The Most Important Part of Estate Plan Is Planning for Living

Most people think of estate planning as planning for death. However, a well-titled article “Planning for death probably isn’t the most important part of your estate plan” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press presents another reason for estate planning in clear terms. Estate planning is planning for the unexpected eventualities of life.

Estate planning documents address how things will work while you are still living but if you have become incapable of making your own decisions. In many cases, this is more important than distributing your worldly possessions.

Yes, you should have a will (last will and testament). But you should also have Power of Attorney documents—one for health care purposes and another for financial purposes.

The Power of Attorney document states who will be your substitute decision maker, or agent, if you are incapacitated or unable to make your own decisions while still living. This should be a personalized document prepared by an estate planning attorney to include the scope of tasks and the limits, if any, you want to set for your agent. The financial POA is an important one, as it gives your chosen agent the legal authority to make financial decisions on your behalf.

The health care power of attorney gives your agent the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf.

With both of these documents properly prepared and available, someone you name will be empowered to serve as your decision maker if necessary.

The will is used to state what happens to your possessions and assets when you die. It is also the legal document used to name your executor—the person who will be in charge of carrying out your instructions. The will tells the probate court how you want your estate to be administered after death.

Why do you need these and other documents? Your will only becomes effective after death. Your POA documents are effective if you become incapacitated. They are both part of your estate plan, which is a collection of legal documents and has nothing to do with whether you reside in a palatial estate.

Here’s how it might work. If you become seriously ill and cannot speak on your own behalf, but you have a Power of Attorney naming your daughter Carol to serve as your POA for healthcare and financial decisions, Carol will be able to pay bills, including paying the mortgage, keeping your car lease up to date, and taking care of all of the financial aspects of your life. If she is also named as your Health Care POA, she will be able to speak with your medical team, be involved in decisions about your course of care and follow the wishes you’ve expressed in your POA.

If you die, and Carol has also been named your executor, she will be able to transition into this new role by representing you through the probate process. She will be able to work with your estate planning attorney to have your will filed with the court and follow your directions for distribution of your assets.

Having only a last will and testament would not protect you while you are living. Having only a Power of Attorney would not protect your wishes after you have died. All of these documents—and there are others not mentioned here—work together to protect you during life and after you’ve passed.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (Aug. 29, 2022) “Planning for death probably isn’t the most important part of your estate plan”

Why Is It Important to have an Estate Plan?

Right now, the federal estate tax exemption is so high as to be a non-issue for most taxpayers, but this will not always be the case, and there are also state estate taxes to consider. Regardless of taxes, there are other reasons why everyone needs to have an estate plan, affirms a recent article from mondaq titled “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?” The short answer is yes, you definitely do.

The first thing a will does is distribute your assets according to your directions. If you have grandchildren, there are ways for you to gift them assets and minimize taxes, but you’ll need to plan for generation skipping taxes.

If you own a business, you will need a succession plan to align with your estate plan. Will family members become owners, or will the business be sold?

Does the family include a disabled or individual with special needs? A special needs trust can add an extra layer of resources. Guardianship planning needs to be done for the parents and guardians be named for when the parents are no longer able to care for the person.

The will is also used to name an executor, the person to handle all the decisions you express in the will and carry them out.

Gifting is another part of your estate plan. If you have any charitable organizations or individuals outside of your family who you’d like to make a gift to, this can be done through your will or through a number of gifting strategies.

The current federal estate tax exemption is set to end in 2025 and revert back to 2017 levels. Tax planning should be done well in advance to protect your estate and heirs.

A review of life insurance should be part of your estate plan. Do you know who your named beneficiary is on your life insurance policies? If your estate is the beneficiary, your estate’s value may exceed the federal or state estate tax limits.

Many people today create an ethical will. This is not a legally binding document; instead, it is used to express your values and your wishes for heir’s futures. It may also be used to give them insight into how your will was structured and why. If there is controversy in the family, an ethical will or statement of intentions may help bolster your will if there are any legal challenges.

Your retirement benefits and any workplace benefits have beneficiaries named in the event of your death. Do you know who they are, and do you still wish for those named to be your beneficiaries?

Estate planning includes addressing incapacity and illness. You’ll want a Power of Attorney for someone to act on your behalf if you are sick or injured and cannot handle your personal finances. You’ll also need a Health Care Proxy for someone who will be empowered to speak with healthcare personnel and make care decisions for you if you cannot.

Without a comprehensive estate plan, the difficulties facing your loved ones upon your illness and upon your death will be magnified. Yes, you need an estate plan. The sooner, the better. Speak with an estate planning attorney to get the process started.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 24, 2022) “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?”

Did Actress Anne Heche have a Will?

Homer Laffoon, actress Anne Heche’s 20-year-old son, is asking that he be awarded control of his mother’s assets. His mother died last month after a car crash at age 53 and did not have a will, according to a copy of the petition obtained by CNN.

“Filed concurrently with this petition is a Petition for Appointment of Guardian ad Litem for the minor,” the docs read, “which specifically requests that the guardian ad litem be granted the authority to waive bond on behalf of the minor.”

The petition names Laffoon and Heche’s 13-year-old son, Atlas Tupper as heirs.

“The Estate consists of two (2) intestate heirs—Homer Heche Laffoon and Atlas Heche Tupper,” the petition states “Homer Heche Laffoon is an adult and the proposed Administrator. Atlas Heche Tupper is a minor.”

CNN’s recent article entitled “Anne Heche’s son petitions to assume control of her estate” reports that an October 11 hearing is scheduled to evaluate this request. Also, it’s been noted that the estimated worth of Anne Heche’s estate will need to undergo forensic accounting. That’s because it’s not known how much the star was worth upon her death.

While there’s no official will documenting Heche’s wishes for her estate, Homer’s stated that his mom’s final resting place will be at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. She also designated her organs for donation at her passing before her remains were cremated.

In the aftermath of the grief, these unexpected events will provide some legal hurdles.

Heche’s car crashed into a Los Angeles home and erupted into flames on August 5. She experienced a “severe anoxic brain injury,” depriving her brain of oxygen, among other critical injuries, her family and friends said in a statement. Anne passed away a few days later after being taken off life support.

“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom. After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness,” Lafoon said in statement to CNN on Aug. 14. “Hopefully my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom.”

Reference: CNN (Sep. 1, 2022) “Anne Heche’s son petitions to assume control of her estate”

Why Is a Will So Important?

A 2020 Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans have a will or have made plans regarding how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have one.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will” says that no matter your age, it’s important to have a will to be in control of what happens with your own assets. A will is a legal document that establishes a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.

Without this type of legal document, the state law may control who gets your “probate” assets and when. Having one can save an enormous amount of time and money in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children, if needed.

There’s a big difference between a will and a living will. A living will is a document that lets you state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical situations, if you’re unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.

These differ by state law. However, they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options. General medical decisions unrelated to end of life care are typically covered in a health care power of attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive.

Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, it lets you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate. If you have minor children, it also allows you to nominate a guardian for them.

When creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.” To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What assets do you have?
  • To whom do you want to leave them?
  • Who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
  • Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
  • How do you want the assets transferred?

Reference: Yahoo News (Aug. 17, 2022) “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will”

Why You Need an Estate Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make an inventory of all assets, including

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can I Choose an Estate Planning Lawyer?

Only about a third of Americans have an estate plan, according to the article “Choosing an estate planning lawyer” from Senior Matters. The number of people with wills is decreasing, rather than increasing, despite the events of recent years. Estate planning is worth doing, for the peace of mind, the personal and financial protection it provides, not to mention leaving a legacy of caring about the future for the next generation.

Estate planning involves making end-of-life decisions, with an emphasis on both finances and health. Most people think of it as “who gets what,” which is accomplished largely through wills and trusts. For people who have amassed significant assets, this can be complex. An estate planning attorney makes it streamlined and will explain the implications of all aspects of the plan.

Estate planning includes gifting, generation skipping transfers, taxes, advance directives, power of attorney, health care proxies, living wills, naming an executor, organ donations, burial preferences, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders and final wishes.

It is a highly personal process. This is why it’s important to find an attorney who is compassionate, as well as technically proficient. Estate planning attorneys tend to be caring individuals who chose this field of law because they sincerely wish to help others. They also know what happens when the planning is not done, because they also help children when their parents fail to do so.

Some people are reluctant to embark on estate planning, in part because they don’t wish to be reminded of their own mortality. Others are concerned about relatives with designs on their estate. However, not having a plan makes it more likely that relatives or others could challenge the estate and end up owning assets and provides protection.

When a person dies without an estate plan and assets subject to probate, their estate is considered to be “intestate.” Only the court will have any control over how the probate assets are distributed. The probate court will simply follow the laws of your state, which frequently are based on kinship. The exact details vary from state to state, and this is known as “intestate succession.”

The intestate laws may result in outcomes completely different than what you wished. An estranged spouse could end up owning everything, or a child with substance issues could inherit a substantial sum which will be gone in months. In most states, minor children may not receive inheritances, so trusts or custodial accounts are needed.

Estate planning is just as important for people of modest means as it is for wealthy people. If a senior owns their own home, the increase in property values could mean their estate is much bigger than they even realize.

Choosing an Attorney isn’t difficult. Ask friends and family for referrals, visit websites and find an estate planning attorney who shares your values, understands your family and feels like a good fit. Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll gain peace of mind.

Reference: Senior Matters (Aug. 17, 2022) “Choosing an estate planning lawyer”

IRS Extends Portability Election Option Deadline from Two to Five Years

The Internal Revenue Service recently issued a change to the rules regarding portability of a deceased spouse’s unused exclusion (DSUE), expanding the time period from two years to five years. As explained in the recent article “IRS Extends Portability Election” from The National Law Review, portability allows spouses to combine their exemption from estate and gift tax. Here’s how it works.

A surviving spouse may use the unused estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse to lower their tax liability. Let’s say Spouse A dies in 2022, when the estate tax exemption is $12.06 million. If, during Spouse A’s lifetime, they had only used $1 million of their exemption amount, Surviving Spouse B may elect portability to claim $11.06 million DSUE, as long as they file for the exemption within five years of the decedent’s date of death.

Prior to the rule change, the surviving spouse only had two years to claim the DSUE. The due date of an estate tax return is still required to be filed nine months after the decedent’s death or on the last day of the period covered by an extension, if one had been secured.

The IRS had previously extended the deadline to file for portability to two years. However, over time, the taxing agency found itself managing a large number of requests for private letter rulings from estates failing to meet the two year deadline. It was noted many of these requests for portability relief occurred on or before the fifth anniversary of a decedent’s date of death, which led to the current change.

How do I Elect Portability?

To elect portability, the executor (or personal representative) of the estate must file an estate tax return on or before the fifth anniversary of the decedent’s date of death. This estate tax return is a Form 706. The executor must note at the top of Form 706 that it is filed pursuant to Rev. Proc. 2022-32 to elect portability under Sec. 2010(C)(5)(A).

Eligibility to elect portability is not overly burdensome for most people. The decedent must have been a U.S. citizen or resident on the date of their death and the executor must not have been otherwise required to file an estate tax return. This means the decedent was under the estate tax exemption at the time of their death. With the current estate tax exemption now at $12.06 million for an individual, most people will find themselves well under the limit.

This new regulation expands the number of people who will be able to take advantage of the exemption and will help families pass wealth on to the next generation without incurring the federal estate tax. Speak with your estate planning attorney to be sure to elect portability when the first spouse passes, in order not to lose this exemption.

Reference: The National Law Review (Aug. 1, 2022) “IRS Extends Portability Election”

Who Is the Best Person for Executor?

Several critical estate planning documents give another person—known as an agent or personal representative—the legal right to act on another person’s behalf. They include wills, trusts, powers of attorney and advance health care directives, as described in a recent article titled “The nomination of trustees, executors and agents” from Lake County Record-Bee.

Your will is only activated after you die. The will and executor then have to be approved by the court. Many people think being named as an executor confers instant authority, but this is not true. Only when the will has been deemed valid by the court, does the executor have the power to act on behalf of the decedent.

After death, the court is petitioned for a court order appointing the executor and then letters testamentary are signed by the appointed executor. An executor then becomes active as an officer of the court with a fiduciary duty to act as personal representative of the decedent’s estate.

If the named person declines to serve, the will should have a secondary person named as executor, who can then request the appointment be validated by the court. Others can petition the court to be appointed. However, it is best to name two people of your choice in your will.

A trust is a separate legal entity with a trustee who is in charge of the trust and its assets. If a revocable will is created, the trustee is usually the same person who has the trust created, also known as the grantor. For an irrevocable trust, the trustee is someone other than the grantor. The appointment does not become official until the appointment is accepted, usually through signing a document or by the successor trustee taking action on behalf of the trust.

Just as an executor might not accept their role, a trustee can decide not to accept the nomination. However, once they do, they have a fiduciary duty to put the well-being of the trust first and manage it properly. You can’t accept the role and then walk away without serious consequences.

Powers of attorney are used while a person is living. The power of attorney’s effective date depends upon what kind of POA it is. A durable power of attorney is effective the moment it is signed. A springing POA sets forth terms upon which the POA becomes active, usually incapacity. The challenge with a Springing POA is that approval by the court may be required, usually with proof from a treating physician concerning the person’s condition.

Similarly, the health care power of attorney appoints a person who acts on behalf of another as their agent for health issues. They can decline the position. However, once they agree to take on the position, they are responsible for their actions.

If the POAs decline to serve and there is no secondary person named, or if all named POAs decline to serve, the family will need to apply for a conservatorship (also known as guardianship). This is a lengthy and expensive process requiring a thorough investigation of the situation and the person who needs representation. It can be contested if the person does not want to give up their independence, or by family members who feel it is not needed.

These are commonly used terms in estate planning. However, they are not always understood clearly. Your estate planning attorney will be able to address specific responsibilities and requirements, since every state has laws and appointments vary by state.

Reference: Lake Country Record-Bee (July 30, 2022) “The nomination of trustees, executors and agents”

What Happens to Digital Assets After Death?

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

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

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

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

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

Can you protect and organize digital assets?

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

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

How do digital assets get incorporated into my estate plan?

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

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

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

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

Who will Receive Naomi Judd’s Estate?

Country music legend Naomi Judd, who died in April, named her husband Larry Strickland as executor of her estate. She was married to Strickland for 33 years. According to court documents, he’ll have “full authority and discretion” over her estate and won’t need to have the “approval of any court” or permission from any beneficiary.

The Los Angeles Times’ recent article entitled “Naomi Judd reportedly left daughters Wynonna and Ashley out of her final will” says that the 76-year-old Judd prepared the will on Nov. 20, 2017.

The will also provides that Strickland is entitled to receive compensation for his executor duties and that he would be reimbursed for legal fees, disbursements and other “reasonable expenses” in the administration of Judd’s estate. Judd‘s brother-in-law, Reginald Strickland, and Wiatr & Associates President Daniel Kris Wiatr will serve as the estate’s co-executors.

Reports say that Wynonna isn’t happy with her mother’s will and “believes she was a major force behind her mother’s success.”

Naomi died from suicide on April 30a day before she and her daughter Wynonna, known as “The Judds,” were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The daughters teamed up in their grief to tearfully accept the Hall of Fame honor for their late mother.

Wynonna later decided to tour despite her mother’s death. She enlisted some major stars to join her on the road.

In May, Ashley revealed that her mother had used a firearm and said she found her mother’s body when she was visiting her mom’s Tennessee home.

“Our mother couldn’t hang on to be recognized by her peers. That is the level of catastrophe of what was going on inside of her,” she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “Because the barrier between the regard in which they held her couldn’t penetrate into her heart and the lie the disease told her was so convincing.”

The Judds were known for songs including “Why Not Me,” “Love Can Build a Bridge” and “Mama He’s Crazy.”

Reference: Los Angeles Times (Aug. 1, 2022) “Naomi Judd reportedly left daughters Wynonna and Ashley out of her final will”