What Should My Estate Plan Include?

The Huffington Post’s recent article entitled “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic” says that almost everyone should have an estate plan—even if there’s no major health threat. If you don’t have one, right now is a great time to put it together.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most critical documents to have are medical and financial powers of attorney. You should name someone to do your banking or make your medical decisions, if you are quarantined in your home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. When you have those in place, you need to create a comprehensive estate plan. Let’s look at the documents you should have and what they mean.

  1. A Financial Power of Attorney. This is a legal document that gives your agent authority to take care of your financial affairs and protect your assets by acting on your behalf. For example, your agent can pay bills, write checks, make deposits, sell or purchase assets, or file your tax returns. Without an FPOA, there’s no one who can act on your behalf. Family members will have to petition the probate court to appoint a guardian to have these powers, and this can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
  2. A Health Care Power of Attorney. Like a financial power of attorney, this legal document gives an agent the power to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you become incompetent or incapacitated. If you’re over the age of 18 and don’t have an HCPOA, your family members will have to ask the probate court to again appoint a guardian with these powers.
  3. A Living Will (Advance Health Care Directive). This allows you to legally determine the type of end-of-life treatment you want to receive, in the event you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious and cannot survive without life support. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support is thrust upon your health care agent or family members, and it can be an extremely stressful decision. If you draft a living will, you detail your wishes and take that decision out of their hands.
  4. A HIPAA Waiver. An advance health care directive will likely contain language that allows your agent to access your medical records, but frequently hospitals will refuse access to medical information without a separate HIPAA waiver. This lets your agents and family members access your medical data so they can speak freely with your physicians, if there is a medical emergency or you become incapacitated.
  5. A Will. A last will and testament is a legal document through which you direct how you want your assets disbursed when you pass away. It also allows you to name an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the distribution of your assets will be dictated by state law, and the court will name someone to oversee the administration of your estate. A will also lets you name a guardian to take care of your minor children.
  6. A Living Trust. A revocable living trust is a legal tool whereby you create an entity to hold title to your assets. You can change your trust at any time, and you can set it up to outlive you. In the event you become incapacitated or are unable to manage your estate, your trust will bypass a court-appointed conservatorship. A trust also gives you privacy concerning the details of your estate, because it avoids probate, which is a public process. A living trust can also help provide for the care, support, and education of your children, by releasing funds or assets to them at an age you set. A living trust can also leave your assets to your children in a way that will lessen the ability of their creditors or ex-spouses to take your children’s inheritance from them.

Reference: The Huffington Post (April 7, 2020) “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic”

What are the Restrictions on Visiting the Elderly in a Care Facility?

The restrictions in Virginia started after the American Health Care Association, the largest national trade organization representing long-term care centers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending extreme measures to prevent a scenario that has played out in a Washington state nursing home, where the virus spread rapidly and took many lives.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s recent article entitled “Virginia nursing homes restrict visitors over coronavirus fears, families worry about separation” says, however, that some family members and advocates worry that — without loved ones allowed to visit — residents will be even more vulnerable to neglect in nursing homes that already struggle to give them basic care.

“What we have found is that experts believe that this is the most prudent step that we can take to protect the residents,” said Keith Hare, CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association, the state chapter of the AHCA. “We have to put the health and well-being of these residents first. … It really is unprecedented action.”

However, some family members who are told that they can drop off supplies for the residents at the nursing home, cannot stay for a visit. Some are worried that parents with Alzheimer’s who need help eating, won’t be fed without their regular visitors because nursing homes are understaffed.

Nursing homes in the state say it was a hard decision to cease visitation, but it was necessary to prevent any exposure in the care facilities. They’re going to do whatever we can to keep it out, official say.

Innovative Healthcare Management, a company that runs five nursing homes in Virginia with a total of 750 residents, said that it has been educating its staff and preparing for a potential outbreak, since first learning of the coronavirus outbreak in China. IHM recently began screening visitors for possible coronavirus infection before they entered the facilities. The company decided to restrict all nonessential visitors, except when a resident is believed to be dying.

Nursing homes are trying other ways for family members to connect with residents, like phone calls and video chats.

While nursing homes around the country are doing the same thing and are restricting group gatherings within the centers, they are trying to make sure residents are being entertained with in-room activities, such as movies, card games, and puzzles. The focus at the facilities is on communication and keeping residents entertained.

Reference:  Richmond Times-Dispatch (March 15, 2020) “Virginia nursing homes restrict visitors over coronavirus fears, families worry about separation”

What Is So Important About Powers Of Attorney?

Powers of attorney can provide significant authority to another person, if you are unable to do so. These powers can include the right to access your bank accounts and to make decisions for you.

AARP’s article from last October entitled, “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving,” describes the different types of powers of attorney.

Just like it sounds, a specific power of attorney restricts your agent to taking care of only certain tasks, such as paying bills or selling a house. This power is typically only on a temporary basis.

A general power of attorney provides your agent with sweeping authority. The agent has the authority to step into your shoes and handle all of your legal and financial affairs.

The authority of these powers of attorney can stop at the time you become incapacitated. Durable powers of attorney may be specific or general. However, the “durable” part means your agent retains the authority, even if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. In effect, your family probably won’t need to petition a court to intervene, if you have a medical crisis or have severe cognitive decline like late stage dementia.

In some instances, medical decision-making is part of a durable power of attorney for health care. This can also be addressed in a separate document that is just for health care, like a health care surrogate designation.

There are a few states that recognize “springing” durable powers of attorney. With these, the agent can begin using her authority, only after you become incapacitated. Other states don’t have these, which means your agent can use the document the day you sign the durable power of attorney.

A well-drafted power of attorney helps your agent help you, because she can keep the details of your life addressed, if you cannot. That can be things like applying for financial assistance or a public benefit, such as Medicaid, or verifying that your utilities stay on and your taxes get paid. Attempting to take care of any of these things without the proper document can be almost impossible.

In the absence of proper incapacity legal planning, your loved ones will need to initiate a court procedure known as a guardianship or conservatorship. However, these hearings can be expensive, time-consuming and contested by family members who don’t agree with moving forward.

Don’t wait to do this. Every person who’s at least age 18 should have a power of attorney in place. If you do have a power of attorney, be sure that it’s up to date. Ask an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney to help you create these documents.

Reference: AARP (October 31, 2019) “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving”

How is a Guardianship Determined?

Because the courts call guardianship “a massive curtailment of liberty,” it’s important that guardianship be used only when necessary.

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article asks, “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?” As the article explains, courts must be certain that an individual is truly “incapacitated.”

For example, Oklahoma law defines an incapacitated person as a person 18 years or older, who is impaired by reason of:

  1. Mental illness;
  2. Intellectual or developmental disability;
  3. Physical illness or disability; or
  4. Drug or alcohol dependency.

In addition, an incapacitated person’s ability to receive and evaluate information or to communicate decisions is impaired to such a level that the person (i) lacks capacity to maintain health and safety; or (ii) is unable to manage financial resources.

A person who is requesting to be appointed guardian by the court must show evidence to prove the person’s incapacity. This evidence is typically presented with the professional opinion of medical, psychological, or administrative bodies.

In some instances, a court may initiate its own investigation with known medical experts. In these cases, the type of professional chosen to provide an opinion should match the needs of the person (the “ward”), who will be subject to guardianship.

The court will receive this evidence and if it’s acceptable, in many cases, require that the experts provide a plan for the care and administration of the ward and his assets. This plan will become a control measure, as well as guidance for the guardian who’s appointed.

These controls will include regular monitoring and reports of performance back to the court.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Jan. 23, 2020) “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?”

How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

Steps to Take as a Parent’s Condition Takes a Turn

An 80-year-old man had seizures several months ago. He was treated in the hospital and since then, has had some lapses in short-term memory. His long-term memory is okay, but he is not retaining day-to-day matters very well. His awareness of a loss of some functionality has left him frustrated and a little depressed, as described in the article “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens” from the Davis Enterprise. The use of some antidepressants and medication has been helpful, and he seems better. However, what should the children be doing, at this time, to prepare for what may come next?

The children should make arrangements to have their parents go see an estate planning attorney soon. The fact that only the wife is power of attorney, and that the forms have not been updated in many years is cause for serious concern. While their mom may be capable right now of handling his personal and financial affairs, the stress of caretaking for her husband is likely to take its toll on her. If the father’s condition deteriorates, she will likely need help. If for some reason she’s unable to act, then it will be far better if the children, or one of the children, has the legal right to step in.

The first question is whether the father has the legal capacity to create new powers of attorney for financial management and health care. To execute a power of attorney, a person must have mental capacity. The legal standard for this is the same as it is for someone signing a contract: the person must understand and appreciate the consequences of the document being signed.

There are four broad categories of mental deficits that impact a person’s capacity: alertness and attention, information processing, thought processes and the ability to modulate mood. Short-term memory problems and depression may be considered deficits in both information processing and mood. However, that is only one part of the analysis.

Most estate planning attorneys will suggest that any client whose mental capacity may be questionable, should obtain a note from their treating physician that they are capable of understanding and signing legal documents. This is not a legal requirement, but it will help if there is a challenge to the documents he signed, and someone claims that he lacked capacity.

If the father indeed has capacity to execute a new power of attorney, then the adult children can be identified as alternates to the wife. If she is not able to act as an agent, then the siblings will be able to step up. However, if he is unable to execute a new power of attorney, the previous power of attorney would be the operative document. If for some reason, the wife is unable to perform as his agent, there is no one to serve as a backup.

In that case, a petition would need to be filed in the probate court to have a child or children appointed conservator. While that would give the child(ren) the same power as a power of attorney, they will also need to report to the court on an on-going basis. Conservatorship proceedings are expensive and time-consuming and should be a last resort.

These problems rarely get better over time. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as possible to prepare for the future.

Reference: Davis Enterprise (Oct. 2019) “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens”