Choose Wisely and Protect Yourself When Naming a Power of Attorney

Deciding who to name as your power of attorney, or “agent” is not an easy decision. However, it is a necessary appointment, says this article “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney” from The Mercury. Disaster and disability strike without advance notice, so it’s important to make this decision while you are well and can think it through.

If you don’t have a power of attorney in place and the unexpected occurs, the only way for your family to obtain legal authority to act on your behalf is through a guardianship procedure. Even when not contested, guardianship is expensive, time consuming and can limit personal freedom. Not every court will award guardianship to a family member, so the end result could be a stranger taking control of your decisions and property.

Having a power of attorney is a far better alternative, but there are seniors who are concerned about the power of a POA and how it might be abused. Here are some tips to keep you in control of your life even with a POA:

Choose wisely when you are well. Choose your agent when you are of sound mind and body. A common “test” is the checkbook test: could you, right now, hand this person your checkbook without a second thought? Do you believe this person would act responsibly, in your own best interest, follow through in paying bills, ask for help in areas they may not understand, record transactions and be scrupulously honest? If you hesitate to give them your checkbook today, you aren’t likely to trust them to run your life in the future.

Many people choose an agent based on whether the person is the oldest child or if there would be hurt feelings if the person was named. These are not good reasons. A person who has problems managing money, for whatever reason, is not a good candidate. Their own stress might make access to your funds too great to resist.

Name a secondary Power of Attorney. There should always be a back-up person named, if the person you name is not able to serve. The same goes for trustees and beneficiaries. Discuss these alternatives with your estate planning attorney to ensure the attorney knows the identities of the primary and secondary choices.

Have a Power of Attorney customized to your personal needs. Not all Powers of Attorney are the same, and one that is great for a friend may be a disaster for you. Limited powers, unlimited powers, powers to gift or powers only for a specific task or period of time are all options when creating a Power of Attorney. You may have a business to run or a partnership to dissolve. Gifting might be permitted to limit estate taxes, if that is your wish. Limited gifting generally means $15,000 a year, although your estate planning attorney can provide guidance on how to best structure gifting for you. If you own life insurance policies, you may want to permit your agent to cash in insurance policies but not allow the agent to change the named beneficiaries.

Two agents or one agent? Not all banks or investment companies will accept two agents. If they do, will the two people you select be able to work together? If not, naming two could create a financial and legal firestorm.

Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney can be two separate roles. One person might be terrific with managing money, while another could be better at understanding and managing healthcare providers. Naming different people for each task will allow both to participate in caring for you and draw on their unique skillsets.

Fire when necessary. You always have the right to remove someone from their role as your agent. Your attorney will know how to do this properly to protect you and other agents.

Reference: The Mercury (Aug. 3, 2021) “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney”

States with the Best Tax Rates for Retirees

For the moment, fewer Americans are concerned about the federal estate tax. However, if your goal is to leave as much as possible to heirs, then it’s wise to consider all the taxes of the state you choose for retirement. That’s all detailed in the article “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes” from Kiplinger.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have their own estate taxes, which some call “death taxes.” Their exemption levels are far lower than the federal government’s. There are also six states with inheritance taxes, where heirs pay taxes based on their relationship to the deceased. Maryland has both: an estate tax and an inheritance tax.

The most tax friendly states of all are Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Delaware. In Colorado, taxpayers 55 and older get a retirement income exclusion from state taxes that gets better when they reach 65. Colorado also has one of the lowest median tax rates and seniors may qualify for an exemption of up to 50% of the first $200,00 of property value. Colorado also has a flat income tax rate of 4.55%, and up to $24,000 of Social Security benefits, along with other retirement income, can be excluded for income tax purposes.

Next in line for retiree tax friendliness are Montana, Idaho, California, Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Let’s look at the Sunshine State, which has no state income tax and also a low sales tax rate. Property taxes are low in Florida, and residents 65 and older who meet certain income, property-value and length-of-ownership standards also receive a homestead exemption of up to $50,000 from some city and county governments and meet other requirements. Social Security benefits are not taxed in Florida and the state has no income tax, making it extremely attractive to retirees.

Coming in third place with a mixed tax picture are Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and the District of Columbia.  Many people are moving to North Carolina, where Social Security benefits are not taxed, but tax breaks for other kinds of retirement income are far and few between. Property taxes are low and there are no estate or inheritance taxes. State income is taxed at a flat 5.25% percent, making North Carolina competitive, when compared to high state income taxes. Then there’s Oklahoma, which doesn’t tax Social Security benefits and allows residents to exclude up to $10,000 per person ($20,000 for couples) in retirement income. However, the Sooner State has one of the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the nation. Property taxes also fall right in the middle, when the median property taxes for all 50 states are compared.

Looking for a state to avoid when it comes to taxes? The fourth place in taxes goes to New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Indiana may not tax Social Security benefits, but it taxes IRAs, 401(k) plans and private pension income. And counties are authorized to levy their own income taxes on top of the state’s flat tax. Sales and property taxes are in the middle of the road. Illinois also spares retirees from taxes on Social Security and income from most retirement plans, but property taxes in are the second highest in the nation. Sales tax rates are high in Illinois. The state also levies an estate tax on heirs. Pennsylvania has an inheritance tax and high property taxes (the 12th highest in the country). However, it has a flat income tax rate of 3.07%, although school districts and municipalities may levy their own taxes.

Lowest on the list for retirees seeking to minimize tax expenses are New York State, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Everyone knows about taxes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but Texas? How does a state with no income tax at all end up on the “least tax friendly for retirees” list? Texas has the seventh-highest median property tax rate in the country. There are some exemptions for retirees, but not enough to make the state tax friendly. Sales taxes are high, with the average combined state and local taxes in the state hitting 8.19%.

Taxes are not the only factor in deciding where to retire. Where you ultimately retire also considers where your loved ones live, what level of healthcare you need now and may need in the future and whether you want to move or remain in your community.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 25, 2021) “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes”

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

What You Need to Know about Probate

We often read about celebrities who die without an estate and how everything they own must go through probate. The article titled “What to know about probate” from wmur.com explains what that means, and what you need to understand about wills, probate and estate planning.

Probate is a process used to prove that a person’s will is valid and to supervise how their estate is handled. It involves a court that focuses on this area. Much about the process depends upon the state in which it’s taking place, since these laws vary from state to state.

When someone dies without a will, they have failed to provide instructions for the distribution of their property. Their assets will still be distributed, but the laws of the state will determine what happens next. The state follows intestacy laws, which outline pre-set patterns of distributing property. In one state, property will go to the spouse and children. In others, the spouse may get everything.

Other decisions are made for your family when there is no will. If you have not named an executor, the court will appoint someone to oversee your estate. The court will also appoint a person to raise your children, if no guardian has been named for minor children. A family member may be chosen, but it may not be the family member you wanted to raise your kids, or it may be a stranger in a foster home.

Another reason to have a will is that probate can take a few months, or, depending on where you live, a few years, to complete. If there is litigation, and not having a will makes that more likely, it would take longer and will undoubtedly cost more. While this is going on, assets may lose value and heirs may suffer from not having access to assets.

Probate is also costly. There are legal notices to be published, court fees, executor fees and bond premiums, appraisal fees and attorney expenses.

Having an estate plan also means tax planning. While the federal estate tax as of this writing is $11.7 million per individual, it will not be that high forever. If the proposals to lower the federal estate tax to $3.5 million per person come to pass, will your estate escape estate taxes? What about your state’s estate or inheritance taxes?

Probate is also a very public process. Once a will is admitted as valid by the court, it becomes a public document. Anyone and everyone can view it and learn about your net worth and who got what.

With all these drawbacks, are there good reasons to allow your estate to go through probate? In some cases, yes. If multiple wills have been found, probate will be needed to establish which will is the correct one. If the will is confusing or complex, probate could provide the clarity needed to settle the estate. If beneficiaries are litigious, probate may be the voice of authority to quell some (but not all) disputes. And if the estate has no money and a lot of debt, it may be the probate court that sorts out the situation.

Every estate is different. Therefore, it is important to speak with an estate planning attorney to have a will, power of attorney and any health care directives created and properly executed. Every few years, these documents should be reviewed and revised to keep up with changes in the law and in your personal life.

Reference: wmur.com (July 29, 2021) “What to know about probate”

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

What are the Basics of a Successful Estate Plan?

Whether you have a whole lot of money or a little, an estate plan is an essential. It protects you and your loved ones, and can also minimize taxes, expenses, fees and the loss of your privacy. A solid estate plan is created by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state, reports the recent article titled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” from Bankrate.com.

All good estate plans have three key elements: a will, power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive. Each serves a different purpose. Some estate plans also include trusts, but every situation is different. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the right estate plan for you.

A Will. The will, also known as the last will and testament, is the foundation of all estate plans. It directs your assets to be distributed as you wish. Without an estate plan, the court decides who will receive your assets. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. It’s called dying intestate. Your heirs will be burdened with additional court costs, delays and the stress of not knowing what you might have wanted.

However, financial accounts and property aren’t the only valuable thing protected by your will. If you have a minor child or children, the will is used to name a guardian who will take care of them. It also names a conservator who will manage the child’s financial assets, until they are of legal age. The guardian and conservator may be the same person, or they might be two different people. If you opt to split the roles, be sure the two people work well together.

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney, or POA, is used to give another person legal authority to take care of financial and legal matters, while you are still living. If you are incapacitated, a POA gives someone else the ability to pay bills and manage your affairs. A medical POA gives another person the ability to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. The POA is completely customizable: you can use it to give someone else broad powers to do everything, or narrow powers so they are in charge of only one bank account, for instance. It is very important to have a detailed discussion with the person before you name them. It’s a big responsibility and you want to be certain they are comfortable carrying out all of the tasks.

The Advance Healthcare Directive. This document lays out in detail what you want to happen to you if you are not able to make decisions because of severe illness or injury. If you don’t want to be resuscitated after a heart attack, for instance, you would state that in your advance care directive. It includes a list of treatments you do and do not want. Your family will be able to use it as a guide to help them make difficult decisions regarding sustaining your life, managing pain and providing end-of-life care.

Trusts in Estate Planning. The three elements above form the base of an estate plan, but there are other tools used to achieve your goals. Depending on your circumstances, you will want to incorporate trusts, useful tools for transferring assets of all types. For example, when assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they are no longer part of your estate, thereby minimizing your estate tax liability. Trusts are also used when parents wish to exert control over how and when money is distributed to children. If the parents should both die, a trust can prevent an entire inheritance coming into the hands of an 18-year-old who is legally old enough to inherit property, but likely not ready for the responsibility.

Trusts also transfer assets outside of the probate process, so they protect the family’s privacy. No one outside of the trustees know how much money is in the trust and how the money is being distributed. Trusts are not just for the very wealthy. They can help you protect assets from creditors, ex-spouses and litigious family members.

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

How Do You Split Estate in a Blended Family?

When it comes to blended families and estate planning, there are no guarantees, especially concerning estate planning. However, there are some classic mistakes to avoid, reports this recent article from AARP titled “Remarried With Children? 5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid.”

Most people mean well. They want to protect their spouses and hope that their heirs will share in any proceeds when the second spouse dies. They want all the children to be happy. They also hope that the step siblings will still regard each other as “siblings” after the parents are passed. However, there are situations where children get shut out of their inheritance or an ex-spouse inherits it all, even if that wasn’t the plan. Here are five mistakes to avoid:

#1: Not changing named beneficiaries. People neglect to update their wills and beneficiary designations. This is something to do immediately, before or after the wedding. By changing the name of the beneficiary on your 401(k), for instance, it passes directly to the surviving spouse without probate. All financial accounts should be checked, as should life insurance beneficiaries. You can designate children as secondary beneficiaries, so they receive assets, in the event that both parents die.

While you’re doing that, update legal directives: including the medical power of attorney and the power of attorney. That is, unless you’d like your ex to make medical and financial decisions for you!

#2 Not updating your will. Most assets pass through the will, unless you have planned otherwise. In many second marriages, estate planning is done hoping the spouse inherits all the assets and upon their death, the remaining assets are divided among all of the children. There is nothing stopping a surviving spouse from re-writing their will and for the late spouses’ children to be left without anything from their biological parent. An estate planning attorney can explore different options to avoid this from occurring.

#3 Treating all heirs equally. Yes, this is a mistake. If one person came to the marriage with significantly more assets than another, care must be taken if the goal is to have those assets remain in the bloodline. If one person owned the house, for instance, and a second spouse and children moved into the house, the wish might be to have only the original homeowner’s children inherit the proceeds of the sale of the house. The same goes for pension and retirement accounts.

#4 Waiting to give until you’ve passed. If you are able to, it may be worth gifting to your heirs while you are still living, rather than gifting through a will. You may give up to $15,000 per person or $30,000 to a couple without having to pay a federal gift tax. Recipients don’t pay tax on most gifts. Let’s say you and your spouse have four children and they are all married. You may give each child and their spouse $30,000, without triggering any taxes for you or for them. It gets better: your spouse can also make the same size gift. Therefore, you and your spouse can give $60,000 to each couple, a total of $240,000 per year for all eight people and no taxes need be paid by anyone. This takes assets out of your estate and is not considered income to the recipients.

#5 Doing it yourself. If you’re older with a second marriage, ex-spouses, blended families and comingled assets, your estate planning will be complicated. Add a child with special needs or an aging parent and it becomes even more complex. Trying to create your own estate plan without a current and thorough knowledge of the law (including tax law) is looking for trouble, which is what you will leave to your children. The services of an estate planning attorney are a worthwhile investment, especially for blended families.

Reference: AARP (July 9, 2021) “Remarried With Children? 5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid”