Write a Letter of Instruction for Loved Ones

A letter of intent is frequently recommended for parents of disabled children to share information for when the parent dies. However, letters of intent or a letter of instruction can also be a helpful resource for executors, says the article “Planning Head: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction” from The Mercury. This is especially valuable, if the executor doesn’t know the decedent or their family members very well.

For disabled children, legal documents address specific issues and aren’t necessarily the right place to include personal information about the child or the parent’s desires for the child’s future. Estate plans need more information, especially for a minor child.

The goal is to create a document to make clear what the parents want for the child after they pass, whether that occurs early or late in the child’s life.

For a disabled child, the first questions to be addressed in the estate plan concern who will care for the child if the parent dies or becomes incapacitated, where will the child live and what funds will be available for their care. Once those matters are resolved, however, there are more questions about the child’s wants and needs.

The letter of intent can answer questions about the special information only a parent knows and is helpful in future decisions about their care and living situation.

The letter of intent concerning an estate should also include information about wishes for a funeral or burial and contain everything from directions for the music list for a ceremony to the writing on the headstone.

Once the letter of intent is created, the next question is, where should you put it so it is secure and can be accessed when it is needed?

Don’t put it in a bank safe deposit box. This is a common error for estate planning documents as well. The executor may only access the contents of the safe deposit box after letters of administration have been issued. This happens after the funeral, and sometimes long after the funeral. By then, it will be too late for any instructions.

Keeping estate planning documents in a safe deposit box presents other problems. If the bank seals the safe deposit box on notification of the owner’s death, the executor won’t be able to proceed. This can sometimes be prevented by having additional owners on the safe deposit box, if permitted by the bank . Any additional owners will also need to know where the key is located and be able get access to it.

The better solution is to keep all important documents including wills, financial power of attorney, health care powers, living wills, or health care directives, insurance forms, cemetery deeds, information for the family’s estate planning attorney, financial advisor, and CPA, etc., in one location known to the trusted person who will need access to the documents. That person will need a set of keys to the house. If they are kept in a fire and waterproof safe in the house; they will also need the keys to the safe.

If the parents move or move the documents, they’ll need to remember to tell the trusted person where these documents have moved., Otherwise, a lot of work will have been for naught.

Reference: The Mercury (Jan. 19, 2022) “Planning Head: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction”

Should I Start Estate Planning Now?

The coronavirus has taken a toll on our finances, as well as our physical and mental health. As a result, it’s important to plan appropriately for your health care and financial needs in an estate plan to provide much-needed peace of mind, say Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning During a Pandemic – Quit Stalling.” The article lists the important components of a comprehensive estate plan:

Advance Health Care Directive. This is a written plan that states your wishes, in the event you can’t speak for yourself. Your wishes need to be in writing, and the document should be updated as your health changes. Review your advance health care directive with your doctor and the person you select as your health care proxy to be certain it’s completed correctly.

Health Care Power of Attorney. This legal document lets you name someone who can review your medical records and make decisions, such as how and where you should be treated. This would be applicable, if you were incapacitated and unable to make medical decisions for yourself.

Living Will. A living will is a type of advance health care directive that specifically states your end-of-life decisions in the event you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious. This covers specific medical treatments, like CPR, ventilation, pain management, tube feeding and organ and tissue donation.

Financial Power of Attorney. This document lets you name someone to help with your finances, if you become incapacitated and unable to do so. You can state how much control your power of attorney will have, like accessing accounts, selling stock and managing real estate.

Trusts. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a trust to protect your assets as you pass them down to your heirs. If your children or grandchildren aren’t old enough or mature enough to handle their inheritance, you can set up a trust that provides them with a small amount of money each year, increasing that amount as they get older. You can also direct that the money be specifically used for an adult child’s mortgage or student loans.

Beneficiaries. Many people forget to update their life insurance policies, bank, brokerage accounts and retirement plans. These all have beneficiary forms, which supersede a will. These should be updated, along with your estate plan, every few years and after every major life change. That’s something like a marriage, divorce, death, adoption, or birth.

Make certain that you are reviewing and updating your estate plan when you review your retirement plan each year or so.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Oct. 31, 2021) “Estate Planning During a Pandemic – Quit Stalling”

What Estate Planning Does My Child Need at 18?
Chocolate birthday cake with birthday candles.

What Estate Planning Does My Child Need at 18?

This 18th birthday milestone legally notes the transition from minors to official adults, bringing with it major changes in legal status, says NJ Family’s recent article entitled “What You Need to Know (Legally and Medically) On Your Teen’s 18th Birthday.”

Adults—even your 18-year-old— is entitled to privacy rights. This means that anyone not given explicit rights via a power of attorney and HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) release, among other important documents, can be denied info and access—even parents. Here’s what every family should have:

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney (POA) gives an agent (such as you as the parent) the authority to act on behalf of a principal (your adult child) in specific matters stated in the POA.

You can also have a POA for medical decisions and one for finances.

HIPAA Release. When kids become legal adults, they have a right to complete health privacy under HIPAA. That means no one can see their information without permission, even you!

Ask your child to sign a HIPAA release form (which is often included along with the medical power of attorney), to let their health providers share relevant information.

Wills. A simple Will is a good idea. It may also be a good time for you to review your estate plan to see how circumstances changed.

The wisest and safest way to get a credit card for your adult child is to add your child to your account. That way you can monitor transactions. Students also get an immediate bump in their credit score, which is important for renting apartments. However, the main point is to teach them skills and how to be responsible with money.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about drafting all of the necessary legal documents for your newly-minted legally adult kid.

Reference: NJ Family (Oct. 6, 2021) “What You Need to Know (Legally and Medically) On Your Teen’s 18th Birthday”

Why Should I Update My Estate Plan?

The majority of Americans don’t have an updated estate plan in place. This can create a major headache for their families, in the event that anything happens to them.

Fox 43’s recent article entitled “Majority of Americans have outdated estate plans” explains that estate planning is making some decisions now for what you want to happen in the future, if you’re unable to make decisions then.

It’s important that every adult has an estate plan in place. Moreover, as you get older and you have a family, an estate plan becomes even more important.

These decisions can impact your family. It involves deciding who will care for your children. If you’re a parent with children under the age of 18, your estate plan can name the guardians of those children.

This is accomplished by having a clause in your will that states which person(s) will have the responsibility of caring for your minor children, in the event that you and your spouse pass away unexpectantly.

In your will, you’ll also name an executor who will carry out your wishes after your death.

You may ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether you should have a trust to protect some of your assets.

You also should have your attorney draft a power of attorney, healthcare directive, living will and HIPAA waiver.

Many people don’t know where to get started. However, the good thing is ultimately it’s your decisions about what you want to happen, if you are unable to care for your loved ones.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney and do this sooner rather than later.

Reference: Fox 43 (Oct. 27, 2021) “Majority of Americans have outdated estate plans”

What are the Key Documents in Estate Planning?

A basic estate plan can be fairly straightforward to create with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Here are the main items you need in an estate plan. However, ask your estate planning attorney about what else you may need in your specific circumstances.

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” says there are three things you need in every good estate plan: last will, a power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive – and each serves a different purpose. Let’s look at these:

A Last Will. This is the cornerstone of your estate plan. a last will instructs the way in which your assets should be distributed.

Everyone needs a last will, even if it’s a very basic one. If you do nothing else in planning your estate, at least create a last will, so you don’t die intestate and leave the decisions to the courts.

A Power of Attorney (POA). This document permits you to give a person the ability to take care of your affairs while you’re still alive. A financial power of attorney can help, if you’re incapacitated and unable to manage your finances or pay your bills. A medical power of attorney can also help a loved one take care of healthcare decisions on your behalf.

With a financial power of attorney, you can give as much or as little power over your financial affairs as you want. Note that when establishing this document, you should have a conversation with your power of attorney agent, so if called upon, he or she will have a good understanding of what they can and can’t do financially for you. A healthcare power of attorney also allows a person to make healthcare decisions, if you’re unable to do so.

An advance healthcare directive. This document instructs medical staff how you want them to handle your health-related decisions, if you’re unable to choose or communicate. It includes resuscitation, sustaining your quality of life, pain management and end-of-life care.

Reference: Bankrate (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

Should I Try Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning explains that the coronavirus pandemic has made many people face decisions about estate planning. Many will use a do-it-yourself solution. Internet DIY websites make it easy to download forms. However, there are mistakes people make when they try do-it-yourself estate planning.

Here are some issues with do-it-yourself that estate planning attorneys regularly see:

You need to know what to ask. If you’re trying to complete a specific form, you may be able to do it on your own. However, the challenge is sometimes not knowing what to ask. If you want a more comprehensive end-of-life plan and aren’t sure about what you need in addition to a will, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. If you want to cover everything, and are not sure what everything is, that’s why you see them.

More complex issues require professional help. Take a more holistic look at your estate plan and look at estate planning, tax planning and financial planning together, since they’re all interrelated. If you only look at one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another. This could unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. Your situation might also include special issues or circumstances. A do-it-yourself website might not be able to tell you how to account for your specific situation in the best possible way. It will just give you a blanket list, and it will all be cookie cutter. You won’t have the individual attention to your goals and priorities you get by sitting down and talking to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate laws vary from state to state. Every state may have different rules for estate planning, such as for powers of attorney or a health care proxy. There are also 17 states and the District of Columbia that tax your estate, inheritance, or both. These tax laws can impact your estate planning. Eleven states and DC only have an estate tax (CT, HI, IL, ME, MA, MN, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA). Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax. Maryland has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax.

Setting up health care directives and making end-of-life decisions can be very involved. It’s too important to try to do it yourself. If you make a mistake, it could impact the ability of your family to take care of financial expenses or manage health care issues. Don’t do it yourself.

Reference: US News & World Report (July 5, 2021) “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning”

Checklist for Estate Plan’s Success

We know why estate planning for your assets, family and legacy falls through the cracks. It’s not the thing a new parent wants to think about while cuddling a newborn, or a grandparent wants to think about as they prepare for a family get-together. However, this is an important thing to take care of, advises a recent article from Kiplinger titled “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every four years, or every time a trigger event occurs—birth, death, marriage, divorce, relocation—the estate plan needs to be reviewed. Reviewing an estate plan is a relatively straightforward matter and neglecting it could lead to undoing strategic tax plans and unnecessary costs.

Moving to a new state? Estate laws are different from state to state, so what works in one state may not be considered valid in another. You’ll also want to update your address, and make sure that family and advisors know where your last will can be found in your new home.

Changes in the law. The last five years have seen an inordinate number of changes to laws that impact retirement accounts and taxes. One big example is the SECURE Act, which eliminated the Stretch IRA, requiring heirs to empty inherited IRA accounts in ten years, instead of over their lifetimes. A strategy that worked great a few years ago no longer works. However, there are other means of protecting your heirs and retirement accounts.

Do you have a Power of Attorney? A POA gives a person you authorize the ability to manage your financial, business, personal and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. If the POA is old, a bank or investment company may balk at allowing your representative to act on your behalf. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date and the person you named is still the person you want. If you need to make a change, it’s very important that you put it in writing and notify the proper parties.

Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be updated as well. Marriage does not automatically authorize your spouse to speak with doctors, obtain medical records or make medical decisions on your behalf. If you have strong opinions about what procedures you do and do not want, the Health Care POA can document your wishes.

Last Will and Testament is Essential. Your last will needs regular review throughout your lifetime. Has the person you named as an executor four years ago remained in your life, or moved to another state? A last will also names an executor for your property and a guardian for minor children. It also needs to have trust provisions to pay for your children’s upbringing and to protect their inheritance.

Speaking of Trusts. If your estate plan includes trusts, review trustee and successor appointments to be sure they are still appropriate. You should also check on estate and inheritance taxes to ensure that the estate will be able to cover these costs. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee is still ready and able to carry out the duties, including administration, management and tax returns.

Gifting in the Estate Plan. Laws concerning charitable giving also change, so be sure your gifting strategies are still appropriate for your estate. An estate plan review is also a good time to review the organizations you wish to support.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents
Senior couple get a gift of a tablet PC from their adult son.

Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents

Let’s start with this idea: maybe your parents are going to leave you a generous bequest as part of their estate plan. Do you know this for a fact, or is it wishful thinking? The only way to know, advises a recent article from Yahoo! Finance titled “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward),” is to have a conversation, or a series of conversations. It’s not the first awkward conversation you’ll have with your parents, but it may be a bit stickier than you expect.

No matter how you approach it, this is a sensitive issue. How do you avoid appearing greedy or selfish? There is actually a lot more to know beyond the inheritance issue. You need to know how to ensure that your parents’ wishes are carried out, while they are living as well as after their deaths.

It will be helpful to be aware that the prospective inheritance amount may change over the course of your parents’ remaining lives. You also don’t want your parents thinking that you consider yourself entitled in any way to the assets they have built over the course of their lives.

Instead, start the conversation by talking about their estate plan. Explain that you want to be able to follow their instructions. You might reference an article or blog post that you have read about the importance of estate planning. You can also talk about your own estate plan, explaining that you have created an estate plan to protect your children and family members and to be sure that your instructions are followed.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge how difficult this conversation is for you. Reassure them that you are not looking forward to their demise, but you have concerns about how things will work out when the time does come.

Depending upon your family dynamics, holidays may be a good time to address estate planning. This provides an opportunity for all family members to be included and for concerns and plans to be shared among involved siblings.

This does not mean discussing inheritances at the dinner table. Focus on what your parents’ wishes are and include a conversation about what values they would like to pass on to the next generation. If there are family histories or stories to share, this is also part of your inheritance.

Regardless of when or how you approach the topic, you do want to be sure your parents have a plan in place, so there is a path for whoever will be taking care of them and their assets. Ask if they have these key legal documents:

  • A Last Will, also known as a Last Will and Testament
  • A Power of Attorney to designate someone to make financial and legal decisions, if they are not able to do so for themselves.
  • A Living Will or health care directive that will designate someone who can make healthcare decisions and address end of life care for them.

Ask where your parents keep these documents, and how you can find them when the time comes. Are they in your father’s night table, or in a lockbox in the attic? If they have a financial advisor or estate planning attorney, who is that person? You’ll need to be able to access the documents and speak with their estate planning attorney.

A few awkward moments now will help all of you as your parents, and you, move through the coming stages of life.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (March 25, 2021) “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward)”

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have when I Retire?

Research shows that most retirees (53%) have a last will and testament. However, they don’t have six other crucial legal documents.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have” says in fact, in this pandemic, 30% of retirees have none of these crucial documents — not even a will — according to the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees.

In addition, the Transamerica survey found the following among retirees:

  • 32% have a power of attorney or medical proxy, which allows a designated agent to make medical decisions on their behalf
  • 30% have an advance directive or living will, which states their end-of-life medical preferences to health care providers
  • 28% have designated a power of attorney to make financial decisions in their stead
  • 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements
  • 18% have filled out a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which allows designated people to talk to their health care and insurance providers on their behalf; and
  • 11% have created a trust.

The study shows there is a big gap that retirees need to fill, if they want to be properly prepared for the end of their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has created an even more challenging situation. Retirees can and should be taking more actions to protect their health and financial well-being. However, they may find it hard while sheltering in place.

Now more than ever, seniors may need extra motivation and support from their families and friends.

The Transamerica results shouldn’t shock anyone. That is because we have a long history of disregarding death, and very important estate planning questions. No one really wants to ponder their ultimate demise, when they can be out enjoying themselves.

However, planning your estate now will give you peace of mind. More importantly, this planning can save your heirs and loved ones a lot of headaches and stress, when you pass away.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today to get your plan going.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 16, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have”

It’s Time to Stop Procrastinating and Have Your Estate Plan Done

While many people have had their wills updated or created in response to the pandemic, millions of Americans have yet to do so, reports the article “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan” from AARP Magazine. The main reasons for the big stall? They haven’t “gotten around to it,” or, they think they don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone and don’t need a will. Neither reason is valid.

Estate Plans Protect Us During Life. A will is a legal document used to distribute assets after death. It saves families from unnecessary costs and stresses resulting from intestacy, which is what having no will is called. However, there are more documents to an estate plan than just a will. One is a health care directive, often called a living will. This document names someone of your choosing to make medical decisions for you if you are unable. It is also used to outline the kind of medical treatments you do or do not want.

Imagine your family faced with making the decision of keeping you on a heart and lung machine or pulling the plug and letting you die. Would they know what you want them to do? Without a living will, they have to make a decision, and hope it’s the one you would have wanted. That’s quite a burden to put on your loved ones, especially since there is a simple way for you to convey your wishes in a legally enforceable manner.

You also Need a Power of Attorney. A financial power of attorney appoints a person of your choosing to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. This is an important document and can be created to be as broad or as narrow as you want. You can provide the direction for someone—a trusted, responsible adult—to manage finances, including paying bills, managing a portfolio, paying a mortgage and generally taking over the business of your life. Without it, your family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship and/or conservatorship to take care of these matters.

Estate Planning Requires Hard Conversations. When people say they “haven’t gotten around” to doing their wills, what they are really thinking is “This is too unpleasant a topic for me” or “I can’t bring myself to have this conversation with my children.” Death and sickness are uncomfortable topics, and most people find it painful to discuss them with their spouses and their children.

However, imagine the great relief you will feel when your loved ones know what your wishes are for sickness and death. You can also imagine the relief they will have in knowing that you took the time give them the tools needed to deal with whatever the future will bring.

Joint Wills are Never a Good Idea. A joint will can leave a surviving spouse in a terrible legal and financial situation. They are not even valid in certain states. They can restrict a surviving spouse from changing the instructions of the will, which could create all kinds of hardships. Circumstances change, and a joint will won’t allow for that. Most couples opt for a “Mirror” will, where they leave the estate to each other and/or their children.

Blended Families Need Special Treatment. If your family is made up of children from different parents, it is important to understand that stepchildren are not treated the same as children by the law. You may love your stepchildren as if they were your own, but unless you specifically name them in the will, they will not be included. Your estate planning attorney will know how to address this issue.

A few final thoughts: estate planning laws of each state are different, so you should meet with an estate planning attorney who practices in your state. The Power of Attorney and Health Care Directives should name the people who you feel will carry out your wishes and can be trusted to do as you want. The person does not have to be the oldest male child. They don’t even have to be related to you, as long as the person you choose is trustworthy, responsible and good with managing money and details.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Nov. 12, 2020) “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan”