Why Is Power of Attorney So Important for Estate Planning?

One of the most overlooked and important documents in estate planning is the Power of Attorney. A recent article from Farm Progress, “Often overlooked estate planning issues: Powers of attorney,” explains how this document works and why it’s so important.

Most people will become incapacitated at some point in our lives, especially as we age. Some experts believe this number is as high as two-thirds of all Americans who, at some point in their lives, will become incapacitated. We are living longer and the chances of developing a condition to impair or rob us of the ability to make important health or financial decisions increases every year.

Powers of Attorney are just as important for young adults because the risk of disability or impairment is often actually higher than death for someone younger.

Designating a Power of Attorney gives you the control of choosing a trusted person to step in and act as your agent. A “Durable” POA remains in effect until it is revoked, or upon the death of the person who made it.

The person establishing the POA is the “principal.” The principal has the right to revoke the POA until they lack capacity to do so. The person or persons named to act for you through your POA is your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent.”

You may choose to have the POA in a “durable” form or a “springing” POA. The springing POA becomes effective only when you have been determined to be incapacitated. This sounds like a good idea. However, it comes with an issue: for the springing POA to become active, there must be proof of incapacity.

Depending upon your state, this may require a court to review documents attesting to your incapacity from a physician or health care provider. The durable POA is always in effect and your agent can step in for you immediately.

Everyone should also have a Health Care Power of Attorney, sometimes called a Health Care Proxy or a medical POA. The Health Care POA should be someone who can act quickly, so it’s optimal to name someone who lives nearby, in case there’s an emergency and decisions need to be made in a timely manner.

While it’s tempting to simply download a form from the internet, these two POAs are best prepared with an estate planning attorney, so they align with your state’s laws and your wishes. You may want someone to make all decisions for you, or you may want to limit their powers. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a document to suit your specific needs.

It’s also important for your estate plan to address digital assets, since today so much of our financial and medical information is stored online. Your agent also needs to be able to access your digital life, to keep your life running smoothly and make informed decisions.

Reference: Farm Progress (Oct. 18, 2022) “Often overlooked estate planning issues: Powers of attorney.”

Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

Why Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Everyone benefits from having an estate plan. If you own property, investments, or anything of value, you need an estate plan. If you have family or dependents, you need an estate plan. Estate planning directs how assets are directed, if you become incapacitated or when you die.

The checklist for creating an estate plan includes a will, powers of attorney and assigning beneficiary account designations. Using an estate planning lawyer ensures that your plan meets all legal requirements, according to the article “What is estate planning? A strategy to safeguard your family and your finances, and ensure your plans for them get carried out as you wish” from Business Insider.

In this usage, “estate” means the things you own. An estate plan inventories everything, including your home, cars, bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and personal possessions. It outlines in writing exactly what you want to happen with your property. It also directs who you want to handle your affairs during life and after death and who you want to inherit your assets.

Why does estate planning matter? If you die without a will, your assets may get tied up in probate, where the court oversees the distribution of your estate according to your state’s laws. Without a will and the tax planning part of estate planning, your estate may shrink and your heirs receive less.

The will is just the start of a comprehensive estate plan. It details where you want your assets to go and names an executor who will oversee your estate. If you have minor children, the will is where you name a guardian to raise your children.

A durable power of attorney designates a person to act on your behalf for legal and financial matters if you become incapacitated. Without it, family members will not be able to file tax returns, collect government benefits, manage investments and handle any financial transactions. They’ll need to go to court and have a judge appoint someone to manage these and other tasks. It’s far easier and less expensive to have this document in place than to get the courts involved.

A health care power of attorney is your opportunity to name someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. This includes choosing doctors, deciding what tests to run and whether you want to have surgery or certain treatments.

You’ll want a living will to ensure your wishes for end-of-life decisions are followed. A living will also relieves your loved one of the enormous burden of determining “what Mom would have wanted” if you become terminally ill, enter the late stages of dementia, are seriously injured, in a coma, or near the end of your life. What extreme measures do you want to be taken to prolong your life? What would you not want to be done to maintain your life?

Beneficiary designations are the forms to be completed when you open a retirement account or purchase a life insurance policy. Beneficiary designations override any instructions for these accounts set out in your will, so its very important to review and update them regularly.

Trusts are used to take assets out of your probate estate. A trust is created by an estate planning attorney and upon death, assets are distributed according to the directions of the trust. If you own a lot of assets, trusts are a useful tool to avoid estate and inheritance taxes.

Digital asset protection trusts are a way to legally transfer domain names, social media accounts and other digital assets to heirs upon your death. Emails, text messages, cloud-based storage accounts, websites and social media accounts all need to be inventoried and a plan needs to be in place to protect these assets.

Reference: Business Insider (Sep. 22, 2022) “What is estate planning? A strategy to safeguard your family and your finances, and ensure your plans for them get carried out as you wish”

Problems Created When No Will Is Available

Ask any estate planning attorney how much material they have for a book, or a movie based on the drama they see from family squabbles when someone dies without a will. There’s plenty—but a legal requirement of confidentiality and professionalism keeps those stories from circulating as widely as they might. This may be why more people aren’t as aware as they should be of how badly things go for loved ones when there’s no will, or the will is improperly drafted.

Disputes range from one parent favoring one child or children engaged in fierce fighting over personal possessions when there’s no will specifying who should get what, or providing a system for distribution, according to a recent article titled “Estate planning: 68% of Americans lack a will” from New Orleans City Business.

People don’t consider estate planning as an urgent matter. The pace of life has become so hectic as to push estate planning appointments to the next week, and the next. They also don’t believe their estates have enough value to need to have a will, but without one, a modest estate could evaporate far faster than if an estate plan were in place.

The number of people having a will has actually decreased in the last twenty years. A few sources report the number keeps dipping from 50% in 2005, 44% in 2016 and 32% in 2022. In 2020, more Americans searched the term “online will” than in any other time since 2011.

Younger people seem to be making changes. Before the pandemic, only 16% of Americans ages 18-34 had a will, but today caring.com reports that 24% of these young now do. Maybe they know something their elders don’t!

One thing to be considered when having a will drafted is the “no contest clause.” Anyone who challenges the will is immediately cut out of the will. While this may not deter the person who is bound and determined to fight, it presents a reason to think twice before engaging in litigation.

Many people don’t know they can include a trust provisions to manage family inheritances. Trusts are not just for super wealthy families but are good planning tools used to protect assets. They are used to control distributions, including setting terms and conditions for when heirs receive bequests.

Today’s will must also address digital assets. The transfer and administration of digital assets includes emails, electronic access to bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit cards, cryptocurrency, reward program accounts, streaming services and more. Even if the executor has access to log-in information, they may be precluded from accessing digital accounts because of federal or state laws. Wills are evolving to address these concerns and plan for the practicalities of digital assets.

Reference: New Orleans City Business (Sep. 8, 2022) “Estate planning: 68% of Americans lack a will”

Why You Need an Estate Plan

Did you think you had to be rich to have an estate? Think again! From a legal perspective, your estate includes everything you own, from tangible property like a car, house, furniture, as well as intangible assets like insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts. You don’t have to be rich to have an estate, says the recent article “How to Plan Your Estate” from The Military Wallet. However, you do need to have an estate plan, and the best time to start planning is right now.

An estate plan is more than simply passing your property along to heirs. It is also how you prepare for the unpleasantries of life, including becoming incapacitated or being unable to make decisions on your own.

Your estate plan protects you and your beneficiaries. Without a will, the court will determine who will get your assets subject to probate, following the laws of your state. With a will, you determine who should receive your probated property, from family members to charities.

Your estate plan protects your children. Your will nominates a guardian who will care for your children if you die before they turn age 18, or, if you have a disabled child with special needs, who will care for them for the rest of their life. Without a will nominating a guardian, the court will make these decisions.

Your estate plan protects your family by preventing conflict. Your wishes are made clear in a will and in other estate planning documents. The more details, the better. No one can say they knew what you really wanted, because what you really wanted is documented and memorialized in your estate plan.

Getting ready to meet with an estate planning attorney will be easier if you take it step by step.

Make an inventory of all assets, including

  • House, land and any real estate property
  • Cars, boats and any other vehicles
  • Bank, investment and retirement accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Health savings accounts
  • Jewelry, valuables and collectibles
  • Digital assets, including website URL, username and password
  • Cryptocurrency, including all information for an executor to be able to access accounts

Create a plan for the different scenarios in your life. Who would you want to raise your children if you and your spouse die while children are minors or are unable to care for them because of illness or injury? How will your spouse pay the mortgage if you die unexpectedly?

Make a list of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This typically includes life insurance, retirement plans and annuities. Any time you have a major life event like marriage, divorce, birth or death, these designations should be reviewed.

You’re now ready to meet with an estate planning attorney. Your estate plan should include a last will and testament, outlining who should receive your property, who will distribute your estate (your executor) and who should raise your children if you die while they are under legal age.

A Health Care Proxy is used to name a person who can make decisions about your healthcare if you cannot. A Living Will outlines the details for medical treatment you want or don’t want when you are near death.

Power of Attorney is a document giving someone else the power to take care of your finances at any point, if you can’t because of illness or incapacity. This avoids your family members having to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which takes time and is a costly proceeding.

Reference: The Military Wallet (Aug. 25, 2022) “How to Plan Your Estate”

Why Does Everyone Need an Estate Plan?

Twenty and thirty-year olds are busy building their lives, starting or growing careers, exploring personal goals, repaying student loans and maybe starting a family. They’re young and healthy and think nothing can happen to them—but that’s not true. A recent article from Kiplinger titled “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s” explains why even a twenty-year old with student loans needs an estate plan.

Student loans. Federal student loans discharge upon death, so no further payments are needed, including any federal Parent PLUS loans parents may have taken out. However, for private student loans, the decision is up to the lender. If the private loan was taken out by the student, the institution may forgive the loan. However, if a parent or another adult co-signed the loan, they might be responsible for paying the entire loan. The exception: if the loan was made after November 20, 2018, the co-signer may be protected by the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. If you took out loans after getting married, the surviving spouse is likely to be required to pay the loan if they co-signed the loan or if you live in a community property state.

Health Care Directive and Health Care Power of Attorney. The Health Care Directive is used to tell your family what you would want if you were near death, whether by injury or illness. Healthcare providers are obligated to follow your directions if they are stated in this document. Without it, you could be kept on life support for many years, regardless of what your family wants.

A Health Care Power of Attorney is used to name someone you trust to act as your “agent,” if you become incapacitated. This document is focused on your care and medical treatments. It also lets your agent speak with your health insurance company, obtain access to medical records and discuss your care with healthcare providers.

Last Will and Testament. This document isn’t just for people with homes, families, and retirement accounts. Young people have property too—your car, your personal possessions, and whatever financial resources you may have accumulated. If you have a will, you can direct who you want to receive what you own. Without one, the court will decide who gets your possessions and your family won’t have any say about it. With a will, you can determine who receives your property, including your digital assets. You’ll also name an executor in the will—the person who is in charge of distributing your property. An estate planning attorney will create a document to comply with your state’s laws. It doesn’t have to be a complicated document, but it is a good way to ensure your loved ones know your wishes.

Retirement Accounts and Beneficiaries. These accounts may not be as robust as they will be later in your life. However, they are still yours. Make sure that you have named beneficiaries who you want to receive them if you die. Singles may name a sibling, parents, partner, or another family member to receive these assets.

Digital Assets. A digital life means you need a digital estate plan. Creating an inventory list of all of your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. If an account has two-factor authentication, indicate how another person might gain access to the account. Don’t include any of this information in your will, as it becomes a public document after being submitted to the court for probate. Tell a trusted family member where the inventory is located. If you own cryptocurrency, research how crypto assets are passed if the original owner dies.

Guardianship. Your will is used to name a guardian for minor children. Without it, the court will appoint a guardian, and it may not be the family member you wish it would be.

Don’t Forget Your Furry Friends. You can add a pet guardianship clause to a will to ensure that your pet stays with a trusted friend or family member who has agreed to care for your pet. You can also set up a pet trust to set aside funds for your pet’s care, including food, veterinary visits, toys, training and treats.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 22, 2022) “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s”

What Happens to Digital Assets After Death?

What is a digital asset? This is the question asked in a recent article “Estate Planning for Digital Assets” from Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals. Any type of electronic data you have the right to access is considered a digital asset, although they come in a variety of forms.

A digital asset now includes email accounts, social media, online banking, online subscriptions, e-commerce, photo stream, cell phone apps, gaming accounts and everything having to do with cryptocurrency. Don’t leave out airline miles or other loyalty program points.

When so much of our lives is online, we need to address estate planning for this new class of assets.

They are as important, and some might argue, even more important than traditional assets. They may have financial or sentimental value. If neglected, they are an easy entryway for hackers prying into financial accounts.

Consider your family photos. Most of us have these stored on the cloud, hoping they never disappear. However, when they do, they can be gone forever. The same could easily happen for accounts of gamers who are spending traditional money on games and building up online assets with monetary value.

Can you protect and organize digital assets?

Yes, absolutely. Start with a list of all digital accounts including URLs, usernames and passwords. You should also note whether access requires third-party authentication—a verification code from a phone number or an email address to log in.

Create some kind of list, whether on a spreadsheet (encrypted for security), using an online password manager or a digital asset app. Paper also works, as long as it’s kept in a secure location.

How do digital assets get incorporated into my estate plan?

In most states, your executor can be given the right to access online accounts through your will, or you can include digital asset access in a Power of Attorney. However, it’s not that simple. Certain digital platforms only allow the original user access, even with passwords and authentication codes. Each has a Terms of Service Agreement to protect your privacy and the platform.

Some platforms offer the ability to name a legacy contact who can gain access to your account and either delete it or memorialize it after you die. However, not all do. You’ll need to go through all of your digital accounts to determine which ones permit a legacy contact and the limitations given to the legacy contact.

To support any litigation arising from a platform refusing to allow access, leave specific instructions in for your executor or agent instructing them as to what you want done with your digital assets. This directive may give your executor or agent the support they need to go up against big data. Your estate planning attorney will know the laws in your state and help create a plan.

Reference: Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals (July 18, 2022) “Estate Planning for Digital Assets”

What Is a Digital Estate Plan?

Traditional estate planning is step one, from creating a will to setting up a durable power of attorney and health care proxies. However, when you and your estate planning attorney create a comprehensive estate plan, you’ll now need to include digital estate planning. A recent article titled “Digital Estate Planning: 5 Things to Do Now to Make Things Easier in a Crisis” from Consumer Reports provides a step-by-step process.

First, get your important information organized. Create a document and either store it in a fireproof, waterproof safe in your home or share it with a secure digital password manager. Include complete contact information for doctors, estate planning attorneys, business partners, financial advisors, family members and important friends. Include land line and cell phones numbers and email addresses. Next, list your medical information, health conditions, prescriptions and pharmacies. Add information for your workplace, schools, houses of worship and community organizations. Anyone you interact with on a regular basis should be included.

Provide information for personal documents, including your birth certificate, Social Security card, estate planning documents, passport and Medicare or other health insurance information.

Your estate planning documents include your advance care directives, including a living will, durable power of attorney and healthcare proxy.

Financial information including bank accounts, account numbers, investments, credit cards, mortgages and car loans or leases should be listed. Make a note about all recurring bills when they are due and how you pay them.

Password sharing with trusted family members. Someone will need access to your online accounts. Ideally, share this information with two people—one who lives with you and one who does not—just in case one cannot help. Phone and computer passwords should be written down or write down a hint you know will easily be understood by someone who knows you well. You can also use a password manager. However, be careful to select one with extremely good security.

Create a legacy contact for major online accounts. A handful of major online platforms now provide an option to name a person who can access your accounts, if you designate a “legacy contact.” Apple, Facebook and Google are among those who offer this important feature. In the future, other platforms may follow.

Add digital assets to your will. Major platforms without a legacy contact feature have strict access requirements. Microsoft says it must be served with a valid subpoena or court order to provide access. LinkedIn and Instagram can memorialize accounts but require legal documentation or proof of death for an executor to gain access to the accounts. Go through all platforms and find out what your executor will need to do to obtain your digital assets. Make sure that they are added to your will. However, don’t include account numbers or passwords, as the will becomes part of the public record during probate.

Digital assets are still tricky. The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA), which has been adopted by most but not all states, allows people you designate in your will to access digital property. However, it is not a complete solution. RUFADAA doesn’t allow for access to the content of emails and other digital communications because of privacy laws. Your will needs to have language clearly stating your wish for your fiduciary to be able to access and read your emails.

Call a planning meeting with your family. Talk about your wishes, the planning you’ve done and your expectations for who will handle your affairs. It’s not the easiest conversation, and some family members may be more comfortable than others, but when the inevitable occurs, they’ll be ready.

Reference: Consumer Reports (May 4, 2022) “Digital Estate Planning: 5 Things to Do Now to Make Things Easier in a Crisis”

How to Handle Digital Assets in a Will

Now that cryptocurrency has become almost commonplace, it is necessary to incorporate it into estate plans and their administration, according to the article “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency” from Roll Call.

One advantage of using cryptocurrencies in estate planning is the ease of transference—if all parties know how crypto works. Unlike a traditional bank, which typically requires executors to produce an original death certificate and other documents to take control of accounts in the estate, cryptocurrency only requires the fiduciary to have passcodes to gain access to accounts.

The passcode is a complex, multicharacter code appearing to be a long string of unrelated numbers and letters. It is stored in a digital wallet, which can only be accessed through the use of the 64-digit passcode, also known as a key.

While the passcode is simple, it is also very vulnerable. If the key is lost, there is no way to retrieve it. The executor must know not just where the key is physically located if it has been written down on paper, or if it is kept in a digital wallet, but how to access the digital wallet. There are also different kinds of digital wallets.

People do not usually share their passwords with others. However, in the case of crypto, consider storing it in a safe but accessible location and telling a trusted person where it may be found.

People who own cryptocurrency need to give someone access info. If someone is named an executor at one point in your life and they have the information about digital assets, then at some point you change the executor, there is no way to guarantee the former executor might not access the account.

How do you protect digital assets? Using “cold storage,” an account passcode is stored and concealed on a USB drive or similar device, allowing the information to be shared without the user needing to learn the passcode to access the account. The cold storage USB drive can be given from one fiduciary to the successor fiduciary without either knowing the passcode.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress addressing cryptocurrency and blockchain policies. The IRS has issued a number of notices and publications regarding taxes on digital currency transactions. Crypto is no longer an “invisible” asset.

In addition to policies and regulations, litigation concerning estates and cryptocurrency is still relatively new to the judiciary. Planning for these assets to ensure they are passed to the next generation securely is very important as their use and value continues to grow.

Reference: Roll Call (Feb. 22, 2022) “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency”

Are Millennials Estate Planning?

According to new research, 72% of U.S. millennials (ages 25 to 40) with wills created them or updated them in the past year.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Here’s why millennials are so into end-of-life planning reports that more than two-thirds of millennials don’t have a will. While the pandemic brought greater attention to end-of-life planning among millennials, they’re still largely unprepared. According to the 1Password findings, 68% of millennials don’t have a will.

As a result, respondents say that descendants would lose access to an average of $22,500. Only 38% have clarity over who should handle their digital assets after they die. Among those who do have a will, here’s what sparked it:

  • COVID-19 crisis (55%);
  • Having a child (36%);
  • Death of a celebrity or public figure (22%); and
  • Buying a house (17%).

With a digital transfer, the primary concern for respondents is giving their executor login credentials to banking and financial accounts (67%).

About 57% of millennial respondents say granting access to social media accounts is more important than giving access to email, subscription and e-commerce accounts.

The pandemic also provided a wake-up call for millennials and their end-of-life planning. However, there are some areas of estate planning that are uncertain. The survey finds 51% of millennials will be responsible for the execution of their parents’ wills. However, only 36% have access to their parents’ online account passwords.

While about a third (34%) of respondents said they’ve talked with their parents about their digital assets in the past year, about half (52%) have never discussed it with their parents or can’t recall the conversation.

Among those who have handled the execution of wills, 63% say it was more challenging than they anticipated to access accounts after a death.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 13, 2021) “Here’s why millennials are so into end-of-life planning”