Why Do I Need a Will?

Perhaps getting hit by a cement truck is too blunt for some, but unexpected things happen all the time. An estate plan, including a will and other important documents, is good preparation, especially for caregivers of people with special needs. A recent article from Forbes titled “Where There is a Will, There is a Way” explains the steps everyone, especially caregivers, need to follow.

Creating a last will and testament

This is the foundation of an estate plan. Without a will, the court will distribute assets to children equally. If a disabled person receiving government benefits receives an inheritance, they will become ineligible and lose access to services. The court will also assign guardianship to minors or disabled individuals, if there is no will. A will, in tandem with proper estate planning, ensures protection for an individual with special needs, including naming a guardian of your choice.

Having a General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

A POA allows you to name a person you trust to manage finances, real estate property, investments, or any aspect of your life, if you become incapacitated. A POA should be created for your needs, so you may decide in advance what you do and do not want your agent to be able to do for you.

Creating a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This important legal document, paired with a HIPAA release form, allows someone of your choice to take charge of your healthcare, talk with healthcare providers and make decisions based on your expressed wishes. You may name more than one person for this role but doing so could make it harder if the two people don’t agree on your care.

Naming a Guardian

This is a critical step if you are a caretaker for a person who will likely be unable to manage their own affairs, even after attaining legal age. By naming a guardian in your will, you can select the people who will be in charge of your special needs family member or minor children. Without a guardian named in your will, the courts will make this decision.

Drafting a “Letter of Intent”

A letter of intent is a guide with important information only you know. It is especially important for caretakers. Explaining in detail your disabled individual’s preferences can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives when you are no longer available. What are their likes and likes, what people do they enjoy spending time with and what foods do they prefer, etc. If your children are minors, this letter is an opportunity to describe your preferences for how they should be raised, including religious preferences, vocational choices and even nighttime rituals.

Providing Financial Security

If your family includes a loved one with Special Needs, you can protect their ability to have funds for things not covered by government benefits through a Special Needs Trust. Your estate planning attorney will create an SNT with a trustee and a secondary trustee to oversee the funds and ensure that they are used for qualified expenses.

Reference: Forbes (July 6, 2022) “Where There is a Will, There is a Way,”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust provides protection and management for assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

The value of assets placed in a Special Needs trust does not count against the benefits. However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

Long Term Care Varies, State by State

What if your parents live in Oklahoma, you live in Nebraska and your brothers and sisters live in New York and California? Having the important conversation with your aging parents about what the future might hold if one of them should need long-term care is going to be a challenge, to say the least.

It’s not just about whether they want to leave their home, reports the article “What is the best state for long term care” from The Mercury. There are many more complications. Every state has different availability, levels of care and taxes. If the family is considering a continuing care retirement community, or if the parents already live in one, what are the terms of the contract?

The differences between states vary, and even within a state, there can be dramatic differences, depending upon whether the facility being considered is in a metropolitan, suburban or rural area. There’s also the question of whether the facility will accept Medicaid patients, if the parents have long-term care insurance or any other resources.

Here’s what often happens: you open up a glossy brochure of a senior community in a warm climate, like Florida or Arizona. There are golf courses, swimming pools and a great looking main house where clubs and other activities take place. However, what happens when the active phase of your life ends, slowly or suddenly? The questions to ask concern levels of care and quality of care. Where is the nearest hospital, and is it a good one? What kind of care can you receive in your own apartment? Are you locked into to your purchase, regardless of your wishes to sell and move to be closer to or live with your adult children?

And what happens if you or a “well” spouse runs out of money? That’s the question no one wants to think about, but it does have to be considered.

For people who move to Florida, which has a very generous homestead exemption for property taxes and no state tax, the incentives are strong. However, what if you become sick and need to return north?

For seniors who live in Pennsylvania and receive long-term care and other services, the well spouse’s retirement funds are exempt for Medicaid regardless of the amount. However, if you move over the state’s border to New Jersey, and those accounts will need to be spent down to qualify for Medicaid. The difference to the well spouse could be life changing.

Delaware and New Jersey have Medicaid available for assisted living/personal care. Pennsylvania does not. The Keystone State has strict income limitations regarding “at home” services through Medicaid, whereas California is very open in how it interprets rules about Medicaid gifting.

The answer of where to live when long-term care is in play depends on many different factors. Your best bet is to meet with an estate planning elder care attorney who understands the pros and cons of your state, your family’s  situation and what will work best for you and your spouse, or you as an individual.

Reference: The Mercury (March 4, 2020) “What is the best state for long term care”