What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies?

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there isn’t always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Don’t procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it’s time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They’ll be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You’ll also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companies, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that weren’t filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

Do I Really Need a Health Care Proxy?

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Advance directives and living wills” explains that an Advance Directive has three parts:

  • A living will
  • Naming of your health care agent; and
  • Your directions for anatomical gifts.

The individual that you name as your Health Care Proxy will make decisions for your treatment and care, if you’re unable to do so. These decisions may extend to all medical issues and aren’t limited to end-stage, life determining decisions that are mentioned in your living will. This is a form of power of attorney that authorizes your agent to act in your behalf to address issues like these:

  1. Accessing your medical information
  2. Discussing your treatment options with your healthcare providers
  3. Getting second opinions on your diagnosis
  4. Selecting and authorizing various medical tests
  5. Your placement in a hospital or care facility
  6. Transferring your care to a new physician; and
  7. Communicating your wishes on life support in terminal or unconscious situations.

For end of life decisions, your health care proxy is bound by your written wishes as expressed in your living will. Life support can be terminated, only if you so authorize in writing. Your healthcare proxy can’t make that decision for you, because that is “personal” to you. You may select one or more persons to act as your proxy, although if two are selected, you should predefine what to do in the event of a conflict.

A best practice is to choose a person who’s younger than you who is geographically close, a person with time to assist you and with whom you’re willing to share in advance your wishes, likes and dislikes as to medical care. This person should be trusted to act and honor your wishes.

Because many decisions relate to your very personal concerns about religion, death and dying, these feelings should be shared with your health care proxy before any serious situation.

The Advance Directive is a very important document that pertains to your wishes, as they relate to medical care, end-of-life and death.

Parts I and II can discuss your wishes for care treatment, as well as your choice of a person to represent your wishes. These are two very important issues. Take the time to consider the advance written expression of your own wishes. Speak with  your estate planning attorney if you have any concerns.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Feb. 12, 2020) “Advance directives and living wills”

How Can I Fund A Special Needs Trust?

When sitting down to plan a special needs trust, one of the most urgent questions is, “When it comes to funding the trust, what are my options?” TapInto’s recent article entitled “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”  explains how to fund a special needs trust.

There are four main ways to build up a third-party special needs trust. One way is to contribute personal assets, which in many cases come from immediate or extended family members. Another possible way to fund a special needs trust, is with permanent life insurance. In addition, the proceeds from a settlement or lawsuit can also make up the foundation of the trust assets. Finally, an inheritance can provide the financial bulwark to start and fund the special needs trust.

Families choosing the personal asset route may put a few thousand dollars of cash or other assets into the trust to start, with the intention that the initial investment will be augmented by later contributions from grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. Those subsequent contributions can be willed to the trust or the trust may be named as a beneficiary of a retirement or investment account. It is vital that families use the services of an elder law or special trusts lawyer. Special needs trusts are very complicated, and if set up incorrectly, it can mean the loss of government program benefits.

If a special needs trust is started with life insurance, the trustor will name the trust as the beneficiary of the policy. When the trustor passes away, the policy’s death benefit is left, tax free, to the trust. When a lump-sum settlement or inheritance is invested within the trust, this can allow for the possibility of growth and compounding. With a worthy trustee in place, there is less chance of mismanagement, and the money may come out of the trust to support the beneficiary in a wise manner that doesn’t risk threatening government benefits.

In addition, a special needs trust can be funded with tangible, non-cash assets, such as real estate, securities, art or antiques. These assets (and others like them) can be left to the trustee of the special needs trust through a revocable living trust or will. Note that the objective of the trust is to provide the trust beneficiary with non-disqualifying cash and assets owned by the trust. As a result, these tangible assets will have to be sold or liquidated to meet that goal.

As mentioned above, you need to take care in the creation and administration of a special needs trust, which will entail the use of an experienced attorney who practices in this area and a trustee well-versed in the rules and regulations governing public assistance. Consequently, the resulting trust will be a product of close collaboration.

Reference: TapInto (February 2, 2020) “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”

 

Planning Retirement with a Cognitive Decline

The Director of Volunteer Programs at the Alzheimer’s Association, Stephanie Rohlfs-Young, explains that families shouldn’t let a diagnosis disrupt proper financial, estate and retirement planning. She recommends several proactive and tactical steps that individuals and families can undertake to address issues related to cognitive decline.

Barron’s recent article entitled “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here Are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances” provides some tips on navigating the financial aspects of cognitive decline. Let’s look at some of them:

Inventory. For budgeting and estate planning purposes, families should conduct a thorough inventory of the individual’s property and debts to create a list of those who have access to each account. Ask about and include online checking, savings, credit-card and investment accounts. These can be neglected, if they aren’t in paper form. Try to work with the individual in cognitive decline to ascertain this information, when they can still be helpful. You don’t want to lose all those assets. This task can be challenging, when children aren’t aware of their parents’ financial dealings. This can include savings, insurance, retirement benefits, government assistance, veterans’ benefits and more. Families should also pick a lead person to be in charge of financial or legal matters.

Calculating future costs. A diagnosis of this nature is the time to figure out and plan for care costs that may include adult day care, in-home care and full-time medical care. These can costs vary widely, and many times families underestimate the amount they’ll spend on care. Families often fail to factor in out-of-pocket expenses that can add up, like prescriptions not covered by insurance. When budgeting, families should see what insurance may be available and if they might add or amend coverage.

Leverage the skills of an elder-law attorney. Partner with an experienced elder law attorney to help get the family’s financial and legal affairs together. Issues can include the titling of assets, trusts, powers of attorney, advance health care directive and more. For some, there’s also Medicaid planning.

Automate finances. Families should devise a plan for routine financial tasks, like bill paying. These are things that will eventually become too difficult for the loved one experiencing cognitive decline. Consider signing up for online banking. That way, an adult child can have easy access to monitor the parent’s account. Monthly bills, including insurance premiums, can be set up for automatic payment to help minimize the possibility of errors.

Organize your important documents. It’s critical after a diagnosis of cognitive decline to name a health-care representative to allow healthcare decisions to be made by someone of the person’s choosing. You should also have a general durable power of attorney for finances in place. This allows the appointed agent to make financial and legal decisions in the individuals’ stead.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 11, 2020) “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here Are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances.”

Preparing for the Inevitable: The Loss of a Spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can Life Insurance Help My Estate Plan?

In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for people to buy second-to-die life insurance policies to help pay federal estate taxes. However, in 2019, with estate tax exclusions up to $11,400,000 (and rising with the cost-of-living adjustments), fewer people would owe much for estate taxes.  However, IRAs, 401(k)s, and other accounts are still 100% taxable to the individuals, spouses and their children. The stretch IRA options still exist, but they may go away, as Congress may limit stretch IRAs to a maximum of 10 years.

Forbes’ recent article, “3 Ways Life Insurance Can Help Your Estate Plan,” explains that as the IRA is giving income from the RMDs, it may also be added, after tax, to the life insurance policy. If this occurs, it’s even possible that the death benefits could grow in the future, giving a cost-of-living benefit to children. This is one way how life insurance can be used creatively to help your estate plan.

For married couples, one strategy is to consider how life insurance on one individual could be used to pay “conversion tax” at death, using tax-free benefits. When the retiree dies, the spouse beneficiary can then convert all the IRA (taxable money) to a Roth IRA, which is tax-exempt with new, lower income tax rates (37% in 2018-2025 versus 39.6% in 2017 or earlier).

This tax-free death benefit money can be used to pay the taxes on the conversion, letting the surviving beneficiary have a lifetime of tax-exempt income without RMD issues from the Roth IRA. The Social Security income could also be tax-exempt, because Roth withdrawals don’t count as “income” in the calculation to see how much of your Social Security is taxed. However, you’d have to be within the threshold for any other combined income.

Life insurance for both individuals (if married) may also be a good idea. If the spouse of the IRA owner dies, the money from the life insurance can be used once again. If this is done in the tax year of the death for married individuals, the tax conversion could be done under “married filing status” before the next year, when the individual must use single tax filing status.

Another benefit of the IRA-to-Roth conversion is the passing of Roth IRAs to heirs, which could create a lasting legacy, if planned well. New life insurance policies that add long-term care features with chronic care and critical care benefits can also provide an extra degree of benefits, if one of the insureds has health issues prior to death.

Be sure to watch the tax rates and possible changes. With today’s lower tax rates, this could be very beneficial. Remember that there are usually individual state taxes as well. However, considering all the tax-optimized benefits to spouses and beneficiaries, the long-term tax benefits outweigh the lifetime tax liabilities, especially when you also consider SSI tax benefits for the surviving spouse and no RMD issues.

Life insurance in retirement can help protect, build and transfer wealth in one of the easiest ways possible. If you’re not certain about where to start with your life insurance needs, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (November 15, 2019) “3 Ways Life Insurance Can Help Your Estate Plan”

 

What’s Long Term Care About?

Many people are scared about the prospect of needing help in a long-term care setting and they are right to be worried. For many people, a spouse or adult children will become the go-to caregivers but not everyone will have that option, says Market Watch’s article “This is how much long-term care could cost you and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

If that’s not worrisome enough, here are facts to consider:

  • More than a third of people will spend some time in a nursing home, where the median annual cost of a private room is well over $100,000, says Genworth’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey. Don’t expect those numbers to go down.
  • Four of ten people will opt for paid care at home and the median annual cost of a home health aide is more than $50,000.
  • Half of people over 65 will eventually need some kind of long-term care costs and about 15% of those will incur more than $250,000 in costs according to a joint study conducted by Vanguard Research and Mercer Health and Benefits.

Medicare and even private health insurance don’t cover what are considered “custodial” expenses. That’s going to quickly wipe out the median retirement savings of most people: $126,000. With savings completely exhausted, people will find themselves qualifying for Medicaid, a government health program for the indigent that pays for about half of all nursing home and custodial care. You need to speak with an experienced elder law attorney regarding nursing home costs and state health care.

Those who live alone have a chronic condition or are in poor health have a greater chance of needing long-term care. Women in particular are at risk as they tend to outlive their husbands and may not have anyone available to provide them with unpaid care. If a husband’s illness wipes out the couple’s savings, the surviving spouse is at risk of spending their last years living on nothing but a Social Security benefit.

The best hedge against long-term care costs is to purchase a long-term care insurance policy, if you are eligible to purchase one. Wait too long and you may not be able. One woman persuaded her parents to purchase a long-term insurance policy when her father was 68 and her mother was 54. Five years into the policy, her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The policy covered almost the entire cost of his 24-hour care in the final months of his life. Her mother lived to 94, so the investment in the policy was well worth it.

Everyone approaching retirement needs a plan for long-term care costs. That may be purchasing long-term care insurance or purchasing a hybrid life insurance product with long-term care benefits.

Reference: Market Watch (July 19, 2019) “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

 

Why It’s Always Better to Plan Ahead
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Why It’s Always Better to Plan Ahead

Two stories of two people who managed their personal lives very differently illustrate the enormous difference that can happen for those who refuse to prepare themselves and their families for the events that often accompany aging. As an article from Sedona Red Rock News titled “Plan ahead in case of sudden sickness or death” makes clear, the value of advance planning becomes very clear. One man, let’s call him Ben, has been married for 47 years and he’s always overseen the family finances. He has a stroke and can’t walk or talk. His wife Shirley is overwhelmed with worry about her husband’s illness. Making matters worse, she doesn’t know what bills need to be paid or when they are due.

On the other side of town is Louise. At 80, she fell in her own kitchen and broke her hip, a common injury for the elderly. After a week in the hospital, she spent two months in a rehabilitation nursing home. Her son lives on the other side of the country, but he was able to pay her bills and handle all the Medicare issues. Several years ago, Louise and her son had planned what he should do in case she had a health crisis.

