What Changes Have Been Made to Protect Senior Investors?

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or “FINRA,” is a private corporation that acts as a self-regulatory organization of investment brokers and investment firms.

Its rules and guidance are designed to protect investors and to “ensure the integrity of today’s rapidly evolving market.”

The new FINRA Sanction Guidelines now expressly contemplate “whether the customer is age 65 or older” and “whether the respondent exercised undue influence over the customer and whether the customer had a mental or physical impairment that renders the person unable to protect his or her own interests”.

The National Law Review’s recent article entitled “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines” reports that FINRA Regulatory Notice 20-37 states the revised Sanction Guidelines that became effective Oct. 20, 2020.

In the revised Sanction Guidelines, FINRA and the NAC now directly discuss the issue of potential senior investor abuse. They also have revised the Sanction Guidelines to be consistent with FINRA Rule 2165 – Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults.

Further, FINRA asserts that “as with other considerations in the Sanction Guidelines, adjudicators should take a principles-based approach to assessing if the rule violations have more impact on elderly or impaired customers, including the customer’s ability to recover from sustaining financial losses.”

Moreover, FINRA states that these revisions to the Sanction Guidelines should be considered by adjudicators as only “aggravating factors” when considering an appropriate sanction for a FINRA violation.

The FINRA Sanction Guidelines don’t state specific sanctions for a particular violation. They now provide adjudicators with an additional “aggravating factor” to contemplate in determining the appropriate sanction.

The watchdog said that it was feedback from its Securities Helpline for Seniors that showed a pattern of concerns among senior citizens about brokers exploiting their financial accounts that caused them to take action “by putting in place the first uniform, national standards to protect senior investors.”

Reference: The National Law Review (Nov. 2, 2020) “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines”

Is Transferring House to Children a Good Idea?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.

Another option is a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

What Do I Need to Do after the Death of My Spouse?

It probably is the last thing on your mind, but there are tasks that must be accomplished after the death of a spouse. You might want to ask for help and advice from a trusted family member, friend, or adviser to sort things out and provide you with emotional guidance.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Checklist: Steps to Take after Your Spouse Dies” provides a checklist to help guide you through the most important tasks you need to complete:

Don’t make any big decisions. It’s not a good time to make any consequential financial decisions. You may wish to sell a home or other property that reminds you of your spouse, but you should wait. You should also refrain from making any additional investments or large purchases—especially if you weren’t actively involved in your family’s finances before the death.

Get certified copies of the death certificate. You’ll need certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate for any benefit claims or to switch over accounts into your name. Ask the funeral home for no fewer than 12 copies. You also may need certified marriage certificates to prove you were married to your late spouse.

Talk to your spouse’s employer. If your spouse was working when he or she passed, contact the employer to see if there are any benefits to which you are entitled, such as a 401(k) or employer-based insurance policy. If you and your dependents’ medical insurance was through your spouse’s job, find out how long the coverage will be in effect and begin making other arrangements.

Contact your spouse’s insurance company and file a claim. Get the documentation in order prior to contacting the insurance company and make certain that you understand the benefit options to claim a life insurance benefit.

Probate the estate. Get a hold of the will. Contact the attorney for help in settling the estate. If your spouse didn’t have a will, it will be more complicated. Reach out to an experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for advice in this situation.

Collect all financial records. Begin collecting financial records, including bank records, bills, credit card statements, tax returns, insurance policies, mortgages, loans and retirement accounts. If your spouse wasn’t organized, this might take some time. You may be required to contact companies directly and provide proof of your spouse passing, before being able to gain access to the accounts.

Transfer accounts and cancel credit cards. If your spouse was the only name on an account, like a utility, change the name if you want to keep the service or close the account. Get a copy of your spouse’s credit reports, so you’ll know of any debts in your spouse’s name. Request to have a notification in the credit report that says “Deceased — do not issue credit.” That way new credit won’t be taken out in the spouse’s name.

Contact government offices. Have your spouse’s Social Security number available and call the Social Security Administration office to determine what’s required to get survivor benefits. Do this as soon as possible to avoid long delays before you get your next Social Security payment. You may also qualify for a one-time death benefit of $255. If your spouse served in the armed forces, you may be eligible for additional benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Therefore, contact your local office.

Change your emergency contact information. Change any of your or your family members’ emergency contact info that had your spouse’s name or number listed as someone else’s primary point of contact.

This checklist is a good way to help with the pressing tasks. You can also contact an estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 27, 2020) “Checklist: Steps to Take after Your Spouse Dies”

Can a Power of Attorney Protect My Assets as I Get Older?

Elder law attorneys help protect individuals as they grow older and then protect their beneficiaries when they pass away.

The Street’s recent article entitled “Guide to Protect Your Assets as You Age – Power of Attorneys” asks us to think about visiting your family doctor for the last 30 years but then needing to see a specialist for the first time. That’s because your family doctor isn’t a specialist, and they might miss something. The article explains that elder law attorneys are the specialists of the legal profession—they take a fresh look at a client’s situation and develop strategies to protect them and their families from the risks as we grow older.

Elder law attorneys show you how to protect yourself and your family. When partnering with an elder law attorney, they make certain that your estate goes to your family as you intended, with little or no tax liability.

An important tool for elder law attorneys is the Power of Attorney (POA). There are two of them: a medical POA and a financial POA. These allow you to designate a trusted agent to make your medical and financial decisions, when you are unable.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has placed everyone in difficult circumstances. As a result, many hospitalized patients are without the proper estate planning documents. While things are letting up some, hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living homes have shuttered their doors to visitors and non-essential workers in an attempt to minimize the spread of this disease. As a result, many patients are unable to get these documents signed.

Although some states initially prevented electronic signatures and notarization that would keep contact to a minimum, many have now permitted patients access to elder law and estate planning attorneys, when needed. These states have signed executive orders that allow for electronic signatures, which has been a huge help. Even so, this can be challenging for an elder individual.

Financial powers of attorney are not all the same either. They are just one tool in the toolbox.

A power of attorney can have a list of things you will permit your designated agent to do for you. Many of these documents do not give your agent enough power to protect you. That’s because they limit your agent’s abilities. That may sound good when you first sign them, but the result is that it makes things harder for your family, if you have a stroke and your loved one needs to protect your finances.

Reference: The Street (Sep. 24, 2020) “Guide to Protect Your Assets as You Age – Power of Attorneys”

What Do I Need to Do When my Spouse Dies?
Close up of a man's hand with wedding ring resting on a headstone in a cemetery.

What Do I Need to Do When my Spouse Dies?

Investment News’ recent article entitled “When a spouse passes away” provides some thoughts on how to prioritize the essential responsibilities, so grieving spouses aren’t overwhelmed with the number of tasks involved. This can include contacting insurance companies, Social Security, Medicare and banks, along with the funeral planning and dealing with family needs.

  1. Don’t go it alone. Get some help from your siblings, children, or friends. It is a stressful time, so don’t be afraid to recognize when you need help and assign some of the jobs. In most cases, family members will want the opportunity to help. This lets them participate in honoring the person you’ve lost and ensure that all responsibilities are fulfilled. It can include contacting family and friends and helping prepare for the funeral.
  2. Don’t rush. There are just a few things you need to accomplish within the first week, like planning for funeral services, looking into veteran benefits, if applicable, notifying friends and family and requesting 10 to 15 death certificates from the funeral home. That is because each financial institution or insurer will want an original death certificate. You should also be contacting your estate planning attorney for guidance, if there are any special things that need to be done according to your spouse’s will.

Within the first few weeks after the passing of your spouse, contact their health insurance provider and Medicare to tell them of your spouse’s death, so you can stop paying premiums. Call your spouse’s employer (if applicable, to ask if there were death benefits or other benefits or eligible pensions). Contact your financial adviser to review your financial accounts and confirm any automatic distributions that might be set up. Call life insurance companies, if your spouse had life insurance policies, as well as other insurance companies with which you have policies for property and casualty (home and auto), long-term care and disability coverage. Review bank accounts, bills and credit cards to confirm all expenses are either set up to be paid automatically or will be paid on time. You also need to have access to your spouse’s phone and email accounts to confirm that you are seeing and reviewing all financial notifications.

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Your lawyer can help guide you through the most difficult time of your life. He or she will be able to advise on the issues you need to prioritize, especially to ensure that your finances are still in line, not only for you but for future generations. Make certain to include a family member or friend on your phone calls or meetings to help take notes and guide the conversation. That way, you don’t have to remember everything. Ask that these meetings are memorialized in a follow up email.
  2. Things will be different. After the services and the initial mourning period are over, you may be alone for some time. That’s a big change for many people who lose a spouse. Keep regular communication with friends and family. Consider grief counseling and make regular plans to get yourself out of the house.
  3. There can be a ton of paperwork. There will be busy work, like changing the name on car titles, utility bills, insurance policies, investment accounts, bank accounts and phone bills, as well as administering your family trusts and making updates to your own estate planning documents.

You need to give yourself plenty of time and space to grieve, rest and remember your loved one.

Reference: Investment News (Aug. 11, 2020) “When a spouse passes away”

How Do I Keep My Assets from the Nursing Home?

If you don’t have a plan for your assets when it comes time for nursing home care, they can be at risk. Begin planning now for the expenses of senior living. The first step is to consider the role of Medicaid in paying for nursing home services.

WRCB’s recent article entitled “How to Protect Your Assets from Nursing Homes” describes the way in which Medicaid helps pay for nursing homes and what you can do to shield your assets.

One issue is confusing nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities. Medicare does cover a stay in a skilled nursing facility for convalescence. However, it doesn’t pay for full-time residence in a nursing home. For people who can’t afford to pay and don’t have long-term care insurance, they can apply for Medicaid. That’s a government program that can pay nursing home costs for those with a low income. People who don’t have the savings to pay for nursing home care and then require that level of care, may be able to use Medicaid.

For those who don’t qualify for Medicaid when they need nursing home care, they may become eligible when their savings are depleted. With less money in the bank and minimal income, Medicaid can pay for nursing home care. It is also important to remember that when a Medicaid recipient dies, the government may recoup the benefits provided for nursing home care from the estate. Family members may discover that this will impact their inheritance. To avoid this, look at these ways to protect assets from nursing home expenses.

Give Away Assets. Giving loved ones your assets as gifts can help keep them from being taken by the government when you die. However, there may be tax consequences and could render you Medicaid ineligible.

Create an Irrevocable Trust. When assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they can no longer belong to you because you name an independent trustee. The only exception is that Medicaid can take assets that were yours five years before you died. Therefore, you need to do this as soon as you know you’re going into a nursing home.

Contact an experienced estate planning, elder law, or Medicaid planning attorney to help you protect your assets. The more you delay, the less likely you’ll be able to protect them.

Reference: WRCB (Dayton) (Sep. 4, 2020) “How to Protect Your Assets from Nursing Homes”

What are Power of Attorney Options?

FedWeek’s recent article entitled The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney” explains that a power of attorney designates someone else to handle your affairs, if you can’t.

Here are the major types:

  • Limited power of attorney. This allows an agent to act on your behalf under specific circumstances, like a home sale closing that you can’t attend, and/or for a defined period of time.
  • General power of attorney. Gives broad authority to your agent, who at any time can write checks to pay your bills, sign contracts on your behalf and take distributions from your IRA.
  • Springing power of attorney. This isn’t effective when you execute it, but rather “springs” into effect upon certain circumstances, such as your becoming incompetent. You can say in the document what’s needed to verify your incompetency, like letters from two physicians stating that you no longer can manage your own affairs.

A power of attorney is important because your agent can act, if you become incapacitated. To serve this purpose, a power should be “durable,” so it will remain in effect if you become incompetent. Other powers of attorney may not be recognized, if a judge determines that you no longer can manage your affairs.

Without a power of attorney, your family may have to ask a judge to name a guardian to act in your best interests. A guardianship proceeding can be expensive and contentious. You might also wind up with an unwelcome interloper managing your finances. To avoid this situation, designate a person you trust as agent on your durable power.

A health care power of attorney, also known as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, should be a component of a complete estate plan. This document names a trusted agent to make decisions about your medical treatment, if you become unable to do so.

The person you name in your health care power doesn’t have to be the same person that you name as agent for a “regular” power of attorney (the POA that affects your finances).

For your health care power, chose a person in your family who is a medical professional or someone you trust to see that you get all necessary care.

Depending on state law, it may go into effect when a doctor (whom you can name in the POA) determines in writing that you no longer have the ability to make or communicate health care decisions.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 26, 2020) “The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney”

What Must I Decide before Retirement?

Many of retirement decisions are uncomfortable because they involve changing aspects of one’s life that may have been routine for years or facing the prospect of one’s deterioration in health or death.

Forbes’ article “5 Crucial Planning Steps To Take Before You Retire” lists several planning steps to take as you plan for a less stressful and much more enjoyable retirement.

Downsize. Owning a big home requires numerous financial expenditures, including higher property taxes, insurance coverage, upkeep costs and more. There is also the mental stress that comes with the upkeep of your home.

Practical solutions to housing for retirees should focus on the financial cost, safety, mental health, physical limitations and being around people on whom you can rely. The sooner you make the decision to downsize, the more trouble you can save yourself in the future.

Investments. Determine a proper asset allocation, an appropriate withdrawal strategy and coordinate various income streams.

Estate Plan. It’s critical to have an updated estate plan as you get older, accumulate more wealth and need to plan for the transition of that money to the next generation.

The main documents for a proper estate plan include a will, power of attorney for finances, power of attorney for health and a health care directive. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Long-Term Care. A person turning 65 today has a 70% chance of needing some type of long-term care services in their lifetime. As we continue to live longer, this care will be a reality for many people.

Activities. Very few people have a strategy for how they will spend their time in retirement. You may want to work part-time, volunteer and to have regularly scheduled visits with family and friends. These activities help provide daily structure, social interaction and intellectual stimulation, which are all essential for preventing rapid physical and mental decline.

Don’t procrastinate! Start thinking about these issues today.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 3, 2020) “5 Crucial Planning Steps To Take Before You Retire”

How Do I Find a Great Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys specialize in legal affairs that uniquely concern seniors and their adult children, says Explosion’s recent article entitled “The Complete Guide on How to Find an Elder Law Attorney.”

Finding the right elder law attorney can be a big task. However, with the right tips, you can find an experienced elder law attorney who is knowledgeable, has the right connections and fits your budget.

While, technically, a general practice attorney will be able to handle your retirement, Medicaid and even your estate planning, an elder law lawyer is deeply entrenched in elder law. This means he or she will have extensive knowledge and experience to handle any case within the scope of elder law, like the following:

  • Retirement planning
  • Long-term care planning and insurance
  • Medicaid
  • Estate planning
  • Social Security
  • Veterans’ benefits; and
  • Other related areas of law.

While a general practice lawyer may be able to help you with one or two of these areas, a competent elder law lawyer knows that there’s no single formula in elder law that applies across the board. That’s why you’ll need a lawyer with a high level of specialization and understanding to handle your specific circumstances. An elder law attorney is best suited for your specific needs.

A referral from someone you trust is a great place to start. When conducting your elder law lawyer search, stay away from attorneys who charge for their services by the hour. For example, if you need an elder law attorney to work on a Medicaid issue, they should be able to give you an estimate of the charges after reviewing your case. That one-time flat fee will cover everything, including any legal costs, phone calls, meetings and court fees.

When it comes to elder law attorneys, nothing says more than experience. An experienced elder law lawyer has handled many cases similar to yours and understands how to proceed. Reviewing the lawyer’s credentials at the state bar website is a great place to start to make sure the lawyer in question is licensed. The website also has information on any previous ethical violations.

In your search for an elder law attorney, look for a good fit and a high level of comfort. Elder law is a complex area of law that requires knowledge and experience.

Reference: Explosion (Aug. 19, 2020) “The Complete Guide on How to Find an Elder Law Attorney”

Do I Qualify as an Eligible Designated Beneficiary under the SECURE Act?

An eligible designated beneficiary (EDB) is a person included in a unique classification of retirement account beneficiaries. A person may be classified as an EDB, if they are classified as fitting into one of five categories of individuals identified in the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act. The bill passed in December 2019 and is effective for all inherited retirement accounts, as of the first of this year.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” explains that these people get special treatment and greater flexibility to withdraw funds from their inherited accounts than other beneficiaries.

With the SECURE Act, there are now three types of beneficiaries. It is based on the individual’s connection to the original account owner, the beneficiary’s age, and his or her status as either an individual or a non-person entity. However, an EDB is always an individual. On the other hand, an EDB can’t be a trust, an estate, or a charity, which are considered not designated beneficiaries. There are five categories of individuals included in the EDB classification. These are detailed below.

In most instances, except for the exceptions below, an EDB must withdraw the balance from the inherited IRA account over the beneficiary’s life expectancy. There is optional special treatment allowed only for surviving spouses, which is explained below. When a minor child reaches the age of majority, he or she is no longer considered to be an EDB, and the 10-year rule concerning withdrawal requirements for a designated beneficiary applies.

Here are the five categories of EDBs.

Owner’s surviving spouse. Surviving spouses get special treatment, which lets them step into the shoes of the owner and withdraw the balance from the IRA over the original owner’s life expectancy. As another option, they can roll an inherited IRA into their own IRA and take withdrawals at the point when they’d normally take their own required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Owner’s minor child. A child who isn’t yet 18 can make withdrawals from an inherited retirement account using their own life expectancy. However, when he or she turns 18, the 10-year rule for designated beneficiaries (who aren’t EDBs) applies. At that point, the child would have until December 31 of the 10th year after their 18th birthday to withdraw all funds from the inherited retirement account. A deceased retirement account owner’s minor child can get an extension, up until age 26, for the start of the 10-year rule, if he or she is pursuing a specified course of education.

An individual who is disabled. The tax code says that an individual is considered to be disabled if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long continued and indefinite duration.” A disabled person who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

An individual who is chronically ill. The tax code states that “the term ‘chronically ill individual’ means any individual who has been certified by a licensed healthcare practitioner as—

  • being unable to perform (without substantial assistance from another individual) at least two activities of daily living for a period of at least 90 days, due to a loss of functional capacity,
  • having a level of disability similar (as determined under regulations prescribed by the Secretary in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to the level of disability described in clause (i), or
  • requiring substantial supervision to protect such individual from threats to health and safety due to severe cognitive impairment.”

A chronically ill individual who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to determine the RMDs.

Any other person who’s less than 10 years younger than the decedent. This is a catch-all that includes certain friends and siblings (depending on age), who are identified as beneficiaries of a retirement account. This also excludes most adult children (who aren’t disabled or chronically ill) from the five categories of EDBs. A person in this category who inherits a retirement account is permitted to use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2020) “Eligible Designated Beneficiary”