What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?
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What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?

The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”

How Do You Get a Power of Attorney?

If you are involved as a care provider for someone who is not able to manage their own affairs, you need to have the legal authority to act in the person’s best interest. To do that, you’ll need to have Power of Attorney (POA) for them, explains the article “How to get power of attorney for a loved one” from Tyron Daily Bulletin.

If the person you are trying to help suffers from dementia, a terminal illness or a condition which makes it difficult for them to communicate or make reasoned decisions, you may not be able to obtain a POA. As a result, may need to go to court for a guardianship or conservatorship instead.

POAs vary by state, so talk with an estate planning attorney to find out what your state allows. In most cases, the POA gives you the power to act on someone else’s behalf for a specific period of time regarding financial management. In most states, you will need a separate healthcare POA to make healthcare decisions or to speak with healthcare providers.

The agent (also known as an attorney in fact) under a POA is required to act in the best interest of the principal. Decisions regarding investments, property, bank accounts, debts and other financial matters must always place the principal first. It is crucial to maintain complete and accurate records of all transactions, and the agent’s finances and personal affairs must be kept separate from the principals.

If the principal is alive and of sound mind, they can overrule the agent’s decision, change or even terminate the POA agreement. They can also name someone else to serve as their agent with another POA. All POA powers terminate upon the death of the principal. Unless the same person has been named as agent under POA and as the executor of the estate or is appointed as executor (or administrator) by the court, that person’s responsibility ends upon the death of the principal.

There are a number of things that an agent under a POA cannot do:

  • Be paid for personal services provided to the principal
  • Vote in place of the principal
  • Take over the principal’s guardianship of another person
  • Change the principal’s will.

Even if you or the person who is naming you as the agent under their POA is in good health now, it is wise to plan for the future. We do not know when our capacity to manage finances or make healthcare decisions will be lost. Speak with an estate planning attorney about the POA to best serve your circumstances before it is needed.

Reference: Tyron Daily Bulletin (March 7, 2022) “How to get power of attorney for a loved one”

When Should I Consult with an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys assist seniors or their family caregivers with legal issues and planning that related to the aging process. These attorneys frequently help with tax planning, disability planning, probate and administration of an estate, nursing home placement and many other legal issues.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney,” explains that elder law attorneys are specialists who work with seniors or caregivers of aging family members on legal matters that older adults face as they age. Many specialize in Medicaid planning to help protect a person’s financial assets, when they have Alzheimer’s disease or another debilitating illness that may require long-term care. They can also usually draft estate documents, including a durable power of attorney for health and medical needs, and even a trust for an adult child with special needs.

As you get older, there are legal issues you, your spouse or your family caregivers face. These issues can also change. For instance, you should have powers of attorney for financial and health needs, in case you or your spouse become incapacitated. You might also need an elder law attorney to help transfer assets, if you or your spouse move into a nursing home to avoid spending your life savings on long-term care.

Elder law attorneys can help with a long list of legal matters seniors frequently face, including the following:

  • Preservation and transfer of assets
  • Accessing health care in a nursing home or other managed care environment and long-term care placements
  • Estate and disability planning
  • Medicare, Social Security and disability claims and appeals
  • Supplemental insurance and long-term health insurance claims and appeals
  • Elder abuse and fraud recovery
  • Conservatorships and guardianships
  • Housing discrimination and home equity conversions
  • Health and mental health law.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2021) “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney”

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”

What Happens If I Don’t Fund My Trust?

Trust funding is a crucial step in estate planning that many people forget to do.

However, if it’s done properly, funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” looks at some of the benefits of trusts.

Avoiding probate and problems with your estate. If you’ve created a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You are also able to fund it, while you are alive. You can fund the trust now or on your death. If you don’t transfer assets to the trust during your lifetime, then your last will must be probated, and an executor of your estate should be appointed. The executor will then have the authority to transfer the assets to your trust. This may take time and will involve court. You can avoid this by transferring assets to your trust now, saving your family time and aggravation after your death.

Protecting you and your family in the event that you become incapacitated. Funding the trust now will let the successor trustee manage the assets for you and your family, if your become incapacitated. If a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

Taking advantage of estate tax savings. If you’re married, you may have created a trust that contains terms for estate tax savings. This will often delay estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during his or her lifetime while the ultimate beneficiaries are your children. Depending where you live, the trust can also reduce state estate taxes. You must fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Remember that any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Your beneficiary designations on life insurance policies should be examined to determine if the beneficiary can be updated to the trust.

You may also want to move tangible items to the trust, as well as any closely held business interests, such as stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC). Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the assets to transfer to your trust.

Fund your trust now to maximize your updated estate planning documents.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

Why Is Trust Funding Important in Estate Planning?

Trust funding is a crucial part of estate planning that many people forget to do. If done properly with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, trust funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes, says Forbes’ recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding.”

If you have a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You can also fund the trust while you’re alive. This will save your family time and aggravation after your death.

You can also protect yourself and your family, if you become incapacitated. Your revocable trust likely provides for you and your family during your lifetime. You are able to manage your assets yourself, while you are alive and in good health. However, who will manage the assets in your place, if your health declines or if you are incapacitated?

If you go ahead and fund the trust now, your successor trustee will be able to manage the assets for you and your family if you’re not able. However, if a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

If you’re married, you may have created a trust that has terms for estate tax savings. These provisions will often defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during her lifetime. The ultimate beneficiaries are your children.

You’ll need to fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about transferring taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate to the trust.

You may also want to think about transferring tangible items to the trust and a closely held business interests, like stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC).

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

How Do I Include Care for My Children in Estate Planning?

To make certain that parents’ wishes are followed, they should create a will that designates a guardian and a conservator in case both parents die, counsels The Choteau (MT) Acantha article entitled “Plan for children’s future when making out a will.”

A guardianship provides for the care of the children, until they reach adulthood (usually age 18) and gives the guardian the authority and responsibility of a parent. A guardian makes decisions about a child’s well-being, education and health. A conservatorship is designed to manage and distribute funds and assets left to children, until they’re age 18. A single individual can be appointed to do both roles, or separate people can be designated as guardian and conservator.

Frequently, the toughest decisions parents have is agreeing who they want to have the responsibility of raising their children and managing their money. Usually they select a person with similar values, lifestyle and child rearing beliefs.

It can be important to talk about the issue with older children, because some states (like Montana) permit children ages 14 and older to ask a court to appoint a guardian, other than the person named in parents’ wills.

You should also name a backup guardian and conservator, in case their first choices aren’t up to the task and review your choices periodically.

In many states, the law stipulates that when children attain the age of 18, they are able to get the property that was in the care of a conservator, no matter what their capability to manage it. Another option is to leave the assets in a trust, rather than a conservatorship.

Parents can provide in their wills the property that they want to pass directly to the trust, which is also called a testamentary trust. These assets can include life insurance payments, funds from checking accounts, stocks, bonds, or other funds. Parents can create a trust agreement with an experienced estate planning attorney that provides their named trustee with the power to manage the trust assets and use the income for their children’s benefit.

The trust agreement goes into effect at the death of both parents. It says the way in which the parents want the money to be spent, who the trustee should be and when the trust ends. The trustee must follow the parents’ instructions for the children.

Reference: Choteau (MT) Acantha (May 13, 2020) “Plan for children’s future when making out a will”

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”