More good planning on Louise’s part: all her important papers were organized and put into one place, and she told her son where they could be found. She also shared with him the name of her attorney, a list of people to contact at her bank, primary physician’s office, financial advisor, and insurance agent. She also made sure her son had copies of her Medicare and any other health insurance information. She made sure to have a legal document prepared so her son could talk with her doctors about her health and any health insurance matters.

And then there’s Ben. He always handled everything and wouldn’t let anyone else get involved. Only Ben knew the whereabouts of his life insurance policy, the title to his car, and the deed to the house. Ben never expected that someone else would need to know these things. Shirley has a tough job ahead of her. There are many steps involved in getting ready for an emergency, but as you can see, this is a necessary task to start and finish.

First, gather up all your important information. That includes your full legal name, Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce papers, citizenship or adoption papers, information on employers, any military service information, phone numbers for close friends, relatives, doctors, estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, and any other professionals.

Your will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, living will and any directives should be stored in a secure location. Make sure at least two people know where they are located. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out if they will store any documents on your behalf.

Financial records should be organized. That includes all your insurance policies, bank accounts, investment accounts, 401(k), or other retirement accounts, copies of the most recent tax returns, and any other information about your financial life.

Advance planning does take time, but not planning will create havoc for your family during a difficult time.

Reference: Sedona Red Rock News (July 9, 2019) “Plan ahead in case of sudden sickness or death”

 

Surviving Spouse Needs An Estate Plan

When one spouse dies after meticulously titling assets to pass through joint tenancy to the surviving spouse, estate planning attorneys flinch. There are occasions when everything works smoothly, but they are the exception. As this article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel warns “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust.” Actually, she needs more than a revocable trust: she needs an estate plan.

Most of the assets in the plan created by her husband, in this case, did pass to the wife outside of probate. However, there are a number of details that remain. She needs to obtain date-of-death values for any non-IRA securities the couple owned, and she should also have their home’s value determined, so that a new cost basis for the house will be established. She also needs an appointment with an estate planning attorney to create a will and an estate plan.

If she dies without a will, her children will inherit the estate in equal shares by intestate succession. However, if any of her children pass before she does, the estate could be distributed to her grandchildren. If they are of legal age, there is no control over how the assets will be managed.  Making matters worse, if a child or grandchild is disabled and receiving government benefits, an inheritance could make them ineligible for Social Security and Medicaid benefits, unless the inheritance is held within a Special Needs Trust.

Another reason for an estate plan: a will details exactly how assets are distributed, from the set of pearls that great aunt Sarah has kept in the family for decades to the family home. A durable power of attorney is also part of an estate plan, which lets a named family member or trusted friend make financial decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated. An estate plan also includes an advance health care directive, so a loved one can make medical decisions on your behalf if you are not able.

These are the basics of an estate plan. They protect loved ones from having to go to court to obtain the power to make decisions on your behalf, as well as protect your family from outsiders making claims on your estate.

A revocable trust is one way to avoid probate. An estate planning attorney will be able to evaluate your own unique situation and determine what the best type of trust would be for your situation, or if you even need a trust.

You may be thinking of putting your home, most families’ biggest asset, into joint tenancy with your children. What if one or more of your children have a divorce, lawsuit or bankruptcy? This will jeopardize your control of your home. A revocable trust will allow your assets to remain in your control.

The last piece in this estate is the IRA. If you are the surviving spouse, you’ll want to roll over your spouse’s IRA into your own. Make sure to update the beneficiary designation. If you neglect this step and the IRA pays into your estate when you pass, then the IRA has to be cashed in within five years of your death. Your children will lose the opportunity to stretch IRA distributions over their lifetimes.

An estate planning attorney can help guide you through this entire process, working through all the details. If your goal is to avoid probate, they can make that happen, while protecting you and your loved ones at the same time.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 24, 2019) “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust”