What Is an Ethical Will and Do You Need One?

When an estate planning attorney suggests that clients create ethical wills, they aren’t asking the clients to create another last will and testament. Instead, it is to create something that can explain their intentions to their loved ones. According to the article “How to create an ethical will” from Herald Net, a ethical will is also known as a legacy letter.

This can be a kind and loving gift to your family, since it allows you to express your feelings and thoughts. If you’re not accustomed to sharing your feelings, that will make it even more special to your loved ones. It’s an opportunity to say all the things you never felt comfortable saying. You may want to express your wishes, regrets and gratitude. You may also want to pass long the life lessons that have been valuable for you.

An ethical will also provides an opportunity for you to explain how you came to the decisions you did about your will and the money and possessions you are passing along. You might want to explain why a certain child is being given a piece of artwork or why another is being left assets in a trust and not an outright gift.

If you are more comfortable with making a video, you can also do that. An audio or video recording often becomes a treasured piece of family history, since it allows generations who may have never met you to see and hear you.

Start by writing down some notes about what matters to you and what you think you might want to share with the family. Take your time. Remember you aren’t writing the Great American Novel but creating a gift of love.

Once you’ve gathered your thoughts, move on to the next draft. Once it’s complete, to keep this document safe and in a secure location. If you have a waterproof and fireproof safe where you keep important papers in the home, the ethical will should also go in there. Remember that safe deposit boxes are sealed at death, so if you want your loved ones to read this, it should not go in the safe deposit box.

One last thought—some people like to share their ethical will with family and friends, while they are still living. This allows them to enjoy their reactions and have a discussion about whatever they have shared in the document. Others prefer to wait until after they have passed. It’s a very personal decision.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about how the ethical will works with your estate plan.  Make sure there’s nothing in the ethical will that contradicts your last will and testament. That could create problems for the family.

Reference: Herald Net (Nov. 6, 2029) “How to create an ethical will”

How a Charitable Remainder Trust Works
Charity Savings Jar

How a Charitable Remainder Trust Works

A couple lives well on their incomes, but the biggest asset they own is a tract of unimproved real estate that the wife received from her parents many years ago. The land was part of the family’s farm and is located in prime area that is growing in value. The couple is looking for ways to supplement their retirement income, which is based solely on their retirement accounts.

What can they do to generate retirement income and not have to pay a significant proportion of their profit in capital gains? The solution is presented in the article “Using Charitable Trusts in Your Retirement Planning” from Richardland Source.

One strategy would be to establish a Charitable Remainder Trust or CRT. The wife would transfer the land to an irrevocable trust created to provide lifetime payments to her and her husband. At the death of the surviving spouse, the trust property would be transferred to a charitable organization named in the wife’s trust agreement.

Using the CRT, the trustee can sell the trust property and reinvest the proceeds, without have to pay any immediate tax on the gain. The couple would have more money for retirement, than if they simply sold the land and invested the proceeds. They also have the option of investing their tax savings outside of the trust to produce additional income.

The CRT can be either an annuity trust or a unitrust. The type of CRT used will determine how payments from the trust are calculated. If a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT) is chosen, the couple will receive annual payments of a set percentage of the trust’s initial fair market value. The percentage will need to be at least 5% and may not be more than 50%.

If they choose a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), they would receive an annual income based on the fair market value of the trust property, which is revalued each year. That percentage must be at least 5% and not more than 50%.

These are complex legal strategies that need to be considered in tandem with an overall estate and tax plan. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn if using CRTs would be a good strategy for you and your family.

Reference: Richardland Source (October 28, 2019) “Using Charitable Trusts in Your Retirement Planning”

 

Blended Families Need More Thoughtful Estate Plans

Estate planning for blended families is like playing chess in three dimensions: even those who are very good at chess can struggle with so many moving parts in so many dimensions. Preparing an estate plan requires careful consideration of family dynamics, and those are multiplied in blended families. This is another reason why estate plans need to be tailored for each family’s circumstances, as described in the article “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning” from The News Enterprise.

The last will and testament is often considered the key document in an estate plan. But while the will is very important, it has certain limitations and a few commonly used estate planning strategies can result in unpleasant endings, if this is the only document used.

Spouses often leave everything to each other as the primary beneficiary on death, with all of their children as contingent beneficiaries. This is based on the assumption that the second spouse will remain in the family home, then will distribute any proceeds equally between the children, if and when they move or die. However, the will can be changed at any time before death, as long as the person making the will has mental capacity. If when the first spouse dies, the relationship with the surviving children is not strong, it is possible that the surviving spouse may have their will changed.

If stepchildren don’t have a strong connection with the surviving spouse, which occurs frequently when the second marriage occurs after the children are adults, things can go wrong. Their mutual grief at the passing of the first spouse does not always draw stepchildren and stepparents together. Often, it divides them.

The couple may also select different successor beneficiaries. The husband may name his wife first, then only his children in his will, while the wife may name her husband and then her children in her will. This creates a “survival race.” The surviving spouse receives the property and the children of the spouse who passed won’t know when or if they will receive any assets.

Some couples plan on using trusts for property distribution upon death. This can be more successful, if planned properly. It can also be just as bad as a will.

Trust provisions can be categorized according to the level of control the surviving spouse has after the death of the first spouse. A trust can be structured to lock down half of the trust assets on the death of the first spouse. The surviving spouse remains as a beneficiary but does not have the ability to change the ultimate distribution of the decedent’s portion. This allows the survivor the financial support they need, giving flexibility for the survivor to change their beneficiaries for their remaining share.

Not all blended families actually “blend,” but for those who do, a candid discussion with all, possibly in the office of the estate planning attorney, to plan for the future, is one way to ensure that the family remains a family, when both parents are gone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (November 4, 2019) “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning”

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A Good Estate Plan Equals Peace of Mind and Peace in the Family

The problems aren’t always evident when the first parent passes. Often, it’s when the second parent becomes gravely ill, that lapses in estate planning become evident. For one family, everyone thought estate plans were all in place after their father died. When their mother suffered a stroke, the adult children learned that they had no access to her financial accounts or her health care directives. No one had thought to update the estate plan.

However, when one parent passes, the family needs to take action. That’s the lesson from the article “Avoid heartache and anxiety with estate planning” from Post Independent. In this case, the family never thought to modify or add anyone’s name to the financial accounts, power of attorney documents, medical power of attorney documents, or HIPAA consent forms. What often happens in these cases, is that family members start bickering about who was supposed to do what.

For those who have not taken the time to learn about estate planning, planning for end-of-life legal, financial and medical matters, the quarrels may be inevitable.

Estate planning is not just for wealthy families. If your aging loved one own property, stocks, bonds or any other assets, they need to have a will, advance directives, powers of attorney and possibly some trusts. Take the time to understand these documents now, before an urgent crisis occurs.

There are few formal courses that teach people about these matters, unless they go to law school. Nearly half of Americans age 55 and over don’t have a will, according to an article appearing in Forbes. Fewer than 20% of these people have health care directives and the proper types of powers of attorney in place.

When it comes to preparing for these matters, the laws are very specific about who can participate in health care and financial conversations and decisions.

Here are some of the documents needed for an estate plan:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • General, Limited and/or Durable Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Power of Attorney
  • Living Will
  • Advance Care Directive
  • HIPAA Consent Form

Preplanning will greatly assist family members and loved ones, so they know what medical and financial efforts you or your parents would want. Having the documents in order will also provide the family with the legal means of carrying out these wishes.

The legal documents won’t solve all problems. Your brother-in-law will still be a pain in the neck and your oldest sister may still make unrealistic demands. However, having these documents in place, will make the best of a bad situation.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan, or your parent’s estate plan, is properly prepared. If someone has moved to another state, their estate plan needs to be updated to align with their new state’s laws.

Reference: Post Independent (November 3, 2019) “Avoid heartache and anxiety with estate planning”

Everyone Should Have a Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney

Before snowbirds begin their seasonal journey to warmer climates, it’s time to be sure that they have the important legal documents in place, advises LimaOhio.com in a recent article “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind.” The two documents are a healthcare power of attorney and a financial power of attorney, and they should be prepared and be ready to be used at any time.

These documents name another person to make healthcare and financial decisions, in case you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. We never think that anything will really happen to us, until it does. Having these documents properly prepared and easily accessible helps our loved ones. They are the ones who will need the powers given by the documents. Without them, they cannot act in a timely manner.

If traveling between a home state and a winter home, it is wise to have a set of documents that align with the laws of both states. It may be necessary to have a separate set of documents for each state, if the laws differ.

Financial powers of attorney typically need updating more often than healthcare powers of attorney. The law has changed in recent years, and there are a number of specific powers that need to be stated precisely, so that the document can grant those powers. This includes the power to gift assets and make a person eligible for nursing home and other healthcare assistance, like Medicaid.

If these documents are not in place and are needed, the only way that someone else can make decisions for the person, is to become a guardian of that person. That includes spouses. Many people think that the fact that two people are married gives them every right, but that is not the case. Guardianship takes considerably more time and costs more than these two documents. It should be noted that once guardianship is established, the person who is the guardian will need to report to the court on a regular basis.

Another document that needs to be in place is a living will or advance directive. This is a document prepared to instruct others as to your wishes for end-of-life care. The document is created when a person is mentally competent and expresses their wishes for what they want to happen, if they are being kept alive by artificial means. For loved ones, this document is a blessing, as it lets them know very clearly what their family members wishes are.

Peace of mind is a wonderful thing to take with you as you prepare for a warm winter in a different climate. Talk with an estate planning attorney to be sure that your estate planning documents will be acceptable in your winter home.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 26, 2019) “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind”

What’s Happens to Digital Assets, When You’re Gone?

We all have many more digital assets than we realize. What happens to those assets when we die?, asks Investment News in the article “4 ways to help clients control their digital afterlife.” The answer is not that simple. There are a large number of rules that survivors must untangle, and many family members are stunned, when they find that not only don’t they have access to these accounts, but the data in the accounts may be deleted permanently, when they try to log in too many times.

Almost all states have passed the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA), and experts are gaining a better understanding of how this law works and what happens to digital assets when owners die.

Start by naming a digital assets fiduciary in your last will and testament. This person will be able to gain access to digital assets, as directed in the will. If they list their wishes for specific disposition of the assets, their wishes supersede the terms of service provision of each individual site.

Note that these provisions apply ONLY if clients take specific action. Education of family members is important here. This should be part of the overall estate plan.

Start by creating a complete inventory of all digital assets. Try using these categories:

  • Communication: email, contacts, login for phone
  • Rewards programs: hotels, airlines, restaurants
  • Shopping: eBay, Craig’s List, Amazon, department stores
  • Online storage sites: iCloud, data backup sites
  • Finances: online payments, banking, investment accounts, cryptocurrency
  • Social media: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Snap Chat, WhatsApp
  • Gaming sites and fantasy leagues—especially if there is real money involved.

Make sure your will has a provision that names a digital assets fiduciary, as well as an alternate, if that person cannot serve.

In a separate document or in the will itself, list your wishes for each and every digital asset. Do you want your social media sites memorialized or do you want them shut down? Who gets your airline frequent flier miles? Who should have access to emails, taxes and social media sites? Where should pictures go?

It may be easier to use one of several available services that generate secure passwords for each site and store the passwords and usernames. Using provisions for denial of access until death, the named digital fiduciary should have the master password to that service, plus instructions for any two-factor authentication. Remember that your will becomes a public document upon your death, so don’t put any passwords in that document.

Reference: Investment News (Oct. 22, 2019) “4 ways to help clients control their digital afterlife”

Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

When names change, executing documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also to their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, but it does have to be addressed. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts. If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is use: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation noted above, most attorneys to want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, there are two people in the family with similar names. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second is that the document being discussed is a healthcare designation. Usually when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

Still Waiting to Update Your Estate Plan?

If you are wondering if Franklin’s handwritten wills are valid, join the club. With an estate valued at least $80 million, it’s good news that some kind of will was found to divide up her assets. However, says Daily Reckoning in the article “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates,” there’s no guarantee that those wills are going to hold up in court.

The problem with Aretha’s family? It proves how important it is to have a properly executed will and one that is also up to date. It’s different for every family and every person, but if you’ve done any of the following, you need to update your will.

Moved to a different state. The laws that govern estate law are set by each state, so if you move to a different state, your entire will or parts of it may not work. If your estate is deemed invalid, then your wishes won’t necessarily be followed. Your family will suffer the consequences. For example, if your old state required only one witness for a will to be valid and you move to a state that requires two witnesses, then your executor is going to have an uphill battle. Some states also allow self-written wills but have very specific rules about what is and is not permitted.

Bought new property. People make this mistake all the time. They assume that because their will says they are gifting their home to their children, updating the new address doesn’t matter. However, it does. Your will must specify exactly what home and what address you are gifting. If you have a second property or a new property, update the information on your will.

Downsized your stuff. Sometimes people get excited about getting rid of their possessions and accidentally discard or donate something they had promised to someone in their will. If your will doesn’t reflect your new, more minimal lifestyle, your heirs won’t get what you promised to them. Instead, they may get nothing. Therefore, review your will and distribute the possessions you do have.

Gifting something early and forgetting what was in your will. If your will specifies that your oldest son gets your mother’s mahogany desk, but you gave it to your niece two months ago, you may create some awkward moments for your family. Whenever gifting something with great sentimental or financial value, be sure to review your will.

Having a boom or a bust. If your finances take a dramatic turn, for better or worse, you may create problems for heirs, if your will is not revised to reflect the changes. Let’s say one account has grown with the market, but another has taken a nosedive. Did you give your two children a 50/50 split, or does one child now stand to inherit a jumbo-sized pension, while the other is going to get little or nothing?

Had a change of heart. Has your charity of choice changed? Or did a charity you dedicated years to change its mission or close? Again, review your will.

Had a death in the family. If a spouse dies before you, your will may list alternative recipients. However, you probably want to review your will. You may want to make changes regarding how certain assets are titled. If a family member who was a beneficiary or executor dies, then you’ll need to update your will.

Your estate planning attorney will review your will and talk about the various changes in your life. Life changes over the course of time, and your will needs to reflect those changes.

Reference: Daily Reckoning (Sep. 12, 2019) “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates”

Dark Side of Medicaid Means You Need Estate Planning

A woman in Massachusetts, age 62, is living in her family’s home on borrowed time. Her late father did all the right things: saving to buy a home and then buying a life-insurance policy to satisfy the mortgage on his passing, with the expectation that he had secured the family’s future. However, as reported in the article “Medicaid’s Dark Secret” in The Atlantic, after the father died and the mother needed to live in a nursing home as a consequence of Alzheimer’s, the legacy began to unravel.

Just weeks after her mother entered the nursing home, her daughter received a notice that MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, had placed a lien on the house. She called MassHealth; her mother had been a longtime employee of Boston Public Schools and there were alternatives. She wanted her mother taken off Medicaid. The person she spoke to at MassHealth said not to worry. If her mother came out of the nursing home, the lien would be removed, and her mother could continue to receive benefits from Medicaid.

The daughter and her husband moved to Massachusetts, took their mother out of the nursing home and cared for her full-time. They also fixed up the dilapidated house. To do so, they cashed in all of their savings bonds, about $100,000. They refinished the house and paid off the two mortgages their mother had on the house.

Her husband then began to show signs of dementia. Now, the daughter spent her days and nights caring for both her mother and her husband.

After her mother died, she received a letter from the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees MassHealth, notifying her that the state was seeking reimbursement from the estate for $198,660. She had six months to pay the debt in full, and after that time, she would be accruing interest at 12%. The state could legally force her to sell the house and take its care of proceeds to settle the debt. Her husband had entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

Despite all her calls to officials, none of whom would help, and her own research that found that there were in fact exceptions for adult child caregivers, the state rejected all of her requests for help. She had no assets, little income, and no hope.

State recovery for Medicaid expenditures became mandatory, as part of a deficit reduction law signed by President Bill Clinton. Many states resisted instituting the process, even going to court to defend their citizens. The federal government took a position that federal funds for Medicaid would be cut if the states did not comply. However, other states took a harder line, some even allowing pre-death liens, taking interest on past-due debts or limiting the number of hardship waivers. The law gave the states the option to expand recovery efforts, including medical expenses, and many did, collecting for every doctor’s visit, drug, and surgery covered by Medicaid.

Few people are aware of estate recovery. It’s disclosed in the Medicaid enrollment forms but buried in the fine print. It’s hard for a non-lawyer to know what it means. When it makes headlines, people are shocked and dismayed. During the rollout of the Obama administration’s Medicaid expansion, more people became aware of the fine print. At least three states passed legislation to scale back recovery policies after public outcry.

The Medicaid Recovery program is a strong reason for families to meet with an elder law attorney and make a plan. Assets can be placed in irrevocable trusts, or deeds can be transferred to family members. There are many strategies to protect families from estate recovery. This issue should be on the front burner of anyone who owns a home, or other assets, who may need to apply for Medicaid at some point in the future. Avoiding probate is one part of estate planning, avoiding Medicaid recovery is another.

Since the laws are state-specific, consult an elder law attorney in your state.

Reference: The Atlantic (October 2019) “Medicaid’s Dark Secret”

Feeling Squeezed? You Might be a Sandwich

The phrase “sandwich generation” is used to describe people who are caring for their parents and their children at the same time. The number of people who fall into this category is growing, according to an article from The Motley Fool, “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement.” A survey found that about 16% of Americans are currently caring for an elderly relative, and this number is expected to double within the next five years.

What’s worse, very few people are planning for this situation.

Planning is the only way to stop what has been called a self-perpetuating cycle. Without planning, caring for parents could derail your own retirement, making you need the support of your children when you get older, and while your kids are trying to save for their children’s college educations and preparing for their own retirement. Sound familiar?

What can you do to prevent this cycle?

See if your parents qualify for any assistance programs. There are government and private programs to help with housing, food, utilities and healthcare. The programs vary by location and the situation of the people who are seeking help, but there is help, if you know where to find it.

If parents are over 65, there is something called Supplemental Social Security Income, or SSI. This is in addition to the regular Social Security benefits and might be enough to close the finance gap. In 2019, SSI provides up to $771 per month for an individual or $1,157 for a couple, if the requirements are met.

Cost cutting. If your parents don’t have a budget, help them create one so you can all be aware of how much money is coming in and how much is going out of the household. Could they tighten their discretionary spending? They could also consider a reverse mortgage on their home, if they have enough equity. Are you willing or able to have them come live with you?

Selling items could also free up cash for living expenses. If they have a house filled with memorabilia, or valuable antiques, and are willing to do so, they can combine downsizing with making some income.

Creating a plan. Get everyone in the room—parents, siblings and spouses. Discuss the challenges ahead and make sure that everyone is clear on what expenses everyone can help with. Housing and healthcare are necessary. Luxury cars and vacations are not.

If the adult siblings need to adjust their own spending to help the parents, be realistic with each other. How much are you able to contribute, and how much are you willing to contribute? No one sibling should have to shoulder the burden themselves, unless they are wildly wealthy, and it won’t make a dent in their lifestyle.

Along with the financial planning, make sure that your parents have an estate plan. They’ll need a will, a power of attorney for finances and a healthcare power of attorney. The cost of working with an estate planning attorney to ensure that this is in place, is far less than dealing with court proceedings, if you need to pursue guardianship or settle the estate without a will.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 25, 2019) “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement”

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