What Can a Strong Estate Planning Attorney Help Me Accomplish?

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “When Should I Start My Estate Planning?” explains that, as we settle down, we should start considering how we’ll provide for and protect those you love.  Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney—one with the knowledge and skill to help you design a workable, legally binding estate plan that will keep your assets safe as they accumulate, protect your spouse and children and consider the possibility that you may become incapacitated when you least expect it.

No matter what your age, the estate planning attorney you hire should have outstanding credentials and testimonials to his/her efficiency and personal concern.

This legal professional must be able to:

  • Listen, understand, and address your individual needs
  • Clarify your options
  • Draft, review, and file all necessary estate planning documents
  • Make certain your estate plan covers all contingencies; and
  • Is prepared to modify your documents as your life circumstances change.

When you see that the future is unpredictable, you realize that estate planning can help you make that future as secure as possible. Estate planning can be as complicated as it is essential. Accordingly, regardless of our age, speak with a highly competent estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shown us, planning for the unexpected can never be addressed too soon.

Reference: Legal Reader (June 23, 2020) “When Should I Start My Estate Planning?”

 

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”

 

Keeping Yourself and Loved Ones Safe during the Pandemic

The numbers are frightening, especially for those over 80. By the time seniors with COVID-19 are admitted to the hospital, it’s usually too late to do anything about their legacy. This topic was taken up recently in the article “Tips for protecting seniors and their legacy in the pandemic” from My Edmond News. That includes creating a last will and testament, naming a health care power of attorney, or having a conversation about their end-of-life wishes. Here are thoughts on how to stay safe and prepare for the worst.

Follow the recommended health guidelines and be careful. Hand washing, social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks and cleaning surfaces are very important for seniors. Online shopping or going to the grocery store during senior hours are better choices, if you have a choice.

Beware of scammers. Scammers who target the elderly use their fear of the pandemic to provoke action. One of the latest scams is a phone call from someone claiming to be a contact tracer, saying they are tracking people who have been exposed to COVID-19. They ask for Social Security numbers, birthdays and zip codes. No legitimate contact tracer will ask these questions.

Make a plan for your digital assets. Seniors are active on Facebook, use email and a variety of apps to stay in touch with grandchildren and manage their finances. Make a list of all of your online accounts and passwords, so that a trusted family member or friend will be able to help, if you are incapacitated or die. Untangling digital assets is much more complex than tangible assets—there’s no paper trail to follow.

Get your legal affairs in order now. Depending on your state of residence, you may be able to have documents witnessed and notarized remotely. Your estate planning attorney will know what the current rules are and be able to get documents prepared.

Create a Power of Attorney. This will let the person you name as POA take care of your finances, pay bills and keep your financial life from falling apart if you become ill.

Have a Health Care Power of Attorney created. This allows the person you name to get information on your medical decisions and make health care decisions, if you cannot.

Use an estate planning attorney to have these documents created. They are powerful documents, and their advice in helping select the right person can prevent a world of trouble in the future. The estate planning attorney who hears you say “Well, my nephew is the only one, but he’s been in and out of rehab for six years now,” can help you make a better choice!

Have a Will, or Last Will and Testament, created by an estate planning attorney. A professionally prepared last will sets out your wishes for distribution of your assets and is legally enforceable.

Update your beneficiaries. Distributions from accounts including IRAs, pensions and life insurance policies are not governed by your last will, but by the beneficiaries you name. As your life changes, these need to be updated. You really don’t want an old boyfriend or ex-spouse receiving your entire life insurance policy.

Once you have your estate plan done, you’ll realize it was easy to do, and well worth the peace of mind of knowing that you and your loved ones are protected.

Reference: My Edmond News (June 1, 2020) “Tips for protecting seniors and their legacy in the pandemic”

 

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best answer is the use of a trust. By leaving money to an heir in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a three or a thirty-year period. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.  The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

If the funding for the trust will come from proceeds from a life insurance policy, it may be necessary to have your estate planning attorney contact the insurance company to be sure that the insurance company will permit a testamentary trust to be the beneficiary of the life insurance and avoid probate altogether.

Not all insurance companies will permit this. There may be some other changes that need to occur for this to work and be in compliance with your state’s laws. However, your estate planning attorney will be able to resolve the issue for you.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

 

What Happens when Mom Refuses to Create an Estate Plan?

This is a tough scenario. It happens more often than you’d think. Someone owns a home, investment accounts and an inheritance but doesn’t want to have an estate plan. They know they need to do something but keep putting it off—until they die, and the family is left with an expensive and stressful mess. A recent article titled “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late” from Kiplinger, explains how to help make things right.

Most people put off seeing an estate planning attorney because they are afraid of death. They may also be overwhelmed by the thought of how much work is involved. They are also worried about what it all might cost. however, if there is no estate plan, the costs will be far higher for the family.

How do you get the person to understand that they need to move forward?

Talk with the financial professionals the person already uses and trusts, like a CPA or financial advisor. Ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney they think would be a good fit with the person who doesn’t have an estate plan. It may be easier to hear this message from a CPA, than from an adult child.  Work with that professional to promote the person, usually an older family member, to get comfortable with the idea to talk about their wishes and values with the estate planning attorney. Offer to attend the meeting or to facilitate the video conference, to make the person feel more comfortable.

An experienced estate planning attorney will have worked with reluctant people before. They’ll know how to put the older person at ease and explore their concerns. When the conversation is pleasant and productive, the person may understand that the process will not be as challenging and that there will be a lot of help along the way.

If there is no trusted team of professionals, then offer to be a part of any conversations with the estate planning attorney to make the introductory discussion easier. Share your own experience in estate planning, and tread lightly.

Trying to force a person to engage in estate planning with a heavy hand, almost always ends up in a stubborn refusal. A gentle approach will always be more successful. Explain how part of the estate plan includes planning for medical decisions while the person is living and is not just about distributing their assets. You should be firm, consistent and kind.

Explaining what their family members will need to go through if there is no will, may or may not have an impact. Some people don’t care, and may simply shrug and say, “It’ll be their problem, not mine.” Consider what or who matters to the person. What if they could leave assets for a favorite grandchild to go to college? That might be more motivating.

One other thing to consider: if the person has an estate plan and it is out of date, that may be just as bad as not having an estate plan at all, especially when the person has been divorced and remarried. Just as many people refuse to have an estate plan, many people fail to update important documents, when they remarry. More than a few spouses come to estate planning attorney’s offices, when a loved one’s life insurance policy is going to their prior spouse. It’s too late to make any changes. A health care directive could also name a former brother-in-law to make important medical decisions. During a time of great duress, it is a bad time to learn that the formerly close in-law, who is now a sworn enemy, is the only one who can speak with doctors. Don’t procrastinate if any of these issues are present.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 11, 2020) “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late”

 

How Can Estate Planning Protect Me from COVID-19?

There are several things you need to consider, especially during this COVID-19 situation and your estate planning, explains WFMY.com in the recent article “A different kind of coronavirus protection: Wills & Power of Attorney documents.”

A financial power of attorney is first on the list of things to consider. This essential legal document gives a trusted agent the authority to make financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.  Most people have their estate planning attorney draft the POA to go into effect once the principal or the person who’s giving the authority can no longer make decisions for themselves.

In addition, if you become ill and fall into a coma, you need someone to be able to also make medical decisions. A health care power of attorney or Health Care Proxy permits your agent to make medical decisions on your behalf. You can also sign a living will, which can state your wishes about healthcare decisions, especially end of life decisions.

A will can state your decisions for the distribution of your assets when you die. However, your property will stay in your name until that occurs. Another option is a living trust, which places your property in a trust for the benefit of a charity, your loved ones, or both. A trust may distribute the property more efficiently.  While the terms in your will and trust are important, you should also have a discussion with your family and let them know what you’re thinking. This will help avoid hard feelings after you’re gone.

It’s important to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney and talk to the people you want to be your POA attorney-in-fact, executor of your will and your trustee. Talk to your attorney about what happens when one of these key persons included in your planning dies.

You should also think about your parents and if they have an estate plan. You should know what will happen, if they become ill and need care. What happens if they get Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia?

You should make certain that you and those you love, have legal estate planning documents in place prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney.

From there, review your plan every few years with your attorney, because things change.

Reference: WFMY.com (April 22, 2020) “A different kind of coronavirus protection: Wills & Power of Attorney documents”

 

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”

 

Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies

This year, more families than usual are finding themselves grappling with the challenge of managing the affairs of a loved one who has died. Handling these tasks while mourning is hard, and often families do not have time to prepare, says the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider. The following are steps to take when a loved one dies and help you get through this difficult time.

Someone has to be in charge. If there is a will, there should be a person named who is responsible for administering the estate usually called the executor or personal representative. If there is no will, it will be best if one person has the necessary skills to take the lead.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse is the usual choice. Otherwise, a family member who lives closest to the deceased is the next best choice. That person will need to get documents from the local court and take care of the residence until it is sold. Being physically nearby can make many tasks easier.

It is always better if these decisions are made before the person dies. Wills should be kept up to date, as should power of attorney documents, trusts and advance directives. When naming an executor or trustee, let them know what you are asking of them. For instance, don’t name someone who hates pets and children to be your children’s guardian or be responsible for your beloved dogs when you die.

Don’t delay. Grief is a powerful emotion, especially if the death was unexpected. It may be hard to get through the regular tasks of your day never mind the additional work of managing an estate. However, there are risks to delaying, including becoming a target of scammers.

Get more death certificates than seems necessary. Make your life easier by getting at least a dozen certified copies, so you don’t have to keep going back to the source. Banks, brokerage houses, phone companies, utilities, credit card companies, etc., will all want to see the death certificate. While there are instances where a copy will be accepted in many cases you will need an original with a raised seal. In fact, in some states it is a crime to photocopy a death certificate.

Who to notify? The first call needs to be to the Social Security Administration. You may also want to send an email. If Social Security benefits continue to be paid, returning the money can turn into a time-consuming ordeal. If there are any other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those institutions need to be notified. The same is true when it comes to insurance companies, banks and credit card companies. Fraud on the credit cards of the deceased is quite common. When a notice of death is published, criminals look for the person’s credit card and Social Security numbers on the dark web. Act fast to prevent fraud.

Protect the physical property. Secure the home right away. Are there plants to be watered or pets that need care? Take pictures, create an inventory and consider changing locks. Take any valuables out of the house and place in a secure location. If the house is going to be empty, make sure to take care of the property to avoid any deterioration.

Paying the bills. Depending on the person’s level of organization, you’ll have to identify where the money is and if anything is being paid automatically. Old tax returns can be helpful to identify income sources. Figure out what accounts need payment, like utilities.

Some accounts are distributed directly to beneficiaries, like transfer-on-death accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy will pass directly to the joint owner. The executor’s role is to inform the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds.

File tax returns. You’ll have to do the final taxes due on April 15 of the year after death. If taxes weren’t filed for any prior years, the executor has to do those as well.

Consider getting help. An estate planning lawyer can help with the administration of an estate, if it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of who handles this process, expect the tasks to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the complexity of the estate.

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

 

When Does the Fiduciary Duty Granted by a Power of Attorney Begin?

A recent case examined the issue of when the fiduciary duty begins for an agent who has been given Power of Attorney, as reported by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in the article “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight.”

Soon after moving to Illinois from Florida to live with his eldest son, a man and that son opened multiple bank accounts, purchased certificates of deposit (CDs) from a bank where the son’s wife worked and transferred more than $60,000 from two of the man’s Florida bank accounts to Illinois banks. Soon after the man moved, his eldest son deposited more than $300,000 from the sale of his father’s Florida condominium into one of the father’s Illinois bank accounts.

The eldest son then withdrew money from the father’s accounts to pay for home improvement costs and other personal expenses. After the father died, the eldest son’s two brothers sued their older brother, accusing him of initiating numerous transfers of money that were not in their father’s or their best interests, and of exerting undue influence on their father, by convincing him to change his will after he moved in with the oldest brother.

The trial court ordered the older brother to repay more than $900,000 back to the estate, including almost $300,000 in prejudgment interest, and voided the revised estate planning documents that the older brother had his father sign. That included a revised will, trust and power of attorney that favored the older brother.

Once you are appointed as a power of attorney, you become a fiduciary—that’s how most state laws work. That means you must act first in the interest of the person who has appointed you. The law states that an agent owes a fiduciary duty to the principal. Period. Any transactions that favor the agent over the principal (or their estate) are deemed fraudulent, unless the agent is able to disprove the fraud with clear and convincing evidence that his or her actions were undertaken in good faith and did not betray the confidence and trust placed in the agent. If the agent can meet this burden, the challenged transaction may be upheld. But if it doesn’t, then the transaction is not valid.

Some of the facts the court look at when making this determination are: did the fiduciary make a full disclosure to the principal of key information, did the fiduciary pay the fair market value for the transfer and did the principal have competent and independent advice.

In this case, the trial judge found that the multiple transfers into the Illinois banks and the gift of $130,000 from the principal to the oldest brother occurred during the existence of the POA relationship. The oldest brother clearly benefitted from these transfers, which activated the presumption of fraud.

The trial court’s decision was appealed by the older brother, who along with his two younger brothers brought motions for summary judgment, that is, for the appeals court to disregard the decision of the trial court. However, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the older brother failed to prove that the transfers were in good faith.

The appeals court makes it clear: the power of attorney fiduciary relationship begins when the power of attorney agent signs the document and the agent has a legal responsibility to put the interests of the principal first.

Reference: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (April 23, 2020) “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight”

 

Does Your Estate Plan Need a Will or a Trust—Or Both?

When you pass, having a structure in place that clearly directs who is in charge and who gets what assets, gives most people a sense of relief about their estate plan. Does your estate plan need a will or a trust or both. It’s important to understand how a will works, how a trust works and when to use each of these planning tools, reports the article “Revocable trust vs. will: A guide to estate planning in the age of coronavirus” from Bankrate. In many cases, using both achieves the ultimate goal of protecting the family assets and their privacy.

The will process is more complex than its typical portrayal in film or fiction. The will directs who is to receive the property of the deceased. Without a will, property may be distributed by the courts following the “intestate succession” law of the state. That’s usually the next of kin—not always who you want to inherit your estate.

If property is owned jointly, then it passes to the surviving owner. Accounts and assets with a named beneficiary go directly to that beneficiary. Any assets held in a trust are subject to the directions in the trust. That is one reason to check all accounts you own and make sure they have two named beneficiaries—primary and contingent. That applies to retirement and investment accounts, as well as life insurance policies.

The probate court appoints an executor— who should be chosen by the decedent and nominated in the will—to carry out the directions in the will, pay any outstanding debts, take care of taxes and oversee the distribution of assets. The process of administering the will can be lengthy, depending upon the size and the complexity of the estate. During probate, the will becomes a public document. Predatory creditors are able to see the will, including the amount of assets and their distribution. In many jurisdictions, there are court fees associated with probate that can take a bite (or a nibble) out of the estate.

Trusts are used to circumvent some of the issues created when assets are passed via a will. Trusts are legal structures that provide protection for assets. The assets in a trust do not belong to the individual, they belong to the trust.  Therefore, they are not subject to probate. When the trust is created, a trustee is named whose job it is to manage the affairs of the trust. A successor trustee is named to manage the trust, if the trustee cannot or will not serve.

The revocable trust is used to take assets out of the estate while allowing the asset owner to maintain control. Assets can be moved in or out of the trust, or the trust can be dissolved, and the assets taken back. However, there are no tax benefits since the trust owner is the trust maker, the trustee, and the beneficiary, as long as the owner is alive. On the owner’s passing, the designated successor trustee takes over.

With an irrevocable trust, there are significant tax benefits. However, there is also a loss of control of the assets. Trusts do cost more to establish than wills but they offer a number of advantages. The use of a trust means that less or none of your assets will go through probate, speeding up the distribution process. Trusts also protect the family’s privacy, since the details in the trusts do not become part of the public record. There is less involvement by the court in distributing assets, so fees may be lower.

Speak with an estate planning attorney about how trusts may play a useful part in your estate plan and for passing wealth down to multiple generations.

Reference: Bankrate (April 17, 2020) “Revocable trust vs. will: A guide to estate planning in the age of coronavirus”