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”

 

The Importance of a Will

Even during a pandemic, few people want to spend time thinking about death. However, having an estate plan means having some of the most important documents you’ll ever create. Having a will is a gift that alleviates the burden placed on loved ones after we are gone, says this recent article “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will” from Bankrate. In a time of sorrow, the family and friends will be spared the stress that makes grieving more complicated when there is no will, no guidance and no path forward.

What is a will?

In its most simple form, a will is a legal document that serves to transfer property at your death to the people you choose. It is revocable, which means you have the legal ability to make changes to it, as long as you are alive and have the mental capacity to do so. However, wills do more than distribute property. The will is your chance to state your wishes for who will care for your children, what happens to your physical remains and who will take care of your pets.

Are Wills Pretty Much the Same?

There’s a good reason why the best wills are those created with an estate planning attorney: they are created to suit your specific needs. Just as every person is different, everyone’s will must reflect their life. Some people want to name a recipient for every single asset they have, while others prefer simply to give their entire estate to a spouse, their children, a trust, or a charity. However, there are also different kinds of wills.

A Testamentary Will is a will signed in the presence of witnesses. It is the best choice to protect your family.

A Holographic Will is a handwritten will, which is not acceptable in many states and could lead your family into all kinds of expensive and stressful battles, in and out of court.

An Oral Will is a verbal will that is declared in front of witnesses, but don’t count on anything you say being considered a legally valid will.

A Mutual Will is also known as a “I love you Will,” when partners create a joint will leaving everything to each other. There can be some tricky things about these wills, since when one person dies, the other is still legally bound to the terms of this will. If the surviving spouse remarries, it can become complicated.

A Pour Over Will is the ideal choice, when your plan is to pour assets into an established trust at your death.

What does a will do and not do?

Wills are used to determine guardianship for minor children and distribute assets and real property. Wills don’t control jointly owned assets, or contracts, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts. These are controlled by beneficiary designation forms. It won’t matter if your will says that your current spouse should inherit your retirement account and you never changed the beneficiary from your first spouse. This is why estate planning attorneys always tell clients to check on beneficiary designations when large life events, like divorce and remarriage, occur.

What happens if there is no will?

Without a will, the state’s laws will determine what happens and your wishes don’t count. That includes who inherits your property, and even who raises your minor children. The court will make all of these decisions. The stress that this creates cannot be underestimated. When there is no will, the chances of litigation between family members and trouble from distant relatives seeking a claim against your estate rises.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your estate plan and prepare a will.

Reference: Bankrate (Nov. 6, 2020) “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will”

 

Act Quickly to Protect an Estate

For most families, the process of estate administration or the probate of a will starts weeks after the death of a loved one.  However, before that time, there are certain steps that need to be taken immediately after death, according to a recent article “Protecting an estate requires swift action” from The Record-Courier. It is not always easy to keep a clear head and stay on top of these tasks but pushing them aside could lead to serious losses and possible liability.

The first step is to secure the deceased’s home, cars and personal property. The residence needs to be locked to prevent unauthorized access. It may be wise to bring in a locksmith, so that anyone who had been given keys in the past will not be able to go into the house. Cars should be parked inside garages and any personal property needs to be securely stored in the home. Nothing should be moved until the trust administration or probate has been completed. Access to the deceased’s digital assets and devices also need to be secured.

Mail needs to be collected and retrieved to prevent the risk of unauthorized removal of mail and identity theft. If there is no easy access to the mailbox, the post office needs to be notified, so mail can be forwarded to an authorized person’s address.

Estate planning documents need to be located and kept in a safe place. The person who has been named as the executor in the will needs to have those documents. If there are no estate planning documents or if they cannot be located, the family will need to work with an estate planning attorney. The estate may be subjected to a probate proceeding.

One of the responsibilities that most executors don’t know about, is that when a person dies, their will needs to be admitted to the court, regardless whether they had trusts. If the deceased left a will, the executor or the person who has possession of the will must deliver it to the court clerk. Failing to do so could result in large civil liability.

At least five and as many as ten original death certificates should be obtained. The executor will need them when closing accounts. As soon as possible, banks, financial institutions, credit card companies, pension plans, insurance companies and others need to be notified of the person’s passing. The Social Security Administration needs to be notified, so direct deposits are not sent to the person’s bank account. Depending on the timing of the death, these deposits may need to be returned. The same is true if the deceased was a veteran—the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) need to be notified. There may be funeral benefits or survivor benefits available.

It is necessary, even in a time of grief, to protect a loved one’s estate in a timely and thorough manner. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help through this process.

Reference: The Record-Courier (Oct. 17, 2020) “Protecting an estate requires swift action”

 

Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”

 

The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Key Terms: 

Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family

Transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death is the basic reason for an estate plan. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. You already have an estate plan, because every state has laws addressing how assets are managed and who will inherit your assets, known as the Laws of Intestacy. However, the estate plan created by your state’s laws might not be what you want, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

To take more control over your estate, you’ll want to have an estate planning attorney create an estate plan drafted to achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you haven’t done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You’ll need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals,
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan,
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents,
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years with your estate planning attorney and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

 

When Do We Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Kiplinger’s article “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice” explains that this is when a lot of panicked calls are made to elder law attorneys. These attorneys specialize in planning for the legal complications that can arise in old age. However, seldom do people think to consult one preemptively to avoid making that panicked phone call in the first place.

Elder care lawyers work in the best interests of the older person, although how that is accomplished may differ. If the senior is competent and contacts the attorney it can be fairly straightforward. However, if an adult family member or friend is an agent or has power of attorney for an elderly person—and asks for help, the attorney is representing the agent. In any event, anyone who has power of attorney has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the elderly person granting them that authority.

If a power of attorney isn’t in place and the elderly parent is incapable of giving it, the family is required to go to court to have someone appointed as a guardian which can be a time-consuming option. If a parent is cognitively capable and doesn’t want help there’s nothing an attorney can do about it.

Although state laws vary, elder law primarily concerns these topics:

  • The client’s wishes and health
  • Family dynamics; and
  • The client’s financial assets and income.

An elder care attorney will also make sure that all important documents are in place and up-to-date according to state laws. This may include a will, a trust, a power of attorney and an advance directive that includes a health care proxy.

Elder law attorneys also help moderate tough decisions, like when family members can’t agree about how a loved one wanted to be buried.  In addition, elder care lawyers understand the complex laws for Medicaid and VA benefits. An elder care lawyer can speak to many other issues ranging from long-term care insurance to capital gains taxes.

A key when meeting with an elder law attorney is that you feel comfortable, that you’re not rushed and that your questions are answered.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 15, 2020) “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice”

 

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.  Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.  In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

 

What Does an Executor Do?

Being asked to be an executor is a lot of work. As the executor, you are responsible for taking care of all of the financial and legal matters of the estate, explains the article “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate” from Review Times. The job will require a lot of time and, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the family situation, could be challenging.

Some of the tasks include:

  • Filing court papers to start the probate process to determine whether the will is valid.
  • Making a complete inventory of everything in the estate.
  • Obtaining an estate tax ID number, opening an estate bank account and using the estate funds to pay bills, including funeral costs and medical bills.
  • If the estate includes a home, maintaining the home and paying the mortgage, taxes, etc.
  • Terminating credit cards, notifying banks and government agencies—including Social Security—and the post office.
  • Preparing and filing income tax returns for the last year of the person’s life, unless they filed them already, and for the estate.
  • Distributing assets, as directed by the will.

Your first task is to locate the will and any important documents and financial information. You will need the will, deeds, titles, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.

If the estate is complicated, you will want to work with an estate planning attorney, who can guide you through the process. The estate pays for the attorney and you work closely with them. Every state has its own laws and timetables for the executor’s responsibilities, which an estate planning attorney will be familiar with.

If possible, find out if there are any family conflicts, before the loved one passes. If there are potential problems, it may be better for the loved one to tell who will be inheriting what before they die. If there is no plan for asset distribution, the person who is asking you to be the executor needs to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible and have a plan created, with all of the documents necessary for your state.

The executor is entitled to be paid a fee, which is paid by the estate. In most states, that fee is set at a percentage of the estate’s value, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. If you are both an executor and a beneficiary, you may want to forgo the fee, because fees are taxable, but in most states, inheritances are not.

Reference: Review Times (Sep. 6, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

 

Estate Planning Needs for Every Stage

Many people decide they need an estate plan when they reach a certain age, but when an estate plan is needed is less about age than it is about stages in life, explains a recent article “Life stages dictate estate planning needs” from The News-Enterprise. Life’s stages can be broken into four groups, young with limited assets, young parents, getting close to retirement and post-retirement life.

Every adult should have an estate plan and without one, we can’t determine who will take care of our financial and legal matters, if we are incapacitated or die unexpectedly. We also don’t have a voice in how any property we own will be distributed after death.

The first stage—a young individual with limited assets—includes college students, people in the early years of their careers and young couples, married or not. They may not own real estate or substantial assets but they need a fiduciary and beneficiary. Distribution of assets is less of a priority than provisions for life emergencies.

Once a person becomes a parent, he or she needs to protect minor children or special needs dependents. Lifetime planning is still a concern but protecting dependents is the priority. Estate planning is used in this stage to name guardians, set up trusts for children and name a trustee to oversee the child’s inheritance, regardless of size.

Many people use revocable living trusts as a means of protecting assets for minor dependents. The revocable trust directs property to pass to the minor beneficiary in whatever way the parents deem appropriate. This is typically done so the child can receive ongoing care until the age when parents decide the child should receive his or her inheritance. The revocable trust also maintains privacy for the family since the trust and its contents are not part of the probated estate.

The third stage of life includes people whose children are adults, who have no children or who are near retirement age and addresses different concerns, such as passing along assets to beneficiaries as smoothly as possible while minimizing taxes. The best planning strategy for this stage is often dictated by the primary type of asset.

For people with special situations, such as a beneficiary with substance abuse problems, or a person who owns multiple properties in multiple states or someone who is concerned about the public nature of probate, trusts are a critical part of protecting assets and privacy.

For people who own a primary residence and retirement assets, an estate plan that includes a will, a power of attorney and medical power of attorney may suffice. An estate planning attorney guides each family to make recommendations that will best suit their needs.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 25, 2020) “Life stages dictate estate planning needs”

,