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.

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 Is an Advance Directive, and Why You Need This Document?

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the entire world. No wonder—it’s a frightening disease that experts are just beginning to understand. Many of us are asking ourselves: Am I ready for a worst-case scenario? Anyone who does not have the health care portion of their estate plan in order, needs to address it now, says the timely article “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives” from Cincinnati.com.

The topic of an advance directive used to be introduced with a question about what would happen if a person were in a car accident, rushed to the hospital and unable to convey their wishes for care.  The question has now become, what if a sudden onset of COVID-19 occurred, and you were unable to speak on your own behalf? Would your loved ones know what you would want, or would they have to guess?

All adults—that is, anyone over the age of 18—should have an advance directive. The process of creating this and other health care-related estate planning documents will provide the answers to your loved ones, while helping you work through your wishes. Here’s how to start:

What matters to you? Give this considerable thought. What is important to you, who best knows and understands you and who would you trust to make critical decisions on your behalf, in the event of a medical emergency? What medical treatment would you want—or not want—and who can you count on to carry out your wishes?

Get documents in order, so your wishes are carried out. Your estate planning attorney can help you draft and execute the documents you need, so you can be confident that they will be treated as legitimate by health care providers. The estate planning lawyer will know how to execute the documents, so they are in compliance with your state’s laws. Here’s what you’ll want:

  • A living will, which records your wishes for medical treatment, if you cannot speak on your own behalf.
  • Medical power of attorney, to designate a person to make health care decisions, when you are not able to do so. The person is referred to as an agent, surrogate or proxy.
  • A HIPAA release form, so the person you designate may speak with your medical care providers.

Note that none of these documents concerns distribution of your personal property and assets. For that, you’ll want a will or revocable living trust, which your estate planning attorney can prepare for you.

Talk to loved ones now. Consider this conversation a gift to them. This alleviates them from a lifetime of wondering if they did the right thing for you. Have a forthright conversation with them, let them know about the documents you have had prepared and what your wishes are.

Reference: Cincinnati.com (April 27, 2020) “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives”

What I Need to Know about Caring for a Loved One with Dementia

Family caregivers of dementia patients must be more prepared for immediate changes in temperament. They need more support and respite care, and they need a better idea of what to expect in the days and months ahead.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “When Your Loved One Has Dementia: 3 Questions For Family Caregivers” provided three important questions to ask if your aging parent or family member has been diagnosed with a form of dementia.

What training must I have? When a parent, friend, or other loved one in your care is has dementia, you should look to local healthcare resources for education and training.

The temperament of people suffering from a form of dementia can change swiftly. It can rapidly turn hurtful or even violent. However, there are things a caregiver can do to interact with them to help keep them calm. Ask their healthcare provider for suggestions or referrals.

As a caregiver, do I have the legal standing to take care of this person? You should determine if your loved one has a will or living will in place, along with a healthcare power of attorney. These are documents that must be drafted and signed, before their dementia progresses to the point where it totally distorts your loved one’s thought process.

The documents provide instructions as how to care for them, according to their original wishes and avoid stress in the family, if disagreements arise. Contact an elder law attorney as soon as possible to create these documents.

How do I get help when I need it? Caring for an aging loved one can be a very tiring task. Tending to the needs of an aging loved one with a form of dementia is an even greater challenge. Begin planning now for self-care.

You can’t take care of a loved one with dementia, if your physical and mental health is wiped out and you are exhausted. Look at respite care options to give yourself the rest you’re going to need.

Getting these measures ready now can ensure that you are prepared for the tough future.

Reference:  Forbes (March 23, 2020) “When Your Loved One Has Dementia: 3 Questions For Family Caregivers”

How to Plan for Nursing Home Care for Parents

The median annual cost of care in a skilled nursing facility in South Carolina is $42,000, according to a cost of care survey by long-term care insurance company Genworth. You can’t expect Medicare to cover it. Medicaid coverage doesn’t start in, until the value of your assets is reduced to $2,000, says The Columbia Regional Business Report’s recent article entitled “Nursing home care requires advance planning.”

Many people don’t know that to qualify for Medicaid, your assets have to be spent down to almost nothing. Planning for long-term care includes both insurance and financial planning. However, the long-term care insurance options are limited. There are only a few providers remaining in the industry, but it’s worth the effort to see what they have.

Long-term care insurance is a plan that lets you pay a premium in exchange for coverage for a stay in an assisted care facility, full-scale care facility, or even at home. Without a policy, those financial costs can be catastrophic.

Because the cost of long-term care is so high, begin planning for your later years as soon as possible. It’s likely that in the next few decades, when the baby boomer generation starts requiring long-term or assisted living care, paying for it could become a crisis.

For people who are starting to save for future care needs, financial planners earmark 10% to 15% of your income. If you’re older and see that you don’t have enough money saved, put away at least 20% of your income. IRS guidelines include catch-up provisions for people older than 50 for IRAs and 401(k)s.

Some group insurance plans offer long-term care options. There are some additions for life insurance policies that could extend living benefits for elder care. You should plan on paying for three years of long-term care.

How to pay for skilled care is just one of the issues a family may face in later years. You also should have a will, advance directives, medical or health care power of attorney and durable power of attorney in place to help your family with difficult decisions. Remember to make sure the beneficiaries on your insurance plans are up-to-date.

Talk to an attorney about late-life concerns.

It’s never too soon to develop some kind of plan that can ease the financial burden for you and your family.

Reference:  Columbia Regional Business Report (March 10, 2020) “Nursing home care requires advance planning

Planning for Long-Term Care Before It’s Too Late

Starting to plan for elder care should happen when you are in your 50s or 60s. By the time you are 70, it may be too late. With the national median annual cost of a private room in a nursing facility coming in at more than $100,000, not having a plan can become one of the most expensive mistakes of your financial life. The article “Four steps you can take to safeguard your retirement savings from this risk” from CNBC says that even if care is provided in your own home, the annual median national cost of in-home skilled nursing is $87.50 per visit.

There are fewer and fewer insurance companies that offer long-term care insurance policies, and even with a policy, there are many out-of-pocket costs that also have to be paid. People often fail to prepare for the indirect cost of caregiving, which primarily impacts women who are taking care of older, infirm male spouses and aging parents.

More than 34 million Americans provided unpaid care to older adults in 2015, with an economic value of $522 billion per year.

That’s not including the stress of caring for loved ones, watching them decline and needing increasingly more help from other sources.

The best time to start planning for the later years is around age 60. That’s when most people have experienced their parent’s aging and understand that planning and conversations with loved ones need to take place.

Living Transitions. Do you want to remain at home as long as is practicable, or would you rather move to a continuing care retirement community? If you are planning on aging in place in your home, what changes will need to be made to your home to ensure that you can live there safely? How will you protect yourself from loneliness, if you plan on staying at home?

Driving Transitions. Knowing when to turn in your car keys is a big issue for seniors. How will you get around, if and when you are no longer able to drive safely? What transportation alternatives are there in your community?

Financial Caretaking. Cognitive decline can start as early as age 53, leading people to make mistakes that cost them dearly. Forgetting to pay bills, paying some bills twice, or forgetting accounts, are signs that you may need some help with your financial affairs. Simplify things by having one checking, one savings account and three credit cards: one for public use, one for automatic bill-paying and a third for online purchases.

Healthcare Transitions. If you don’t already have an advance directive, you need to have one created, as part of your overall estate plan. This provides an opportunity for you to state how you want to receive care, if you are not able to communicate your wishes. Not having this document may mean that you are kept alive on a respirator, when your preference is to be allowed to die naturally. You’ll also need a Health Care Power of Attorney, a person you name to make medical decisions on your behalf when you cannot do so. This person does not have to be a spouse or an adult child—sometimes it’s best to have a trusted friend who you will be sure will follow your directions. Make sure this person is willing to serve, even when your documented wishes may be challenged.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 31, 2020) “Four steps you can take to safeguard your retirement savings from this risk”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”

Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s

Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original, but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago, may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

A Good Estate Plan Equals Peace of Mind and Peace in the Family

The problems aren’t always evident when the first parent passes. Often, it’s when the second parent becomes gravely ill, that lapses in estate planning become evident. For one family, everyone thought estate plans were all in place after their father died. When their mother suffered a stroke, the adult children learned that they had no access to her financial accounts or her health care directives. No one had thought to update the estate plan.

However, when one parent passes, the family needs to take action. That’s the lesson from the article “Avoid heartache and anxiety with estate planning” from Post Independent. In this case, the family never thought to modify or add anyone’s name to the financial accounts, power of attorney documents, medical power of attorney documents, or HIPAA consent forms. What often happens in these cases, is that family members start bickering about who was supposed to do what.

For those who have not taken the time to learn about estate planning, planning for end-of-life legal, financial and medical matters, the quarrels may be inevitable.

Estate planning is not just for wealthy families. If your aging loved one own property, stocks, bonds or any other assets, they need to have a will, advance directives, powers of attorney and possibly some trusts. Take the time to understand these documents now, before an urgent crisis occurs.

There are few formal courses that teach people about these matters, unless they go to law school. Nearly half of Americans age 55 and over don’t have a will, according to an article appearing in Forbes. Fewer than 20% of these people have health care directives and the proper types of powers of attorney in place.

When it comes to preparing for these matters, the laws are very specific about who can participate in health care and financial conversations and decisions.

Here are some of the documents needed for an estate plan:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • General, Limited and/or Durable Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Power of Attorney
  • Living Will
  • Advance Care Directive
  • HIPAA Consent Form

Preplanning will greatly assist family members and loved ones, so they know what medical and financial efforts you or your parents would want. Having the documents in order will also provide the family with the legal means of carrying out these wishes.

The legal documents won’t solve all problems. Your brother-in-law will still be a pain in the neck and your oldest sister may still make unrealistic demands. However, having these documents in place, will make the best of a bad situation.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan, or your parent’s estate plan, is properly prepared. If someone has moved to another state, their estate plan needs to be updated to align with their new state’s laws.

Reference: Post Independent (November 3, 2019) “Avoid heartache and anxiety with estate planning”

Sharing Legal Documents and Passwords

While parents are alive and well is the time to prepare for the future, when they begin to decline. An adult child who is a primary agent and also executor has questions about organizing documents and managing storage in a digital format, as well as how to secure their passwords for online websites. The advice from the article “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents” from my San Antonio is that these two issues are evolving and the best answers today may be different as time passes.

Safe and shareable password storage is a part of today’s online life. However, passwords used to access bank and investment accounts, file storage platforms, emails, online retailers and thousands of other tools used on a desktop are increasingly required to be strong and complex and are difficult to remember. In some cases, facial recognition is used instead of a password.

Many rely on their internet browsers, like Chrome, Safari, etc., to remember passwords. This leaves accounts vulnerable, as many of these and other browsers have been hacked.

The best password solutions are stand-alone password managers. They offer the option of sharing the passwords with others, so parents would provide their executor with access to their list. However, there are also new laws regarding digital assets, so check with your estate planning attorney. You may need to create directives for your accounts that specify who you want to have access to the accounts and the data that they contain.

Storage of legal documents is a separate concern from password-sharing. Shared legal documents need to be private, reasonably priced and secure.

Some password managers include document storage as part of the account. The documents can be uploaded in an encrypted format that can be accessed by a person, who is assigned by the account owner.

Document vault websites are also available. You will have to be extremely careful about selecting which one to use. Some of the websites resell data, which is not why you are storing documents with them. One company claims to offer a “universal advance digital directive,” which they say can provide digital access worldwide to documents, including an emergency, critical and advance care plan.

The problem? This company is located in a state that does not permit the creation of a legally binding advance directive, unless it is in writing, includes state-specific provisions and is signed in front of either two qualified witnesses or a notary.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about securing estate planning documents and how to protect digital assets. Their knowledge of the laws in your state will provide the family with the proper protection now and in the future.

Reference: my San Antonio (October 14, 2019) “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents”