When Do We Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Kiplinger’s article “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice” explains that this is when a lot of panicked calls are made to elder law attorneys. These attorneys specialize in planning for the legal complications that can arise in old age. However, seldom do people think to consult one preemptively to avoid making that panicked phone call in the first place.

Elder care lawyers work in the best interests of the older person, although how that is accomplished may differ. If the senior is competent and contacts the attorney it can be fairly straightforward. However, if an adult family member or friend is an agent or has power of attorney for an elderly person—and asks for help, the attorney is representing the agent. In any event, anyone who has power of attorney has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the elderly person granting them that authority.

If a power of attorney isn’t in place and the elderly parent is incapable of giving it, the family is required to go to court to have someone appointed as a guardian which can be a time-consuming option. If a parent is cognitively capable and doesn’t want help there’s nothing an attorney can do about it.

Although state laws vary, elder law primarily concerns these topics:

  • The client’s wishes and health
  • Family dynamics; and
  • The client’s financial assets and income.

An elder care attorney will also make sure that all important documents are in place and up-to-date according to state laws. This may include a will, a trust, a power of attorney and an advance directive that includes a health care proxy.

Elder law attorneys also help moderate tough decisions, like when family members can’t agree about how a loved one wanted to be buried.  In addition, elder care lawyers understand the complex laws for Medicaid and VA benefits. An elder care lawyer can speak to many other issues ranging from long-term care insurance to capital gains taxes.

A key when meeting with an elder law attorney is that you feel comfortable, that you’re not rushed and that your questions are answered.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 15, 2020) “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice”

 

What are Power of Attorney Options?

FedWeek’s recent article entitled The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney” explains that a power of attorney designates someone else to handle your affairs, if you can’t.

Here are the major types:

  • Limited power of attorney. This allows an agent to act on your behalf under specific circumstances like a home sale closing that you can’t attend and/or for a defined period of time.
  • General power of attorney. Gives broad authority to your agent, who at any time can write checks to pay your bills, sign contracts on your behalf and take distributions from your IRA.
  • Springing power of attorney. This isn’t effective when you execute it, but rather “springs” into effect upon certain circumstances, such as your becoming incompetent. You can say in the document what’s needed to verify your incompetency, like letters from two physicians stating that you no longer can manage your own affairs.

A power of attorney is important because your agent can act if you become incapacitated. To serve this purpose, a power should be “durable,” so it will remain in effect if you become incompetent. Other powers of attorney may not be recognized if a judge determines that you no longer can manage your affairs.

Without a power of attorney your family may have to ask a judge to name a guardian to act in your best interests. A guardianship proceeding can be expensive and contentious. You might also wind up with an unwelcome interloper managing your finances. To avoid this situation, designate a person you trust as agent on your durable power.

A health care power of attorney (“HCP”), also known as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, should be a component of a complete estate plan. This document names a trusted agent to make decisions about your medical treatment, if you become unable to do so. The person you name in your health care power doesn’t have to be the same person that you name as agent for a “regular” power of attorney (the POA that affects your finances).

For your health care power, chose a person in your family who is a medical professional or someone you trust to see that you get all necessary care.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to explain these types of powers or if you have estate planning questions.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 26, 2020) “The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney”

 

What Does My Estate Plan Look Like after Divorce?

Planning an estate after a divorce involves adopting a different type of arithmetic. Without a spouse to anchor an estate plan, the executors, trustees, guardians or agents under a power of attorney and health care proxies will have to be chosen from a more diverse pool of those that are connected to you.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce” explains that beneficiary forms tied to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) and life insurance will need to be updated to show the dissolution of the marriage.

There are usually estate planning terms that are included in agreements created during the separation and divorce. These may call for the removal of both spouses from each other’s estate planning documents and retirement accounts. For example, in New York, bequests to an ex-spouse in a will prepared during the marriage are voided after the divorce. Even though the old will is still valid, a new will has the benefit of realigning the estate assets with the intended recipients.

Any trust created while married is treated differently. Revocable trusts can be revoked and the assets held by those trusts can be part of the divorce. Irrevocable trusts involving marital property are less likely to be dissolved and after the death of the grantor, distributions may be made to an ex-spouse as directed by the trust.

A big task in the post-divorce estate planning process is changing beneficiaries. Ask for a change of beneficiary forms for all retirement accounts. Without a stipulation in the divorce decree ending their interest, an ex-spouse still listed as beneficiary of an IRA or life insurance policy may still receive the proceeds at your death.

Divorce makes children assume responsibility at an earlier age. Adult children in their 20s or early 30s typically assume the place of the ex-spouse as fiduciaries and health care proxies, as well as agents under powers of attorney, executors and trustees.  If the divorcing parents have minor children, they must choose a guardian in their wills to care for the children, in the event that both parents pass away.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the issues that are involved in estate planning after a divorce.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 7, 2020) “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce”

 

Are People Avoiding Estate Planning in the Pandemic?

A survey by Quest Research Group in the wake of COVID-19 wanted to see how prepared people would be if something were to happen to them. They asked 1,000 people how much planning they’d done in the past and if the pandemic encouraged them to start planning now.

Forbes’ June article entitled “The Three Reasons People Avoid Estate Planning” says that with all the uncertainty in the world, the study reveals that people are taking action even though it’s something people typically try to avoid. Why do people avoid it? The article narrows it down to the three most common excuses:

  • I’m much too busy. I can barely keep up with my life as it is.
  • It’s complicated and/or expensive.
  • I’m just too superstitious. I’ll just jinx my life by thinking about death.

All of these excuses are followed by a sentiment such as “I know it’s something I should do” and “I’ll get around to it one day.” No matter how it’s said, people just don’t feel that it is urgent.

First, are those who are superstitious and think doing this somehow curse their life. However, people buy car seats for their children, and no one refuses to buy a car seat because they think it would make them more susceptible to an accident. Instead, you buy one, because you’re a responsible adult who cares for your child.  The other two excuses are similar, because when people say that planning is a time consuming or expensive task, they’re automatically too busy or frugal to even consider taking on such a task. Then we do all that we can to procrastinate.

To address these excuses, here are some things you can do right now at little or no expense that can help your family, if there’s an emergency. It will also make you feel more responsible for your life in the same way parents do when they purchase car seats.

Password Sharing. Passwords are the keys to modern estate planning. To have access to your accounts in the event of an emergency, someone you trust should have access to your passwords. There are password managers, like Dashlane or LastPass, which coordinate all your passwords, so you only have to remember one. You can later share it.

Draft a Medical Directive. This document instructs your family what you want done in a medical emergency (Living Will) and who should speak on your behalf, if you’re unable to communicate (Health Care Proxy). These make up an Advance Directive.

Create a Will and a Power of Attorney. A will is the document that instructs your executor how to distribute your assets. A will also names a guardian for any minor children. A Power of Attorney (POA) is like a Health Care Proxy for your money and lets an agent make financial and legal decisions on your behalf when you are unable.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you create these to avoid any issues down the road.

Reference: Forbes (June 24, 2020) “The Three Reasons People Avoid Estate Planning”

 

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”

 

What Is a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney is a legal document that permits an agent or attorney-in-fact to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

WTOP’s recent article “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney” says that the rules for designating power of attorney vary from state to state. Because of this, you should speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your state’s laws.

Power of attorney is revocable. Therefore, if you’re mentally competent and believe you can no longer count on the person you designated as your agent, you can update your documents and select another person.

The individual you choose as your attorney-in-fact will depend to a large extent on the type of power you’re granting — whether it’s general or limited — and your relationship. For general power of attorney, people often go with their spouses or sometimes their children. However, you can choose anyone, as long as it’s someone you trust.

In many cases, designating general power of attorney is a component of a larger estate plan, so when you talk to your estate planning lawyer about your estate plan, you can add this to the conversation.

You may want to have your attorney draft a limited or special power of attorney. This lets your agent complete restricted transactions, like selling a piece of property. It’s limited in scope. In contrast, a general power of attorney lets your agent do about anything you could do. A general power of attorney is usually part of an estate plan, in the event you’re unable to handle your own financial matters as you age or become incapacitated.

A springing power of attorney goes into effect in a predetermined situation, and it will specify the circumstances under which the power takes effect. An immediately effective or non-springing power of attorney is in place once the paperwork is signed.

Powers of attorney typically end when the principal is unable to make decisions on his or her own. However, for some, becoming incapacitated is just the type of circumstances when they want someone they trust to have power of attorney.

A durable power of attorney continues after the individual is incapacitated. Therefore, if you’re unable to make financial or medical decisions on your own after an accident or illness, the POA will remain in effect.

You are generally also able to name a medical power of attorney. That’s a person who knows your wishes and can make health care decisions for you as a proxy. It’s also known as a health care proxy. If you can’t make decisions on your own, the health care proxy kicks in. Your health care proxy should know your wishes, as far as how you’d like doctors to treat you, if you can’t make decisions on your own. This may also accompany a living will, which expresses your wishes on continuing life support, if you’re terminally ill or being kept alive by machines.

Reference: WTOP (May 21, 2020) “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney”

Requests for Estate Plans Reflect Fears about Coronavirus

Estate planning lawyers have always known that estate planning is not about “if,” but about “when.” The current health pandemic has given many people a wake-up call and estate plans  reflect fears about Coronavirus. They realize there’s no time to procrastinate, reports the article “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes” from InsuranceNews.net. Legal professionals urge everyone and not just the elderly or the wealthy to put their end-of-life plans in writing. The last time estate planning attorneys saw this type of surge was in 2012 when wealthy people were worried that Congress was about to lower the threshold of the estate tax. Today, everyone is worried.

Top priorities are creating a living will stating your wishes if you become incapacitated, designating a surrogate or a proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf, granting power of attorney to someone who can make legal and financial decisions and preparing advance directives, such as “Do Not Resuscitate” orders.

An estate plan including a last will and testament (and often trusts) that detail what you want to happen to assets and who will be guardian to minor children upon your death, spares your family the fights, legal costs and hours in court that can result when there is no estate plan.

The coronavirus has created a new problem for families. In the past, a health care surrogate would be in the hospital with you, talking to healthcare providers and making decisions on your behalf. However, now there are no visitors allowed in hospitals and patients are completely isolated. Estate planning attorneys are recommending that specific language be added to any end of life documents that authorize a surrogate to give instructions by phone, email or during an online conference.  Any prior documents that may have prohibited intubation need to be revised, since intubation is part of treatment for COVID-19 and not necessarily just an end-of-life stage.

Attorneys are finding ways to ensure that documents are properly witnessed and signed. In some states, remote signings are being permitted, while other states, Florida in particular, still require two in-person witnesses, when a will or other estate planning documents are being signed. There are many stories of people who have put off having their wills prepared, figuring out succession plans that usually take years to plan and people coming to terms with what they want to happen to their assets.

Equally concerning are seniors in nursing homes who have not reviewed their wills in many years and are not able to make changes now. Older adults and relatives are struggling with awkward and urgent circumstances, when they are confined to nursing homes or senior communities with no visitors.

Reference: InsuranceNews.net (April 3, 2020) “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes”

 

Preparing for the Inevitable: The Loss of a Spouse

Becoming a widow at a relatively young age, puts many people in a tough financial position, says the article “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse” from Next Avenue. At this point in their lives, they are too young to draw Social Security benefits. There is no best time, but this is a hard time to lose the prime breadwinner in the household.

Women are more likely than men to lose a spouse, and they are typically left in a worse financial position than if their spouse dies before they are old enough to take retirement benefits.

One of the best ways to plan for this event, is for both spouses to have life insurance. This can replace income, and term life insurance, if purchased early in life, can be relatively affordable. The earlier a policy is purchased, the better. This can become a safety net to pay bills and maintain a lifestyle.

Another key component for surviving early widowhood, is being sure that both members of the couple understand the couple’s finances, including how household bills are paid. Usually what happens is that one person takes over the finances, and the other is left hoping that things are being done properly. That also includes knowing the accounts, the log in and password information and what bills need to be paid at what dates.

Having that conversation with a spouse is not easy, but necessary. There are costs that you may not be aware of, without a thorough knowledge of how the household works. For instance, if the husband has done all of the repairs around the house, maintaining the yard and taking care of the cars, those tasks still need to be done. Either the widow will become proficient or will have to pay others.

Couples should work with an estate planning attorney and a financial advisor, as well as an accountant, to be sure that they are prepared for the unexpected. What survivor’s benefits might the surviving spouse be eligible to receive? If there are children at home age 16 or under, there may be Social Security benefits available for the child’s support.

Discuss what debt, if any, either spouse has taken on without the other’s knowledge. Any outstanding medical bills should also be discussed. The last thing a loved one should have to cope with when a spouse passes, is a tangle of debt. However, this often happens.

If the spouse was a veteran, the surviving spouse might be eligible for benefits from the Veterans Administration. Find out what information will be needed to apply for benefits.

Talk with your estate planning attorney to make sure that all proper documents have been prepared. This includes a last will and testament, power of attorney, health care proxy and any trusts.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 18, 2019) “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse”

Five Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

While it’s true that no estate is completely bulletproof, there are mistakes that people make that are big enough to walk through, while others are more like a slow drip, draining retirement finances in a slow but steady process. There are mistakes that can be easily avoided, reports Comstock Magazine in the article “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate.”

  1. Misunderstanding Estate Law. Some people are so thrown by the idea of an estate plan, that they can’t get past the word “estate.” You don’t need a mansion to have an estate. The term is actually used to refer to any and all property that a person owns. Even modest people need a plan to help beneficiaries avoid unnecessary costs and stress. Talk with an estate planning attorney to learn what your needs are, from a will to trusts. Make sure that this is the attorney’s key practice area. A real estate or personal injury attorney won’t have the same knowledge and experience.
  2. Getting Bad Advice. It takes a team to create a strong estate plan. That means an estate planning attorney, a financial advisor and an accountant. Be wary of firms that focus entirely on selling trusts. There’s definitely a role for trusts in estate plans, but there are many other tools that are needed. Buying an insurance policy or an annuity is not an estate plan.
  3. Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. Naming yourself as a sole trustee puts you and your estate in a precarious position. What if you develop Alzheimer’s or are injured in an accident? A trusted individual, a family member, a longstanding friend or even a professional trustee, needs to be named to protect your interests, if you should become incapacitated.
  4. Losing Track of Assets. Without a complete list of all assets, it’s nearly impossible for someone to know what you own and who your heirs may be. Some assets, including retirement funds, life insurance policies, or investment accounts, have named beneficiaries. Those people will inherit these assets, regardless of what is in your will. If your heirs can’t find the assets, they may be lost. If you don’t update your beneficiaries, they may go to unintended heirs—like ex-spouses.
  5. Deciding on Options Without Being Fully Informed. When it comes to estate planning, the natural tendency is to go with what we think is the right thing. However, unless you are an estate planning attorney, chances are you don’t know what the right thing is. For tax reasons, for instance, it may make sense to transfer assets, while you are still living. However, that might also be a terrible idea, if you choose the wrong person to hold your assets or don’t put them in the right kind of trust.

Estate planning is still a highly personal process that depends upon every person’s unique experience. Your family situation is different than anyone else’s. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan and help you to avoid the big, most commonly made mistakes.

Reference: Comstock Magazine (Dec. 2019) “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate”

Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet, just as so many Americans don’t have wills only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.  Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”