What Does a Living Will Do for Me?

During a medical crisis, families frequently must make decisions quickly regarding whether to withhold or provide life-sustaining treatments. A living will is a part of advance care planning. It’s a legal document that provides specific instructions on how to carry out your wishes to receive or decline such treatments when you otherwise can’t communicate those wishes yourself, explains, Forbes’ recent article entitled “How Does A Living Will Work?”

Your estate plan may already include a durable power of attorney for health care, which is a legal document that lets your designated agent or proxy make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated. However, unlike that document, the instructions in a living will can be used only when the person named in the living will has no hope of recovery or cure.

A living will provides limited authority to an agent on behalf of the principal who’s no longer able to communicate their preferences to withhold or withdraw artificial means of life support or life-sustaining treatments. A living will should have your wishes noted for receiving or going without treatment when your condition isn’t expected to improve and treatment would extend your life for only a limited time.

A living will is designed to apply only in very limited situations when the principal who signed the document has an incurable or irreversible medical condition or conditions that will most likely result in the principal’s death within a short period of time—typically six months or fewer.

Life-sustaining treatments addressed in a living will may include:

  • Ventilators
  • Heart-lung machines
  • Nutrition via a feeding tube
  • Hydration via feeding tube or IV
  • Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other extraordinary measures; and
  • Dialysis.

Living wills can also address issues, like pain management and palliative care. You may even include provisions such as “I would prefer to die at home” in a living will.

Provide as much information as you can to make certain that your proxy isn’t making the decision for you, but rather your wishes and words are moving through your proxy. The more information you can provide in your living will to your proxy to illustrate for them the type of care that you’d want to receive or decline, the better.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 18, 2022) “How Does A Living Will Work?”

How Can I Choose an Estate Planning Lawyer?

Only about a third of Americans have an estate plan, according to the article “Choosing an estate planning lawyer” from Senior Matters. The number of people with wills is decreasing, rather than increasing, despite the events of recent years. Estate planning is worth doing, for the peace of mind, the personal and financial protection it provides, not to mention leaving a legacy of caring about the future for the next generation.

Estate planning involves making end-of-life decisions, with an emphasis on both finances and health. Most people think of it as “who gets what,” which is accomplished largely through wills and trusts. For people who have amassed significant assets, this can be complex. An estate planning attorney makes it streamlined and will explain the implications of all aspects of the plan.

Estate planning includes gifting, generation skipping transfers, taxes, advance directives, power of attorney, health care proxies, living wills, naming an executor, organ donations, burial preferences, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders and final wishes.

It is a highly personal process. This is why it’s important to find an attorney who is compassionate, as well as technically proficient. Estate planning attorneys tend to be caring individuals who chose this field of law because they sincerely wish to help others. They also know what happens when the planning is not done, because they also help children when their parents fail to do so.

Some people are reluctant to embark on estate planning, in part because they don’t wish to be reminded of their own mortality. Others are concerned about relatives with designs on their estate. However, not having a plan makes it more likely that relatives or others could challenge the estate and end up owning assets and provides protection.

When a person dies without an estate plan and assets subject to probate, their estate is considered to be “intestate.” Only the court will have any control over how the probate assets are distributed. The probate court will simply follow the laws of your state, which frequently are based on kinship. The exact details vary from state to state, and this is known as “intestate succession.”

The intestate laws may result in outcomes completely different than what you wished. An estranged spouse could end up owning everything, or a child with substance issues could inherit a substantial sum which will be gone in months. In most states, minor children may not receive inheritances, so trusts or custodial accounts are needed.

Estate planning is just as important for people of modest means as it is for wealthy people. If a senior owns their own home, the increase in property values could mean their estate is much bigger than they even realize.

Choosing an Attorney isn’t difficult. Ask friends and family for referrals, visit websites and find an estate planning attorney who shares your values, understands your family and feels like a good fit. Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll gain peace of mind.

Reference: Senior Matters (Aug. 17, 2022) “Choosing an estate planning lawyer”

Senior Second Marriages and Estate Planning

For seniors enjoying the romance and vitality of an unexpected late-in-life engagement, congratulations! Love is a wonderful thing, at any age. However, anyone remarrying for the second, or even third time, needs to address their estate planning as well as financial plans for the future. Pre-wedding planning can make a huge difference later in life, advises a recent article from Seniors Matter titled “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas.”

A careful review of your will, powers of attorney, healthcare proxy, living will and any other advance directives should be made. If you have new dependents, your estate planning attorney will help you figure out how your children from a prior marriage can be protected, while caring for new members of the family. Failing to adjust your estate plan could easily result in disinheriting your own offspring.

Deciding how to address finances is best done before you say, “I do.” If one partner has more assets than the other, or if one has more debts, there will be many issues to resolve. Will the partner with more assets want to help resolve the debts, or should the debts be cleared up before the wedding? How will bills be paid? If both partners own homes, where will the newlyweds live?

Do you need a prenuptial agreement? This document is especially important when there are significant assets owned by one or both partners. One function of a prenup is to prevent one partner from challenging the other person’s will and trusts. There are a number of trusts designed to protect loved ones including the new spouse, among them the Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust, known as a QTIP. This trust provides support for the new spouse. When the spouse dies, the entire trust is transferred to the persons named in the trust, usually children from a first marriage.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend two separate wills for people who wed later in life. This makes distribution of assets easier. Don’t neglect updating Powers of Attorney and any health care documents.

Before walking down the aisle, make an inventory, if you don’t already have one, of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This should include life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts and any other property with a beneficiary designation. Make sure that the accounts reflect your current circumstances.

Sooner or later, one or both spouses may need long-term care. Do either of you have long-term care insurance? If one of you needed to go into a nursing home or have skilled care at home, how would you pay for it? An estate planning attorney can help you create a plan for the future, which is necessary regardless of how healthy you may be right now.

Once you are married, Social Security needs to be updated with your new marital status and any name change. If a parent marries after full retirement age and their new spouse’s benefit is higher than their own, they may be able to increase their benefits to 50% of the new spouse’s benefits. If they were receiving divorced spousal benefits, those will end. The same goes for survivor benefits, if the person marries before age 60. If they’re disabled, they may still receive those benefits after age 60.

Setting up an appointment with an estate planning attorney a few months before a senior wedding is a good idea for all concerned. It provides an opportunity to review important legal and financial matters, while giving both spouses time to focus on the “business” side of love.

Reference: Seniors Matter (April 29, 2022) “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas”

The Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate administration is the process of managing the estate when a loved one has passed. For the inexperienced executor, there are pitfalls to be avoided, warns the article “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes” from Long Island Press.

The biggest mistake is creating an estate plan from generic documents on the internet. Wills must meet many technical legal requirements to be valid. All wills are admitted to probate and the court scrutinizes wills carefully to be certain the wishes of the person who died (the testator) have been followed. A will created without the guidance of a skilled estate planning attorney is more likely to be found invalid and more easily challenged.

Neglecting to deal with Medicaid liens before distributing an inheritance can create huge financial problems for family members. Medicaid is required by law to attempt to clawback assets to recover the cost of care. Some states are more aggressive than others. Medicaid may attach a lien to any real estate owned by the Medicaid recipient and collect it at the time of their death.

The value of asset protection planning, including the use of a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), in a timely manner, cannot be understated.

Leaving heirs and beneficiaries in the dark about the estate plan and distribution wishes often creates a sense of something bad being planned. Surprise revelations about the estate are only good in movies. In real life, this can lead to litigation and family fights. Litigation can take the form of a will contest, a trust contest, a contested accounting, or an action to remove the executor.

Talk with the family about your plans, so there is less tension created over the future of your estate.

Taxes can undermine your wishes, if your estate plan does not include tax planning. There are numerous methods used to minimize tax liabilities. However, they must be put into place in advance.

The executor has to file a final income tax return on behalf of the decedent for the year of death and also file an estate tax return. The executor is also responsible to obtain an estate tax identification number (EIN) from the IRS and open an estate bank account used to pay taxes and debts.

Will your executor, spouse or heirs be able to locate your critical information? If your legal, financial and online information is not organized, your executor may spend a long time digging through old paperwork, most of which is likely to be out of date and irrelevant. Spare your executor the time and emotional impact of wasted hours reviewing old records. No one needs your checking accounts from the 1970s!

Information on everything from assets, tax returns, funeral and burial arrangements, life insurance policies, Social Security and Medicaid or Medicare cards, deed for home and title for your cars, should all be organized to help your family find the information they need.

While you are alive, your family will need access to documents like your Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Advance Health Care Directives.

By planning and making an effort in advance to manage your affairs, you enhance your legacy. Leaving a mess behind will be remembered, perhaps more so than organized documents.

Reference: Long Island Press (May 4, 2022) “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

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?”

No Will? What Happens Now Can Be a Horror Show

Families who have lived through settling an estate without an estate plan will agree that the title of this article, “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will,” from Next Avenue, is no exaggeration. When the family is grieving is no time to be fighting, yet the absence of a will and an estate plan leads to this exact situation.

Why do people procrastinate having their wills and estate plans done?

Limited understanding about wealth transfers. People may think they do not have enough assets to require an estate plan. Their home, retirement funds or savings account may not be in the mega-millions, but this is actually more of a reason to have an estate plan.

Fear of mortality. We do not like to talk or think about death. However, talking about what will happen when you die or what may happen if you become incapacitated is very important. Planning so your children or other trusted family member or friends will be able to make decisions on your behalf or care for you alleviates what could otherwise turn into an expensive and emotionally disastrous time.

Perceived lack of benefits. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will put your interests first means you will have one less thing to worry about while you are living and towards the end of your life.

Estate planning documents contain the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you pass. They answer questions like:

  • Who should look after your minor children, if both primary caregivers die before the children reach adulthood?
  • If you become incapacitated, who should handle your financial affairs, who should be in charge of your healthcare and what kind of end-of-life care do you want?
  • What do you want to happen to your assets after you die? Your estate refers to your financial accounts, personal possessions, retirement funds, pensions and real estate.

Your estate plan includes a will, trusts (if appropriate), a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney or advanced directive and a living will. The will distributes your property and also names an executor, who is in charge of making sure the directions in the will are carried out.

If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the POA gives agency to someone else to carry out your wishes while you are living. The living will provides an opportunity to express your wishes regarding end-of-life care.

There are many different reasons to put off having an estate plan, but they all end up in the same place: the potential to create family disruption, unnecessary expenses and stress. Show your family how much you love them, by overcoming your fears and preparing for the next generation. Meet with an estate planning attorney and prepare for the future.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 21, 2022) “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will”

What Is Elder Law?

WAGM’s recent article entitled “A Closer Look at Elder Law“ takes a look at what goes into estate planning and elder law.

Wills and estate planning may not be the most exciting things to talk about. However, in this day and age, they can be one of the most vital tools to ensure your wishes are carried out after you’re gone.

People often don’t know what they should do, or what direction they should take.

The earlier you get going and consider your senior years, the better off you’re going to be. For many, it seems to be around 55 when it comes to starting to think about long term care issues.

However, you can start your homework long before that.

Elder law attorneys focus their practice on issues that concern older people. However, it’s not exclusively for older people, since these lawyers counsel other family members of the elderly about their concerns.

A big concern for many families is how do I get started and how much planning do I have to do ahead of time?

If you’re talking about an estate plan, what’s stored just in your head is usually enough preparation to get the ball rolling and speak with an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney.

They can create an estate plan that may consists of a basic will, a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a living will.

For long term care planning, people will frequently wait too long to start their preparations, and they’re faced with a crisis. That can entail finding care for a loved one immediately, either at home or in a facility, such as an assisted living home or nursing home. Waiting until a crisis also makes it harder to find specific information about financial holdings.

Some people also have concerns about the estate or death taxes with which their families may be saddled with after they pass away. For the most part, that’s not an issue because the federal estate tax only applies if your estate is worth more than $12.06 million in 2022. However, you should know that a number of states have their own estate tax. This includes Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, plus Washington, D.C.

Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax, which is a tax on what you receive as the beneficiary of an estate. Maryland has both.

Therefore, the first thing to do is to recognize that we have two stages. The first is where we may need care during life, and the second is to distribute our assets after death. Make certain that you have both in place.

Reference: WAGM (Dec. 8, 2021) “A Closer Look at Elder Law“

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning
Young doctor holding the old lady's hand

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is not to wait for the “right time” to prepare for death or incapacity. Aging parents who don’t have a plan in place leave their children with a number of obstacles, says this recent article entitled “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from NASDAQ.

One is scrambling to unravel the family finances at a time when you are still grief-stricken. Another is managing costs associated with severe illness and death. Incapacity can be even more complicated. It is more so, if the family has to apply for guardianship to make medical and financial decisions for a parent who can’t speak for themselves or manage their financial affairs.

To prevent a host of problems and expenses, start talking with aging parents about estate planning.  They don’t have to live in an” estate” to have an estate. This is simply the term used to describe all assets owned by a couple or individual.

An estate plan is a tool to convey intentions about assets and health. The first step may be to create an inventory of all assets and belongings, from the family home to personal belongings and digital assets. Next, is to have some tough conversations about their wishes for end-of-life care and medical decisions.

A few questions to get started:

  • Who should be the primary caregiver and decision maker?
  • How will health care expenses be paid?
  • Who do you want to make medical decisions?
  • What do you want to happen to your property after you die?
  • Should the family sell the home, or should one of the children inherit it?
  • Do you have any estate planning documents, and where are they kept?

Estate planning is different for everyone, so be wary of downloading basic estate documents from the web and hoping they will be valid. An experienced estate planning attorney will create the necessary documents, as per the laws of your parents’ state of residence, and reflecting their wishes.

If there is no will, or if a will is deemed invalid by the court, the laws of the state will govern how assets are distributed. Making sure a will is properly prepared, along with other estate planning documents, is a more efficient and less costly way to go.

Estate planning includes tax planning, which occurs when property passes from one person to another. Estate and inheritance taxes are the most common concern. While most Americans don’t need to worry about the federal estate tax, individual states have their own rules and thresholds. Some states have both state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. There are ways to minimize taxes, from gifting during your parent’s lifetimes, to establishing trusts for beneficiaries.

An estate plan includes a will, a Power of Attorney for financial matters, a Health Care Proxy so someone can make health care decisions, a Living Will (also known as an Advance Care Directive) and usually some kind of trust. Each serves a different purpose, but all name a designated person to act in a legal manner to handle the affairs of the person, while they are living and after they have passed.

Some families are more comfortable than others about talking about death and money, so you probably already know what to expect from your parents when trying to have this conversation. Be mindful of their feelings, and those of your siblings. These are hard, but necessary, conversations.

Reference: NASDAQ (Nov. 10, 2021) “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”