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”

Still Procrastinating about Your Estate Plan?

The continuing escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to finalize estate planning documents, even as their estate planning attorneys are working from home. People are coming to terms with the stark reality: they could be struck by the disease and need to have a plan in place, reports the article “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid” from Financial Advisor.

Everyone should review their estate planning documents, including their wills, trusts and gifting techniques, to ensure that they are in line with their goals and the numerous tax law changes that have occurred in the last six months. The review of these estate planning documents is especially critical during these unpredictable times.

Here are the documents that may need to be updated:

Power of Attorney—This legal document gives a person you name the authority to handle financial affairs and protect property by acting on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.  Some of the typical tasks of your “agent” are paying bills, writing checks, selling or purchasing assets or signing tax returns.

You may name any competent adult you like. However, be certain to choose someone trusted who will put your interests above theirs. This person should possess common sense, ethics and financial acumen. Someone who lives near you, will be able to handle matters more expeditiously. Someone who is far away, may not be as effective. You should also name a back-up or secondary agent.

With no power of attorney, no one will be authorized to act on your behalf and your family will need to have the court appoint a conservator, which will take time and money.

Health-Care Proxy—This legal document gives an agent authority to make health-care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so. Without one, the family of anyone over the age of 18 will need to go to court and have a guardian appointed.

Last Will and Testament—Your last will is the legal document that gives directions to how you want your property to be distributed after you die. It is used to appoint an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. For parents of minor children, this is the document used to name a guardian to raise your children. If you don’t have a last will, the court will choose who will raise your child, who will distribute your assets and who will oversee your estate. It is much better to handle this in advance, so you are in control of these important decisions.

Living Trust—A revocable trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold title to your assets. As the grantor or creator of the trust, you can change it at any time. You can also set it to outlive you. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee then steps in and manages your affairs without any court intervention. A trust also gives you privacy, since it avoids the probate process.

There are many estate planning tools that may be used to pass wealth to the next generation, minimize taxe, and ensure that your legacy continues, even during these unprecedented times.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 16, 2020) “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid”

What Is a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney is a legal document that permits an agent or attorney-in-fact to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

WTOP’s recent article “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney” says that the rules for designating power of attorney vary from state to state. Because of this, you should speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your state’s laws.

Power of attorney is revocable. Therefore, if you’re mentally competent and believe you can no longer count on the person you designated as your agent, you can update your documents and select another person.

The individual you choose as your attorney-in-fact will depend to a large extent on the type of power you’re granting — whether it’s general or limited — and your relationship. For general power of attorney, people often go with their spouses or sometimes their children. However, you can choose anyone, as long as it’s someone you trust.

In many cases, designating general power of attorney is a component of a larger estate plan, so when you talk to your estate planning lawyer about your estate plan, you can add this to the conversation.

You may want to have your attorney draft a limited or special power of attorney. This lets your agent complete restricted transactions, like selling a piece of property. It’s limited in scope. In contrast, a general power of attorney lets your agent do about anything you could do. A general power of attorney is usually part of an estate plan, in the event you’re unable to handle your own financial matters as you age or become incapacitated.

A springing power of attorney goes into effect in a predetermined situation, and it will specify the circumstances under which the power takes effect. An immediately effective or non-springing power of attorney is in place once the paperwork is signed.

Powers of attorney typically end when the principal is unable to make decisions on his or her own. However, for some, becoming incapacitated is just the type of circumstances when they want someone they trust to have power of attorney.

A durable power of attorney continues after the individual is incapacitated. Therefore, if you’re unable to make financial or medical decisions on your own after an accident or illness, the POA will remain in effect.

You are generally also able to name a medical power of attorney. That’s a person who knows your wishes and can make health care decisions for you as a proxy. It’s also known as a health care proxy. If you can’t make decisions on your own, the health care proxy kicks in. Your health care proxy should know your wishes, as far as how you’d like doctors to treat you, if you can’t make decisions on your own. This may also accompany a living will, which expresses your wishes on continuing life support, if you’re terminally ill or being kept alive by machines.

Reference: WTOP (May 21, 2020) “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney”

Retirement and Estate Planning Work Better Together

So, you’ve been married for a while, and you’re both comfortable with which bank accounts, credit cards and investment accounts are shared and which other accounts are kept separate. However, where the big picture is concerned—like coordinating retirement plans, health coverage and tax planning—you both need to take an active role in planning and making good decisions. In fact, says the article “Couples and Money: When Together is Better” from Kiplinger, the decisions that work well for you as individuals may not be so hot, when they are looked at from a couple’s perspective.

Here’s an example. A man is working at a firm that doesn’t offer a match for his 401(k) contributions, but his wife’s employer does. Instead of contributing to his 401(k) plan, he uses the money to pay off a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) that the couple had taken together to do some upgrades on their home. She contributes enough to her own 401(k) to get her company’s match every year. The goal is to cut their debt and save as much as possible. This worked at that time in the couple’s life.

Ten years later, they are both maxing out their 401(k) savings and working to build short-term savings to send kids to college through the use of 529 College Savings Accounts.

Retirement accounts can never be jointly owned. However, some couples fall into a trap of saving for themselves without considering the overall household. Dual earning couples often run into trouble, when one has a workplace plan and the other does not. The spouse with the workplace plan isn’t thinking that he or she needs to save enough for two people to retire. With two incomes, you might think that both are making retirement a savings priority, but without a 401(k) plan, it’s possible that only one person is saving and only saving enough for themselves.

A general recommendation is that both members of a couple save between 10-15% of their household earnings, rather than their personal earnings, in retirement accounts. Couples should review their respective retirement plans together and plan together. If one has a more generous match, access to a Roth option, or better investment opportunities, they should consider how much the person with the better plan should save.

Couples also need to examine other financial aspects of their lives. Coordinating retirement benefits, reviewing life insurance policies, planning a coordinated strategy for taking Social Security and making informed choices about health care coverage can make a big difference in the family’s financial well-being.

Equally important: making sure that an estate plan is in place. That includes a will that names a guardian for any minor children, a health care proxy and a financial power of attorney. Depending upon the family’s circumstances, that may include trusts or other wealth transfer strategies.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 23, 2019) “Couples and Money: When Together is Better”