What Should Same-Sex Couples Know about Estate Planning?

Proper estate planning can help ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as intended in the event of a death or a serious illness, says Insurance Net News’ recent article entitled “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning.” Having a clearly stated plan in place can give clear instructions and potentially avoid any fights that otherwise might occur. For same-sex couples, this may be even more crucial.

Your estate plan should include a will or trust, beneficiary forms, powers of attorney, a living will and a letter of intent. It’s also smart to include a secure document with a list of your accounts, debts, assets and contact info for any key people involved in those accounts. This list should contain passwords for locked accounts and any other relevant information.

A will is a central component of an estate plan which ensures that your wishes are followed after you pass away. This alleviates your family from the responsibility of determining how to divide your property and takes the guessing and stress out of how to pass along belongings. A will or trust might also state the way in which to transfer your financial assets to your children. You should also make sure your beneficiary forms are up to date with your spouse for life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts.

For same-sex couples, it is particularly important to create a clear medical power of attorney and create a living will that states your medical directives, if you aren’t able to make those decisions on your own. If you aren’t married, this will give your partner the legal protection he or she needs to make those decisions. It is important for you to take time to have those conversations with your partner, so the plans and directives are clear. You can also draft a letter of intent, which is a written, personal note that can be included to help detail your wishes and provide reasoning for the decisions.

Protecting Your Minor Children. Name a legal guardian for them in your will, in the event both parents die. Same-sex couples must make sure that both parents have equal rights, especially in a case where one parent is the biological parent. If the surviving spouse or partner isn’t the biological parent and hasn’t legally adopted the children, don’t assume they’ll automatically be named guardian.  These laws vary from state to state.

Dissolve Old Unions. There could be challenges, if you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership before your marriage was legalized. Prior to the 2015 marriage equality ruling, some same-sex couples married in states where it was legal but resided in states where the marriage wasn’t recognized. If you and your partner broke up, but didn’t legally dissolve the union, it may still be legally binding. Moreover, some states converted civil unions and domestic partnerships to legal marriages, so you and a former partner could be legally married without knowing it. If a former union wasn’t with your current partner, make certain that you legally unbind yourself to avoid any future disputes on your estate.

Review Your Real Estate Documents. Check your real estate documents to confirm that both partners are listed and have equal rights to home ownership, especially if the home was purchased prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage or if you aren’t married. There are a few ways to split ownership of their property. This includes tenants in common, where both partners share ownership of the property, but allows each individual to leave their shares to another person in their will. There’s also joint tenants with rights to survivorship. This is when both partners are property owners but if one dies, the remaining partner retains sole ownership.

Estate planning can be a complex process, and same-sex couples may have more stress to make certain that they have a legally binding plan. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate planning process to put a solid plan to help provide peace of mind knowing your family is protected.

Reference: Insurance Net News (June 30, 2021) “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning”

 

What are My Best Estate Planning Moves?

Tickertape’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” explains that a common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate assets amount to less than the 2021 federal estate tax exemption of $11.7 million per individual.

But most of us can benefit from estate planning. This can help protect your assets for your heirs. Estate planning includes creating a last will or revocable living trust, making certain that you have the right beneficiaries, and creating a health care directive. Creating a solid estate plan can decrease the odds that your family will have to deal with a problematic probate and reduce the amount of money because of unneeded taxes.

Create a Will. A last will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you die. Plus, a last will should include information about who should act as guardians for minor children and care for any pets. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specific laws for probate to make sure you do it correctly.

Name Your Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations and make sure they’re up to date. When there’s a major life change, you should look at your beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance and retirement funds), update your last will, and make sure everything matches. This includes charities as well as individuals. There are estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of these will help if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly designated and assets aligned with your estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney About a Trust. A fully funded revocable living trust can be great tool to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid probate. There are many different types of trusts that can be used to provide a variety of benefits. Much depends on your situation, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Power of Attorney. Estate planning also includes documents in the event you become incapacitated. Signing a power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. Find a person you trust to handle these decisions and have an estate planning attorney prepare the legal documents to ensure that everything is correct.

Think About Giving Now. You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family. In 2021, you can give up to $15,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax. If you’re married, each spouse can give $15,000. When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you may claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Reference: Tickertape (June 25, 2021) “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy”

 

Do Singles Need Estate Planning?

Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans” tells us what might happen if you die intestate (without a last will and testament). In that case, your any assets without a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary or titled in a revocable living trust may be required to pass through the probate process. As a result, they’ll be distributed by the court, according to the state’s intestate succession laws.

Even if you don’t have children, you may have nephews or nieces, or even children of cousins or friends, to whom you’d like to leave some of your assets. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there’s no guarantee that these people will get what you wanted them to have. Therefore, if you want to leave something to family members or close friends, state this in your last will and testament.

However, you may also want to provide support to some charities. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with additional benefits. One such possibility is a charitable remainder trust. With this trust, you’d transfer appreciated assets, such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities, into an irrevocable trust. Your named trustee could then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you’d have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust.

Moreover, if you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will go to the charities that you’ve named.

A single person also should have as part of his or her estate planning, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy. A durable power of attorney allows you to designate an individual to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is really important, if you don’t have a spouse to step in.

If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy – also known as a health care surrogate or medical power of attorney – allows you to name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you are unable to do so yourself.

Estate planning can be complex, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 24, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

 

Does Estate Planning Vary by State?

Estate planning varies from state to state and understanding the difference could have a significant impact on whether your estate plan is valid. It is best to get this straight shortly after moving, says The National Law Review in the recent article “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida.”

It’s not just people from Michigan who move to Florida who need to have their estate plans reviewed, if they are snowbirds or making a full-time move—it’s anyone who moves to another state, from any state. However, Florida’s popularity makes it a good example to use.

Florida restricts who is permitted to serve as a Personal Representatives under a will. The personal representative, also known as an executor, must be a descendent or ancestor of the decedent, a spouse, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or descendant or ancestor of any such person or a Florida resident.

Florida doesn’t recognize “no contest” clauses in trusts or wills. It also does not recognize unwitnessed testamentary documents, which are handwritten documents even if they are in your own handwriting. Michigan may accept them, but Florida courts do not.

Florida also has a special set of laws, known as the Homestead laws, designed to protect a decedent’s surviving spouse and children. You may have had other plans for your Florida home, but they may not be passed to the people you have designated in your non-Florida will, if they don’t follow the Sunshine State’s guidelines.

Power of Attorney laws differ from state to state, and this can create huge headaches for families. In Michigan, the Durable Power of Attorney can be “springing,” that is, it is effective only upon incapacity. In Florida, once a Durable Power of Attorney is signed, it is effective. Florida may accept a DPA from another state, but Florida law will be applied to the agent’s actions, and restrictions will be based on Florida law, not that of another state.

As for estate planning documents concerning medical and financial decisions while you are living, these are also different. A living will names a person, known as a “Patient Advocate” in Michigan or a “Health Care Surrogate” in Florida, who is authorized to make decisions regarding end of life care, including providing, withholding, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In Michigan, you need two doctors to certify a patient’s incapacity for non-life-or-death decisions. In Florida, only one doctor is needed.

Whether you are traveling north for a cooler summer or planning to leave a northern home before the winter arrives, meet with your estate planning attorney to understand how any and all of your estate planning documents will work—or not—when you are in another state.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 30, 2021) “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida”

 

What are Typical Estate Planning Documents?

For many people, eight documents form the foundation of an estate plan. It’s not that difficult a project as it seems, explains the article “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate” from msn.com. When you’ve completed your estate plan, you’ll also gain the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done what was needed to protect your family. It’s well worth the effort.

Last will and testament. This is the basic document that gives you the ability to tell your family what you want to happen with your assets. It is used to name an executor—a person who will be in charge of managing your estate. Your will is also where you name a guardian who will be in charge of raising minor children. You can use the will to convey funeral instructions, but you may want to do that in a separate document, in case your will isn’t found right away. Your estate planning attorney will help you figure out the best way to handle that.

What happens if you don’t have a will? In that case, a probate court will determine who will be your executor. It might be a spouse, a grown child, or someone you don’t know or would not want to handle your estate. It’s best to have a will and select your executor yourself. When your estate goes through probate, all of the information in your will becomes part of the public record, so don’t put anything in your will, like passwords or account numbers.

Revocable living trust. Trusts are used to pass assets and property without going through probate. Your estate planning attorney will help create the trust and you’ll decide who will be in charge of it upon your death. You can be the trustee while you are living, but then you lose any estate tax benefits. If you have substantial property or wealth, trusts are a good tool to control assets and save on estate taxes.

Beneficiary designations. Any time you purchase a new insurance policy or a retirement plan, you are asked to name a beneficiary. If your first job came with a retirement plan, you likely also named a beneficiary for that plan. These designations allow the assets to pass directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They aren’t included in your will and they don’t go through probate. The biggest problem with beneficiary designations? Neglecting to update them through the many changes in life. Review and update your beneficiary designations on a regular basis.

Durable power of attorney. This document allows you to name the person to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. They can manage your legal and financial affairs. Here’s an important point: if you become incapacitated, you cannot assign this role to someone. It needs to be done when you are legally competent.

Health care power of attorney and living will. The health care power of attorney lets someone else make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are too sick to do so yourself. The living will gives you the opportunity to explain what kind of care you do or do not want if you are close to death. If the idea of staying alive on a heart machine makes you unhappy, for instance, you can document your wishes, so loved ones don’t have to wonder what you want.

Digital assets. Much of our lives are lived online, and we have assets that won’t be found in a search of the attic or basement. Each online platform that you use may have a directive process, where you can clearly state who you want to have access to your digital assets and what you would like to have happen to them upon your death.

A letter of intent. Writing a letter of intent is a way to convey your wishes to loved ones for what you’d like to happen after you die. It may not be legally enforceable, like a will or a trust, but your loved ones will appreciate knowing what you want for funeral planning or a memorial service.

List of important documents. Sparing your family a post-mortem scavenger hunt is a gift to the living. Make a list of documents and make sure they know where important documents can be found. Include a list of routine bills, the professionals you rely on, including contact information and account numbers. Some families use a briefcase to store the important papers, but a fireproof and waterproof safe is more secure.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have not prepared your estate plan.

Reference: msn.com (June 19, 2021) “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate”

 

Why Is Estate Planning So Important?

“Estate planning” will be your family’s guidebook once you have passed away. The Big Easy Magazine’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Whyexplains that estate planning is similar to writing a last will. HOwever, writing one is not limited to what happens to your house, car, possessions, or other assets after you pass away. It also entails the question of who will take care of your minor children, if they are left without a parent, as well as your instructions for burial and other items.

If you fail to leave specific instructions, the state’s intestacy laws will apply at your death, meaning that the court will decide who gets what. There is no guarantee this will be in your best interest. Let’s look at the consequences of not writing your will:

  • If you prefer cremation or a traditional burial, your family may not know and decide based on their preferences or convenience.
  • Your properties will be managed by someone you do not necessarily trust, if you do not name an executor to your will.
  • Some of your loved ones may not get an inheritance if there is no will. State law may not carry out your intentions, and some people may be left out.
  • Your favorite charity may not receive donations. For those committed to leaving a legacy, your organization of choice should be listed in the will.
  • The court will assign guardians for your minor children, and social services will appoint a guardian. You can avoid this, by naming a trusted person in your will.

Aside from avoiding these consequences, estate planning can also save your family a lot of headaches and expense. A detailed will with your instructions will alleviate the stress and provide them with comfort, while they recover emotionally from their loss. Here are the top reasons why you need to plan these things:

  • You can avoid inheritance taxes and federal estate taxes with proper estate planning.
  • You can name who will care for you, if you are unable to make your own decisions because of illnesses, infirmity, or old age. With a power of attorney, you can name someone you trust to manage your finances.
  • If your minor children are orphaned, you can name someone you trust to be their guardian in your will.
  • Some family members are greedy, so you can exclude them from your will. With an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney, you can ensure that the people you love will receive what you intend.

Estate planning is essential to securing a comfortable life for your loved ones. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to set things up correctly.

Reference: The Big Easy Magazine (May 17, 2021) “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why”

 

What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning?

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

 

Your Will and Estate Planning Checklist

Dying without a last will creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about last wills when they marry or have children, and then do not think about last wills or estate plans until they retire. While a last will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.

Here are ten specific tasks that need to be completed for your last will to be effective. Remember, if the will does not comply with your state’s estate law, it can be declared invalid.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your last will.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the executor of your last will.
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.
  6. Make a letter describing possessions and who you want to receive them. Be very specific.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create an Advance Directive, also known as a Living Will, to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Discuss these roles and their responsibilities with the people you have chosen, and make sure they are willing to serve.

Be realistic about the people you are naming to receive your property. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your last will every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old last wills can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

 

Can My Family Fight the Gift of My Estate to Caregiver?

Family fights over an estate after someone dies is not uncommon, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “I’m leaving my estate to my caregiver. Can my family fight it?”

A family member could contest a power of attorney, a will, or a living will on the grounds that the principal (the person who appointed an attorney-in-fact or agent) was mentally incapacitated when the document was signed. A family member could also contest a power of attorney on the grounds that the agent abused his or her authority. Lastly, a will, a power of attorney and living will can be challenged on the grounds that the documents were not executed properly.

A power of attorney gives one or more persons the authority to act on your behalf as your agent or agent in fact or attorney in fact. The power may be limited to a particular activity, like closing the sale of your home. It may also be general in its application.  The principle may give temporary or permanent authority to act on your behalf.

All 50 states allow you to express your wishes as to medical treatment in terminal illness or injury situations, and to designate an individual to communicate for you, if you cannot communicate for yourself.

Depending on the state, these documents are known as “living wills,” “medical directives,” “health care proxies,” or “advance health care directives.”

Reasons for contesting an estate planning document include the fact that the document may not have been witnessed by the number of witnesses required by state law or notarized, if state law requires notarization.

You should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to try to limit the success of any challenges.  Estate planning is a process involving legal counsel familiar with your goals and concerns, your assets and how they are owned, along with your family structure. Estate planning covers the transfer of property at death, as well as a variety of other personal matters and may involve planning for taxes, business succession and legacy planning.

Reference:  nj.com (May 7, 2021) “I’m leaving my estate to my caregiver. Can my family fight it?”

 

How to Protect Loved Ones from Elder Abuse

Predators had an open season on the elderly during the pandemic, as isolation necessitated by COVID severely limited family member’s ability to visit in person. In some instances, caregivers themselves were the predators, and manipulation on important legal documents, including durable power of attorney, trusts, wills and ownership of homes has occurred. All this was reported the article “Warning: Isolation Of Your Aging Parent May Be A Red Flag” from Forbes. The enforced isolation has created worrisome situations for all concerned.

If you haven’t seen your parents or grandparents for a year or more, and are all fully vaccinated, one expert strongly encourages visitation, as soon as is possible. Use the visit to review all of their legal matters and talk about how to increase engagement and end the isolation.

Consider the following a checklist of what needs to be done at that first visit:

Look for any signs that anyone who had access to loved ones may have taken advantage of their isolation during the past year. Don’t assume the best behavior of everyone around them. It’s not how we like to think, but caution needs to be exercised in this situation.

Check on their will and trusts. The pandemic has reminded everyone that life is fragile, and it’s important to go over legal documents or, if they don’t exist, create them. Find out if anyone has pressured family members to change legal documents—if they have been changed in the last year and you weren’t told about it, find out what happened.

If aging parents do not have a will or trusts, or these documents were altered in your absence, speak with an estate planning attorney who can create a new estate plan. Make sure all copies of older wills are destroyed. At the same time, this would be a good time to have their powers of attorney, healthcare proxy and living wills updated.

If your parent or grandparent lives on their own, find out if they are now in need of any caregiving. A year is a long time, and elderly people who started out fine during the epidemic may have had changes in their health or ability to live independently. Go see for yourself how they are managing. Is the house clean? Are the stairs too steep to be managed?  Not everyone will be able to return to “normal” without some help. Senior centers, gyms and recreational facilities have been shut down for a long time. They may need some help getting back into a routine of socializing and exercising.  The end of enforced isolation can also mean the end of an easy cover for anyone who was using isolation as a protection for financial elder abuse or any other type of abuse.

Isolation itself is a form of abuse, including not allowing others to visit in person or speak with a parent alone. You can overcome this by being engaged with family members on a regular basis, by phone, video visits or, if you are able to, more frequent in person visits.

Reference: Forbes (April 23, 2021) “Warning: Isolation Of Your Aging Parent May Be A Red Flag”