No Will? What Happens Now Can Be a Horror Show

Families who have lived through settling an estate without an estate plan will agree that the title of this article, “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will,” from Next Avenue, is no exaggeration. When the family is grieving is no time to be fighting, yet the absence of a will and an estate plan leads to this exact situation.

Why do people procrastinate having their wills and estate plans done?

Limited understanding about wealth transfers. People may think they do not have enough assets to require an estate plan. Their home, retirement funds or savings account may not be in the mega-millions, but this is actually more of a reason to have an estate plan.

Fear of mortality. We do not like to talk or think about death. However, talking about what will happen when you die or what may happen if you become incapacitated is very important. Planning so your children or other trusted family member or friends will be able to make decisions on your behalf or care for you alleviates what could otherwise turn into an expensive and emotionally disastrous time.

Perceived lack of benefits. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will put your interests first means you will have one less thing to worry about while you are living and towards the end of your life.

Estate planning documents contain the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you pass. They answer questions like:

  • Who should look after your minor children, if both primary caregivers die before the children reach adulthood?
  • If you become incapacitated, who should handle your financial affairs, who should be in charge of your healthcare and what kind of end-of-life care do you want?
  • What do you want to happen to your assets after you die? Your estate refers to your financial accounts, personal possessions, retirement funds, pensions and real estate.

Your estate plan includes a will, trusts (if appropriate), a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney or advanced directive and a living will. The will distributes your property and also names an executor, who is in charge of making sure the directions in the will are carried out.

If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the POA gives agency to someone else to carry out your wishes while you are living. The living will provides an opportunity to express your wishes regarding end-of-life care.

There are many different reasons to put off having an estate plan, but they all end up in the same place: the potential to create family disruption, unnecessary expenses and stress. Show your family how much you love them, by overcoming your fears and preparing for the next generation. Meet with an estate planning attorney and prepare for the future.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 21, 2022) “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will”

What Does Estate Plan Include?

The will, formally known as a last will and testament, is just one part of a complete estate plan, explains the article “Essential components of an estate plan” from Vail Daily. Consider it a starting point. A will can be very straight-forward and simple. However, it needs to address your unique situation and meet the legal requirements of your state.

If your family includes grown children and your goal is to leave everything to your spouse, but then make sure your spouse then leaves everything to the children, you need to make sure your will accomplishes this. However, what will happen if one of your children dies before you? Do you want their share to go to their children, your grandchildren? If the grandchildren are minors, someone will need to manage the money for them. Perhaps you want the balance of the inheritance to be distributed among the adult children. What if your surviving spouse remarries and then dies before the new spouse? How will your children’s inheritance be protected?

Many of these questions are resolved through the use of trusts, another important part of a complete estate plan. There are as many different types of trusts as there are situations addressed by trusts. They can be used to minimize tax liability, control how assets are passed from one generation to the next and protect the family from creditor claims.

How a trust should be structured, whether it is revocable, meaning it can be easily changed, or irrevocable, meaning it is harder to change, is best evaluated by an experienced estate planning attorney. No matter how complicated your situation is, they will have seen the situation before and are prepared to help.

A memorandum of disposition of personal property gives heirs insight into your wishes, by outlining what you want to happen to your personal effects. Let’s say your will leaves all of your assets to be divided equally between your children. However, you own a classic car and have a beloved nephew who loves the car as much as you do. By creating a memorandum of disposition, you can make sure your nephew gets the car, taking it out of the general provisions of the will. Be mindful of state law, however.

Note that some states do not allow the use of a memorandum of disposition, let alone permit such “titled” assets to be transferred by such an informal memorandum. Consequently, you must clarify how this situation will be handled in your state of residence with your estate planning attorney.

You will also need a Power of Attorney, giving another person the right to act on your behalf if you should become incapacitated. This is often a spouse, but it can also be another trusted individual with sound judgment who is good with handling responsibilities. Make sure to name a back-up person, just in case your primary POA cannot or will not serve.

A Medical Power of Attorney gives a named individual the ability to act on your behalf regarding medical decisions if you are incapacitated. Make sure to have a back-up, just to be sure. Failing to name a back- up for either POA will leave your family in a position where they cannot act on your behalf and may have to go to court to obtain a court-appointed guardianship in order to care for you. This is an expensive, time-consuming and stressful process, making a bad situation worse.

A Living Will is a declaration of your preference for end-of-life care. What steps do you want to be taken, or not taken, if you are medically determined to have an injury or illness from which you will not recover? This is the document used to state your wishes about a ventilator, the use of a feeding tube, etc. This is a hard thing to contemplate, but stating your wishes will be better than family members arguing about what you “would have wanted.”

Reference: Vail Daily (Feb. 15, 2022) “Essential components of an estate plan”

Is It Necessary to have a Medical Power of Attorney?
Close-up Of Stethoscope And Gavel On Wooden Desk

Is It Necessary to have a Medical Power of Attorney?

There’s no way around it, this is a difficult conversation to have with aging parents or loved ones. Who will take care of parents when they cannot take care of themselves? Do they have their estate plan in order? According to this article from Health, an important detail is often overlooked: “A Health Care Power of Attorney Is Essential for Aging Parents—Here’s Why.”

Referred to as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, a health care POA allows a person to choose someone to make medical decisions on their behalf, if they are unable to do so. This is a different document than a living will, which serves to let a person outline their wishes if they can’t communicate for end-of-life care.

Naming a medical proxy in advance lets the person conduct their wishes, with full and complete knowledge of what those wishes are.

A health care POA is also not the same as a last will and testament, which goes into effect after a person dies. There is nothing in a health care POA concerning wealth distribution. The will and trusts address those matters.

Giving a trusted person the legal power to make medical decisions is a big step, but one that provides a sense of control and peace of mind. There should be a first choice and an alternate, in case the first person, usually a spouse, is unable or unwilling to serve.

Without a medical POA, the family may need to go to court to get legal permission to make decisions. It’s the last thing anyone wants to do when their loved one is in a critical medical situation. Imagine having to leave the hospital to go to court, when the minutes are ticking away and your parent is in the midst of medical crisis.

If someone fails to name a medical proxy and becomes incapacitated, the hospital itself will most often step in to make treatment decisions or rely on the rules of the state to pick a family member to make decisions. The person named by the hospital might not be the person the family wants, but it will have no choice.

Like having an estate plan in place, having a medical proxy in place eliminates a lot of unnecessary stress. Most parents name the adult children they feel will make decisions in their best interest. The responsible, dependable child, regardless of their age relative their siblings, is often named. If siblings don’t get along and have a history of fighting, it may be best to name a cousin or trusted family friend.

An experienced estate planning attorney will make sure the health care proxy documents comply with the laws in the person’s state of residence. Every state has its own forms, and its own laws.

A discussion needs to take place between the person and the people they name in the health care proxy. Make sure the proxy is willing to take on the role and understands the person’s wishes.  The form should also be submitted to a health care facility or doctor’s office, so it is on file if it is needed. Unexpected events occur every day—being prepared makes it easier for loved ones.

Reference: Health (Dec. 1, 2021) “A Health Care Power of Attorney Is Essential for Aging Parents—Here’s Why”

How Important Is an Estate Plan?

Estate planning is preparing for two things: incapacity and death. It includes making sure you’ve conveyed your wishes about medical care in the case of a serious or terminal illness, who you want to receive your possessions when you pass and a series of documents to tell your loved ones your wishes. A recent article from The Street, “Everyone Needs an Estate Plan,” explains how to make this happen.

The foundation of the estate plan is your will, aka Last Will and Testament. It’s used to name several individuals for key roles. One is a guardian for minor children—if you don’t have a will or fail to name a guardian, a court will decide who should raise your children. Another is the executor, the person who will be in charge of overseeing your estate and your instructions. If you have animal companions, you may name a person to be their caretaker. However, you may want to go a step further and create a pet trust to provide funds for their maintenance.

You’ll also want a Living Will. This is a document conveying your wishes, if you are no longer able to make healthcare decisions for yourself. It focuses on end of life care. Do you want to be kept alive with artificial means, and if so, which ones are acceptable? How would you want pain management to be handled? Do you want to donate your organs? Yes, it’s a little scary, but imagine your loved ones in a highly emotional state having to guess what you would have wanted. It’s better for you and your family to know what you would want.

A personalized Power of Attorney. Naming a person as a Power of Attorney lets them handle your financial affairs and act as your agent or representative. However, here’s a pitfall: using a standardized form can lead to trouble. You may want your POA to be able to manage your day-to-day finances, but there may be some things you’d prefer them not to do. A customized POA can be as broad or as narrow as you wish.

Healthcare Power of Attorney and HIPAA Authorization. Information and decision making about healthcare today is complicated today. Your representatives will need to have these documents to speak with your medical care providers, to make decisions and to gain access to your medical records. Without a HIPAA form, you won’t be able to see their medical records, even if you are a sibling or spouse. It’s best to have these documents in place long before they are needed.

The laws about these and other estate planning documents vary from state to state. Therefore, you’ll need to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area to make sure that all of your documents are valid. If you own a business or have a complex financial situation, there are many legal methods to protect your assets and convey them to your heirs.

Reference: The Street (Nov. 22, 2021) “Everyone Needs an Estate Plan”

What Happens If an Unmarried Partner Dies?

If you, like so many others, found yourself settling the affairs of a loved one in the last 18 months, you may be well aware of the challenges created when there is no estate plan. The lack of planning can create an enormous headache for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples” from The Street. If this is true for married couples, then it’s even more important for unmarried couples.

Planning for incapacity and death is not fun, but unmarried couples in serious relationships need to plan for the unknown. Even married same-sex couples may face hostility from family members, including will contests and custody battles over children. There are three key issues to address: inheritance, incapacity and end-of-life care and beneficiary designations.

If a partner in an unmarried relationship dies and there is no will, assets belonging to the decedent pass to their family, which could leave their partner with nothing. With no will, the estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. These laws almost always direct the court to distribute the property based on kinship.

A will establishes an unmarried partner’s right to inherit property from the decedent. It is also used to name a guardian for any minor children. Concern about the will being contested by family members is often addressed by the use of trusts. When property is transferred to a trust, it no longer belongs to the individual, but to the trust. A trustee is named to be in charge of the trust. If the surviving partner is the trustee, he or she has access and control of the trust.

A trust helps to avoid probate, as property does not go through probate. A will also only goes into effect after the person who created the will passes away. A revocable living trust is effective as soon as it is established. Trusts allow for more control of assets before and after you pass. The trustee is legally bound to carry out the precise intentions in the trust document.

Establishing a trust is step one—the next step is funding the trust. If the trust is established but not funded, there is no protection from probate for the assets.

Incapacity and end-of-life planning allows you to make decisions about your care, while you are living. Without it, your unmarried partner could be completely shut out of any decision-making process. Here are the documents needed to convey your wishes in an enforceable manner:

Healthcare power of attorney (proxy). This document allows you to name the person you wish to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. You may be very specific about what treatments and care you want—and those you don’t want.

Healthcare directive. The healthcare directive lets you designate your wishes for end-of-life care or any potentially lifesaving treatments. Do you want to be resuscitated, or to have CPR performed?

Durable financial power of attorney. By designating someone in a financial power of attorney, you give that person the right to conduct all financial and legal matters on your behalf. Note that every state has slightly different laws, and the POA must adhere to your state’s guidelines. You may also make the POA as broad or narrow as you wish. It can give someone the power to handle everything on your behalf or confine them to only one part of your financial life.

Beneficiary designations. Almost all tax-deferred retirement accounts and pensions permit a beneficiary to be named to inherit the assets on the death of the original owner. These accounts do not go through probate. Check on each and every retirement account, insurance policies and even bank accounts. Any account with a beneficiary designation should be reviewed every few years to be sure the correct party is named. Estranged ex-spouses have received more than their fair share of happy surprises, when people neglect to update their beneficiaries after divorce.

Some accounts that may not have a clear beneficiary designation may have the option for a Transfer on Death designation, which helps beneficiaries avoid probate.

Review these steps with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your partner and you have made proper plans to protect each other, even without the legal benefits that marriage bestows.

Reference: The Street (June 2, 2021) “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples”

Should You Get Medical Power of Attorney?

The pandemic has created awareness that being suddenly incapacitated by an illness or injury is no longer a hypothetical. The last year has reminded us that health is a fragile gift, regardless of age or any medical conditions, explains the article “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision Making Rights” from Kiplinger. Along with this awareness, comes an understanding that having control over our medical decisions is not assured, unless we have a well-considered health care decision-making plan created by an estate planning attorney, while we are well and healthy.

Without such a plan, in the event of incapacity, you will not have the opportunity to convey your wishes or to ensure they will be carried out. This also leaves the family in a terrible situation, where siblings may end up in court fighting against each other to determine what kind of end-of-life care you will receive.

The best way to exercise your medical decision rights will vary to some degree by your state’s laws, but three are three basic solutions to protect you. An estate planning attorney will be needed to prepare these properly, to reflect your wishes and align with your state’s law. Do-it-yourself documents may lead to more problems than they solve.

Living Will. This document is used when you are in an end-stage medical condition or permanently unconscious. It provides clear and written instructions as to the type of treatments you do or do not want to receive, or the treatment you always want to receive in case of incapacity.

Health Care Durable Power of Attorney. The health care durable POA is broader than a living will. It covers health care decisions in all situations, when you are not able to communicate your wishes. You may appoint one or more agents to make health care decisions, which they will base on their personal knowledge of what your decisions would be if you were able to speak. Just realize that if two people are named and they do not agree on the interpretation of your decision, you may have created a problem for yourself and your family. Discuss this with your estate planning attorney.

Health Care Representative Laws. There are laws in place for what occurs if you have not signed a Health Care Durable Power of Attorney or a Living Will before becoming incompetent. They are intended to fill in the gap, by authorizing certain family members to act on your behalf and make health care decisions for you. They are a solution of last resort, and not the equal of your having had the living will and/or health care durable power of attorney created for you.

If the statute names multiple people, like all of your children, there may be a difference of opinion and the children may “vote” on what’s to happen to you. Otherwise, they’ll end up in court.

The more detailed your documents, the better prepared your loved ones will be when decisions need to be made. Share your choices about specific treatments. For instance, would you want to be taken off a ventilator, if you were in a coma with limited brain function and with no hope of recovery? What if there was a slim chance of recovery? The decisions are not easy. Neither is considering such life or death matters.

Regardless of the emotional discomfort, planning for health-care decisions can provide peace of mind for yourself and loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 29, 2021) “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision Making Rights”

Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents
Senior couple get a gift of a tablet PC from their adult son.

Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents

Let’s start with this idea: maybe your parents are going to leave you a generous bequest as part of their estate plan. Do you know this for a fact, or is it wishful thinking? The only way to know, advises a recent article from Yahoo! Finance titled “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward),” is to have a conversation, or a series of conversations. It’s not the first awkward conversation you’ll have with your parents, but it may be a bit stickier than you expect.

No matter how you approach it, this is a sensitive issue. How do you avoid appearing greedy or selfish? There is actually a lot more to know beyond the inheritance issue. You need to know how to ensure that your parents’ wishes are carried out, while they are living as well as after their deaths.

It will be helpful to be aware that the prospective inheritance amount may change over the course of your parents’ remaining lives. You also don’t want your parents thinking that you consider yourself entitled in any way to the assets they have built over the course of their lives.

Instead, start the conversation by talking about their estate plan. Explain that you want to be able to follow their instructions. You might reference an article or blog post that you have read about the importance of estate planning. You can also talk about your own estate plan, explaining that you have created an estate plan to protect your children and family members and to be sure that your instructions are followed.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge how difficult this conversation is for you. Reassure them that you are not looking forward to their demise, but you have concerns about how things will work out when the time does come.

Depending upon your family dynamics, holidays may be a good time to address estate planning. This provides an opportunity for all family members to be included and for concerns and plans to be shared among involved siblings.

This does not mean discussing inheritances at the dinner table. Focus on what your parents’ wishes are and include a conversation about what values they would like to pass on to the next generation. If there are family histories or stories to share, this is also part of your inheritance.

Regardless of when or how you approach the topic, you do want to be sure your parents have a plan in place, so there is a path for whoever will be taking care of them and their assets. Ask if they have these key legal documents:

  • A Last Will, also known as a Last Will and Testament
  • A Power of Attorney to designate someone to make financial and legal decisions, if they are not able to do so for themselves.
  • A Living Will or health care directive that will designate someone who can make healthcare decisions and address end of life care for them.

Ask where your parents keep these documents, and how you can find them when the time comes. Are they in your father’s night table, or in a lockbox in the attic? If they have a financial advisor or estate planning attorney, who is that person? You’ll need to be able to access the documents and speak with their estate planning attorney.

A few awkward moments now will help all of you as your parents, and you, move through the coming stages of life.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (March 25, 2021) “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward)”

What Is an Advance Directive, and Why You Need This Document?

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the entire world. No wonder—it’s a frightening disease that experts are just beginning to understand. Many of us are asking ourselves: Am I ready for a worst-case scenario? Anyone who does not have the health care portion of their estate plan in order, needs to address it now, says the timely article “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives” from Cincinnati.com.

The topic of an advance directive used to be introduced with a question about what would happen if a person were in a car accident, rushed to the hospital and unable to convey their wishes for care.  The question has now become, what if a sudden onset of COVID-19 occurred, and you were unable to speak on your own behalf? Would your loved ones know what you would want, or would they have to guess?

All adults—that is, anyone over the age of 18—should have an advance directive. The process of creating this and other health care-related estate planning documents will provide the answers to your loved ones, while helping you work through your wishes. Here’s how to start:

What matters to you? Give this considerable thought. What is important to you, who best knows and understands you and who would you trust to make critical decisions on your behalf, in the event of a medical emergency? What medical treatment would you want—or not want—and who can you count on to carry out your wishes?

Get documents in order, so your wishes are carried out. Your estate planning attorney can help you draft and execute the documents you need, so you can be confident that they will be treated as legitimate by health care providers. The estate planning lawyer will know how to execute the documents, so they are in compliance with your state’s laws. Here’s what you’ll want:

  • A living will, which records your wishes for medical treatment, if you cannot speak on your own behalf.
  • Medical power of attorney, to designate a person to make health care decisions, when you are not able to do so. The person is referred to as an agent, surrogate or proxy.
  • A HIPAA release form, so the person you designate may speak with your medical care providers.

Note that none of these documents concerns distribution of your personal property and assets. For that, you’ll want a will or revocable living trust, which your estate planning attorney can prepare for you.

Talk to loved ones now. Consider this conversation a gift to them. This alleviates them from a lifetime of wondering if they did the right thing for you. Have a forthright conversation with them, let them know about the documents you have had prepared and what your wishes are.

Reference: Cincinnati.com (April 27, 2020) “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives”

Estate Planning Documents for a Natural Ending

If you want to control your demise, there are a handful of documents that are typically created during the process of developing an estate plan that can be used to achieve this goal, says the article “Choosing a natural end” from The Dallas Morning News.

The four documents are the Medical Power of Attorney, the Directive to Physicians, the Out-of-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate, and the In-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate. Note that every state has slightly different estate planning laws. Therefore, you will want to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state. If you spend a lot of time in another state, you may need to have a duplicate set of documents created. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help.

For the Medical Power of Attorney, you are appointing an agent to make health care decisions, if you cannot. This may include turning off any life-support systems and refusing life-sustaining treatment. Talk with the person you want to take on this role and make sure they understand your wishes and are willing and able to carry them out.

You have the right to change your agent at any time.

The Directive to Physicians is a way for you to let physicians know what you want for comfort care and any life-sustaining treatment in the event you receive a diagnosis of a terminal or irreversible health condition. You aren’t required to have this, but it is a good way to convey your wishes. The directive does not always have to be the one created by the facility where you are being treated, and it may be customized to your wishes, as long as they are within the bounds of law. Many people will execute a basic directive with their estate planning documents, and then have a more detailed directive created when they have a health crisis.

The Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) forms come in two different forms in most states. Unlike the Directive to Physicians, the DNR must be signed by your attending physician. The Out-of-Hospital DNR is a legally binding order that documents your wishes to health care professionals acting outside of a hospital setting not to initiate or continue CPR, advanced airway management, artificial ventilation, defibrillation or transcutaneous cardiac pacing. You need to sign this form, but if you are not competent to do so, a proxy or health care agent can sign it.

The In-Hospital DNR instructs a health care professional not to attempt CPR, if your breathing or heart stops. It is issued in a health care facility or hospital and does not require your signature. However, the physician does have to inform you or make a good faith effort to inform a proxy or agent of the order.

If you would prefer not to spend your final days or hours hooked up to medical machinery, speak with your estate planning attorney about how to legally prepare to protect your wishes.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Jan. 12, 2020) “Choosing a natural end”