What Legal Documents Should You Have?

You might think that the coronavirus pandemic has caused everyone to get their estate planning documents in order, but the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees found that 30% of all retirees have nothing prepared—not even a will. That’s not good, for them or their families, says this timely article “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need—but Don’t Have” from MSN Money.

The survey revealed some troubling facts:

Only 32% have a Health Care Power Of Attorney or Medical Proxy, which allows named persons to make medical decisions on the retiree’s behalf.

Only 30% have an Advance Directive or Living Will, sharing their end-of-life wishes for medical care.

A mere 28% have a designated Power of Attorney, so an agent can act on their behalf to pay bills and manage finances, if they are too sick to do so.

Worse, only 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements. Their families will be left to make all the decisions.

18% have a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which is needed so someone else may speak with health care and insurance providers on their behalf.

11% have a Trust of any kind.

The study shines a bright light on a big problem that will be faced by families, if their elders have not taken steps to prepare for incapacity or death. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. It becomes more complicated, expensive and stressful for the loved ones left behind.

These documents and a last will and testament are needed, so families have the legal right to take care of their loved ones while they are living, as well as handle their estates after they pass. Contact an estate planning attorney to assist you in preparing these documents.

Without them, the family may find themselves having to go to court to have a guardian appointed in the event their senior loved ones are too ill to manage their financial affairs.

If the loved one should die and there is no will in place, the court will rely on the state’s estate laws to determine who inherits assets. An estranged family member could end up owning the family home and all of its contents, regardless of their absence from the family.

An experienced estate planning attorney can work with the family in a safe, socially distanced manner to have the necessary documents created, before they are needed.

Reference: MSN MONEY (Dec. 15, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need—but Don’t Have”

 

Keeping Yourself and Loved Ones Safe during the Pandemic

The numbers are frightening, especially for those over 80. By the time seniors with COVID-19 are admitted to the hospital, it’s usually too late to do anything about their legacy. This topic was taken up recently in the article “Tips for protecting seniors and their legacy in the pandemic” from My Edmond News. That includes creating a last will and testament, naming a health care power of attorney, or having a conversation about their end-of-life wishes. Here are thoughts on how to stay safe and prepare for the worst.

Follow the recommended health guidelines and be careful. Hand washing, social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks and cleaning surfaces are very important for seniors. Online shopping or going to the grocery store during senior hours are better choices, if you have a choice.

Beware of scammers. Scammers who target the elderly use their fear of the pandemic to provoke action. One of the latest scams is a phone call from someone claiming to be a contact tracer, saying they are tracking people who have been exposed to COVID-19. They ask for Social Security numbers, birthdays and zip codes. No legitimate contact tracer will ask these questions.

Make a plan for your digital assets. Seniors are active on Facebook, use email and a variety of apps to stay in touch with grandchildren and manage their finances. Make a list of all of your online accounts and passwords, so that a trusted family member or friend will be able to help, if you are incapacitated or die. Untangling digital assets is much more complex than tangible assets—there’s no paper trail to follow.

Get your legal affairs in order now. Depending on your state of residence, you may be able to have documents witnessed and notarized remotely. Your estate planning attorney will know what the current rules are and be able to get documents prepared.

Create a Power of Attorney. This will let the person you name as POA take care of your finances, pay bills and keep your financial life from falling apart if you become ill.

Have a Health Care Power of Attorney created. This allows the person you name to get information on your medical decisions and make health care decisions, if you cannot.

Use an estate planning attorney to have these documents created. They are powerful documents, and their advice in helping select the right person can prevent a world of trouble in the future. The estate planning attorney who hears you say “Well, my nephew is the only one, but he’s been in and out of rehab for six years now,” can help you make a better choice!

Have a Will, or Last Will and Testament, created by an estate planning attorney. A professionally prepared last will sets out your wishes for distribution of your assets and is legally enforceable.

Update your beneficiaries. Distributions from accounts including IRAs, pensions and life insurance policies are not governed by your last will, but by the beneficiaries you name. As your life changes, these need to be updated. You really don’t want an old boyfriend or ex-spouse receiving your entire life insurance policy.

Once you have your estate plan done, you’ll realize it was easy to do, and well worth the peace of mind of knowing that you and your loved ones are protected.

Reference: My Edmond News (June 1, 2020) “Tips for protecting seniors and their legacy in the pandemic”

 

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”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Wills, Trusts, End-of-Life, Revocable, Probate, Living Will, Executor, Health Care Power of Attorney, Guardian,

Will the Power of Attorney You Sign Today Work for Your Executor?

These are all good questions, as Powers of Attorney (POA) are some of the most commonly used estate planning documents and they are also some of the most misunderstood estate planning documents, says nwi.com in a recent article “Estate Planning: Do Powers of Attorney lapse?”

A POA (Power of Attorney) is a document that authorizes another person to act on behalf of the person making or signing the document. The person named in a POA is also referred to as the Attorney-in-Fact. Some POAs grant a wide range of authority while others are limited to a specific action. An estate planning attorney can create a POA that suits a person’s particular needs which is far better than a generic document that may not be accepted because it is too broad.

Durable Powers of Attorney don’t usually exist for a set period of time. There are also limited or special POAs that have a date or a time frame and at the end of that time frame or upon that date they terminate. It’s important to note that all POAs terminate upon the death of the maker or principal. The only power that can survive after the death of the maker is the authority to dispose of the maker’s remains, and that varies by state.

A POA can also be terminated at any time by the principal. This termination should be in writing and it can be terminated by revoking the POA within the terms of a new POA or by execution of a revocation. Either way, the person should notify the AIF  that they no longer have the authority to act under the revoked POA, and any entity who may have a copy of the revoked POA should be notified that it is no longer valid.  A qualified estate planning attorney in your state will know what rules apply in your area.

The AIF serves because the principal has chosen them, and if that changes, they are removed from their responsibilities as long as the principal is competent.

Estate planning attorneys are concerned less with the date of the POA as they are with the simple fact that banks and other financial institutions are reluctant to accept POAs that were created many years ago. In that case, usually an affidavit affirming that the document is still valid and the AIF has the authority to act under it is enough.

However, it is recommended that when you have your estate plan reviewed every three or four years, you also have your estate planning attorney update the Power of Attorney. This way there is less of a chance that a bank or other institution will balk at the document. The same goes for your health care proxy, also known as a Health Care Power of Attorney.

Reference: nwi.com (November 3, 2019) “Estate Planning: Do Powers of Attorney lapse?”

 

Be Prepared: Death Happens when We’re Not Looking

There are hard topics like sickness and death, that estate planning prepares for. Then there’s the unexpected, says Wicked Local Dedham in the article “Five Things to consider before getting hit by the bus.” Without an estate plan in place families have to cope with the pain of a sudden loss in addition to managing a funeral and estate minus any advance planning. It makes a bad situation worse.

The solution is relatively simple: have an estate plan and a “just in case” plan ready.

Access to money for expenses. If your family needed to get funds to pay bills and funeral expenses, how would they do that? If you don’t have close family nearby who you can count on, who will take care of these things for you? Note that today, when most banking statements and billing payments are done online, you’ll also need to have a list of online accounts and either name someone to manage your digital property or list your passwords. Plan for how someone you trust, will access this information.

Life insurance and other assets with beneficiaries. If you have one or more life insurance policies, does anyone but you know about them? Do your beneficiaries know that they are your beneficiaries? If your employer or former employer offers life insurance, disability insurance or any other benefits, make sure that someone else besides you knows about them. If you receive a pension, does your pension get transferred to your spouse, or do the payments stop when you die? Do you know what your Social Security benefits would be to a surviving spouse, or family members?

End-of-life medical decisions. If you don’t have an Advance Directive in place, it’s time to speak with an estate planning attorney and add this to your estate plan. If you don’t have a will, Health Care Power of Attorney or other documents prepared, now would be the time to get these plans in place.

You should have a named Health Care Agent, named in your Health Care Power of Attorney, who understands your wishes for end-of-life care, if you should suffer a stroke, be critically injured in an accident or experience an illness that leaves you incapacitated. These conversations are not just for you but for your loved ones. It will give them peace of mind to know that they are following your wishes, if a hard decision like removing you from life support needs to be made.

Final arrangements. Does anyone know your wishes for burial or cremation? Do you want a traditional funeral or a memorial service? Who should be notified of your passing? Making this information available for those who will be in charge, is a kindness to them. If they need to get names and emails from your computer, make sure they know how to log into your system. You could also print out a list and tell them where you are placing it.

Last will and testament. The first question is, do you have a will? The second is, does your family know where it is located? Tell your family and the person you have selected as the executor about the existence of your will, where it can be found and where other important documents are located. If you haven’t had your will created or haven’t reviewed your will in three or four years, it’s time. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney and have this document prepared.

Death does not come without a lot of paperwork. For some people, a bad health diagnosis serves as a wake-up call and that’s when they decide to put their affairs in order. For others, the death of a close family member or friend is the trigger. Whatever motivates you, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan created.

Reference: Wicked Local Dedham (Oct. 10, 2019) “Five Things to consider before getting hit by the bus.”

 

Why A Health Care Power of Attorney Makes Sense

Having a Health Care Power of Attorney (Health Care Proxy) in place before it is needed, is one of the best ideas of estate planning, along with having a Durable Power of Attorney in place before it is needed. Why? This is because taking a pro-active approach to both of these documents means that when the unexpected occurs and that is exactly how things occur—unexpectedly—the person or persons you have named for these important roles will be able to step in quickly and made decisions.

Time is often of the essence, when these documents are needed.

According to the article “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney” from The News Enterprise, a health care power of attorney or health care proxy is a document that grants another person the power to make medical decisions for you, when you no longer have the ability to make those decisions for yourself. It is known by a few other names, depending on the state where you live: a medical power of attorney or a health care surrogate.

It needs to have HIPAA-compliant language, which will allow the person you name the ability to review medical information and discuss protected health information with your health care providers.

A health care power of attorney may also include language for an advance medical directive which gives instructions for end-of-life decisions. This is often called a “living will,” and is your legal right to reject medical treatment, decisions about feeding tubes and the number of doctors required to determine the probability of recovery and pain management.

A health care power of attorney does not generally empower another person to make decisions until you are unable to do so. Unlike a general durable power of attorney which permits another person to make financial or business decisions with you while you are living, as long as you are able to understand your medical situation, you are still in charge of your medical decisions.

A guardianship is completely different from these documents. A guardian may only be appointed if a judge or jury finds you wholly or partially disabled in such a way that you cannot manage your own finances or your health. The appointment of a guardian is a big deal. Once someone has been appointed your guardian, you do not have any legal right to make decisions for yourself.  A court will also appoint a legal fiduciary, who will make your financial decisions.

There are record-keeping requirements with a guardianship that do not exist for a power of attorney. The court-appointed representative is responsible for reporting to the court any actions that they have taken on your behalf.

To have power of attorney documents executed, the person must be capable of understanding what they are signing. This means that someone receiving a diagnosis of dementia needs to have these documents prepared as soon as they learn that their capacity will diminish in the near future.

If the documents are not prepared and executed in a timely fashion, a guardianship proceeding may be the only option. Planning in advance is the best way to ensure that the people you trust are the ones making decisions for you. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney now to have these documents in place.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Oct. 13, 2019) “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney”

 

Why It’s Always Better to Plan Ahead
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Why It’s Always Better to Plan Ahead

Two stories of two people who managed their personal lives very differently illustrate the enormous difference that can happen for those who refuse to prepare themselves and their families for the events that often accompany aging. As an article from Sedona Red Rock News titled “Plan ahead in case of sudden sickness or death” makes clear, the value of advance planning becomes very clear. One man, let’s call him Ben, has been married for 47 years and he’s always overseen the family finances. He has a stroke and can’t walk or talk. His wife Shirley is overwhelmed with worry about her husband’s illness. Making matters worse, she doesn’t know what bills need to be paid or when they are due.

On the other side of town is Louise. At 80, she fell in her own kitchen and broke her hip, a common injury for the elderly. After a week in the hospital, she spent two months in a rehabilitation nursing home. Her son lives on the other side of the country, but he was able to pay her bills and handle all the Medicare issues. Several years ago, Louise and her son had planned what he should do in case she had a health crisis.

More good planning on Louise’s part: all her important papers were organized and put into one place, and she told her son where they could be found. She also shared with him the name of her attorney, a list of people to contact at her bank, primary physician’s office, financial advisor, and insurance agent. She also made sure her son had copies of her Medicare and any other health insurance information. She made sure to have a legal document prepared so her son could talk with her doctors about her health and any health insurance matters.

And then there’s Ben. He always handled everything and wouldn’t let anyone else get involved. Only Ben knew the whereabouts of his life insurance policy, the title to his car, and the deed to the house. Ben never expected that someone else would need to know these things. Shirley has a tough job ahead of her. There are many steps involved in getting ready for an emergency, but as you can see, this is a necessary task to start and finish.

First, gather up all your important information. That includes your full legal name, Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce papers, citizenship or adoption papers, information on employers, any military service information, phone numbers for close friends, relatives, doctors, estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, and any other professionals.

Your will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, living will and any directives should be stored in a secure location. Make sure at least two people know where they are located. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out if they will store any documents on your behalf.

Financial records should be organized. That includes all your insurance policies, bank accounts, investment accounts, 401(k), or other retirement accounts, copies of the most recent tax returns, and any other information about your financial life.

Advance planning does take time, but not planning will create havoc for your family during a difficult time.

Reference: Sedona Red Rock News (July 9, 2019) “Plan ahead in case of sudden sickness or death”

 

Avoiding a Family Feud When Choosing a Power of Attorney

The challenge in tasking a family member or trusted friend is not just making sure they have the necessary skills, but to navigate family dynamics so that no fights occur says Considerable.com in the article “How to assign power of attorney without sparking a family feud.” Every family situation is different, but in almost all cases, transparency is the best bet.

Start by understanding exactly what is meant by power of attorney, how it functions within the estate plan, and how siblings can all be involved to some degree with the family’s decision-making process.

Power of attorney is a term that gives an individual, or sometimes, individuals, the legal authority to act on behalf of someone else. It is usually used when a person, usually a parent or a spouse, is unable to make decisions for themselves because of illness or injury. It must be noted that power of attorney relates to financial and legal decisions. There are methods to address making decisions for another person for their health care or end-of-life decisions, but they are not accomplished by the power of attorney (POA).

It should be noted that there is a distinct difference between power of attorney and executor of the estate. Power of attorney is in effect while the person who has granted the authority is alive, but unable to act on their own behalf. The executor of the estate assumes responsibility for managing the estate through the probate process. While they are two different roles, they are often held by the same person, usually an adult child who is responsible and has good decision-making skills.

There are different types of power of attorney roles. The most common is the general power of attorney, followed by the health care. The general power of attorney refers to the person who has the authority to handle financial, business or private affairs. If a parent grants power of attorney to one of their children, that child then has the authority to act on behalf of the parent.

Trouble starts if the relationship between siblings is rocky, or if major decisions are made without discussions with siblings.

It’s not easy for siblings when one of them has been granted the power of attorney. That means they must accept the inherent authority of the chosen sibling to make all decisions for their parent. The sibling with the power of authority will have a smoother path if they can be sensitive to how this makes the others feel.

“Mom always liked you best,” is not a sentence that should come from a 50 year old, but often childhood dynamics can reappear during these times.

Remember that the power of attorney is also a fiduciary obligation, meaning that the person who holds it is required to act in the best interest of the parent and not their own. If the relationship between siblings is not good, or there’s no transparency when decisions are made, things can get bumpy.

Here are some tips for parents to bear in mind when deciding who should be their power of attorney:

  • Understand the great power that is being given to another person.
  • Make sure the person who is to be named POA understands the entire range of responsibilities they will have.
  • The siblings who have not been named will need to understand and respect the arrangement. They should also be aware of the potential for problems, keeping their eyes open and being watchful without being suspicious.

Parents should discuss these appointments with their estate planning attorney. Their years of experience in navigating family issues and dynamics give the attorneys insights that will be helpful with assigning these important tasks.

Reference: Considerable.com (July 10, 2019) “How to assign power of attorney without sparking a family feud”

 

A Will, Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney: Three Documents Everyone Should Have

These three documents combined allow you to designate who you want to be responsible for your well- being, if you are unable to communicate to others on your own behalf and name who you want to receive your property. Having a will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney are the foundation of an estate plan and peace of mind, says the article “Simple steps to peace of mind” from the Traverse City Record Eagle.

If you die without a will, your state has a plan in place for you. However, you, or more correctly, your family, probably won’t like it. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of inheritance, and people who you may not know or haven’t spoken to in years may end up inheriting your estate.

If your fate is to become incapacitated and you don’t have an estate plan, your family faces an entirely new set of challenges. Here’s what happened to one family:

A son contacted the financial advisor who had worked with the family for many years. He asked if the advisor had a power of attorney for his father. His mother had passed away two years ago, and his father had Alzheimer’s and wasn’t able to communicate or make decisions on his own behalf.

Five years ago, the financial advisor had recommended an estate planning attorney to the couple. The son called the attorney’s office and learned that his parents did make an appointment and met with the attorney about having these three documents created. However, they never moved forward with an estate plan.

The son had tried to talk with his parents over the years, but his father refused to discuss anything.

The son now had to hire that very same attorney to represent him in front of the probate court to be appointed as his father’s guardian and conservator. The son was appointed, but the court could just have easily appointed a complete stranger to these roles.

The son now has the power to help his father, but he will also have to report to the probate court every year to prove that his father’s well-being and finances are being handled properly. Having a will, power of attorney and medical power of attorney would have made this situation much easier for the family.

Guardianship is concerned with the person and his or her well-being. Conservatorship means a person has control over an individual’s financial matters and can make all decisions about property and assets.

There is a key difference between powers of attorney and conservatorship and guardianship. The person gets to name who they wish to have power of attorney. It’s someone who knows them, who they trust and they make the decision. With conservator and guardianship, it’s possible that someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know your family, holds all your legal rights.

A far better alternative is simply to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and have him create these three documents and whatever planning tools your situation calls for. Start by giving some thought to who you would want to be in charge of your life and your money, if you should become unable to manage your life by yourself. Then consider who you would want to have your various assets when you die. Take your notes with you to a meeting with an estate planning attorney, who will know what documents you need. Make sure to complete the process: signing all the completed documents, funding any trusts, retitling any accounts and finally, making sure your family knows where your documents are. This is a road to peace of mind, for you and your family.

Reference: Traverse City Record Eagle (June 23, 2019) “Simple steps to peace of mind”

 

Communicate Your Wishes and Have the Documents in Place

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”