to help care for their sibling.

Reference: Newsday (May 9, 2019) “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.”

 

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan if I Relocate for Retirement?

Anyone who moves to another state, for retirement, a new job or to be closer to family, needs to have a look at their estate plan to make sure it is valid in their new state, advises the Boca Newspaper in the recent article “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

If an estate plan hasn’t been created, a relocation is the perfect opportunity to get this important task done. Think of it as preparation for your new life in your new home.

Because so many retirees do relocate to Florida, there are some general rules that make this easier. For one thing, most wills that are valid in another state are recognized in Florida. There’s a specific law in the Florida statutes that confirms that “other than a holographic or nuncupative will, executed by a nonresident of Florida… is valid as a will in this state if valid under the laws of the state or country where the will was executed.”

In other words, if the estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney and is legally valid in the prior state, it will be valid in Florida. Exceptions are a holographic will, which is a handwritten will that is signed by the person with no witnesses, or a nuncupative will, which is a verbal statement made in front of witnesses.

However, just because your will is recognized in Florida, does not mean that it doesn’t need a review.

There are distinctions in Florida law that may make certain provisions invalid or change their meaning. In one well-known case, a will was missing one sentence—known as a “residual clause,” a catch-all that distributes assets that are otherwise not specified. The maker of the will wanted everything to go to her brother. However, without that one clause, property acquired after the will was created was not included. The court determined that the property that was acquired after the will was created, would go to other relatives, despite the wishes of the decedent.

Little details mean a lot when it comes to estate plans.

It’s important to ensure that the last will and testament properly expresses intentions under the laws of your new home state. As you review or begin the process, this might be the time to speak with your estate planning attorney about whether any trusts are applicable to your estate. A revocable living trust, for example, would avoid the assets placed in the trust having to go through probate.

This is also the time to review your Durable Power of Attorney, designation of a Health Care Surrogate, Living Will and nomination of a pre-need Guardian.

Estate planning gives peace of mind, knowing that the legal side of your life is all taken care of. It avoids stress and unnecessary costs and delays to your family. It should be reviewed and updated, if needed, at big events in your life, including a relocation, the sale or purchase of a home or when you retire. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (May 1, 2019) “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”