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”

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives
Book, pen and Power of Attorney document on a desktop

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives

A medical crisis only gets worse, when you learn you don’t have legal authority to make medical decisions for a loved one, or find out after a loved one is incapacitated that you can’t gain access to assets in their trust. You need to have certain estate planning legal documents already in place, according to the article “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives” from seacoastonline.com.

Power of Attorney. The power of attorney (POA) allows one person, the “principal” to appoint another person as their “agent” (also known as an “attorney in fact”). The agent has the authority to act on behalf of the principal, depending on the powers described in the document. Each state has its own laws about who can be an agent, if more than one person can be appointed as agent and if there are any limits to what power can be given to an agent. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA to suit your situation.

A POA can be created to give extremely broad powers to an agent. This is sometimes called a “general” POA, where agents can do everything that you would do, from accessing and managing bank accounts, applying for Social Security, to filing tax returns. A POA can also be limited in scope, known as “limited” POA. You could permit an agent to only sign a tax return or conduct a specific transaction.

In most estate planning scenarios, the POA is “durable,” meaning the named agent can continue to have authority to act, even if the principal is incapacitated after the documents have been executed. This makes sense: a durable POA generally avoids having to go to court and have a guardian appointed. The person you have selected will be the POA, not a court-appointed person.

Advance Directive. The advance directive allows a person to appoint another person to make medical decisions on their behalf if incapacitated. In some states, this is called a durable power of attorney for health care, and in others it is referred to as a health care proxy.

In most cases, the advance directive becomes effective when one or more treating physicians determine the person no longer has capacity to make or communicate health care decisions. Having this document in place avoids having to go to court to have a guardian appointed. If time is of the essence, any delay in decision-making could lead to a poor outcome. If there is no advance directive and physicians have decided you are unable to make these decisions, they go by a hierarchy of relatives to make the decisions for you. If you have an estranged adult child, for instance, but they are your next-of-kin, they could be the one making decisions for you.

If you have children who recently became legal adults (usually age 18), these documents will protect them as well, since just being their parent does not provide you with the right to make these decisions.

Reference: Seacoastonline.com (June 27, 2021) “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives”

Estate Planning Matters for Singles

If you’re not married and you have relatives or friends to whom you would like to pass certain assets, then you need an estate plan, says the article “Estate planning important even if you’re not married” from Rocky Mountain Telegram.

If you die without a last will and testament or other estate planning documents in place, a probate court will make the decisions about how to distribute assets according to the laws of your state. That may not be what you wanted, but it will be too bad—and too late.

If you want to leave assets to family members or close friends, you’ll need to plan for this with a last will and testament. The same goes for any donations you may wish to leave to one or more charitable organizations. You could just name organizations in your will, but there are many different ways to give to charity and some have tax benefits for you and your heirs.

One way to leave assets to charity is a Charitable Remainder Trust. Your estate planning attorney will help guide you through the steps. Appreciated assets, like stocks, mutual funds, or other investment securities, are transferred into an irrevocable trust. You get to name the trustee—you could be the trustee, if you prefer—and then you can sell the assets at full market value, avoiding any capital gains taxes that you’d pay if you sold them as an individual.

If you itemize your income taxes, you might be able to claim a charitable deduction on taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide an income stream for the rest of your life. When you die, the assets remaining in the trust will go to the charity or charities that you have named.

Family members and charities aren’t the only ones to consider in an estate plan for a single person. You need to prepare to protect yourself. With the absence of an immediate family, being protective of your financial and health care decisions requires a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy, among other documents.

The durable power of attorney authorizes a person of your choice to manage finances, if you were to become incapacitated. This is especially important when there is no spouse to take on this role. Your health care proxy, also known as a medical power of attorney, authorizes someone you name to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable.

Estate planning can be complex. An experienced estate planning attorney will be an invaluable resource as you go through the process. Who will be the best candidate to select as your power of attorney? What other documents do you need to ensure that your assets go to the people or charities you want? Once this is done, you’ll be prepared for the future—and protected.

Reference: Rocky Mountain Telegram (June 6, 2021) “Estate planning important even if you’re not married”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning attorneys aren’t the only professionals to advise anyone who is a legal adult and of sound mind to have a will. Financial advisors, CPAs and other professional advisors recognize that without a will, a person places themselves and their family in an unnecessarily difficult position. A recent article titled “One document everyone should have” from the Aiken Standard explains why this document is so important and what else is needed for an estate plan. A will is a “testamentary” document, meaning it becomes operative, only when the person who makes the will (the “testator”) dies.

The process of probate can only begin upon death. Each county or jurisdiction has a probate court, where the estate assets of deceased individuals are administrated. On the date a person dies, those assets must be identified. Some assets must be used to pay debts, if there are any, and the balance is distributed either according to the directions in the will or, if there is no will or the will has been deemed to be invalid, according to the laws of the state.

All this assumes, by the way, that the decedent did not arrange for his or her assets to pass without probate, by various non-probate transfer methods. For example, there is no probate required, if there is a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary.

When there is no will and assets are subject to probate, then such assets are passed by intestacy, which usually means they are distributed along the lines of kinship. This may not always be the desired outcome, but with no will, the law controls asset distribution.

Why is a will important?

  • It allows you to leave specific property to specific loved ones, friends, or charities.
  • It may be used to provide funeral and burial instructions, although they can also be provided in a different document, so they are available to family or friends immediately.
  • A will can direct how you want assets to be used to pay debts, any taxes and payment of estate administration expenses, which include the cost of probate, legal fees and executor fees.
  • A will can be used to minimize estate taxes, which may be levied not just by the federal government but also by the state.
  • The will names the estate’s executor and the extent of his or her powers.
  • If there are minor children, the will is used to name a guardian to raise the children.
  • If you would like to disinherit any relative, the will provides the means to doing so.

Everyone needs a will, regardless of how large or small their personal assets may be. Every adult should also have an estate plan that includes other important documents, like a Power of Attorney to name another individual to act on your behalf, if you are unable to do so because of an injury or illness. A Healthcare Proxy and a Living Will are also important, so those who love you can follow your end of life care wishes.

Reference: Aiken Standard (March 13,2021) “One document everyone should have”

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or administrator) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or administrator will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or administrator’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or administrator is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if you and your spouse left them orphaned.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, it is. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to state and federal governments. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family

Transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death is the basic reason for an estate plan. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. You already have an estate plan, because every state has laws addressing how assets are managed and who will inherit your assets, known as the Laws of Intestacy, if you do not have a will created. However, the estate plan created by your state’s laws might not be what you want, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

To take more control over your estate, you’ll want to have an estate planning attorney create an estate plan drafted to achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you haven’t done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You’ll need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals,
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan,
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents,
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

What are Power of Attorney Options?

FedWeek’s recent article entitled The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney” explains that a power of attorney designates someone else to handle your affairs, if you can’t.

Here are the major types:

  • Limited power of attorney. This allows an agent to act on your behalf under specific circumstances, like a home sale closing that you can’t attend, and/or for a defined period of time.
  • General power of attorney. Gives broad authority to your agent, who at any time can write checks to pay your bills, sign contracts on your behalf and take distributions from your IRA.
  • Springing power of attorney. This isn’t effective when you execute it, but rather “springs” into effect upon certain circumstances, such as your becoming incompetent. You can say in the document what’s needed to verify your incompetency, like letters from two physicians stating that you no longer can manage your own affairs.

A power of attorney is important because your agent can act, if you become incapacitated. To serve this purpose, a power should be “durable,” so it will remain in effect if you become incompetent. Other powers of attorney may not be recognized, if a judge determines that you no longer can manage your affairs.

Without a power of attorney, your family may have to ask a judge to name a guardian to act in your best interests. A guardianship proceeding can be expensive and contentious. You might also wind up with an unwelcome interloper managing your finances. To avoid this situation, designate a person you trust as agent on your durable power.

A health care power of attorney, also known as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, should be a component of a complete estate plan. This document names a trusted agent to make decisions about your medical treatment, if you become unable to do so.

The person you name in your health care power doesn’t have to be the same person that you name as agent for a “regular” power of attorney (the POA that affects your finances).

For your health care power, chose a person in your family who is a medical professional or someone you trust to see that you get all necessary care.

Depending on state law, it may go into effect when a doctor (whom you can name in the POA) determines in writing that you no longer have the ability to make or communicate health care decisions.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 26, 2020) “The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney”

What Does My Estate Plan Look Like after Divorce?

Planning an estate after a divorce involves adopting a different type of arithmetic. Without a spouse to anchor an estate plan, the executors, trustees, guardians or agents under a power of attorney and health care proxies will have to be chosen from a more diverse pool of those that are connected to you.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce” explains that beneficiary forms tied to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) and life insurance will need to be updated to show the dissolution of the marriage.

There are usually estate planning terms that are included in agreements created during the separation and divorce. These may call for the removal of both spouses from each other’s estate planning documents and retirement accounts. For example, in New York, bequests to an ex-spouse in a will prepared during the marriage are voided after the divorce. Even though the old will is still valid, a new will has the benefit of realigning the estate assets with the intended recipients.

However, any trust created while married is treated differently. Revocable trusts can be revoked, and the assets held by those trusts can be part of the divorce. Irrevocable trusts involving marital property are less likely to be dissolved, and after the death of the grantor, distributions may be made to an ex-spouse as directed by the trust.

A big task in the post-divorce estate planning process is changing beneficiaries. Ask for a change of beneficiary forms for all retirement accounts. Without a stipulation in the divorce decree ending their interest, an ex-spouse still listed as beneficiary of an IRA or life insurance policy may still receive the proceeds at your death.

Divorce makes children assume responsibility at an earlier age. Adult children in their 20s or early 30s typically assume the place of the ex-spouse as fiduciaries and health care proxies, as well as agents under powers of attorney, executors and trustees.

If the divorcing parents have minor children, they must choose a guardian in their wills to care for the children, in the event that both parents pass away.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the issues that are involved in estate planning after a divorce.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 7, 2020) “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce”

Are People Avoiding Estate Planning in the Pandemic?

A survey by Quest Research Group in the wake of COVID-19 wanted to see how prepared people would be, if something were to happen to them. They asked 1,000 people how much planning they’d done in the past, and if the pandemic encouraged them to start planning now.

Forbes’ June article entitled “The Three Reasons People Avoid Estate Planning” says that with all the uncertainty in the world, the study reveals that people are taking action, even though it’s something people typically try to avoid. Why do people avoid it? The article narrows it down to the three most common excuses:

  • I’m much too busy. I can barely keep up with my life as it is.
  • It’s complicated and/or expensive.
  • I’m just too superstitious. I’ll just jinx my life by thinking about death.

All of these excuses are followed by a sentiment such as “I know it’s something I should do” and “I’ll get around to it one day.” No matter how it’s said, people just don’t feel that it is urgent.

First, are those who are superstitious and think doing this somehow curse their life. However, people buy car seats for their children, and no one refuses to buy a car seat because they think it would make them more susceptible to an accident. Instead, you buy one, because you’re a responsible adult who cares for your child.

The other two excuses are similar, because when people say that planning is a time consuming or expensive task, they’re automatically too busy or frugal to even consider taking on such a task. Then we do all that we can to procrastinate.

To address these excuses, here are some things you can do right now at little or no expense that can help your family, if there’s an emergency. It will also make you feel more responsible for your life, in the same way parents do when they purchase car seats.

Password Sharing. Passwords are the keys to modern estate planning. To have access to your accounts in the event of an emergency, someone you trust should have access to your passwords. There are password managers, like Dashlane or LastPass, which coordinate all your passwords, so you only have to remember one. You can later share it.

Draft a Medical Directive. This document instructs your family what you want done in a medical emergency (Living Will) and who should speak on your behalf, if you’re unable to communicate (Health Care Proxy). These make up an Advance Directive.

Create a Will and a Power of Attorney. A will is the document that instructs your executor how to distribute your assets. A will also names a guardian for any minor children. A Power of Attorney (POA) is like a Health Care Proxy for your money and lets an agent make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, when you are unable.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you create these to avoid any issues down the road.

Reference: Forbes (June 24, 2020) “The Three Reasons People Avoid Estate Planning”