Every Adults Needs a Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney

A serious illness can happen at any age, but just 18% of those 55 and older have a living will, power of attorney for health care and a last will and testament, according to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

AZ Central’s recent article entitled “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona” says that every adult should have these documents, including young professionals, single people and those without children.

These documents make it easier for an individual and their family during a stressful time. They make your wishes clear.  They also help give directions to family members and allow you to name a person you believe is the most responsible and able to fulfill your wishes.

Note that a power of attorney, living will and last will each has its own purpose.  A power of attorney for health care lets your named agent make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated, while you are still alive. Without a health care power of attorney or living will, it can complicate and delay matters.

A living will or “advance directive” is used when a person needs end-of-life care. This document can provide instructions on how the person wants to be treated, like not wanting a feeding tube or wanting as much medical help as possible.

In contrast, a last will and testament states what happens to a person’s estate or assets after they pass away. A last will can also designate a guardian for minor children.  A last will can state who will be in charge of the person’s estate, known as an executor or a personal representative.

You should name a primary representative and an alternate to serve and provide copies of the documents to the people chosen for these roles.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: AZ Central (Jan. 14, 2021) “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona”

 

What Is a Conservatorship?

A conservator is appointed by a judge. This person handles the estate of an incapacitated adult, as well as their finances, their basic affairs and everyday care. Administrative matters such as Medicare, insurance, pensions, and medical coverage are all also managed by the conservator. The conservator must keep meticulous records that are subject to review by the judge.

The Advocate’s recent article entitled “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?” explains that a conservatorship typically lasts as long as the individual lives. The conservator may change because of death, relocation, or an inability to manage the conservator duties and responsibilities. A judge also has the power to replace the conservator, if he or she is repeatedly making poor decisions or neglecting required responsibilities.

A conservator can be wise in some situations because it lets family members know that someone is making the decisions. It also provides clear legal authority to deal with third parties. There is also a process in which a judge will approve any major decisions. However, appointing a conservator can be expensive. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney must complete court paperwork and attend court hearings. A conservatorship can also be time-consuming due to the required ongoing paperwork.

A big question is when it is appropriate to seek conservatorship. If the individual has become mentally or physically incapable of making important decisions for himself or herself, then it would be smart to have a court-appointed guardian. Moreover, if the person does not already have legal documents in place, like a living will or power of attorney, then the conservatorship would benefit in covering decisions about personal and financial matters.

Even if the individual has a power of attorney for both health care and finances, he or she might need a conservator to make decisions about his or her personal life. This can include topics, such as living arrangements and who is allowed to visit. It is not always easy to determine if an individual can make decisions, but a judge understands that a conservator is viable for those with advanced Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Families that want to set up a conservatorship need to file formal legal papers and participate in a court hearing before a judge. Evidence of the physical and mental condition of the individual requiring conservatorship must be clearly presented. The person who is the subject of the conservatorship has the opportunity to contest it. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney who specializes in conservatorships about your specific situation.

Reference: The Advocate (Jan. 25, 2021) “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?”

 

Am I Named in a Will? How Would I Know?

Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to the brothers’ mother, plus, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die without a will in Kansas, your assets will go to your closest relatives. If there were children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and descendants, the spouse inherits one-half of your intestate property, and your descendants inherit the other one-half of your intestate property.

In Illinois, if you’re married and you pass away without a will, the portion given to your spouse is based upon whether you have living descendants, such as children and grandchildren.

In New Jersey, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children—this includes any children who are not children of the surviving spouse—the surviving spouse gets the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate. In that state, the descendants of the decedent would receive the remainder.

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while. Also, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to create an estate planning package.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

 

Can I Fire the Executor of My Will?

If you are wondering how to change the executor of a will after the fact, KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “How to Change the Executor of a Will” says that the process is pretty simple. Even so, you should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that it is completed correctly, and it’s legal.

The executor of a will is the individual you name to be responsible for carrying out the terms of your will. By designating an executor, you’re giving him or her the authority to handle certain tasks related to the distribution of your estate. Typically, you can name anyone as executor. However, minors aren’t allowed to serve as executors, and some states don’t let convicted felons do the job either.

It’s okay to name a beneficiary of your will as executor. An executor must undertake certain tasks, such as the following:

  • Getting death certificates
  • Starting the probate process
  • Making an inventory of the decedent’s assets
  • Notifying the decedent’s creditors of his or her death
  • Paying any outstanding debts and closing bank accounts; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the will.

The executor can’t change the terms of the will. They can only make sure that its terms are carried out. An executor can be paid a fee for their services, which can be a percentage of the value of the estate or a reasonable hourly rate. State laws vary on this compensation approach. It would be best to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

There are a few reasons why making a switch of executors may be necessary, such as if:

  • Your original executor dies or becomes seriously ill and can’t fulfill his or her duties
  • You named your spouse as executor but you divorce
  • The individual you originally designated as executor no longer wants the responsibility
  • Your relationship with your executor has deteriorated; and
  • You think someone else would be better equipped to execute your will.

Note that you don’t need to give a specific reason to change the executor of a will. There are two ways to do this: (i) add a codicil to an existing will; or (ii) draft a brand-new will. A codicil is a written amendment that you can use to change only the provisions of your will needing changes without having to write a new one. The codicil must be executed with the same formalities as your original will.

If you need to change more than just the executor, you might want to draft a new will, which entails the same process as the one you followed when making your original one. You should also destroy all copies of the original will to avoid confusion and potential challenges to the terms of the will after you die. It’s wise to use an experienced estate planning attorney to help you replace an existing will.

Reference: KAKE.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How to Change the Executor of a Will”

 

The Difference between Power of Attorney and Guardianship for Elderly Parents

The primary difference between guardianship and power of attorney is in the level of decision-making power, although there are many intricacies specific to each appointment, explains Presswire’s recent article entitled “Power of Attorney and Guardianship of an Elderly Parent.”

The interactions with adult protective services, the probate court, elder law attorneys and healthcare providers can create a huge task for an agent under a power of attorney or court-appointed guardian. Children acting as agents or guardians are surprised about the degree of interference by family members who disagree with decisions.

Doctors and healthcare providers don’t always recognize the decision-making power of an agent or guardian. Guardians or agents may find themselves fighting the healthcare system because of the difference between legal capacity and medical or clinical capacity.

A family caregiver accepts a legal appointment to provide or oversee care. An agent under power of attorney isn’t appointed to do what he or she wishes. The agent must fulfill the wishes of the principal. In addition, court-appointed guardians are required to deliver regular reports to the court detailing the activities they have completed for elderly parents. Both roles must work in the best interest of the parent.

Some popular misperceptions about power of attorney and guardianship of a parent include:

  • An agent under power of attorney can make decisions that go against the wishes of the principal
  • An agent can’t be removed or fired by the principal for abuse
  • Adult protective services assumes control of family matters and gives power to the government; and
  • Guardians have a responsibility to save money for care, so family members can receive an inheritance.

Those who have a financial interest in inheritance can be upset when an agent under a power of attorney or a court-appointed guardian is appointed. Agents and guardians must make sure of the proper care for an elderly parent. A potential inheritance may be totally spent over time on care.

In truth, the objective isn’t to conserve money for family inheritances, if saving money means that a parent’s care will be in jeopardy.

Adult protective services workers will also look into cases to make certain that vulnerable elderly persons are protected—including being protected from irresponsible family members. In addition, a family member serving as an agent or family court-appointed guardian can be removed, if actions are harmful.

Agents under a medical power of attorney and court-appointed guardians have a duty to go beyond normal efforts in caring for an elderly parent or adult. They must understand the aspects of the health conditions and daily needs of the parent, as well as learning advocacy and other skills to ensure that the care provided is appropriate.

Ask an experienced elder law attorney about your family’s situation and your need for power of attorney documents with a provision for guardianship.

Reference: Presswire (Jan. 14, 2021) “Power of Attorney and Guardianship of an Elderly Parent”

 

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are asked to be an executor, you should learn some of the basics of the job before agreeing to the task. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor named in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of an original and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probating (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets,some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the probate process is finished, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. He or she must change the name of the insurance on home and auto policies. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the agency will need to know of the decedent’s death to stop benefits. Checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for an executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

 

How to Plan for a ‘Fragile’ Beneficiary

Frequently, estate plans will include an inheritance for a minor beneficiary. If you have minor children, you should spell out exactly what you want as far as who will care for your children and how your children’s financial needs will be met.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Handle with care: Tips on planning for the fragile beneficiary” explains that if a minor child inherits property outright, the court will usually appoint a conservator to handle the property until the minor reaches 18. Because of this some parents make use of a trust which lets the assets be available for a minor’s benefit but held under terms you set when establishing the trust. A trustee oversees this. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in setting up an estate plan to establish a trust.

A beneficiary with a disability. In some cases, a loved one with a disability may be receiving needs-based government benefits. To make certain that an inheritance doesn’t disrupt those benefits, many parents or guardians ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to create a special needs trust (SNT). This is an irrevocable discretionary trust created by the parent in many cases for the benefit of a child with special needs. When set up correctly, the special needs trust won’t be considered an available resource for the purpose of determining eligibility for needs-based government benefits.

Incentive planning. Another aspect of estate planning is to use your assets to influence your loved one’s values and future behavior. A trust with incentive or disincentive provisions may help guide the choices and actions of your family, even after you have died.

Advanced planning for successful beneficiaries. If you plan to leave assets to a beneficiary who has the potential to incur significant personal liability due to his or her profession, ask your estate planning attorney about an irrevocable discretionary lifetime trust. If an inheritance is left to such a person without any protections, it may be attached by a judgment creditor upon distribution. A successful beneficiary may also need tax planning. If the beneficiary’s inheritance is properly left in a lifetime trust with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, it may be removed from his or her taxable estate for federal estate tax purposes.

Although estate planning may be thought of as a way to transfer your assets to your family in a tax-efficient manner, it is also a way in which you can motivate, and at times protect, your loved ones.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Dec. 22, 2020) “Handle with care: Tips on planning for the fragile beneficiary”

 

What are Options for Powers of Attorney?

Power of attorney (POA) documents are an important component of an estate plan. There are four types. You should review each carefully to see which one will work best for you in your situation. What is required for a power of attorney, depends upon what power you want to authorize, says Carmel’s Hamlet Hub in a recent article titled “4 Types of Power of Attorney.”

Limited Power of Attorney. If you need someone to act on your behalf for a limited purpose, use a limited power of attorney. This will specify the date/time after which the power no longer is in effect.

General Power of Attorney. This is an all-encompassing power of attorney, in which you assign every power and right you possess as an individual to a certain party. It’s typically used where the principal is incapacitated. It is also used with those who don’t have the time, skills, knowledge, or energy to handle all of their financial matters. The power you assign is in effect for your lifetime, or until you are incapacitated (unless it is also “durable”). However, you can elect to rescind it before then.

Durable Power of Attorney. The key distinction with a durable power of attorney is that it stays in effect, even after you’ve become incapacitated. Therefore, you want to sign a durable power of attorney if: (i) you want to give the designated agent authority ONLY if you’re unable to act for yourself; or (ii) you want to give the agent immediate authority that continues after you’re unable to act for yourself. You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss these different types of powers.

Note that a limited or general power of attorney ends when you become incapacitated. At that point, a court will appoint a guardian or conservator to handle your matters. You can rescind a durable power of attorney at any time prior to becoming incapacitated.

Springing Power of Attorney. This document serves the same purpose as a durable power of attorney, but it’s effective only upon your becoming incapacitated. When drafting this, your experienced estate planning attorney will help you make clear your definition of “incapacitated.”

Remember that you’ll need to state in your power of attorney document which powers and duties you are assigning to the attorney-in-fact.

Regardless of the type of power of attorney you implement, the attorney-in-fact has the power to do only what your POA indicates. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the different types of powers and which would apply to your circumstances.

Reference: Carmel’s Hamlet Hub (Dec. 16, 2020) “4 Types of Power of Attorney”

 

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

 

Estate Planning Is Best When Personalized

Just as a custom-tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, a custom-tailored estate plan works better for families. Making sure assets pass to the right person is more likely to occur when documents are created just for you, advises the article “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans” from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The most obvious example is a family with a special needs member. Generic estate planning documents typically will not suit that family’s estate planning. This is why you need an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Every state has its own laws about distributing property and money owned by a person at their death, in cases where people don’t have a will. Relying on state law instead of a will is a risky move that can lead to people you may not even know inheriting your entire estate.

In the absence of an estate plan, the probate court makes decisions about who will administer the estate and the distribution of property. Without a named executor, the court will appoint a local attorney to take on this responsibility. An appointed attorney who has never met the decedent and doesn’t know the family won’t have the insights to follow the decedent’s wishes.

The same risks can occur with online will templates. Their use often results in families needing to retain an estate planning attorney to fix the mistakes caused by their use. Online wills may not be valid in your state or may lead to unintended consequences. Saving a few dollars now could end up costing your family thousands to clean up the mess.

Estate plans are different for each person because every person and every family are different. Estate plan templates may not account for any of your wishes.  Generic plans are very limited. An estate plan custom created for you takes into consideration your family dynamics, how your individual beneficiaries will be treated and expresses your wishes for your family after you have passed.

Generic estate plans also don’t reflect the complicated families of today. Some people have family members they do not want to inherit anything. Disinheriting someone successfully is not as easy as leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small token amount.  Ensuring that your wishes are followed and that your will is not easily challenged takes the special skills of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 9, 2020) “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans”