Factors to Consider when Picking Executor, Trustees and POAs

Having your estate planning documents created with an experienced professional is important, as is naming the people who will be putting your plan into action. A key sticking point is often deciding who is the right person for the role, says an article from Nasdaq titled “Estate Planning: 5 Tips to Pick Trustees, Executors and POAs.” It helps to stop thinking about how people will feel if they are not selected and focus instead on their critical thinking and decision making abilities.

Consider who will have the time to help. Having adult children who are highly successful in their professions is wonderful. However, if they are extremely busy running a business, leading an organization, etc., will their busy schedules allow the flexibility to help? A daughter with twins may love you to the moon and back. However, will she be able to handle the tasks of estate administration?

Take these appointments seriously. Selecting someone on an arbitrary basis is asking for trouble. Just because one child is older doesn’t necessarily mean they are capable of managing your estate. Making a decision based on gender can be equally flawed. Naming agents and executors with financial acumen is more important than giving your creative child the chance to learn how to manage money through your estate.

Don’t make the process more complicated. There are many families where parents name all the siblings to act on their behalf, so no one feels left out. This usually turns into an estate disaster. An odd number of siblings can lead to one group winning decisions by sheer numbers, while aggressive, win-at-all-costs siblings—even if it’s just two of them—can lead to delayed decisions and family divisions.

Name the right person for right now. Younger people who don’t yet have children often aren’t sure who their best agent might be. Picking a parent may become problematic, if the parent becomes sick or dies. Naming a close friend in your thirties may need updating if your friendship wanes. Make it simple: appoint the best person for today, with the caveat of updating your agents and documents as time goes on and circumstances change. Remember, circumstances always change.

Consider the value of a professional trustee or fiduciary. The best person to be a trustee, executor or power of attorney may not always be a family member or friend. If a trustee is one sibling and the beneficiary of the trust is another sibling who can’t manage money, the relationship could suffer. If a large estate includes generational trusts and complex ownership structures, a professional may be better suited to deal with management and tax issues.

The value of having an estate plan cannot be overstated. However, the importance of who will be appointed to oversee and administer the estate is equally important. The success of an estate plan often rests on the people who are assigned to handle their respective tasks.

Be candid when speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney about the people in your life and their abilities to manage the roles.

Reference: nasdaq (Sep. 4, 2022) “Estate Planning: 5 Tips to Pick Trustees, Executors and POAs”

What are Alternatives to Guardianship?

Guardianships are drastic and very invasive. They strip individuals of their legal autonomy and establish the guardian as the sole decision maker. To become a guardian requires strong evidence of legal incapacity, and approval by a judge, explains an article titled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First” from Kiplinger. They should not be undertaken unless there is a serious need to do so. Once they’re in place, guardianships are difficult to undo.

If an elderly person with dementia failed to make provisions durable powers of attorney for health care and for financial matters before becoming ill, a guardianship may be the only ways to protect the person and their estate. There are also instances where an aging parent is unable to care for themselves properly but refuses any help from family members.

Another scenario is an aging grandparent who plans to leave funds for minor beneficiaries. Their parents will need to seek guardianships, so they can manage the money until their children reach the age of majority.

Laws vary from state to state, so if you might need to address this situation, you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney in the elderly parent or family member’s state of residence. For the most part, each state requires less restrictive alternatives to be attempted before guardianship proceedings are begun.

Alternatives to guardianship include limited guardianship, focused on specific aspect of the person’s life. This can be established to manage the person’s finances only, or to manage only their medical and health care decisions. Limited guardianships need to be approved by a court and require evidence of incapacity.

Powers of attorney can be established for medical or financial decisions. This is far less burdensome to achieve and equally less restrictive. A Healthcare Power of Attorney will allow a family member to be involved with medical care, while the Durable General Power of Attorney is used to manage a person’s personal financial affairs.

Some families take the step of making a family member a joint owner on a bank, home, or an investment account. This sounds like a neat and simple solution, but assets are vulnerable if the co-owner has any creditor issues or risk exposure. A joint owner also doesn’t have the same fiduciary responsibility as a POA.

An assisted decision-making agreement creates a surrogate decision-maker who can see the incapacitated person’s financial transactions. The bank is notified of the arrangement and alerts the surrogate when it sees a potentially suspicious or unusual transaction. This doesn’t completely replace the primary account holder’s authority. However, it does create a limited means of preventing exploitation or fraud. The bank is put on notice and required to alert a second person before completing potentially fraudulent transactions.

Trusts can also be used to protect an incapacitated person. They can be used to manage assets, with a contingent trustee. For an elderly person, a co-trustee can step in if the grantor loses the capacity to make good decisions.

Planning in advance is the best solution for incapacity. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect loved ones from having to take draconian actions to protect your best interests.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

How to Handle Digital Assets in a Will

Now that cryptocurrency has become almost commonplace, it is necessary to incorporate it into estate plans and their administration, according to the article “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency” from Roll Call.

One advantage of using cryptocurrencies in estate planning is the ease of transference—if all parties know how crypto works. Unlike a traditional bank, which typically requires executors to produce an original death certificate and other documents to take control of accounts in the estate, cryptocurrency only requires the fiduciary to have passcodes to gain access to accounts.

The passcode is a complex, multicharacter code appearing to be a long string of unrelated numbers and letters. It is stored in a digital wallet, which can only be accessed through the use of the 64-digit passcode, also known as a key.

While the passcode is simple, it is also very vulnerable. If the key is lost, there is no way to retrieve it. The executor must know not just where the key is physically located if it has been written down on paper, or if it is kept in a digital wallet, but how to access the digital wallet. There are also different kinds of digital wallets.

People do not usually share their passwords with others. However, in the case of crypto, consider storing it in a safe but accessible location and telling a trusted person where it may be found.

People who own cryptocurrency need to give someone access info. If someone is named an executor at one point in your life and they have the information about digital assets, then at some point you change the executor, there is no way to guarantee the former executor might not access the account.

How do you protect digital assets? Using “cold storage,” an account passcode is stored and concealed on a USB drive or similar device, allowing the information to be shared without the user needing to learn the passcode to access the account. The cold storage USB drive can be given from one fiduciary to the successor fiduciary without either knowing the passcode.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress addressing cryptocurrency and blockchain policies. The IRS has issued a number of notices and publications regarding taxes on digital currency transactions. Crypto is no longer an “invisible” asset.

In addition to policies and regulations, litigation concerning estates and cryptocurrency is still relatively new to the judiciary. Planning for these assets to ensure they are passed to the next generation securely is very important as their use and value continues to grow.

Reference: Roll Call (Feb. 22, 2022) “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency”

Who Is the Best Choice for Power of Attorney?

Picking a person to serve as your Power of Attorney is an extremely important part of your estate plan, although it is often treated like an afterthought once the will and trust documents are completed. Naming a POA needs to be given the same serious consideration as creating a will, as discussed in this recent article “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes” from Medical Economics.

Choosing the wrong person to act on your behalf as your Power of Attorney (POA) could lead to a host of unintended consequences, leading to financial disaster. If the same person has been named your POA for healthcare, you and your family could be looking at a double-disaster. What’s more, if the same person is also a beneficiary, the potential for conflict and self-dealing gets even worse.

The Power of Attorney is a fiduciary, meaning they are required to put your interests and the interest of the estate ahead of their own. To select a POA to manage your financial life, it should be someone who you trust will always put your interests first, is good at managing money and has a track record of being responsible. Spouses are typically chosen for POAs, but if your spouse is poor at money management, or if your marriage is new or on shaky ground, it may be better to consider an alternate person.

If the wrong person is named a POA, a self-dealing agent could change beneficiaries, redirect portfolio income to themselves, or completely undo your investment portfolio.

The person you name as a healthcare POA could protect the quality of your life and ensure that your remaining years are spent with good care and in comfort. However, the opposite could also occur. Your healthcare POA is responsible for arranging for your healthcare. If the healthcare POA is a beneficiary, could they hasten your demise by choosing a substandard nursing facility or failing to take you to medical appointments to get their inheritance? It has happened.

Most POAs, both healthcare and financial, are not evil characters like we see in the movies, but often incompetence alone can lead to a negative outcome.

How can you protect yourself? First, know what you are empowering your POAs to do. A boilerplate POA limits your ability to make decisions about who may do what tasks on your behalf. Work with your estate planning attorney to create a POA for your needs. Do you want one person to manage your day-to-day personal finances, while another is in charge of your investment portfolio? Perhaps you want a third person to be in charge of selling your home and distributing your personal possessions, if you have to move into a nursing home.

If someone, a family member, or a spouse, simply presents you with POA documents and demands you sign them, be suspicious. Your POA should be created by you and your estate planning attorney to achieve your wishes for care in case of incapacity.

Different grown children might do better with different tasks. If your trusted, beloved daughter is a nurse, she may be in a better position to manage your healthcare than another sibling. If you have two adult children who work together well and are respected and trusted, you might want to make them co-agents to take care of you.

Your estate planning attorney has seen all kinds of family situations concerning POAs for finances and healthcare. Ask their advice and don’t hesitate to share your concerns. They will be able to help you come up with a solution to protect you, your estate and your family.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 3, 2022) “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes”

What Legal Terms in Estate Planning do Non-Lawyers Need to Know?

Having a working knowledge of the legal terms used in estate planning is the first step in working successfully with an estate planning attorney, says a recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise. Two of those key words:

Principal—the individual on whose behalf documents are prepared, and

Fiduciary—the person who signs some of these documents and who is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the principal and the estate.

In estate planning and in business, the fiduciary is the person or business who must act responsibly and in good faith towards the person and their property. You’ll see this term in almost every estate planning or financial document.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: beneficiary, conservator, executor, grantor, guardian, testator, and trustee are some of the more commonly used terms for the roles people take.

The testator is the principal, the person who signs the will and on whose behalf the will was drafted.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate after death. Contingent beneficiaries are “back-up” beneficiaries, in case the beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance. In most wills, the beneficiaries are listed “or to descendants, per stirpes.” This means if the beneficiary dies before the testator, the beneficiary’s children receive the original beneficiary’s share.

In most cases, specific distributions are made first, where a specific asset or amount of money goes to a specific person. This includes charitable donations. After all specific distributions are made, the rest of the estate, referred to as the “residuary estate,” is distributed. This includes everything else in the probate estate.

The administrator or executor is the fiduciary charged with gathering assets, paying bills and making the distribution to beneficiaries. The executor is the term used when there is a will. If there is no will, the person in the role is referred to as the administrator and may be appointed by the court.

If a beneficiary is unable to take the inheritance because they are a minor or incapacitated, the court will appoint a conservator to act as fiduciary on behalf of the beneficiary.

A guardian is the person who takes care of the beneficiary, or minor children, and is named in the will. If there is no guardian named in the will, or if there is no will, a court will appoint a person to be the guardian. Judges do not always select family members to serve as guardians, so there should always be a secondary guardian, in case the first cannot serve. If the first guardian does not wish to serve or is unable to, naming a secondary guardian is better than a child being sent to foster care.

Finally, the trustee is the person in charge of a trust. The person who creates the trust is the grantor or settlor. It’s important to note the executor has no control or input over the trust. Only the trustee or successor trustee may make distributions and they are the trust’s fiduciary.

Getting comfortable with the terms of estate planning will make the process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

What Power Does an Executor Have?

Being asked to serve as an executor is a big compliment with potential pitfalls, advises the recent article “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” from U.S. News & World Report. You are being asked because you are considered trustworthy and able to handle complex tasks. That’s flattering, of course, but there’s a lot to know before making a final decision about taking on the job.

An executor of an estate helps file paperwork, close accounts, distribute assets of the deceased, deal with probate and any court filings and navigate family dynamics. Some of the tasks include:

  • Locating critical documents, like the will, any trusts, deeds, vehicle titles, etc.
  • Obtaining death certificates.
  • Overseeing funeral arrangements and memorial services, if any.
  • Filing the will in probate court.
  • Creating an estate bank account, after obtaining an estate tax number (EIN).
  • Notifying organizations, including Social Security, pension accounts, etc.
  • Paying creditors.
  • Distributing assets.
  • Overseeing the sale or transfer of real estate
  • Filing estate tax returns and final tax returns.

If you are asked to become the executor of an estate for a loved one, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible while the person is still living. It will be far easier to tackle the tasks, if you have been set up to succeed. Find out where their estate planning documents are and read the documents to make sure you understand them. If you don’t understand, ask, and keep asking until you do. Similarly, obtain information about all assets, including joint assets. Find out if there are any family members who may pose a challenge to the estate.

Today’s assets include digital assets. Ask for a complete list of the person’s online accounts, usernames and passwords. You will also need access to their devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone and smart watch. Discuss what they want to happen to each account and see if there is an option for you to become a co-owner of the account or a legacy contact.

Many opt to have an estate planning attorney manage some or all of these tasks, as they can be very overwhelming. Frankly, it’s hard to administer an estate at the same time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.

As executor, you are a fiduciary, meaning you’re legally required to put the deceased’s interests above your own. This includes managing the estate’s assets. If the person owned a home, you would need to secure the property, pay the mortgage and/or property taxes and maintain the property until it is sold or transferred to an heir. Financial accounts need to be managed, including investment accounts.

The amount of time this process will take, depends on the complexity and size of the estate. Most estates take at least twelve months to complete all of the administrative work. It is a big commitment and can feel like a second job.

A few things vary by state. Convicted felons are never permitted to serve as executors, regardless of what the will says. A sole executor must be a U.S. citizen, although a non-citizen can be a co-executor, if the other co-executor is a citizen. Rules also vary from state to state regarding being paid for your time. Most states permit a percentage of the size of the estate, which must be considered earned income and reported on tax returns.

Be very thorough and careful in documenting every decision made as the executor to protect yourself from any future challenges. This is one job where trying to do it on your own could have long-term effects on your relationship with the family and financial liability, so take it seriously. If it’s too much, an estate planning attorney can help.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” 

What are Digital Assets in a Will?

Most of us overlook the amount of information and assets we have online, from social media to networking websites, frequent flier miles, online bank accounts, subscriptions, photos, websites, etc. The list of most people’s digital assets has grown considerably in recent years, and yet most have no plan for what should happen to those assets when their owner dies.

This is a growing problem, says msn money, in an article making the case clear: “From Facebook to iTunes to Amazon, You Need A Digital Will!” Every website has its own legal requirements for dealing with the original owner’s death, almost aways hidden deep within the Terms of Service Agreement we all click on without reading. Some have created processes for executors, while others have not. What can you do to make it easier for your executor?

Make a list of everything you access online. Be prepared to be surprised at just how much your life occurs online. Compile a list of all online accounts, usernames and passwords. You probably have to do this bit by bit, as a marathon session might take a long time. Use either a password manager with top-notch security or a password-protected spreadsheet you update around once every three months.

This is especially important for accounts with monetary value. But sentimental value counts too. A side note: all those playlists you’ve created on iTunes? They are non-transferrable and when you die, they are deleted.

What do you want to have happen to each account? You’ll need to decide what you want to happen to each account and, depending on the account, state it clearly in what’s known as a directive. You may want to preserve some, or you may want to shut down others. Some free email accounts are automatically shut down, if they are not used for a certain period of time. Others should be down immediately to prevent fraud. Scammers prefer accounts where the owners have died, since they are often an easy entry to the person’s online identity.

Facebook is one of the platforms allowing you to designate a Legacy contact, so the person can memorialize the account, allowing only friends to see the page and removing some information. If you want to have the page deleted on death, Facebook provides directions.

Each platform has its own rules. Most rely on provisions regarding privacy protection: only the original owner is authorized to access the account. There are now federal and state laws prohibiting accessing private online data, which have created significant obstacles for loved ones to access digital assets. Don’t expect anyone to resolve your digital accounts after you pass, unless you have a digital will. Even with one, there might be issues.

Your estate planning attorney will help you add the correct language to your estate documents as to what you want to happen to each account. It’s important to ensure that your estate plan gives your executor or other fiduciary authorization to access your digital assets and what you want to happen to them. Remember—don’t put account names, usernames, or passwords in a will, as it becomes a public document during the probate process.

Without an inventory of digital assets, it may be simply impossible to ascertain where digital assets are located and how to access them. Looking at credit card statements for autopayments may be a place to start, or at least to stop the autopayments.

This is a relatively new asset class, with laws varying from state to state. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure your digital assets are protected, as well as traditional assets when creating or reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: msn money (Dec. 19, 2021) “From Facebook to iTunes to Amazon, You Need A Digital Will!”

Who Should I Name as Trustee?

When a revocable living trust is created, the grantor (person who creates the trust) names a successor trustee, the person who will take charge of the trust when the grantor dies. One of the biggest sticking points in creating a trust is often selecting a successor trustee. A recent article, “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee,” from Los Altos Town Crier explains what can go wrong and how to protect your estate.

When the grantor dies, the successor trustee is in charge of determining the value of the trust and distributing assets to named beneficiaries. If there are unclear provisions in the trust, the trustee is required by law, as a fiduciary, to use good judgment and put the interest of the beneficiaries ahead of the trustee’s own interests.

When considering who to name as a successor trustee, you have many options. Just because your first born adult child wants to be in charge doesn’t mean they are the best candidate. You’ll want to name a reliable, responsible and organized person, who will be able to manage finances, tax reporting and respects the law.

The decision is not always an easy one. The child who lives closest to you may be excellent at caregiving, but not adept at handling finances. The child who lives furthest away may be skilled at handling money, but will they be able to manage their tasks long distance?

A trustee needs to be able to understand what their role is and know when they need the help of an estate planning attorney. Some trusts are complicated and tax reporting is rarely simple. The trustee may need to create a team of professionals, including an estate planning attorney, a CPA and a financial advisor. Someone who thinks they can manage an estate on their own with zero experience in the law or finance may be headed for trouble.

If there are no family members or trusted friends who can serve in this role, it may be best to consider a professional fiduciary to serve as a successor trustee. An estate planning attorney may also serve as a successor trustee.

The next option is a financial institution or trust company. Some banks have trust departments and take on this role, but they often have steep minimums and will only work with estates with significant value. Fees are also likely to be higher than for a professional fiduciary or other professional. Be sure to inquire how they evaluate your needs and ensure quality of care, if you become incapacitated. What processes are in place to protect grantors?

Another alternative is to identify a nonprofit with a pooled trust that accepts trustee responsibilities for individuals with special needs and for others who would prefer to have a nonprofit in this role.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you identify the best candidate for this role, as you work through the creation of the trust. Don’t be shy about asking for help with this important matter.

Reference: Los Altos Town Crier (Nov. 17, 2021) “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee”