What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.  The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in preparing your documents.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

 

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”

 

Should You Update Your Will When You Move?

In the excitement of a move from one state to another, people often forget that their estate plan may no longer be valid. That is because each state has its own laws about estate planning, according to a recent article “Moving to a new state? If so, make sure those estate plans have been updated” from CNBC. Once you’ve moved to a new state, you’ll want to find a local estate planning attorney to help.

A surprising 4.7 million Americans moved out of their home states last year, and while they may have had checklists including the obvious—driver’s license, finding a physician, and a new barber—finding a new estate planning attorney to update their estate plan may not have been at the top of the list. Or even the middle.

Many think a will that worked in one state is automatically valid in another, but that is not true. Other documents may not be valid, including power of attorney, living will or advance directive, health care proxy and any other estate planning documents.

The time immediately after a move is the right time to review documents for another reason: if your POA agent is now 1,400 miles away, is it realistic for that person to have that role? You probably need to find someone else. The same goes for your healthcare Power of Attorney.

Healthcare powers of attorney and other medical directives vary from state to state. What if the medical providers in your new state don’t recognize and won’t accept a medical POA from another state? If your documents are not accepted, your agent may not be able to make the decisions you had empowered them to make. Your family may need to go to court to confirm the validity of your documents. That is not something you want to force upon your family during a health crisis.

Certain states do not allow non-residents to serve as executors. Only three states allow a non-resident executor, and then only if they are directly related to you. Other states impose other restrictions, including requiring the non-resident to post a bond to protect your estate or appointing an in-state agent.

When people consider moving to another state, it’s often to lower their taxes. However, establishing a new state as your domicile and getting the tax benefit depends on many factors. Those factors include where you work, are registered to vote and what state issued your driver’s license. Also important is: the address on your estate planning documents. If your estate planning documents have your old address while you are trying to establish a new state of residence, you could run into an expensive tax snag.

Speak with your new estate planning attorney about how your assets are titled, including your trusts. Certain types of titling are not recognized in different states. Community property, tenants by the entirety and joint tenancy, with or without right of survivorship, are all treated differently in different states.

Estate taxes also differ from state to state. While federal estate tax only applies to decedents with estates valued at more than $23.4 million (for 2021), state estate taxes, inheritance taxes and gift taxes are imposed at lower levels. Most states do not impose estate taxes on transfers to a surviving spouse, but you’ll want to know what the future will bring beforehand.

An estate planning attorney in your new home state will help you navigate the difference between your old estate plan and the one that will work in your new state.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 14, 2020) “Moving to a new state? If so, make sure those estate plans have been updated”

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”

 

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?

The story takes an unpleasant twist, after Cindy’s stepsister Charlotte suggests that she be given power of attorney to help Cindy with her business matters. When Cindy agrees, Charlotte’s attorney creates a Statutory Durable Power of Attorney that names Charlotte as her agent. What happened next, according to the Glen Rose Reporter in the article “Guarding against the evil stepsister,” was a nightmare.

A few weeks later, Cindy’s brother Prince found that Charlotte had moved money from Cindy’s personal bank accounts into a completely different bank, setting up joint accounts in Cindy and Charlotte’s names and granting Charlotte right of survivorship (ROS). This made Charlotte the legal owner of the account at the time of Cindy’s passing. Charlotte had also contacted Cindy’s former employer and was attempting to wrest control of Cindy’s pension. It wasn’t clear whether she was attempting to obtain the entire amount in a lump sum, but she was attempting to gain control.  Cindy realized that Charlotte was not to be trusted. However, Charlotte had the power of attorney and all of these actions were legal. Could the power of attorney that she had signed be revoked? The answer is yes which is important to know.

There were two paths available to Cindy: she could immediately execute a revocation of the Statutory Durable Power of Attorney that had been used to give Charlotte authority, or have her attorney create a new power of attorney granting power of agency to another person. Either way, Charlotte would be stripped of the legal authority to act on Cindy’s behalf.

Cindy had a new POA created naming her brother Prince as her agent. The new POA had to immediately be presented to all of the financial institutions she deals with. She contacted her former employer and gave them proper notice that Charlotte no longer had authority to represent her. The new joint accounts that Charlotte had opened were then closed and individual accounts in her name only were open, which also ended the ROS. She could have returned her accounts back to the old bank or stayed with the new bank where Charlotte had opened new accounts. Cindy decided to stay with the new bank.

Cindy had to anticipate another challenge—that Charlotte might attempt to have Cindy declared incompetent and have herself named as Cindy’s legal guardian. To protect herself, Cindy’s estate planning attorney drew up documents stating that in the event Cindy ever needed someone to be her guardian, she did not want Charlotte to be named. In addition, she named the person she would want to be her guardian, if that is necessary in the future. While a judge ultimately has final discretion, the courts generally prefer naming a guardian as requested by an individual.

Your estate planning attorney can revoke a power of attorney, if it becomes clear that the person you’ve named is not acting in your best interests. Having an estate plan in place in advance of any medical or mental challenges is always better, so that you are less vulnerable to anyone trying to take advantage of you during a difficult time.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Sep. 10, 2020) “Guarding against the evil stepsister”

 

How to Plan for Incapacity

Planning for incapacity is just as important as planning for death. One is certain, the other is extremely likely. Therefore, it makes sense to prepare in advance, advises the article “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family” from The Press-Enterprise.

Let’s start by defining capacity. Each state has its own language but for the most part, incapacity means that a person is incapable of making decisions or performing certain acts. A concerned adult child is usually the one trying to have a senior parent declared incapacitated.  A person who has a mental or physical disorder may still be capable of entering into a contract, getting married, making medical decisions, executing wills or trusts, or performing other actions. However, before a person is declared incapacitated by medical professionals or a court, having a plan in place makes a world of difference for the family or trusted person who will be caring for them. Certain legal documents are needed.

Power of Attorney. This is the primary document needed in case of incapacity. There are several kinds, and an estate planning attorney will know which one will be best for your situation. A “springing” power of attorney becomes effective, only when a person is deemed incapacitated and continues throughout their incapacity. A POA can be general, broadly authorizing a named person to act on different matters, like finances, determining where you will live, entering into contracts, caring for pets, etc. A POA can also be drafted with limited and specific powers, like to sell a car within a certain timeframe.

The POA can be activated before you become incapacitated. Let’s say that you are diagnosed with early-stage dementia. You may still have legal capacity but might wish a trusted family member to help handle matters. For elderly people who feel more comfortable having someone else handle their finances or the sale of their home, a POA can be created to allow a trusted individual to act on their behalf for these specific tasks.

A POA is a powerful document. A POA gives another person control of your life. Yes, your named agent has a fiduciary duty to put your interests first and could be sued for mismanagement or abuse. However, the goal of a POA is to protect your interests, not put them at risk. Choosing a person to be your POA must be done with care. You should also be sure to name an alternate POA. A POA expires on your death, so the person will not be involved in any decisions regarding your estate, burial or funeral arrangements. That is the role of the executor named in your will.

Advance health care directive, or living will, provides your instructions about medical care. This document is one that most people would rather not think about. However, it is very important if your wishes are to be followed. It explains what kind of medical care you do or do not want, in the event of dementia, a stroke, coma or brain injury. It gets into the details: do you want resuscitation, mechanical ventilation or feeding tubes to keep you alive? It can also be used for post-death wishes concerning autopsies, organ donation, cremation or burial.

The dramatic events of 2020 have taught us all that we don’t know what is coming in the near future. Planning in advance is a kindness to yourself and your family.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (July 19, 2020) “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family”

 

Prevent Estate Administration Problems Before They Occur

Estate administration is when the executor pays debts, taxes and distributing assets and is often the time when any missing steps in an estate plan are revealed. The best legal problems are the ones that don’t happen, advises the article “Practical tips for estate administration, pre-planning advice, and a Coronavirus update” from the Winston-Salem Journal. Here are tips to avoid problems:

Do you need a trust to avoid probate fees and simplify estate administration?

Think of a trust as a secret box or bank account. If you own property in another state, want adult heirs to receive their inheritance over a period of time, have a beneficiary with special needs, or simply don’t want the public to learn about your assets, then a stand-alone trust that works in conjunction with your will is something to consider. However, you may be able to achieve some of these goals through beneficiary designations. A big advantage of a trust is that it is not subject to probate; assets in a probate estate become public record. If privacy is an issue, you’ll want a trust.

Is your estate plan out of date?

If your estate plan has not been updated in the last three or four years, it is likely that you have extra expenses that are no longer necessary. It’s also likely that you are missing out on tax savings opportunities. There have recently been a huge number of changes to estate and tax laws. If your will was signed before 2013, it is time to simplify your will. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Did you inherit real estate with your siblings?

If the sale of the property is still pending, get it wrapped up as soon as possible. If one of your siblings dies, or moves away, managing the disposition of real estate can become complicated and expensive.

When was the last time you reviewed Power of Attorney documents?

If you are not competent and critical steps need to be taken for your care, your agents may find themselves unable to act on your behalf, if your POA and related documents are “outdated.” They may need court intervention to make even simple decisions.

How has coronavirus impacted choices in long-term planning documents?

If your will, POA, medical power of attorney and HIPAA release forms have not been updated recently, decisions may be made without any discussion with the people you trust most.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney now to get your legal and financial affairs in order. Many states have granted attorneys the ability to have documents executed and witnessed remotely, so there is no reason not to go forward now.  This all depends on the state that you live in and the current conditions.

Reference: Winston-Salem Journal (May 3, 2020) “Practical tips for estate administration, pre-planning advice, and a Coronavirus update”

 

Preparing for an Emergency Includes Power of Attorney

Unexpected events can happen at any time and preparing for an emergency includes a power of attorney. Without a backup plan, finances are vulnerable. The importance of having an estate plan and organized legal and financial documents on a scale of one to ten is fifteen, advises the article “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?” from USA Today. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if your phone bill is a month late but miss a life insurance premium payment and your policy may lapse. If you’re over 70, chances are slim to none that you’ll be able to purchase a new one.

When estate plans and finances are organized to the point that you can easily hand them over to a trusted spouse, adult child or other responsible person, you gain the peace of mind of knowing you and your family are prepared for anything. Someone can take care of you and your family, in case the unexpected happens.

A financial power of attorney (POA) gives another person the legal authority to take financial actions on your behalf. The person you give this responsibility to, should be someone you trust and who will put your best interests ahead of their own. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a power of attorney that can be very specific about the powers that are granted.  You may want your POA to be able to pay bills, and manage your investment accounts, for instance, but you may not want them to make changes to trusts. A personalized power of attorney document can give you that level of control.

Consider your routine for taking care of household finances. Most of us do these tasks on autopilot. We don’t think about how it would be if someone else had to take over, but we should. Take a pad of paper and make notes about every task you complete in a given month: what bills do you pay monthly, which are paid quarterly and what comes due only once or twice a year? By making a detailed record of the tasks, you’ll save your spouse or family member a great deal of time and angst.

Is your paperwork organized so that someone else will be able to find things? Most people create their own systems, but they are not always understandable to anyone else. Create a folder or a file that holds all of your important documents, like insurance policies and investment accounts, legal documents and deeds.

If you pay bills online, naming someone else on the account so they have access is ideal. If not, then try consolidating the bills you can. Many banks allow users to set up bill payment through one account.

Keep legal documents and records up to date. If you haven’t reviewed your estate planning documents in more than three years, now is the time to speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan still reflects your wishes. Call your estate planning attorney to discuss your next steps.

Reference: USA Today (March 20, 2020) “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?”

 

The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney

All too often, people wait until it’s too late to execute a power of attorney. It’s uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. However, a power of attorney can be created that is fully exercisable only when needed, according to a useful article “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances” from The News-Enterprise. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.

The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.

Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.

Here’s the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA, until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.

Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing.

The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.

If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, takes several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. The basics of this process: three professionals are needed to personally assess the “respondent,” the person who is said to be incompetent. The respondent loses all rights to make decisions of any kind for themselves. They also lose the right to vote.

A power of attorney can be executed quickly and does not require the person to lose any rights.

The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property. This is true, but the POA can be created so that it does not hand over this control immediately.

This is where the “springing” power of attorney comes in. Springing POA means that the document, while executed immediately, does not become effective for use by the agent, until a certain condition is met. The document can be written that the POA becomes in effect, if the person is deemed mentally incompetent by a doctor. The springing clause gives the agent the power to act if and when it is necessary for someone else to take over the individual’s affairs.

Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”

I’m a Fiduciary—What Does That Mean?

There are any number of pitfalls that may occur when administering an estate, a trust or another person’s finances under a Power of Attorney (POA). Fiduciary duties are the highest under the law and the fiduciary is legally required to put the interests of the person they are representing above their own. The most common problem for a fiduciary is not taking their responsibilities seriously enough, says the article “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary? from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

You can avoid some common pitfalls, if you keep the following in mind:

Know the governing instrument. A fiduciary must abide by the terms of the governing instrument, which might be a Power of Attorney (POA), trust, or another legal document. The powers you hold are limited to those granted in the document. There are times when even though you have a power or the ability to do something, it’s not in the best interest of the grantor. Let’s say the trust gives you as a trustee the power to make distributions to a beneficiary. If the beneficiary has sufficient independent resources, doing so might be a breach of your duties. In the same way, the ability to make gifts that is given by a POA, doesn’t mean you should automatically start making gifts.

Maintain extremely detailed records. Do this for two reasons. You have a duty to do so, and you need good records in case anyone claims that you did something wrong. Make sure that your records have enough details so that any expense or expenditure can be documented and explained.

Transparency is the best approach. Every situation is different, and family dynamics differs, but if you can, speak with family members before making any transactions. If they object, you can decide whether or not to proceed, or to petition the probate court to give the court’s blessing in advance. In this case, it is better to ask permission in advance, than ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Never mix your personal or business funds with that of the estate. This is one of the biggest problems for people who have never been a fiduciary before. If you are a fiduciary for more than one estate, then you’ll need to have funds and property completely separate from each other.

Fiduciary duties need to be treated with great care to avoid any liability and litigation. If you are not prepared to be a fiduciary, you could decide to decline the role. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you have any reservations about taking on this responsibility.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (December 7, 2019) “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary?