What are the Key Documents in Estate Planning?

A basic estate plan can be fairly straightforward to create with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Here are the main items you need in an estate plan. However, ask your estate planning attorney about what else you may need in your specific circumstances.

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” says there are three things you need in every good estate plan: last will, a power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive – and each serves a different purpose. Let’s look at these:

A Last Will. This is the cornerstone of your estate plan. a last will instructs the way in which your assets should be distributed.

Everyone needs a last will, even if it’s a very basic one. If you do nothing else in planning your estate, at least create a last will, so you don’t die intestate and leave the decisions to the courts.

A Power of Attorney (POA). This document permits you to give a person the ability to take care of your affairs while you’re still alive. A financial power of attorney can help, if you’re incapacitated and unable to manage your finances or pay your bills. A medical power of attorney can also help a loved one take care of healthcare decisions on your behalf.

With a financial power of attorney, you can give as much or as little power over your financial affairs as you want. Note that when establishing this document, you should have a conversation with your power of attorney agent, so if called upon, he or she will have a good understanding of what they can and can’t do financially for you. A healthcare power of attorney also allows a person to make healthcare decisions, if you’re unable to do so.

An advance healthcare directive. This document instructs medical staff how you want them to handle your health-related decisions, if you’re unable to choose or communicate. It includes resuscitation, sustaining your quality of life, pain management and end-of-life care.

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

What are My Best Estate Planning Moves?

Tickertape’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” explains that a common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate assets amount to less than the 2021 federal estate tax exemption of $11.7 million per individual.

But most of us can benefit from estate planning. This can help protect your assets for your heirs. Estate planning includes creating a last will or revocable living trust, making certain that you have the right beneficiaries, and creating a health care directive. Creating a solid estate plan can decrease the odds that your family will have to deal with a problematic probate and reduce the amount of money because of unneeded taxes.

Create a Will. A last will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you die. Plus, a last will should include information about who should act as guardians for minor children and care for any pets. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specific laws for probate to make sure you do it correctly.

Name Your Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations and make sure they’re up to date. When there’s a major life change, you should look at your beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance and retirement funds), update your last will, and make sure everything matches. This includes charities as well as individuals. There are estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of these will help if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly designated and assets aligned with your estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney About a Trust. A fully funded revocable living trust can be great tool to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid probate. There are many different types of trusts that can be used to provide a variety of benefits. Much depends on your situation, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Power of Attorney. Estate planning also includes documents in the event you become incapacitated. Signing a power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. Find a person you trust to handle these decisions and have an estate planning attorney prepare the legal documents to ensure that everything is correct.

Think About Giving Now. You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family. In 2021, you can give up to $15,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax. If you’re married, each spouse can give $15,000. When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you may claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Reference: Tickertape (June 25, 2021) “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” 

I’ve Been Appointed My Aging Parents’ Power of Attorney but What Now?

A durable power of attorney is frequently signed by aging parents. However, sometimes the elderly can misunderstand exactly what that entails, especially when it comes to the authority of the person given decision-making powers.

The person appointed (called the agent or attorney-in-fact) is also typically an adult child. Nevertheless, he or she may be unaware of the appointment or does not grasp what is permitted and when it is permitted. It can be very confusing.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?” provides the answers to three frequently asked questions of many heard from families.

Question: Can my father, who’s in charge of our family finances but now has dementia, revoke his DPOA that he signed years ago and name a child to take over managing his money when he needs help?

Answer: Perhaps. If Dad has dementia, he needs to be evaluated by a doctor to see if he still has the capacity to make financial decisions. This is a legal determination with help from doctors and particularly psychologists, who can perform the evaluation and give standardized test results. If the parent is found to have financial capacity, he is permitted to revoke the durable power of attorney at any time. However, if he doesn’t have mental capacity, he’s no longer legally capable of revoking the document.

Question: What if my mother is found to be incapacitated for financial decisions? If I’m the appointed agent on the DPOA, when can I use this authority?

Answer: Provided you’ve met any requirements detailed in the DPOA document itself, you can immediately take over financial authority. Some durable power of attorney documents require that a doctor or even two doctors must say the parent no longer has capacity before you can act. Some durable powers of attorney say the document is effective immediately. The agent’s authority is contained in the document.

Question: Am I allowed to keep my father from recklessly giving away money or making imprudent decisions with his wealth, if I’m the appointed agent on his DPOA?

Answer: Yes. Usually, the durable power of attorney gives the agent full authority over all financial matters.

Reference: Forbes (June 22, 2021) “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?”

What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning?

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

Should a Trust Be Part of My Estate Plan?

A revocable trust can be a wise choice for managing your assets, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “What are the advantages of putting assets into a trust?”

A revocable trust is a type of trust that can be changed once it is executed by the creator of the trust, known as the grantor. During the life of the trust, income earned is distributed to the grantor. After his or her death, the trust assets transfer to the beneficiaries of the trust.

A revocable trust can be advantageous because it has flexibility and provides this income stream and full access to the trust principal by the living grantor (also known as the trustor).

If you are the grantor, you can act as trustee, by yourself or with another as co-trustee.

When you no longer want to manage, or when you’re unable to manage your affairs, the co-trustee or a successor trustee can take over all of the duties.

If you didn’t put your assets in a revocable trust, you’d need to appoint an agent under a durable power of attorney to handle your financial affairs, if you become incapacitated.

However, some financial institutions would rather do business with a trustee instead of an agent under a power of attorney.

At your death, if all of your assets are in trust, your family can avoid the probate process. The trustee continues to manage the trust assets pursuant to the terms of the trust document. Those instructions do not need to be recorded any court in most jurisdictions.

Unlike a will, which is recorded with the government once it is probated, a trust is not a public document in most jurisdictions. Therefore, privacy is another advantage of a trust.

Finally, in states where an inheritance tax return is required, a revocable trust also avoids the need to obtain tax waivers, which are issued by the state to release any tax liens, upon death.

However, there are some downsides to putting assets into a trust.

First, the expense of creating a trust will be more than a simple will, and you would still need a will in the event you did not place everything in the trust during your lifetime or upon your death by a beneficiary designation.

Sometimes, having all of your assets in trust can also be more costly or cumbersome. For instance, insurance may be more expensive when an asset is in the trust.

Reference: nj.com (March 17, 2021) “What are the advantages of putting assets into a trust?”

Who Can Witness Wills?

For a will to be binding, there are a number of requirements that must be met. While state laws on wills vary, most require you to be of legal adult age to make a will and have testamentary capacity (i.e., that you be “of sound mind”).

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?” explains that you usually must have your will witnessed.

Witnesses to your will are significant in the event that someone disputes its validity later or if there is a will contest. If one of your heirs challenges the terms of your will, a witness may be asked by the probate court to attest that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did so. Witnesses provide you with another layer of validity to a will, and it makes it more difficult for someone to dispute its legality.

When drafting a will, it’s important to understand several requirements, including who can serve as a witness. Generally, but depending on applicable state law, anyone can witness a will, as long as they meet two requirements: (i) they are of legal adult age; and (ii) they do not have a direct interest in the will. Therefore, the types of people who could witness a will for you include your friends who aren’t to receive anything from your estate, a neighbor, co-workers and any of your relatives who aren’t included in your will.

If you’ve hired an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft your will, he or she can also act as a witness, provided they’re not named as a beneficiary. An attorney who’s also acting as the executor of the will (the person who oversees the process of distributing your assets and paying off any outstanding debts owed by your estate) can also witness a will.

Most states don’t allow you to select individuals who will benefit from your will as witnesses. If you are drafting a will that leaves assets to your spouse, children, siblings, or parents, then none of those individuals can serve as witnesses to the will’s signing because they all have an interest in the will’s terms. The same is true for relatives or spouses of any of the beneficiaries.

The witnesses to your will do not need to review the entire will document in order to sign it. They only need to be able to verify that the document exists, that you have signed it in their presence and that they have signed it in front of you.

When you sign the will, get both witnesses together at the same time. You’ll need to sign, initial and date the will in ink, then have your witnesses do the same. Some states require you to attach a self-proving affidavit or have the will notarized in front of the witnesses.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 28, 2020) “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?”

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have when I Retire?

Research shows that most retirees (53%) have a last will and testament. However, they don’t have six other crucial legal documents.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have” says in fact, in this pandemic, 30% of retirees have none of these crucial documents — not even a will — according to the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees.

In addition, the Transamerica survey found the following among retirees:

  • 32% have a power of attorney or medical proxy, which allows a designated agent to make medical decisions on their behalf
  • 30% have an advance directive or living will, which states their end-of-life medical preferences to health care providers
  • 28% have designated a power of attorney to make financial decisions in their stead
  • 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements
  • 18% have filled out a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which allows designated people to talk to their health care and insurance providers on their behalf; and
  • 11% have created a trust.

The study shows there is a big gap that retirees need to fill, if they want to be properly prepared for the end of their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has created an even more challenging situation. Retirees can and should be taking more actions to protect their health and financial well-being. However, they may find it hard while sheltering in place.

Now more than ever, seniors may need extra motivation and support from their families and friends.

The Transamerica results shouldn’t shock anyone. That is because we have a long history of disregarding death, and very important estate planning questions. No one really wants to ponder their ultimate demise, when they can be out enjoying themselves.

However, planning your estate now will give you peace of mind. More importantly, this planning can save your heirs and loved ones a lot of headaches and stress, when you pass away.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today to get your plan going.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 16, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have”

What are Options for Powers of Attorney?

Power of attorney (POA) documents are an important component of an estate plan. There are four types. You should review each carefully to see which one will work best for you in your situation. What is required for a power of attorney, depends upon what power you want to authorize, says Carmel’s Hamlet Hub in a recent article titled “4 Types of Power of Attorney.”

Limited Power of Attorney. If you need someone to act on your behalf for a limited purpose, use a limited power of attorney. This will specify the date/time after which the power no longer is in effect.

General Power of Attorney. This is an all-encompassing power of attorney, in which you assign every power and right you possess as an individual to a certain party. It’s typically used where the principal is incapacitated. It is also used with those who don’t have the time, skills, knowledge, or energy to handle all of their financial matters. The power you assign is in effect for your lifetime, or until you are incapacitated (unless it is also “durable”). However, you can elect to rescind it before then.

Durable Power of Attorney. The key distinction with a durable power of attorney is that it stays in effect, even after you’ve become incapacitated. Therefore, you want to sign a durable power of attorney if: (i) you want to give the designated agent authority ONLY if you’re unable to act for yourself; or (ii) you want to give the agent immediate authority that continues after you’re unable to act for yourself.

Note that a limited or general power of attorney ends when you become incapacitated. At that point, a court will appoint a guardian or conservator to handle your matters. You can rescind a durable power of attorney at any time prior to becoming incapacitated.

Springing Power of Attorney. This document serves the same purpose as a durable power of attorney, but it’s effective only upon your becoming incapacitated. When drafting this, your experienced estate planning attorney will help you make clear your definition of “incapacitated.”

Remember that you’ll need to state in your power of attorney document which powers and duties you are assigning to the attorney-in-fact.

Regardless of the type of power of attorney you implement, the attorney-in-fact has the power to do only what your POA indicates.

Reference: Carmel’s Hamlet Hub (Dec. 16, 2020) “4 Types of Power of Attorney”

Does My Business Need a Power of Attorney?

Some business owners may need a power of attorney (POA). However, what type would be of benefit the most is the question. This article looks at the types of power of attorney and in what circumstances a business owner may need each of them.

Entrepreneur’s recent article entitled “Does Your Business Need a Power Of Attorney?” reports that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) defines power of attorney as a legal document that permits a trusted agent the authority to act on your behalf. Accordingly, signing a power of attorney allows the business owner to authorize another person to conduct business in his stead. The person designated in the document is called the “agent” or sometimes the “attorney-in-fact.” There are three main types of power of attorney:

Financial Power of Attorney. This document allows the agent to deal with the financial responsibilities and functions of the “principal” (the person who signs the document), if the principal is unable to do so themselves. Some functions for the agent of a financial power of attorney include the following:

  • Delegation of the operation of your business
  • Hiring an attorney and making decisions in lawsuits
  • Filing and paying taxes
  • Conducting transactions with banks and other financial institutions
  • Making decisions on your investments and retirement plan
  • Entering into a contract
  • Purchasing of selling real estate or different types of property; and
  • Using your assets to pay for your living expenses.

Special Power of Attorney (or Limited Power of Attorney). A business owner may need to accomplish a task for the company, but she’s unable to be there because of other responsibilities. This document permits a particular agent to conduct business on her behalf, concerning a specific and clearly outlined event, like opening a bank account, settling a lawsuit, or signing a contract.

Healthcare Power of Attorney. An individual who is incapacitated and can’t communicate, can use this to permit an agent to make medical decisions on his behalf. Note that a healthcare power of attorney isn’t the same as a living will. A living will focuses on a person’s preferences for healthcare treatment, such as do-not-resuscitate and other religious or philosophical beliefs that they want to be respected. A healthcare power of attorney is more flexible and leaves the decisions regarding healthcare to the agent. A living will concerns end-of-life decisions only, where healthcare power of attorney applies in all medical situations.

Durable Power of Attorney. A POA usually becomes effective when a person is incapacitated and stops once they’re able to make their own decisions. However, a durable power of attorney or enduring power of attorney may be applied to any of the types mentioned above. As a result, the agent can make decisions on behalf of a business owner when they aren’t incapacitated.

A POA provides considerable protections that will help a business deal with regular operations, while the owner is unable to lead the company. If the business is an LLC or corporation, a power of attorney for the company may not be needed. However, it’s wise to have one for your own estate planning. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the types of power of attorney and how they might help your business.

Reference: Entrepreneur (Nov. 3, 2020) “Does Your Business Need a Power Of Attorney?”

What Key Estate Planning Terms Should I Know?

Estate planning can help you accomplish several objectives, including naming guardians for minor children, choosing healthcare agents to make decisions for you should you become ill, minimizing taxes so you can give more wealth to your heirs and saying how and to whom you would like to pass your estate at death.

Emmett Messenger Index’s recent article entitled “13 Estate Planning Terms You Need to Know” provides some important terms to understand as you consider your own estate plan.

Assets: This is anything a person owns. It can include a home and other real estate, bank accounts, life insurance, investments, furniture, jewelry, collectibles, art, and clothing.

Beneficiary: This is an individual or entity (like a charity) that gets a beneficial interest in an asset, such as an estate, trust, account, or insurance policy.

Distribution: A payment in cash or asset(s) to the beneficiary who’s designated to receive it.

Estate: All of the assets and debts left by a person at death.

Fiduciary: An individual with a legal obligation or duty to act primarily for another person’s benefit, such as a trustee or agent under a power of attorney.

Funding: The process of transferring or retitling assets to a trust. Note that a living trust will only avoid probate at the trustmaker’s death if it’s fully funded. A trustmaker also may be known as a grantor, settlor, or trustor.

Incapacitated or Incompetent: The situation when a person is unable to manage her own affairs, either temporarily or permanently, and often involves a lack of mental capacity.

Inheritance: These are assets received from someone who has died.

Probate: This is the orderly court-supervised process of distributing the assets of a person who has died.

Trust: This is a fiduciary relationship where a trustmaker gives a trustee the right to hold property or assets for the benefit of another party, known as the beneficiary. The trust is a written trust agreement that directs how the trust assets will be distributed to the beneficiary.

Will: A written document with directions for disposing of a person’s assets after their death. A will is enforced by a probate court. A will can provide for the nomination of a guardian for minor children.

Reference: Emmett Messenger Index (Oct. 28, 2020) “13 Estate Planning Terms You Need to Know”