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”

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What’s Best for You, a Will or a Trust?

That may be an idealistic portrayal, but there is some truth to it. It is no longer unusual for families to engage in estate litigation, according to The Northside Sun’s article “Do You Have a Will or a Trust? Why?” Many families who have estate plans incorporate trusts to ensure that their directions are followed.

One of the many differences between a will and a revocable living trust, is that a will operates only after your death. By contrast, a trust performs many tasks while you are still living. A last will and testament is how assets are distributed after death. A living trust takes effect as soon as it is created and funded, allowing your assets to be protected during life, disability and after death.

A will must go through a court proceeding known as probate before it becomes a legally effective means of carrying out your wishes. A living trust functions without the need for court involvement, both in cases of incapacity and at death.

While you definitely need a will as part of your estate plan, a comprehensive estate plan will also have provisions to prepare for incapacity. Many people have a durable power of attorney. However, this is just one part of the necessary documents for incapacity. In fact, if the power of attorney is too old the bank may refuse to honor it. This is an all-too frequent occurrence and happens more often than not.

In the absence of a recognized power of attorney, the family may need to apply to the court for a Conservatorship, which can be costly. A living trust on the other hand can be created to facilitate access to assets without needing court intervention.

Some families try to create an informal estate plan by putting their children’s names on assets so they can help their parents in the event of incapacity. These self-created plans don’t work. The assets are now exposed to any creditors of the child and are at great risk if there is a divorce or bankruptcy.

Similarly, making an adult child a co-owner of real property will not give the child the ability to sell the property and once again the asset is subject to the claims of creditors.

This is also the case when using lifetime gifting to avoid probate or minimize the size of a taxable estate. A trust can serve the same purposes without the risks that an outright gift presents. This is especially problematic in the event that a child goes through a divorce. The assets could actually end up being owned by the former spouse’s new spouse. Using a trust can maintain control of the assets.

Another family dynamic where trusts are valuable is when there are children from multiple marriages. When the married couple creates a will that leaves their assets to each other, one set of children is likely to be accidentally disinherited. Let’s say a father has two daughters and a mother has two sons. They marry and create wills to leave each other all of their assets. If the father dies, the mother inherits his entire estate. When the mother dies, it is more likely that she will leave her estate to her two children. A trust can be created that will facilitate the distribution of the remaining assets that had belonged to the father to his daughters.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how you can use trusts as part of your estate plan in planning for life, incapacity and death. Trusts don’t have to be complicated to serve your needs. Make sure you understand the trusts, how they work and that they will achieve your goals.

Reference: The Northside Sun (August 14, 2019) “Do You Have a Will or a Trust? Why?”

 

A Non-Medical Check Up – For Your Estate Plan

An estate plan isn’t just for you—it’s for those you love. It should include a will and possibly, trusts, a power of attorney for financial affairs and a health care directive. As many as 60% of all Americans don’t have a will. However, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted for everyone the need to have those documents. For those who have an estate plan, the need for a tune-up has become very clear, says the article “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

With any significant change in your life, a review of your estate plan is in order. Keep in mind that none of your estate planning documents are written in stone. They should be changed when your life does. COVID-19 has also changed many of our lives. Let’s take a look at how.

Has anyone you named as a beneficiary died, or become estranged from you? Will everyone who is a beneficiary in your current estate plan still receive what you had wanted them to receive? Are there new people in your life, family members or otherwise, with whom you want to share your legacy?

The same applies to the person you selected as your executor. As you have aged over the years, so have they. Are they still alive? Are they still geographically available to serve as an executor? Do they still want to take on the responsibilities that come with this role? Family members or trusted friends move, marry, or make other changes in their lives that could cause you to change your mind about their role.

Over time, you may want to change your wishes for your children, or other beneficiaries. Maybe ten years ago you wanted to give everyone an equal share of an inheritance, but perhaps circumstances have changed. Maybe one child has had career success and is a high-income earner, while another child is working for a non-profit and barely getting by. Do you want to give them the same share?

Here’s another thought—if your children have become young adults (in the wink of an eye!), do you want them to receive a large inheritance when they are young adults, or would you want to have some control over when they inherit? Some people stagger inheritances through the use of trusts, and let their children receive significant funds, when they reach certain ages, accomplishments or milestones.

Have you or your children been divorced, since your estate plan was last reviewed? In that case, you really need to get that appointment with an estate planning attorney! Do you want your prior spouse to have the same inheritance you did when you were happily married? If your children are married to people you aren’t sure about, or if they are divorced, do you want to use estate planning to protect their inheritance? That is another function of estate planning.

Taking out your estate plan and speaking with your estate planning attorney is always a good idea. There may be no need for any changes—or you may need to do a major overhaul. Either way, it is better to know what needs to be done and take care of it, especially during a times like the one we are experiencing right now.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 27, 2020) “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will”

 

Don’t Overlook Key Parts of Estate Plan

The importance of having key estate planning documents cannot be overstated. That includes a will, an advance directive, powers of attorney for health care and financial matters and guardianships for minor children. Trusts may also be part of an estate plan and they need to be created and funded in a timely manner. However,, according to the article “7 Things Your Client’s Estate Plan Might Be Missing: Morningstar” from Think Advisor, there are a number of frequently overlooked additional parts to an estate plan that make a difference.

Financial Overview. This gives a broad outline of your assets and can be a useful discussion starting point when one spouse manages the money and the other needs to be brought up to speed. It includes information about larger assets, including the home, investments, cars and other valuables.

A Directory. Creating a complete master list of all accounts, including the account number, website addresses and the names of any individuals that you deal with on a regular basis, avoids sending loved ones on a scavenger hunt. Keep this document safe—either encrypt it or keep it in a locked, fireproof safe in your home.

Personal Property. Wills contain directions about property, but not everything gets included. Make a list of any tangible personal property that you want to go to specific people, like jewelry or artwork, and create a detailed memo. It won’t be part of the will but most states consider such memos legally binding as long as they are mentioned in the will. Your estate planning attorney will know what is best for your situation and in your state.

Plan for Pets. The best way to do this is with a pet trust which is enforceable. You name a person to take care of your pets and how much money they should use to care for the pet. The will can be used to specify who should be your pet’s caretaker. You can leave assets for the pet, but the designated person is not legally bound to use the money for the pet’s well-being.

Digital Estate Plan. Make a plan for your digital property, including tangible digital devices, like computers and phones and the data stored on devices in the cloud and online accounts, including social media, websites, emails, photos, videos, etc. Start by making an inventory of all digital accounts, which needs to be stored in the same way your directory is: under lock and key.

End of Life Plan. Advance directives are used to direct your wishes towards life-extending care but they don’t always go into detail. Providing additional information to loved ones who might need to make health care decisions could alleviate a lifetime of guilt. Having conversations is a starting point but putting your wishes into a document is better.

Ethical Will. An ethical will in which the person hands down their belief system to loved ones is a gift and part of your legacy. What would you want the next generation to know about your beliefs? What life lessons do you want to share?

Reference: Think Advisor (July 22, 2020) “7 Things Your Client’s Estate Plan Might Be Missing: Morningstar”

 

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Financial planners know that most people need to have estate plans, no matter how much or even how little money they have, as explained in this recent article “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have” from Business Insider. An estate plan includes healthcare directives and identifies guardians for minor children in the event you and your spouse die unexpectedly. It also can be created to avoid your family from having to go through probate court.  Skipping this part of your overall financial and legal life could put you, your assets and your family members at risk. Estate planning is done to protect you and your loved ones. That’s just one reason why everyone needs an estate plan. Having an estate plan protects you while you are living.

An estate plan is more than just a will or a trust. The two most common tools in an estate plan are a will and trust, but that’s just the beginning. A will or last will and testament is the document that provides the instructions for your heirs and beneficiaries to follow after you die. Trusts are used to protect assets and enforce your wishes, after you’re gone. However, a good estate plan should also include these documents:

  • An advance healthcare directive or healthcare proxy. These documents stipulate how you want to be treated, if you are alive but so sick or injured that you can’t provide directions. You may want to have a Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR).
  • Powers of attorney. This legal document outlines who can represent you in legal, medical or financial matters, if you are not able to do so. An experienced estate planning attorney can prepare one for you.
  • The right documents help avoid probate court. If you don’t have a will, any property or possessions must go through the probate system. Your documents and information about your assets become part of the public record and can be seen by anyone. Going through probate opens the door to litigation and disputes, which can further delay settling your estate. Having a will and the proper trusts gives clarity to heirs about what you want.

An estate plan protects your children. If you don’t have a will, a court names the guardian who will raise your children. Instead, decide who you would want. Make sure the person you want to care for your children will accept this responsibility. Trusts are a way to preserve assets for your children. The trust is managed by a trustee after you die and can stipulate specific rules and uses for the assets. For instance, you can provide a certain amount of money for the children, until they reach age 18. At that point, your trust could instruct the trustee to use the money for college expenses. You can be as specific as you wish.

Meet with an estate planning attorney familiar with the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will know the estate and tax laws that apply to you and your family.

Reference: Business Insider (June 12, 2020) “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have”

 

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”