What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”

How Do I Find a Great Elder Law Attorney?

Zobuz’s recent article entitled “4 Tips for Hiring a Lawyer to Help with Medicaid Planning” says you may need to turn to an Elder Law attorney who can help you with Medicaid planning.

Here are some factors in choosing the best attorney:

Referrals and Recommendations. Look for an elder law attorney in the National Elder Law Foundation or the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys database. You can also ask local agencies who work with seniors, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, AARP, as well as hospitals and nursing home social workers.

Experience. Elder law attorneys specialize in legal and financial issues that affect seniors. This includes areas such as estate planning and Medicaid planning. Look for an attorney who’s been successful in Medicaid planning and is board-certified in elder and special needs law.

Fees. Be sure that you understand how fees are structured. You should get a client engagement letter that outlines the services he or she will provide, as well as the fees they charge.

Customer Service. Dealing with Medicaid planning is a process that takes time. You need an attorney you can contact when you have questions.

A Few Other Thoughts…

Meet the elder law attorney in person for a consultation. This will help you to get a sense of his or her personality.

Look for a lawyer who will speak to you in a way you can understand and clarify points as needed.

Remember: if you don’t feel at ease with the attorney, look elsewhere.

When you select a qualified lawyer to help you with Medicaid planning and other medical insurance concerns, you will secure your future care.

Don’t risk your financial security or that of your family by waiting until it is too late.

Reference: Zobuz (April 22, 2022) “4 Tips for Hiring a Lawyer to Help with Medicaid Planning”

What Is a Power of Attorney?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “What does becoming someone’s ‘power of attorney’ mean?” explains that a power of attorney (POA) is a legal document through which a principal states that his or her trusted agent may act on his or her behalf and for their benefit.

A power of attorney is usually centered on addressing the principal’s financial matters, such as banking, paying taxes and selling or buying property.

A power of attorney can be “springing,” so that it becomes effective only when the principal becomes incapacitated. A springing POA provides that an agent can’t act, until the principal is determined to be incapacitated based on the criteria listed in the POA.

The “springing POA” frequently says the determination of incapacity will be made by the principal’s spouse and a licensed physician, or two licensed physicians.

There is also what is known as a medical power of attorney or living will. This is a legal document through which a principal authorizes an agent to make medical decisions for him or her, when they’re incapable of making the decisions for themselves.

In either event, the agent doesn’t become personally responsible for the financial expenses incurred by the principal, unless the agent agrees to take such responsibility in his/her individual capacity.

It is, therefore, important to execute documents as an agent and indicate you’re doing so as an agent.

For example, you, Jim Smith, would sign for principal Mary Smith as follows: “Mary Smith, by Jim Smith, attorney-in-fact,” or “Jim Smith, as agent for Mary Smith, under power of attorney.”

When signing a contract with respect to nursing home care, be wary of agreeing to individually be the “responsible party.” That term may be defined to assign additional obligations, meaning being responsible for the bill.

Remember to sign everything as agent under the power of attorney.

Reference: nj.com (April 12, 2022) “What does becoming someone’s ‘power of attorney’ mean?”

Should I Have a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs are powerful retirement savings tools. Account owners are allowed to take tax-free distributions in retirement and can avoid paying taxes on investment growth. There’s little downside to a Roth IRA, according to a recent article “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA” from U.S. News & World Report.

Taxes are paid in advance on a Roth IRA. Therefore, if you are in a low tax bracket now and may be in a higher bracket later, or if tax rates increase, you’ve already paid those taxes. Another plus: all your Roth IRA funds are available to you in retirement, unlike a traditional IRA when you have to pay income tax on every withdrawal.

Roth IRA distributions taken after age 59 ½ from accounts at least five years old are tax free. Every withdrawal taken from a traditional IRA is treated like income and, like income, is subject to taxes.

When comparing the two, compare your current tax rate to what you expect your tax rate to be once you’ve retired. You can also save in both types of accounts in the same year, if you’re not sure about future tax rates.

Roth IRA accounts also let you keep investment gains, because you don’t pay income tax on investment gains or earned interest.

Roth IRAs have greater flexibility. Traditional IRA account owners are required to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from an IRA every year after age 72. If you forget to take a distribution, there’s a 50% tax penalty. You also have to pay taxes on the withdrawal. Roth IRAs have no withdrawal requirements during the lifetime of the original owner. Take what you need, when you need, if you need.

Roth IRAs are also more flexible before retirement. If you’re under age 59 ½ and take an early withdrawal, it’ll cost you a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus income tax. Roth early withdrawals also trigger a 10% penalty and income tax, but only on the portion of the withdrawal from investment earnings.

If your goal is to leave IRA money for heirs, Roth IRAs also have advantages. A traditional IRA account requires beneficiaries to pay taxes on any money left to them in a traditional 401(k) or IRA. However, those who inherit a Roth IRA can take tax-free withdrawals. Heirs have to take withdrawals. However, the distributions are less likely to create expensive tax situations.

Retirement savers can contribute up to $6,000 in a Roth IRA in 2022. Age 50 and up? You can make an additional $1,000 catch up contribution for a total Roth IRA contribution of $7,000.

If this sounds attractive but you’ve been using a traditional IRA, a Roth conversion is your next step. However, you will have to pay the income taxes on the amount converted. Try to make the conversion in a year when you’re in a lower tax bracket. You could also convert a small amount every year to maintain control over taxes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 11, 2022) “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA”

Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Some reasons to update your will are more obvious than others, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, births and deaths. However, those aren’t the only reasons your estate plan needs to be reviewed, explains a recent article appropriately titled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” from CNBC.

Think of your estate plan like your home. They both need regular updates and maintenance. If your house starts to get rundown or the roof springs a leak, you know you need to get it fixed. Your estate plan is not as visible. However, it is still in need of ongoing maintenance.

Health events should be a trigger, yours or people named in your will. If the person you named as your executor becomes ill or dies, you’ll need to name a new person to replace them. The same goes for a guardian named to care for any minor children, especially if you named a grandparent for this role.

If you move, your estate plan must ‘move’ with you. Each state has different laws regarding how estates are administered. In one state, an executor living out of state may be okay. However, in another, it may make the executor ineligible to serve. Inheritance tax laws also vary.

Any time there is a large change to your personal wealth, whether it’s good or bad, your estate planning attorney should review your will.

The same goes for a change in parental status. The birth of additional children seems like it might not require a review. However, it does. More than a few celebrities failed to update their estate plans and accidentally disinherited children. The same person who may be willing to be a guardian for one child, may find taking on two or three children to be too much of a challenge. If you want to change the guardianship, your estate plan needs to be updated.

A change in your relationship with fiduciaries also merits an update. Someone you named ten years ago to be your executor may no longer be a part of your life, or they may have died. Family members age, retire and move and siblings have changes in their own lives. Reviewing the executor regularly is important.

If a family member becomes disabled, you may need special needs planning.

A commonly overlooked trigger concerns mergers and acquisitions of financial institutions. If your bank is the executor of your estate and the bank is bought or sold, you likely have a new executor. Do you know who the person is, and do you trust their judgment?

Beneficiaries need to be checked every few years to be sure they are still correct. If your life includes a divorce and remarriage, you could be like one man whose life insurance proceeds and property went to his new spouse. His daughter was disinherited because he failed to update his will.

It doesn’t take long to review an estate plan or beneficiaries. However, the impact of not doing so could be long-lasting and cast a negative light on your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

Can I Protect My Inheritance from Divorce?

Even if divorce is the last thing on your mind, when an inheritance is received, it’s wise to treat it differently from your joint assets, advises a recent article “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection” from Forbes. After all, most people don’t expect to be divorced. However, the numbers have to be considered—many do divorce, even those who least expect it.

Maintaining separate property is the most important step to take. If you deposit a spouse’s paycheck into the account with your inheritance, even if it was by accident, you’ve now commingled the funds.

You might get lucky and have a forensic accountant who can dissect that amount and make the argument it was a mistake, as long as it only happened once, but the Court might not agree.

Long before the Court gets to consider this point, if your ex-spouse’s attorney is aggressively pursuing this one act of commingling as enough to make the property jointly owned, you could lose half of your inheritance in a divorce.

You might also try to mount a defense of the particular account or asset being separate property, by identifying the means of transfer. Was there a deed for real estate gifted to you from a parent or a wire transfer for securities? This information will need to be carefully identified and safeguarded as soon as the inheritance comes to you, in case of any future upheavals.

To spare yourself any of this grief, there are steps to be taken now to avoid commingling. Document the source of wealth involved as a gift or inheritance, maintain the property in a wholly separate account and consider keeping it in a different financial institution than any other accounts to avoid commingling.

Another way to safeguard gifts and inherited property against a 50% divorce rate is to use a revocable trust. Creating a revocable trust to own this separate property allows you to make changes to it any time but maintains its separate nature, by serving as a wholly separate accounting entity. The trust will own the property, while you as grantor (creator of the trust) and trustee (responsible for managing the trust) maintain control.

For a turbo-charged version of this concept, you could go with a self-settled domestic asset protection trust. This is a more complex trust and may not be necessary. Your estate planning attorney will be able to explain the difference between this trust and a revocable trust.

One clear warning: if you have already created a revocable trust to protect your estate and it is not funded, you may feel like it would be most convenient to use this already-existing trust for your inheritance. That would not be wise. You should have a completely different trust created for the inherited property, and this would also be a wise time to remember to fund the existing trust.

Using a revocable trust this way will also require customized language in your Last Will, as you’ll want standard language in the Last Will to reflect the trust being separate from your other marital property.

Reference: Forbes (April 13, 2022) “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection”

Why Is Communication Important in Estate Planning?

Successful transition of wealth from generation to generation is best accomplished when family members have a shared understanding of the overall use of the family wealth. While the initial wealth creators have final say about how their assets are distributed, awareness and agreement on the part of the receiving family members regarding how the wealth is used can help preserve assets as they move to the next generation.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Communication Can Be The Key To Creating Harmony In Multi-Generational Estate Planning” says that coming to an agreement can sometimes be difficult, especially if family members bring their own perspectives and values to the estate planning process. However, good communication can help head off potential multi-generational conflicts before they happen.

One of the most significant challenges in achieving multi-generational wealth preservation is that each individual and generation has a different outlook on wealth. Today’s families could include four or even five generations. This big gap in ages could mean differing perspectives on many topics, including:

  • Personal values. Family members may have different belief systems and values, including how they view work, social and political systems, relationships, and other topics.
  • Investing priorities. Some generations may give greater importance to socially conscious investing than others. This could create a conflict when it comes to how and where to invest.
  • Shifting economic environments. Older generations who have lived through various economic scenarios may have very different perspectives than younger generations, particularly those just coming of age in a time of high inflation and a slowing economy.
  • Communication. Not every generation or family member is comfortable talking openly about money, especially when it comes to sharing how much is involved and how to spend it.
  • View of the role of a financial advisor. Some family members may see a financial advisor as a trusted partner, and others may be more skeptical.

While these differences can create challenges in the estate planning process, you can resolve them and reach an agreement about how to best manage the family’s wealth. Begin with a plan designed for the long-term, spanning current and future generations that’s flexible to meet the family’s changing needs and shifting economic environments.

Reference: Forbes (April 18, 2022) “Communication Can Be The Key To Creating Harmony In Multi-Generational Estate Planning”