Can a Power of Attorney Protect My Assets as I Get Older?

Elder law attorneys help protect individuals as they grow older and then protect their beneficiaries when they pass away.

The Street’s recent article entitled “Guide to Protect Your Assets as You Age – Power of Attorneys” asks us to think about visiting your family doctor for the last 30 years but then needing to see a specialist for the first time. That’s because your family doctor isn’t a specialist, and they might miss something. The article explains that elder law attorneys are the specialists of the legal profession—they take a fresh look at a client’s situation and develop strategies to protect them and their families from the risks as we grow older.

Elder law attorneys show you how to protect yourself and your family. When partnering with an elder law attorney, they make certain that your estate goes to your family as you intended, with little or no tax liability.

An important tool for elder law attorneys is the Power of Attorney (POA). There are two of them: a medical POA and a financial POA. These allow you to designate a trusted agent to make your medical and financial decisions, when you are unable.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has placed everyone in difficult circumstances. As a result, many hospitalized patients are without the proper estate planning documents. While things are letting up some, hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living homes have shuttered their doors to visitors and non-essential workers in an attempt to minimize the spread of this disease. As a result, many patients are unable to get these documents signed.

Although some states initially prevented electronic signatures and notarization that would keep contact to a minimum, many have now permitted patients access to elder law and estate planning attorneys, when needed. These states have signed executive orders that allow for electronic signatures, which has been a huge help. Even so, this can be challenging for an elder individual.

Financial powers of attorney are not all the same either. They are just one tool in the toolbox.

A power of attorney can have a list of things you will permit your designated agent to do for you. Many of these documents do not give your agent enough power to protect you. That’s because they limit your agent’s abilities. That may sound good when you first sign them, but the result is that it makes things harder for your family, if you have a stroke and your loved one needs to protect your finances.

Reference: The Street (Sep. 24, 2020) “Guide to Protect Your Assets as You Age – Power of Attorneys”

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Many people think you have to be a millionaire to need an estate plan and investing in an estate plan is too costly for an average American. Not true! People of modest means actually need an estate plan more than the wealthy to protect what they have. A recent article from TAPinto.net explains the basics in “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive.”

Everyone needs an estate plan consisting of the following documents: a Last Will and Testament, a General Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive or Living Will.

Unless your estate is valued at more than $11.58 million, you may not be as concerned about federal estate taxes right now, but this may change in the near future. Some states, like New Jersey, don’t have any state estate tax at all. There are states, like Pennsylvania, which have an “inheritance” tax determined based on the relationship the person has with the decedent. However, taxes aren’t the only reason to have an estate plan.

If you have young children, your will is the legal document used to tell your executor and the court who you want to care for your minor children by naming their guardian. The will is also used to explain how your minor children’s inheritance should be managed by naming trustees.

Why do you need a General Power of Attorney? This is the document that you need to name a person to be in charge of your affairs, if you become incapacitated and can’t make or communicate decisions. Without a POA in place, no one, not even your spouse, has the legal authority to manage your financial and legal affairs. Your family would have to go to court and file a guardianship action, which can be expensive, take time to complete and create unnecessary stress for the family.

An Advance Medical Directive, also known as a Living Will, is used to let a person of your choice make medical decisions, if you are unable to do so. This is a very important document to have, especially if you have strong feelings about being kept alive by artificial means. The Advance Medical Directive gives you an opportunity to express your wishes for end of life care, as well as giving another person the legal right to make medical decisions on your behalf. Without it, a guardianship may need to be established, wasting critical time if an emergency situation occurs.

Most people of modest means need only these three documents, but they can make a big difference to protect the family. If the family includes disabled children or individuals, owns a business or real estate, there are other documents needed to address these more complex situations. However, simple or complex, your estate and your family deserve the protection of an estate plan.

Reference: TAPinto.net (Sep. 23, 2020) “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive”

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, if you do not have a will created. 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 and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

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

Consider Funding a Trust with Life Insurance

How would funding a trust with life insurance work, and could it be a good option for you? A recent article in Forbes “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance” explains how this works. Let’s start with the basics: a trust is a legal entity where one party, the trustee, holds legal title to the assets owned by the trust, which is managed for the good of the beneficiary. There can be more than one person who benefits from the trust (beneficiaries) and there can be a co-trustee, but we’ll keep this simple.

Trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. The proceeds of the policy provide the beneficiary with assets that are used after the death of the insured. This is especially important when the beneficiaries are minor children and the life insurance has been purchased by their parents. Placing the insurance policy within a trust offers more control over how funds are used.

What kind of a trust should you consider? All trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. There are pros and cons to both. Irrevocable trusts are better for tax purposes, as they are not included as part of your estate. However, with an $11.58 million federal exemption in 2020, most people don’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust throughout your life, while with an irrevocable trust, only a trustee can make changes.

Note that, in addition to federal taxes, most states have estate taxes of their own, and a few have inheritance taxes. When working with an estate planning attorney, they’ll help you navigate the tax aspect as well as the distribution of assets.

Revocable trusts are the most commonly used trust in estate planning. Here’s why:

  • Revocable trusts avoid probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. Assets left in the revocable trust pass directly to the heirs, far quicker than those left through the will.
  • Because they are revocable, the creator of the will can make changes to the trust as circumstances change. This flexibility and control make the revocable trust more attractive in estate planning.

If you are using life insurance to fund the trust, be sure the policy permits you to name beneficiaries, and be certain to name beneficiaries. Missing this step is a common and critical mistake. The beneficiary designations must be crystal clear. If there are two cousins who have the same name, there will need to be a clear distinction made as to who is the beneficiary. If someone changes their name, that change must be reflected by the beneficiary designation.

There are many other types of trusts, including testamentary trusts and special needs trusts. Your estate planning attorney will know which trust is best for your situation. Make sure to fund the trust and update beneficiary designations, so the trust will achieve your goals.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance”

Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate planning should be a business-like process, where people evaluate the assets they have accumulated over time and make clear decisions about how to leave their assets and legacy to those they love. The reality, as described in the article “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe,” from Kiplinger, is not so straightforward. Emotions take over, as does a feeling that time is running short, which is sometimes the case.

Reactive decisions rarely work as well in the short and long term as decisions made based on strategies that are set in place over time. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make, when creating an estate plan or revising one in response to life’s inevitable changes.

Estate plans are all about tax planning. Strategies to minimize taxes are part of estate planning, but they should not be the primary focus. Since the federal exemption is $11.58 million for 2020, and fewer than 3% of all taxpayers need to worry about paying a federal estate tax, there are other considerations to prioritize. If there is a family business, for example, what will happen to the business, especially if the children have no interest in keeping it? In this case, succession or exit planning needs to be a bigger part of the estate plan.

The children should get everything. This is a frequent response, but not always right. You may want to leave your descendants most of your estate, but ask yourself, could your lifetime’s work be put to use in another way? You don’t need to rush to an automatic answer. Give consideration to what you’d like your legacy to be. It may not only be enriching your children and grandchildren’s lives.

My children are very different, but it’s only fair that I leave equal amounts to all of them. Treating your children equally in your estate plan is a lot like treating them exactly the same way throughout their lives. One child may be self-motivated and need no academic help, while another needs tutoring just to maintain average grades. Another may be ready to step into your shoes at the family business, with great management and finance skills, but her sister wants nothing to do with the business. The same family includes offspring with different dreams, hopes, skills and abilities. Leaving everyone an equal share doesn’t always work.

Having a trust takes care of everything. Well, not exactly. In fact, if you neglect to fund a trust, your family may have a mess to deal with. A sizable estate may need revocable or irrevocable trusts, but an estate plan is more complicated than trust or no trust. First, when an asset is placed into an irrevocable trust, the grantor loses control of the asset and the trustee is in control. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, not the grantor of the trust. The beneficiaries include the current and future beneficiaries, so the trustee may have to answer to more than one generation of beneficiaries. Problems can arise when one family member has been named a trustee and their siblings are beneficiaries. Creating that dynamic among family members can create a legacy of distrust and jealousy.

My estate advisors are all working well with each other and looking out for me. In a perfect world, this would be true, but it doesn’t always happen. You have to take a proactive stance, contacting everyone and making sure they understand that you want them to cooperate and act as a team. With clear direction from you, your professional advisors will be able to achieve your goals.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 17, 2020) “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe”

Protecting Inheritance from the Taxman
Illustration of businessman with small income running away from tax paper monster

Protecting Inheritance from the Taxman

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “4 Ways to Protect Your Inheritance from Taxes” explains that inheritances aren’t considered income for federal tax purposes—whether it’s cash, investments or property. However, any subsequent earnings on the inherited assets are taxable, unless it comes from a tax-free source. You must report the interest income on your taxes. Any gains when you sell inherited investments or property are also taxable (but you can usually also claim losses on these sales). Remember that state taxes on inheritances vary, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney for details. Let’s look at fours steps you can take to protect your inheritance:

Look at the alternate valuation date. The basis of property in a decedent’s estate is the fair market value (FMV) of the property on the date of death, but the executor might use the alternate valuation date, which is six months after the date of death. This is only available, if it will decrease both the gross amount of the estate and the estate tax liability, typically resulting in a larger inheritance to the beneficiaries. If the estate isn’t subject to estate tax, then the valuation date is the date of death.

Use a trust. If you know you’re getting an inheritance, ask that they create a trust for the assets. A trust lets you to pass assets to beneficiaries after your death without probate.

Minimize retirement account distributions. Inherited retirement assets aren’t taxable, until they’re distributed. There are rules as to when the distributions must happen. If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse usually can take over the IRA as his or her own. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) would begin at age 72, just as they would for the surviving spouse’s own IRA. However, if you inherit a retirement account from someone not your spouse, you can transfer the funds to an inherited IRA in your name. You have to start taking minimum distributions the year of or the year after the inheritance, even if you’re not yet 72.

Make some gifts. It may be wise to give some of your inheritance to others. It will be a benefit to them, but it could also potentially offset the taxable gains on your inheritance with the tax deduction you get for donating to a charitable organization. If want to leave money to people when you die, you can give annual gifts to your beneficiaries while you’re still living up to a certain amount—$15,000 for to each person without being subject to gift taxes. Gifting also reduces the size of your estate, which can be important if you’re close to the taxable amount. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that you’re staying current with the frequent changes to estate tax laws.

Wealth Advisor (Sep. 15, 2020) “4 Ways to Protect Your Inheritance from Taxes”

What’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

How to Choose a Trustee

To protect all that you have worked for and take care of the most important people in your life, you may have been advised to place some or perhaps all of your assets into a trust. Once you and your estate planning attorney have made that decision, you’ll need to decide who to name as your trustee or trustees. Doing so is not always an easy process, explains Kiplinger in the article “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate.”

Serving as a trustee creates many duties under state law, including acting as a fiduciary to the trust. That means the trustee must be impartial about their own interests, put the beneficiary’s interests and well-being first and be prudent with how they invest funds. Law prohibits a trustee from self-dealing.

Here are a series of questions that will help to assess a person’s ability to serve as a trustee:

  • Will the person be able to separate their personal feelings and interests from those of the beneficiaries?
  • Will all parties be treated fairly, especially if your children are not also your spouse’s children?
  • Can your trustee manage complex finances and investments?
  • Is there any risk that your trustee will be tempted to take a risk to obtain money at the expense of beneficiaries?
  • What happens if your spouse remarries?
  • Will a child who is a trustee be fair to the other siblings, even if they are step siblings?
  • Will a child who is managing work and family have the time to take on the responsibilities of the trustee?

Some people decide that no family member is the right fit for the trustee role, and opt instead for their estate planning attorney, accountant or financial advisor to serve as a trustee. There are some questions to ask:

  • Does the person understand the family dynamics?
  • Has the person served as a trustee before?
  • Can they separate their personal financial interest from their clients?
  • If there is a breach of duties, will their professional malpractice coverage be enough to make the trust whole?

Some families prefer to use a bank or trust company to provide fiduciary services and act independently for the trust. This may reduce conflicts among family members, while providing professional services. Fees are typically based on the size of the estate, which may be a consideration.

Another idea is to have more than one trustee to provide a balance of recordkeeping, investments and other trustee duties. A properly drafted trustee agreement, created by an experienced estate planning attorney, will outline specific duties of the trustees. An individual co-trustee might better understand your heir’s needs and be able to help other trustees in making decisions to benefit family members.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 8, 2020) “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate”