Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

 

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

 

What Do I Need to Know about Estate Planning?

Your idea of planning for the future may include vacations and visits to family and friends—estate planning, not so much. However, it should, advises Real Simple in the article “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now.” Estate planning concerns decisions about distributing your property when you die, and while that’s not as much fun as planning a trip to an adventure park, it’s become increasing important for adults of all ages.

A survey by caring.com found that the number of young adults with a last will (ages 18-34) increased by 63 percent since 2020. Many tough lessons were learned through the pandemic, and the importance of having an estate plan was one of them.

An estate plan is more than documents for when you die. There are also documents for what should happen, if you become disabled. The last will is one piece of the larger estate plan. An estate plan is also an opportunity to plan for wealth accumulation and building generational wealth, at any level.

Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of their net worth. People with lower incomes actually need estate planning more than the wealthy. There’s less room for error. Estate planning is everything from where you want your money to go, to who will be in charge of it and who will be in charge of your minor children, if you have a young family.

It may be rare for both parents to die at the same time, but it does happen. Your last will is also used to name a guardian to raise your minor children. With no last will, the court will decide who raises them.

If you’ve filled out 401(k) and life insurance paperwork at work, you’ve started estate planning already. Any document that asks you to name a beneficiary in case of your death is part of your estate plan. Be certain to update these documents. Young adults often name their parents and then neglect to change the beneficiaries, when they get married or have children.

For single people, estate planning is more important. If you have no estate plan and no children, everything you own will go to your parents. What if you have a partner or best friend and want them to receive your assets? Without an estate plan, they have no legal rights. An estate planning attorney will know how to plan, so your wishes are followed.

Estate planning includes planning for disability, also known as “incapacity.” If you become too sick to manage your affairs, bills still need to be paid. Who can do that for you? Without an estate plan, a family member will need to go to court to be assigned that role—or someone you don’t even know may be assigned that role. Your last will names an executor to manage your affairs after you die.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your last will, Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney and other parts of your estate plan created. The court system and processes are complex, and the laws are different in every state. Trying to do it yourself or using a template that you download, could leave you with an invalid last will, which will cause more problems than it solves.

Reference: Real Simple (May 12, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now”

 

Can a Person with Alzheimer’s Sign Legal Documents?

If a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia, it is necessary to address legal and financial issues as soon as possible. The person’s ability to sign documents and take other actions to protect themselves and their assets will be limited as the disease progresses, so there’s no time to wait. This recent article “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s” from Statesville Record & Landmark explains the steps to take.

Watch for Unusual Financial Activity

Someone who has been sensible about money for most of his life may start to behave differently with his finances. This is often an early sign of cognitive decline. If bills are piling up, or unusual purchases are being made, you may need to prepare to take over his finances. It should be noted that unusual financial activity can also be a sign of elder financial abuse.

Designate a Power of Attorney

The best time to designate a person to take care of finances is before she shows signs of dementia. It’s not an easy conversation, but it is very important. Someone needs to be identified who can be trusted to manage day-to-day money matters, who can sign checks, pay bills and supervise finances. If possible, it may be easier if the POA gradually eases into the role, only taking full control when the person with dementia can no longer manage on her own.

An individual needs to be legally competent to complete or update legal documents including wills, trusts, an advanced health care directive and other estate planning documents. Once such individual is not legally competent, the court must be petitioned to name a family member as a guardian, or a guardian will be appointed by the court. It is far easier for the family and the individual to have this handled by an estate planning attorney in advance of incompetency.

An often-overlooked detail in cases of Alzheimer’s is the beneficiary designations on retirement, financial and life insurance policies. Check with an estate planning attorney for help, if there is any question that changes may be challenged by the financial institution or by heirs.

Cost of Care and How It Will Be Paid

At a certain point, people with dementia cannot live on their own. Even those who love them cannot care for them safely. Determining how care will be provided, which nursing facility has the correct resources for a person with cognitive illness and how to pay for this care, must be addressed. An elder law estate planning attorney can help the family navigate through the process, including helping to protect family assets through the use of trusts and other planning strategies.

If the family has a strong history of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive diseases, it makes sense to do this sort of preparation far in advance. The sooner it can be addressed, even long before dementia symptoms appear, the better the outcome will be.

Reference: Statesville Record & Landmark (April 11, 2021) “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s”

 

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?

Spouses and partners chosen by adult children often lead to estate planning challenges. In one case, a parent worries that a second husband may be a poor influence and wants to revoke the power of attorney originally granted to a daughter. How to do that legally and without any hurt feelings is examined in the article Estate Planning: Revoking a power of attorney” from nwi.com.

A Power of Attorney is a document that allows another person to act on your behalf. The person designated is referred to as the “Attorney in Fact” or the “Agent.”

The problem this family faces, is that any revocation of a POA must be in writing, must identify the person who is to be revoked as the POA and must be signed by the person who is revoking the POA. Here’s where the hurt feelings come in: the revocation is not legal, until and unless the agent has actual knowledge of the revocation. You can’t slip off to your estate planning lawyer’s office, revoke the POA and hope the family member will never know.

Another way to revoke a POA is to execute a new one. In most states, most durable POAs include a provision that the new POA revokes any prior POAs. By executing a new POA that revokes the prior ones, you have a valid revocation that is in writing and signed by the principal.  However, a daughter who is duly appointed must be notified. If she is currently acting under the POA and has a copy of it, there’s no way to avoid her learning of the parent’s decision.  If, however, the daughter has never seen a copy of the POA and she is not currently acting on it, then you may be able to make a new POA without notifying her. However, it may create a sticky situation in the future. Notification may be your only option.

If the POA has been recorded for any reason, the revocation must reference the book, page and instrument number assigned by the recorder’s office and be recorded. If the POA has been provided to any individuals or financial institutions, such as banks, life insurance companies, financial advisors, etc., they will need to be properly notified that it has been revoked or replaced.

Two cautions: not telling the daughter and having her find out after the parent has passed or is incapacitated might be a painful blow, with no resolution. Telling the daughter while the parent can discuss the change may be challenging but reaching an understanding will at least be possible. A diplomatic approach is best: the parent wishes to adjust her estate plan and the attorney made some recommendations, this revocation among them, should suffice.

Not revoking the power of attorney correctly could also lead to an estate planning disaster, with the daughter challenging whoever was named as the POA without her knowledge.

Talk with your estate planning lawyer to ensure that the POA is changed properly and that all POAs have been updated.

Reference: nwi.com (March 7, 2021) “Estate Planning: Revoking a power of attorney”

 

It Is Important to have a Digital Estate Plan

Just as you organize your physical possessions and financial accounts, you need to organize and plan for your digital estate. Otherwise, according to the recent article “Why You Need a Digital Estate Plan and How to Make One” from Next Avenue, you will leave a giant mess for your family.

Nearly 50 states have already passed laws that give a person’s family or their executor the right to access and manage some of their digital assets after they die. However, if the digital platform does not allow an executor or anyone to access and manage accounts, the problem will not be easily resolved.

Facebook has created a “Legacy Contact” and Google has an “Inactive Account Manager,” but they only work if you take the time to go through the process in advance. Sharing passwords and instructions or setting up an online password manager may or may not solve the problem for the 200 other accounts. Why?

Increasing security means that many accounts require confirmation codes, typically sent to a mobile phone or email address, before an account may be accessed. If the phone or email is locked, then access will be impossible. Two-factor authentication makes it harder for digital criminals to access your accounts, but it also makes it difficult for heirs and executors. Some people have taken a step into the future to have their accounts opened via facial recognition. How then do you access accounts?  Not all digital accounts and services have the same requirements for access.

Here is a way to think about your digital estate: what is the level of importance for each account? If it were deleted and all contents removed, how would it impact your life? Is it a “single sign on,” where credentials are needed to log into other accounts? Are there payment methods attached to the account, like automatic withdrawals or credit cards?

Many accounts may be dormant, like an old email address you stopped using ten years ago. However, what about the important accounts that are central to the business of your life, like checking and savings accounts, or personal email?

Tech giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have made their way into many aspects of our lives. If you have a library of Ebooks, or an online gaming presence with digital assets, would you wish to maintain those assets? Think about all the auto payment accounts that you have—and how much money your estate would lose if those accounts could not be shut down.

Once you have identified all of your important accounts, examine them one by one to see what if they have a legacy process. Then start thinking about what you would like to happen to the accounts and their contents, in case of your incapacity or death. Having a digital estate plan today is not futuristic at all—it’s how we live, and our estate plans should be updated accordingly.

Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are for digital assets, just as they do for more traditional assets.  Last word: do not include your usernames or passwords in your will. A will becomes a public document upon probate, and this information must be protected from identity thieves if the accounts are to remain secure.

Reference: Next Avenue (Jan. 1, 2021) “Why You Need a Digital Estate Plan and How to Make One”

 

The Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them “”

Heirs who are prepared to inherit wealth, with families who talk about wealth and have an estate plan, will do better than those who do not, says the West Haven Observer’s recent article “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid.” A constantly changing legal and tax environment presents significant challenges, but a few simple steps may save your beneficiaries from the expense and stress of these common estate planning mistakes.

  1. Not designating beneficiaries properly. This is one of the most common mistakes, and one that cannot always be fixed. It’s easy to forget whose name you put on a pension or life insurance plan thirty years ago. However, failing to check those beneficiaries, especially if your life has undergone big changes, can lead to the wrong people enjoying the proceeds.

Using beneficiary designations is an excellent way to bypass the process of probate, since assets that pass this way are not subject to probate. Depending upon where you live, probate can be a long, drawn out process. A beneficiary designation is far simpler and more efficient.

Failing to name a beneficiary when setting up bank accounts, opening CDs, and savings accounts is a common error. This can be fixed by making these accounts “TOD,” or Transfer on Death, and the account goes directly to your beneficiary.

Your will does not control any beneficiary designations. That’s why this step is so important.

2-Designating a minor as a beneficiary. You love your grandchildren, but unless they are adults, they cannot inherit assets until they are 18 or 21, depending on the laws of your state. If a minor does receive an asset, the court appoints a guardian to supervise and manage the assets. Your estate planning attorney will advise you on your individual situation, but one alternative is to list a guardian for the minor child inside the will, so the court appoints the person who you choose to manage the property until the child becomes of age.

Another means of providing for young children or grandchildren is to create a trust. The trust names a trustee who is usually a trusted friend or relative who is knowledgeable and responsible. They manage the assets on behalf of the child. The trust also permits assets to pass without probate.

3-Failing to fund a trust. All too often, this is the weak link that breaks the estate. Placing assets within the trust is called funding. Usually this means changing the ownership of bank accounts or real estate from being owned by an individual to being owned by the trust. If the trust is not funded and the will has instructions that seemingly contradict the trust, the asset will need to go through probate and the trust instructions will be ignored.

4-Leaving a tax nightmare for heirs. One of the many advantages of passing on real estate or other assets that appreciate that beneficiaries get a “step up” in basis. That means the heirs are not responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets. This can be a very big benefit. There are exceptions—inherited IRAs and 401(k)s don’t have this advantage. However, the recent passage of the SECURE Act has taken away many tax benefits for IRA heirs. Most non-spouse beneficiaries must fully withdraw the entire amount from the IRA or 401(k) within ten years, and the withdrawal is considered ordinary income. It could leave your heirs with a huge, unexpected tax bill.

There is a workaround. By converting some or perhaps all of your retirement accounts to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, you can pay the taxes when converting the IRA to a Roth IRA at your current tax rate, which may be lower than your children or grandchildren’s rate. When you die, any money in the Roth IRA goes to heirs completely tax free.

5-The biggest mistake of all is not having an estate plan. Thinking about your legacy plan, mortality and incapacity is not fun for anyone. However, by spending the time and resources in creating an estate plan, you spare your loved ones from an inordinate amount of stress and expenses, which they will appreciate. One of the best gifts you can give your loved ones is a well-thought out, properly created and executed estate plan. Contact and experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: West Haven Observer (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

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Good Planning for Life Is Also Good Planning for a Pandemic

The fear of the unknown and a sense of loss of control is sending many people to estate planning attorney’s offices to have wills, advance directives and other documents prepared, reports the article “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for” from The Press-Enterprise.

However, people are not just planning because they are worried about becoming incapacitated or dying because of COVID. High net-worth people are also planning because they are concerned about the changes the election may bring, changes to what are now historically advantageous estate tax laws and planning to take advantage of tax laws, as they stand pre-December 31, 2020.

Regardless of your income or assets, it is always good to take control of your future and protect yourself and your family, by having an up-to-date estate plan in place. Anyone who is over age 18 needs the following:

  • Health Care Directive
  • Power of Attorney
  • HIPPA Release Form
  • Last Will and Testament

Any assets without beneficiary designations should be considered for a trust, depending upon your overall estate. Trusts can be used to take assets out of a taxable estate, establish control over how the assets are distributed and to avoid probate. You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of trusts.

Preparing estate planning documents in a last-minute rush, is always a terrible idea.

If you have more free time during the pandemic, consider using some of your free time to have your estate plan implemented or updated. This should be a top priority. The state of the world right now has all of us thinking more about our mortality, our values and the legacy we want to leave behind. Most estate planning attorneys encourage clients to think about the next three to five years. What would be important to you, if something were to happen in that time frame?

Estate planning is about more than distributing assets upon death. It addresses incapacity—what would happen if you became too ill or injured to care for yourself? Who would make medical decisions for you, such as what kind of medical care would you want, who will your doctors be and where will you live in the short-term and long-term? Incapacity planning is a big part of an estate plan.

When naming people to care for you in the event of incapacity, provide your estate planning attorney with three names, in case your first or second choices are not able to act on your behalf. Most people name their spouse, but what if you were both in an accident and could not help each other?

In recent months, Advance Health Care Directives have received a lot of attention, but they are not just about ventilator use and intubation. An Advance Health Care Directive is used to state your preferences concerning life-sustaining treatment, pain relief and organ donation. The agent named in your health care directive is also the person who will carry out post-death wishes, so provide as many details as you can about your wishes for cremation, burial, religious services, etc.

Trusts are a way to preserve a family legacy. A living trust gives you the ability to decide who you want involved, in case of your death or incapacity. You decide on your beneficiaries, and if you want your assets going directly to those beneficiaries or if they should be held in trust until certain goals are met, like finishing college or reaching a certain age or life milestone.

Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify family legacy goals, whether they include a beneficiary with special needs, a supplement for children who go into public service careers, etc.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Oct. 18, 2020) “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for”

 

The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome

There are two different types of advance directives and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people don’t even understand what these documents do which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It’s also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person won’t do this, you need to consider another person.  Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

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