What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Some reasons to update your will are more obvious than others, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, births and deaths. However, those aren’t the only reasons your estate plan needs to be reviewed, explains a recent article appropriately titled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” from CNBC.

Think of your estate plan like your home. They both need regular updates and maintenance. If your house starts to get rundown or the roof springs a leak, you know you need to get it fixed. Your estate plan is not as visible. However, it is still in need of ongoing maintenance.

Health events should be a trigger, yours or people named in your will. If the person you named as your executor becomes ill or dies, you’ll need to name a new person to replace them. The same goes for a guardian named to care for any minor children, especially if you named a grandparent for this role.

If you move, your estate plan must ‘move’ with you. Each state has different laws regarding how estates are administered. In one state, an executor living out of state may be okay. However, in another, it may make the executor ineligible to serve. Inheritance tax laws also vary.

Any time there is a large change to your personal wealth, whether it’s good or bad, your estate planning attorney should review your will.

The same goes for a change in parental status. The birth of additional children seems like it might not require a review. However, it does. More than a few celebrities failed to update their estate plans and accidentally disinherited children. The same person who may be willing to be a guardian for one child, may find taking on two or three children to be too much of a challenge. If you want to change the guardianship, your estate plan needs to be updated.

A change in your relationship with fiduciaries also merits an update. Someone you named ten years ago to be your executor may no longer be a part of your life, or they may have died. Family members age, retire and move and siblings have changes in their own lives. Reviewing the executor regularly is important.

If a family member becomes disabled, you may need special needs planning.

A commonly overlooked trigger concerns mergers and acquisitions of financial institutions. If your bank is the executor of your estate and the bank is bought or sold, you likely have a new executor. Do you know who the person is, and do you trust their judgment?

Beneficiaries need to be checked every few years to be sure they are still correct. If your life includes a divorce and remarriage, you could be like one man whose life insurance proceeds and property went to his new spouse. His daughter was disinherited because he failed to update his will.

It doesn’t take long to review an estate plan or beneficiaries. However, the impact of not doing so could be long-lasting and cast a negative light on your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

Just What Is in an Estate Plan?

Getting your affairs in order may not be on anyone’s top ten fun list for a weekend. However, once it is done, you can relax, knowing your loved ones will be cared for. Is estate planning more or less painful than doing taxes once a year? The answer depends on who you ask, but a recent article titled “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order” from South Florida Reporter breaks it down into easy-to-manage steps.

A last will and testament outlines how your assets will be distributed after your death. They include personal property, real estate, bank accounts, etc. You can name a guardian for minor children, and name an executor, the person who will be in charge of managing your estate.

Proof of identity. Your executor will need information including a valid birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage or divorce certificates, a prenuptial agreement, or military service discharge papers.

Digital asset information. With so much of our lives lived online, everyone needs a digital vault, an integrated password manager or some kind of system for managing your digital assets. Without this, your traditional and digital assets are vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Property deeds and titles. You have titles for cars, homes, or real estate property. They need to be gathered and kept in a safe place, then one or two highly trusted individuals need to be told where these documents are located.

Revocable living trust. Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney can help loved ones avoid the time and cost of having your estate go through probate. The trust creates a legal entity allowing you to control property while you are alive but preparing for the future. If you are living and become incapacitated, the successor trustee controls the assets owned by the trust.

Debts. These do not disappear when you die. Your executor will need to know what debts exist because they will need to address them. Compile a list of your debts, which may include mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans and student loans. Add contact information for the lender, account number, login information and approximate amount of the debt. If you have credit cards you rarely use, include those also, so they can be closed out before identity theft occurs.

Non-Probate Assets and Beneficiaries. Assets with named beneficiary designations can be transferred directly to beneficiaries. However, this does not happen automatically. Your executor will need to provide beneficiaries with the information for the assets, including the name of the insurance company or financial institution, the location of policies, account numbers and the value of the asset. The beneficiary may need to provide a death certificate and identification information before the assets are released.

Financial information. Let your executor skip the scavenger hunt. Create a detailed list information including bank accounts, car insurance, credit cards, health, home and life insurance, pension plans, retirement plans and tax returns.

Advanced Health Care Directive. This document is an opportunity for you to tell health care providers how you want medical decisions to be made, if you cannot communicate your wishes. The AHCD typically has two parts: Health Care Power of Attorney (also known as a health care proxy) and a living will.

The Living Will outlines your wishes, if you are unable to communicate. It describes your preferences for end-of-life requests, medications, resuscitation, surgeries, or other invasive procedures.

Power of Attorney is a document to give someone else the power to act on your behalf regarding financial and legal affairs. The scope of power can be as broad as managing everything or limited to selling your classic car collection. Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify what responsibilities you wish to give in a POA.

Funeral Wishes. If you want to save your family a lot of stress during a very difficult time, outline what you would want to happen. Do you want a cremation or embalming and burial? Should it be a full-on faith-based memorial service, or a few poems read at graveside? Make sure that your wishes are communicated and shared with loved ones, so everyone knows what you want.

Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney. Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put all of this information in the appropriate legal documents. They may have recommendations for options that you may not know about.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (April 2, 2022) “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order”

Does an Elder Orphan Need an Estate Plan?

Estate planning for the future is even more important for elder orphans than for those with a spouse or family members, according to this recent article “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan” from The Virginia Gazette. There is no one single solution, but there are steps to take to protect your estate, health and provide for long-term care.

Start with the essential estate planning documents. These documents will protect you and ensure that your wishes are followed, if you become seriously ill or when you die. These documents include:

A durable Power of Attorney to designate someone to handle financial matters in the event of incapacity.

An Advanced Health Care Directive, including a Living Will, to tell your health care provider what kind of care you want if you become incapacitated.

A Health Care Power of Attorney, naming a person of your choice to make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

A Will to direct how you want your property and assets to be distributed upon your death and to name an Executor who will be in charge of your estate.

Your best option to prepare these documents is an experienced estate planning attorney. Trying to do it yourself is risky. Each state has its own laws for these documents to be valid. If the documents are not accepted, the court could declare your will invalid and your directions will not be followed.

People with families typically name a responsible adult child as their power of attorney for finances, as executor or for health care decisions. If you do not have adult children, you may ask a trusted friend or colleague. Name a person who is younger than you, organized and responsible and who will likely be available and willing to service.

If the person you name as executor lives in another state, you will need to check with your estate planning attorney to see if there are any special requirements.

If you do not have a friend or even a distant relative you feel comfortable assigning this role to, your estate planning attorney may be able to suggest alternatives, such as an aging life care manager. These professionals are trained in geriatric care and often have backgrounds in social work or nursing.

If you are reluctant to complete the legal documents mentioned above or start having them prepared and then fail to complete them, you may face some unpleasant consequences. A judge may appoint a guardian to make decisions on your behalf. This guardian is likely to be a complete stranger to you. They will be legally empowered to make all decisions for you regarding your health care, end-of-life care and even your burial and funeral services.

Unless you are comfortable with a court-appointed person making health care and other decisions for you, call an estate planning attorney and start making plans for the future.

Reference: The Virginia Gazette (April 1, 2022) “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan”

Is It Important for Physicians to Have an Estate Plan?

When the newly minted physician completes their residency and begins practicing, the last thing on their minds is getting their estate plan in order. Instead, they should make it a priority, according to a recent article titled “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead” from Medical Economics. Physicians accumulate wealth to a greater degree and faster than most people. They are also in a profession with a higher likelihood of being sued than most. They need an estate plan.

Estate planning does more than distribute assets after death. It is also asset protection. An estate planning attorney helps physicians, dentists and other medical professionals protect their assets and their legacies.

Basic estate planning documents include a last will and testament, financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. However, the physician’s estate is complex and requires an attorney with experience in asset protection and business succession.

During the process of creating an estate plan, the physician will need to determine who they would want to serve as a guardian, if there are minor children and what they would want to occur if all of their beneficiaries were to predecease them. A list should be drafted with all assets, debts, including medical school loans, life insurance documents and retirement or pension accounts, including the names of beneficiaries.

The will is the center of the estate plan. It will require naming a person, typically a spouse, to be the executor: the person in charge of administering the estate. If the physician is not married, a trusted relative or friend can be named. There should also be a second person named, in case the first is unable to serve.

If the physician owns their practice, the estate plan should be augmented with a business succession plan. The will’s executor may need to oversee decisions regarding the sale of the practice. A trusted friend with no business acumen or knowledge of how a medical practice works may not be the best executor. These are all important considerations. Special considerations apply when the “business” is a professional practice, so do not make any moves without expert estate planning assistance.

The will only controls assets in the individual’s name. Assets owned jointly, or those with a beneficiary designation, are not governed by the will.

Without a will, the entire estate may need to go through probate, which is a lengthy and expensive process. For one family, their father’s lack of a will and secrecy took 18 months and cost $30,000 in legal fees for the estate to be settled.

Trusts are an option for protecting assets. By placing assets in trust, they are protected from creditors and provide control in complex family situations. The goal is to create a trust and fund it before any legal actions occur. Transferring assets after a lawsuit has begun or after a creditor has attached an asset could lead to a physician being charged with fraudulent conveyance—where assets are transferred for the sole purpose of avoiding paying creditors.

Estate planning is never a one-and-done event. If a doctor starts a family limited partnership to transfer wealth to the next generation but neglects to properly maintain the partnership, some or all of the funds may be vulnerable.

An estate plan needs to be reviewed every few years and certainly every time a major life event occurs, including marriage, divorce, birth, death, relocation, or a significant change in wealth.

When consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, a doctor should ask about the potential benefits of revocable living trust planning to avoid probate, maintain privacy and streamline the administration of the estate upon incapacity or at death.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 22, 2022) “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead”

When Does Someone Need a Guardian?

When a person is legally deemed incapable of managing their own affairs and has not named a financial power of attorney to do so, a guardian or conservator may be needed. A family member may be appointed to the task, as explained in a recent article “What to Do When a Family Member Needs a Guardian” from Kiplinger.

Guardians are usually responsible for personal affairs, while a conservator is generally limited to financial matters. These terms vary by state, so ask the estate planning attorney which ones are most appropriate for your situation. In many cases, one person takes on both roles.

The control over another person’s life and money has been in the news a lot lately. The years-long battle between Brittney Spears and her father showed how things can go wrong, as did the movie “I Care a Lot,” about a professional guardian who steals life savings from elderly people.

It is better for an adult child to care for a parent through the use of Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney than having to go to court to gain control through a guardianship. Having these documents prepared while the person still has legal capacity to execute them is far easier and less costly. Guardianship and conservatorship are last resorts when no prior planning has been done.

How does it work? Rules vary from state to state, but generally, a person—referred to as the petitioner—files a petition with a local court to seek guardianship. A judge holds a hearing to determine whether the person in question, known as the respondent, meets the state’s standards for needing a guardian. The respondent has a right to have an attorney represent them, if they do not feel they need or want to have a guardian.

Guardianship does more than give another person the right to make financial decisions for another person. Under guardianship, a person may lose the right to vote, marry, travel, or make certain medical decisions. Courts are often reluctant to take away all of these rights. In many states, courts are allowed to limit the guardian’s authority to managing bills and maintaining a home.

The least intrusive option is preferable, which would be using the Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney in the first place.

Another point—most courts will not grant a guardianship, if a person is physically disabled but mentally sharp. Making bad decisions, like handling money irresponsibly, or keeping company with people who are potentially preying on a senior, is not enough reason to put someone under guardianship. You cannot always protect someone from themselves.

However, the need for guardianship is clear if a person has suffered a stroke and is in a coma or is suffering from dementia. Other reasons are severe depression where a person cannot function or delirium, when a person is unaware of their environment and confused by everything around them. Delusional disorders are also reasons for guardianship.

When the person meets the standard of need, the courts typically prefer to appoint a family member. However, if there is no appropriate person, a public guardian paid by the state or a professional guardian paid by the family can be appointed.

Filing a guardianship petition can cost thousands of dollars, and a professional guardian can charge upwards of $250 an hour. Most guardians are well meaning, but often run into conflicts with family members. The guardian’s job is to protect the person, not serve the interest of the family. If the family’s sole interest is in protecting their inheritance, the guardian can find themselves in a difficult situation.

Family members serving as guardians can also find themselves in difficult situations. The guardian, whether a professional or family member, must keep meticulous records of any monies spent and the tasks performed on behalf of the person.

The better solution is to prepare in advance with a Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and all of the estate planning documents needed so the family can act without court intervention, the costs of applying for guardianship and the possibility of a professional guardian being appointed.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 25, 2022) “What to Do When a Family Member Needs a Guardian”

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 Estate Planning Documents Should Everyone Have?

This is the time of year when people start thinking about getting piles or files of paperwork in order in preparing for a new year and for taxes. A recent article “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents” from The Street gives useful tips on how to do this.

First, the most important documents:

Estate Planning documents, including your Will, Power of Attorney (POA), Healthcare Proxy, Living Will (often called an Advance Care Directive). The will is for asset distribution after death, but other documents are needed to protect you while you’re alive.

The POA is used to name someone to act on your behalf, if you cannot. A POA can be created to be specific, for example, to have someone else pay your bills, or it can be general, letting someone do everything from paying bills to managing the sale of your home. Be cautious about using standard POA documents, since they don’t reflect every situation.

A Healthcare Proxy empowers someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf. The Living Will or Advance Care Directive outlines the type of care you do (or don’t) want when at the end of your life. This alleviates a terrible burden on your loved ones, who may not otherwise know what you would have wanted.

Add a Digital POA so someone will be able to access and manage your online accounts (subject to the terms and conditions of each digital platform).

Your Last Will and Testament conveys how you want your estate—that is, everything you own that does not have a surviving joint owner or a designated beneficiary—to be distributed after death. Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. It is also used to name an executor, the person who will be in charge of carrying out the instructions in the will.

A list of all of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, savings and checking accounts, will make it easier for your executor to identify and distribute assets. Don’t forget to check to see which accounts allow you to name a beneficiary and make sure those names are correct.

Both wills and trusts are used to convey assets to beneficiaries, but unlike a will, “funded” trusts don’t go through the probate process. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a trust to distribute almost any kind of property and follow your specific directions. Do you want your children to gain access to the trust after they have reached a certain age? Or when they have married and had children of their own? A trust allows for greater control of your assets.

Finally, talk with your family members about your estate plan, your wishes for end-of-life medical care and what you want to happen after you die. Write a letter of intent if it’s too hard to have a face-to-face conversation about these topics, but find a way to let them know. Your estate planning attorney has worked with many families and will be able to provide you with suggestions and guidance.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 20, 2021) “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents”

What a Will Can and Cannot Do

Having a will doesn’t avoid probate, the court-directed process of validating a will and confirming the executor. To avoid probate, an estate planning attorney can create trusts and other ways for assets to be transferred directly to heirs before or upon death. Estate planning is guided by the laws of each state, according to the article “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do” from Arkansas Online.

In some states, probate is not expensive or lengthy, while in others it is costly and time-consuming. However, one thing is consistent: when a will is probated, it becomes part of the public record and anyone who wishes to read it, like creditors, ex-spouses, or estranged children, may do so.

One way to bypass probate is to create a revocable living trust and then transfer ownership of real estate, financial accounts, and other assets into the trust. You can be the trustee, but upon your death, your successor trustee takes charge and distributes assets according to the directions in the trust.

Another way people avoid probate is to have assets retitled to be owned jointly. However, anything owned jointly is vulnerable, depending upon the good faith of the other owner. And if the other owner has trouble with creditors or is ending a marriage, the assets may be lost to debt or divorce.

Accounts with beneficiaries, like life insurance and retirement funds bypass probate. The person named as the beneficiary receives assets directly. Just be sure the designated beneficiaries are updated every few years to be current.

Assets titled “Payable on Death” (POD), or “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designate beneficiaries and bypass probate, but not all financial institutions allow their use.

In some states, you can have a TOD deed for real estate or vehicles. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state allows.

Some people think they can use their wills to enforce behavior, putting conditions on inheritances, but certain conditions are not legally enforceable. If you required a nephew to marry or divorce before receiving an inheritance, it’s not likely to happen. Someone must also oversee the bequest and decide when the inheritance can be distributed.

However, trusts can be used to set conditions on asset distribution. The trust documents are used to establish your wishes for the assets and the trustee is charged with following your directions on when and how much to distribute assets to beneficiaries.

Leaving money to a disabled person who depends on government benefits puts their eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid at risk. An estate planning attorney can create a Special Needs Trust to allow for an inheritance without jeopardizing their services.

Finally, in certain states you can use a will to disinherit a spouse, but it’s not easy. Every state has a way to protect a spouse from being completely disinherited. In community property states, a spouse has a legal right to half of any property acquired during the marriage, regardless of how the property is titled. In other states, a spouse has a legal right to a third to one half of the estate, regardless of what is in the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help draft the documents, but depending on your state and circumstances, it may not be possible to completely disinherit a spouse.

Reference: Arkansas Online (Dec. 27, 2021) “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do”