What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?
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What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some errors to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. Yes, even justices make mistakes with estate planning! He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared will could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions. If you are leaving more money to one child than to another, it would be a great kindness to the children’s relationship, if you explained why you are doing so. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan and a valid will in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have a HIPAA release form and Power of Attorney for Health Care, so you are able to speak with each other’s medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.

Please don’t be naive about caregivers with designs on your assets or relatives, who appear after long periods of estrangement.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances. However, this must remain front and center during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

What are the Basic Estate Planning Documents?

Having a well-prepared estate plan means that you have a plan in place to distribute your home, assets and possessions. However, the estate plan does more, says the article “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics” from Wilmington Biz Insights: it also gives your family the insight and legally enforceable directions to follow, so they may honor your wishes.

Estate planning eliminates uncertainty and maximizes the value of the estate, by streamlining the transfer of assets to beneficiaries and minimizing estate tax liability. In addition, estate planning protects your estate and your family from mismanagement, creditor claims or claims from people or companies outside of the family.

Many people equate estate planning with owning a large home and significant wealth, but that’s not true. An estate includes everything people own: their personal residence, retirement accounts, insurance policies, investments and possessions.

A case can be made that estate planning is more important for people with a modest estate to preserve and protect what assets they have, versus a large estate where the family enjoys a large cushion against poverty.

The basic estate planning documents are a last will and testament, trusts, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney and a living will.

A Last Will and Testament provides instructions to the probate court of the decedent’s final wishes, including naming an executor to carry out the instructions. It also contains instructions on who will raise minor children by naming a guardian. This document, and any other documents filed with the probate court, become part of the public record, and can be accessed by anyone who wishes to see them.

A Revocable Trust also provides instructions but avoids probate. The trust creates a legal entity that owns assets (once they are retitled and placed in the trust). The individual who creates a revocable trust remains in control of the assets, as long as they are alive. The revocable trust can be changed at any time.

A Pour-Over Will is used with a revocable trust. It ensures that any assets not included in the Revocable Trust are “poured-over” into the trust upon death, protecting them from the probate process and keeping your wishes private.

A financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney are documents used to give control of legal and financial affairs and health care decisions, in the event of incapacity.

The Living Will provides directions to designated persons, usually family members, about what kind of medical care is desired in the event of an inability to communicate. This is a gift to loved ones, who would otherwise be left guessing what the person would wish. A HIPAA release should also be prepared to allow doctors to discuss medical matters with the Health Care Power of Attorney.

An estate plan is a way to protect the family’s well-being, not just distributing property and minimizing taxes. A well-crafted estate plan, created for the family’s unique situation, helps avoid family fights, litigation within and outside of the family and provides direction for the next generation.

Reference: Wilmington Biz Insights (Nov. 17, 2020) “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics”

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?”

The Importance of a Will

Even during a pandemic, few people want to spend time thinking about death. However, having an estate plan means having some of the most important documents you’ll ever create. Having a will is a gift that alleviates the burden placed on loved ones after we are gone, says this recent article “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will” from Bankrate. In a time of sorrow, the family and friends will be spared the stress that makes grieving more complicated when there is no will, no guidance and no path forward.

What is a will?

In its most simple form, a will is a legal document that serves to transfer property at your death to the people you choose. It is revocable, which means you have the legal ability to make changes to it, as long as you are alive and have the mental capacity to do so. However, wills do more than distribute property. The will is your chance to state your wishes for who will care for your children, what happens to your physical remains and who will take care of your pets.

Are Wills Pretty Much the Same?

There’s a good reason why the best wills are those created with an estate planning attorney: they are created to suit your specific needs. Just as every person is different, everyone’s will must reflect their life. Some people want to name a recipient for every single asset they have, while others prefer simply to give their entire estate to a spouse, their children, a trust, or a charity. However, there are also different kinds of wills.

A Testamentary Will is a will signed in the presence of witnesses. It is the best choice to protect your family.

A Holographic Will is a handwritten will, which is not acceptable in many states and could lead your family into all kinds of expensive and stressful battles, in and out of court.

An Oral Will is a verbal will that is declared in front of witnesses, but don’t count on anything you say being considered a legally valid will.

A Mutual Will is also known as a “I love you Will,” when partners create a joint will leaving everything to each other. There can be some tricky things about these wills, since when one person dies, the other is still legally bound to the terms of this will. If the surviving spouse remarries, it can become complicated.

A Pour Over Will is the ideal choice, when your plan is to pour assets into an established trust at your death.

What does a will do and not do?

Wills are used to determine guardianship for minor children and distribute assets and real property. Wills don’t control jointly owned assets, or contracts, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts. These are controlled by beneficiary designation forms. It won’t matter if your will says that your current spouse should inherit your retirement account and you never changed the beneficiary from your first spouse. This is why estate planning attorneys always tell clients to check on beneficiary designations when large life events, like divorce and remarriage, occur.

What happens if there is no will?

Without a will, the state’s laws will determine what happens and your wishes don’t count. That includes who inherits your property, and even who raises your minor children. The court will make all of these decisions. The stress that this creates cannot be underestimated. When there is no will, the chances of litigation between family members and trouble from distant relatives seeking a claim against your estate rises.

Reference: Bankrate (Nov. 6, 2020) “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will”

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’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

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”