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 Does Everyone Need an Estate Plan?

Twenty and thirty-year olds are busy building their lives, starting or growing careers, exploring personal goals, repaying student loans and maybe starting a family. They’re young and healthy and think nothing can happen to them—but that’s not true. A recent article from Kiplinger titled “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s” explains why even a twenty-year old with student loans needs an estate plan.

Student loans. Federal student loans discharge upon death, so no further payments are needed, including any federal Parent PLUS loans parents may have taken out. However, for private student loans, the decision is up to the lender. If the private loan was taken out by the student, the institution may forgive the loan. However, if a parent or another adult co-signed the loan, they might be responsible for paying the entire loan. The exception: if the loan was made after November 20, 2018, the co-signer may be protected by the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. If you took out loans after getting married, the surviving spouse is likely to be required to pay the loan if they co-signed the loan or if you live in a community property state.

Health Care Directive and Health Care Power of Attorney. The Health Care Directive is used to tell your family what you would want if you were near death, whether by injury or illness. Healthcare providers are obligated to follow your directions if they are stated in this document. Without it, you could be kept on life support for many years, regardless of what your family wants.

A Health Care Power of Attorney is used to name someone you trust to act as your “agent,” if you become incapacitated. This document is focused on your care and medical treatments. It also lets your agent speak with your health insurance company, obtain access to medical records and discuss your care with healthcare providers.

Last Will and Testament. This document isn’t just for people with homes, families, and retirement accounts. Young people have property too—your car, your personal possessions, and whatever financial resources you may have accumulated. If you have a will, you can direct who you want to receive what you own. Without one, the court will decide who gets your possessions and your family won’t have any say about it. With a will, you can determine who receives your property, including your digital assets. You’ll also name an executor in the will—the person who is in charge of distributing your property. An estate planning attorney will create a document to comply with your state’s laws. It doesn’t have to be a complicated document, but it is a good way to ensure your loved ones know your wishes.

Retirement Accounts and Beneficiaries. These accounts may not be as robust as they will be later in your life. However, they are still yours. Make sure that you have named beneficiaries who you want to receive them if you die. Singles may name a sibling, parents, partner, or another family member to receive these assets.

Digital Assets. A digital life means you need a digital estate plan. Creating an inventory list of all of your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. If an account has two-factor authentication, indicate how another person might gain access to the account. Don’t include any of this information in your will, as it becomes a public document after being submitted to the court for probate. Tell a trusted family member where the inventory is located. If you own cryptocurrency, research how crypto assets are passed if the original owner dies.

Guardianship. Your will is used to name a guardian for minor children. Without it, the court will appoint a guardian, and it may not be the family member you wish it would be.

Don’t Forget Your Furry Friends. You can add a pet guardianship clause to a will to ensure that your pet stays with a trusted friend or family member who has agreed to care for your pet. You can also set up a pet trust to set aside funds for your pet’s care, including food, veterinary visits, toys, training and treats.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 22, 2022) “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s”

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan

We call it the brother-in-law syndrome: your brother-in-law knows everything, even though he doesn’t. He tells anyone who’ll listen how much money he’s saved by doing things himself. Sadly, it’s the family who has to make things right after the do-it-yourself estate plan fails. This is the message from a recent article titled “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning” from Coastal Breeze News.

Online estate planning documents are dangerous for what they leave out. An estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney takes care of the individual while they are living, as well as taking care of distributing assets after they die. Many online forms are available. However, they are often limited to wills, and an estate plan is far more than a last will and testament.

An estate planning attorney knows you need a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, a living will and possibly trusts. These are essential protections needed but often overlooked by the do-it-yourselfer.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person to manage your personal affairs, if you are incapacitated. It allows your agent to handle your banking, investments, pay bills and take care of your property. There is no one-size-fits-all Power of Attorney. You may wish to give a spouse the power to take over most of your accounts. However, you might also want someone else to be in charge of selling your shares in a business. A Power of Attorney drafted by an estate planning attorney will be created to suit your unique needs. POAs also vary by state, so one purchased online may not be valid in your jurisdiction.

You also need a Health Care Power of Attorney or a Health Care Surrogate. This is a person named to make medical decisions for you, if you are too sick or injured to do so. These documents also vary by state,. There’s no guarantee that a general form will be accepted by a healthcare provider. An estate planning attorney will create a valid document.

A Living Will is, and should be, a very personalized document to reflect your wishes for end-of-life care. Some people don’t want any measures taken to keep them alive if they are in a vegetative state, for instance, while others want to be kept alive as long as there is evidence of brain activity. Using a standard form negates your ability to make your wishes known.

If the Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney or Living Will documents are not prepared properly, declared invalid or are missing, the family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which is the legal right to make decisions on your behalf. Guardianships are expensive and intrusive. If your incapacity is temporary, you’ll need to undo the guardianship when you are recovered. Otherwise, you have no legal rights to conduct your own life.

DIYers are also fond of setting up property and accounts so they are Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts. This only works if the beneficiaries outlive the original owner. If the beneficiary dies first, then the asset goes to the beneficiary’s children. Many financial institutions won’t actually allow certain accounts to be set up this way.

The other DIY disaster zone: real estate. Putting children on the title as owners with rights of survivorship sounds like a reasonable solution. However, if the children predecease the original owner, their children will be rightful owners. If one grandchild doesn’t want to sell the property and another grandchild does, things can turn ugly and expensive. If heirs of any generation have creditors, liens may be placed on the property and no sale can happen until the liens are satisfied.

With all of these sleight of hand attempts at DIY estate planning comes the end all of all problems: taxes.

When children are added to a title, it is considered a gift and the children’s ownership interest is taxed as if they bought into the property for what the parent spent. When the parent dies and the estate is settled, the children have to pay income taxes on the difference between their basis and what the property sells for. It is better if the children inherit the property, as they’d get a step-up in basis and avoid the income tax problem.

Finally, there’s the business of putting all the assets into one child’s name, with the handshake agreement they’ll do the right thing when the time comes. There’s no legal recourse if the child decides not to share according to the parent’s verbal agreement.

A far easier, less complicated answer is to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, have the correct documents created properly and walk away when your brother-in-law starts talking.

Reference: Coastal Breeze News (Aug. 4, 2022) “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning”

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 Should I Know about Guardianships?

Guardianships – also known as conservatorships – are drastic and invasive. They strip away control adults otherwise exercise over their own lives and establish someone else as the decision-maker.  They require a rigorous showing of legal incapacity and approval by a judge. In many jurisdictions, parties must establish a specific need for guardianship and demonstrate that other alternatives considered would not adequately protect the individual.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First” says that guardianships should never be undertaken lightly. Once established, they can be extremely difficult to undo. Therefore, other options should always be considered first.

Guardianships ensure that those who are unable to handle their own affairs aren’t exploited or injured. There are circumstances when a guardianship may be the best – or only – choice. For example, an elderly gentleman with dementia may have lacked the planning to make adequate provisions in his will or trust for management of his affairs. Without a plan for oversight of his assets, he could end up jeopardizing the estate he intended to pass on to his family. In that case, the heirs may look to have a court-appointed guardian appointed who will ensure that their father or grandfather doesn’t sign away his estate or compromise his physical well-being.

Transparency is important. Before it becomes necessary for a guardian to be appointed to handle your physical or financial decisions, consider whom you’d trust to act in that capacity and put it in writing.

It also informs others that, if a guardian is needed, this person is the one you’d like to see serve in that capacity.

A one-page directive will make your wishes clear and keep this important decision from a judge who will know nothing about you or your priorities or your specific circumstances.

In addition, you should delegate a second person now to support you in the future. It’s preferable that this is someone younger whom you trust. This individual will bring a fresh perspective to the situation. They should also possess a sound understanding of money management.

If you don’t consider these things now, the state will make the decision for you after you no longer can make such decisions for yourself.

Talk with an experienced elder law attorney and create the documents now that will save your loved ones from having to seek guardianship for you in the future.

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

What are Big Mistakes to Avoid in Estate Planning?

Whether it’s a change in domicile, the death of a family member, new grandchildren, or a significant change in assets, it is important to make sure you adjust your estate plan accordingly, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Updating Your Estate Plan? Don’t Make These Top Mistakes.”

  1. Updating a will or trust but forgetting to update ancillary documents. When updating an estate plan, people tend to home in on updating their wills and trusts without also having their powers of attorney, health care directives, or guardians reviewed. This prevents them from completing a full update to their estate planning. While these ancillary documents are good forever, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reviewed and updated.
  2. Using flawed reasoning when selecting agents to act on your behalf. Some people choose their executors, trustees and other agents by trying to appoint all their children together or appointing agents by age or profession, instead of who is best suited to serve. The best person should live nearby and have the time to address issues you may need.
  3. Forgetting to update an estate plan when moving to another state. Estate planning documents drafted out-of-state, provided they were drafted with the legal requirements of that state, will be effective in all states. However, practically speaking, having out-of-state documents can complicate trust or estate administration, or the ability to exercise powers of attorney or health care directives. You should always update your plan when they move to another state to make certain that the plan functions correctly.
  4. Forgetting to create an asset cheat sheet or failing to keep that list updated. Most of us accumulate different assets and investments as we get older. It’s not uncommon for a person to have stocks, life insurance, annuities, securities, or other investments at many different institutions. When you update your estate plan, create a list of your accounts and assets and update that list as things change. Be sure to include the name and location of the account and the last four digits of the account number.

When making changes, if you avoid the above mistakes, it will ensure that your plan is properly updated and will not cause any unnecessary future complications.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 30, 2022) “Updating Your Estate Plan? Don’t Make These Top Mistakes”

Understanding the Issues of Elder Law

The legal needs of many older Americans go beyond basic legal services. They are also all intertwined. In addition to understanding the legal issues and complications that older Americans face, elder law attorneys must also understand the surrounding personal concerns of their clients, such as health, financial and family issues, and how those affect their clients’ legal issues.

Recently Heard’s article entitled “What You Need to Know About Elder Law” explains that other specific areas of expertise include the following:

  • End of life planning could extend to planning your health care support system as you age, signing a power of attorney, establishing a living will and other issues surrounding end of life care.
  • Financial issues frequently entails questions about retirement and financial planning, housing financing, income and estate tax planning and gift tax issues.
  • Long term care can include planning for asset protection, insurance for in-home care or assistance with activities of daily living, Medicare planning, insurance, veterans’ benefits and other issues.
  • Residents’ rights issues may include claims or complaints you bring while a patient in a nursing home or long term care facility.
  • Workplace discrimination issues stem, from the fact that older Americans sometimes face age and disability discrimination in the workplace.
  • Guardianship issues might include guardianship avoidance, planning wills and trusts, planning for the future of a special needs child, probate court and other issues surrounding minor or adult children.
  • Landlord-tenant law may mean handling disputes with landlords, contesting an eviction, dealing with foreclosure issues, rent increases and more.
  • Abuse, neglect, and fraud. These elder law attorneys specialize in cases where an older client is being victimized.

An elder law attorney can be a great partner for you as you plan out the legal and financial aspects of the next stage of your life-or the life of a loved one. Speak to one today.

Reference: Recently Heard (June 23, 2022) “What You Need to Know About Elder Law”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

Does ‘Gray Divorce’ Fit into Estate Planning?

According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate has more than doubled for people over 50 since the 1990s. The Pandemic is also adding to the uptick, says AARP’s recent article entitled “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan.”

A divorce can be financially draining. Moreover, later-in-life divorces frequently impact women’s finances more than men’s. That is because in addition to depressed earnings from time spent out of the workforce raising children, women find themselves more financially vulnerable post-divorce and more likely to serve as caregivers again in the future. Even so, for partners of all genders, it is important to consider the longer-term financial outlook, not just the financial situation you’re in when you are actually dissolving the marriage.

You and your spouse will be dividing assets and liabilities and the responsibilities regarding spousal support. How one of you will live if the other gets sick or passes away should also be part of this conversation.

Consider where you’ll need to make changes. One may be removing your spouse from beneficiary designations on all your accounts. (In some states, this is automatic.) Your divorce agreement may also include buying life insurance or maintaining a trust or beneficiary designations for one another.

Create or update your estate plan immediately. You should also ask your estate planning attorney to review your marital agreement. They will have suggestions about how to align your estate plan with your divorce obligations. If you and your ex are co-parenting children, your estate plan should address who their guardians will be, if both biological parents pass away. It is also important to address who will manage any inheritance, if you don’t want your ex-spouse handling assets you may leave to your children.

Create your life care plan, which means naming health care proxies or surrogates (who will take care of your medical affairs, if you’re in need of caregiving), designating a financial power of attorney (who will take care of your finances and legal affairs), and naming a guardian for yourself if you’re incapacitated.

Consider the way in which your divorce will impact your children and extended family if you need caregiving. At a minimum, agree between yourselves what level of contact you can manage and, if you share children and loved ones, know that your lives will cross along the way.

While your marriage may not last, the connections will, so make a wise plan.

Reference: AARP (Jan. 25, 2022) “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan”

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?
An concept Image of a power of attorney

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?

The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”