How Much Should We Tell the Children about the Estate Plan?

Congratulations, if you have finished your estate plan. You and your estate planning attorney created a plan that is suited for your family, you have checked on beneficiary designations, signed all of the necessary documents and named an executor to carry out your directions when you pass. However, have you talked about your estate plan with your adult children? That is the issue explored in the recent article entitled “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate” from CNBC. It can be a tricky one.

There are certain parts of estate plans that should be shared with adult children, even if money is not among them. Family conflict is common in many cases, whether the estate is worth $50,000 or $50 million. So, even if your estate plan is perfect, it might hold a number of surprises for your children, if you don’t speak with them while you are living.

The best estate plan can bequeath resentment and enduring family conflicts, if family members don’t have a head’s up about what you’ve planned and why.

If you die without a will, there can be even more problems for the family. With no will—called dying “intestate”—it is up to the courts in your state to decide who inherits what. This is a public process, so your life’s work is on display for all to see. If your heirs have a history of fighting, especially over who deserves what, dying without a will can make a bad family situation worse.

Not everything about an estate plan has to do with distribution of possessions. Much of an estate plan is concerned with protecting you, while you are alive.

For starters, your estate planning attorney can help you with a Power of Attorney. You’ll name a person who will handle your finances, if you become unable to do so because of illness or injury. A Healthcare Power of Attorney is used to empower a trusted person to make medical decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. Some estate planning attorneys recommend having a Living Will, also called an Advance Healthcare Directive, to convey end-of-life wishes, if you want to be kept alive through artificial means.

These documents do not require that you name a family member. A friend or colleague you trust and know to be responsible can carry out your wishes and can be named to any of these positions.

All of these matters should be discussed with your children. Even if you don’t want them to know about the assets in your estate, they should be told who will be responsible for making decisions on your finances and health care.

Consider if you want your children to learn about your finances during your lifetime, when you are able to discuss your choices with them, or if they will learn about them after you have passed, possibly from a stranger or from reading court documents.

Many of these decisions depend upon your family’s dynamics. Do your children work well together, or are there deep-seated hostilities that will lead to endless battles? You know your own children best, so this is a decision only you can make.

It is also important to take into consideration that an unexpected large inheritance can create emotional turbulence for many people. If heirs have never handled any sizable finances before, or if they have a marriage on shaky ground, an unexpected inheritance could create very real problems—and a divorce could put their inheritance at risk.

Talk with your children, if at all possible. Erring on the side of over-communicating might be a better mistake than leaving them in the dark.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 11, 2020) “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate”

What are the Basic Estate Planning Documents?

Having a well-prepared estate plan means that you have a plan in place to distribute your home, assets and possessions. However, the estate plan does more, says the article “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics” from Wilmington Biz Insights: it also gives your family the insight and legally enforceable directions to follow, so they may honor your wishes.

Estate planning eliminates uncertainty and maximizes the value of the estate, by streamlining the transfer of assets to beneficiaries and minimizing estate tax liability. In addition, estate planning protects your estate and your family from mismanagement, creditor claims or claims from people or companies outside of the family.

Many people equate estate planning with owning a large home and significant wealth, but that’s not true. An estate includes everything people own: their personal residence, retirement accounts, insurance policies, investments and possessions.

A case can be made that estate planning is more important for people with a modest estate to preserve and protect what assets they have, versus a large estate where the family enjoys a large cushion against poverty.

The basic estate planning documents are a last will and testament, trusts, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney and a living will.

A Last Will and Testament provides instructions to the probate court of the decedent’s final wishes, including naming an executor to carry out the instructions. It also contains instructions on who will raise minor children by naming a guardian. This document, and any other documents filed with the probate court, become part of the public record, and can be accessed by anyone who wishes to see them.

A Revocable Trust also provides instructions but avoids probate. The trust creates a legal entity that owns assets (once they are retitled and placed in the trust). The individual who creates a revocable trust remains in control of the assets, as long as they are alive. The revocable trust can be changed at any time.

A Pour-Over Will is used with a revocable trust. It ensures that any assets not included in the Revocable Trust are “poured-over” into the trust upon death, protecting them from the probate process and keeping your wishes private.

A financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney are documents used to give control of legal and financial affairs and health care decisions, in the event of incapacity.

The Living Will provides directions to designated persons, usually family members, about what kind of medical care is desired in the event of an inability to communicate. This is a gift to loved ones, who would otherwise be left guessing what the person would wish. A HIPAA release should also be prepared to allow doctors to discuss medical matters with the Health Care Power of Attorney.

An estate plan is a way to protect the family’s well-being, not just distributing property and minimizing taxes. A well-crafted estate plan, created for the family’s unique situation, helps avoid family fights, litigation within and outside of the family and provides direction for the next generation.

Reference: Wilmington Biz Insights (Nov. 17, 2020) “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics”

Your Estate Plan Needs to Be Customized

The only thing worse than having no estate plan, is an estate plan created from a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ form, according to the recent article “Don’t settle for a generic estate plan” from The News-Enterprise. Compare having an estate plan created to buying a home. Before you start packing, you think about the kind of house you want and how much you can spend. You also talk with real estate agents and mortgage brokers to get ready.

Even when you find a house you love, you don’t write a check right away. You hire an engineer to inspect the property. You might even bring in contractors for repair estimates. At some point, you contact an insurance agent to learn how much it will cost to protect the house. You rely on professionals, because buying a home is an expensive proposition and you want to be sure it will suit your needs and be a sound investment.

The same process goes for your estate plan. You need the advice of a skilled professional–the estate planning lawyer. Sometimes you want input from trusted family members or friends. There other times when you need the estate planning lawyer to help you get past the emotions that can tangle up an estate plan and anticipate any family dynamics that could become a problem in the future.

An estate planning attorney will also help you to avoid problems you may not anticipate. If the family includes a special needs individual, leaving money to that person could result in their losing government benefits. Giving property to an adult child to try to avoid nursing home costs could backfire, making you ineligible for Medicaid coverage and cause your offspring to have an unexpected tax bill.

Your estate planning lawyer should work with your team of professional advisors, including your financial advisor, accountant and, if you own a business, your business advisor. Think of it this way—you wouldn’t ask your real estate agent to do a termite inspection or repair a faulty chimney. Your estate plan needs to be created and updated by a skilled professional: the estate planning lawyer.

Once your estate plan is completed, it’s not done yet. Make sure that the people who need to have original documents—like a power of attorney—have original documents or tell them where they can be found when needed. Keep in mind that many financial institutions will only accept their own power of attorney forms, so you may need to include those in your estate plan.

Medical documents, like advance directives and healthcare powers of attorney, should be given to the people you selected to make decisions on your behalf. Make a list of the documents in your estate plan and where they can be found.

Preparing an estate plan is not just signing a series of fill-in-the-blank forms. It is a means of protecting and passing down the estate that you have devoted a lifetime to creating, no matter its size.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (June 23, 2020) “Don’t settle for a generic estate plan”

Estate Planning Options to Consider in Uncertain Times

Now is a good time to reach out to an estate planning attorney to review and update beneficiaries, named executors, financial and healthcare powers of attorney, wills and trusts, advises the article “Planning Strategies During Market Uncertainty & Volatility: Estate Planning and Debt Usage” from Traders Magazine. There are also some strategic estate planning tools to consider in the current environment.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts (IDGTs): These are irrevocable trusts that are structured to be “intentionally defective.” They are gifts to grantor trusts for non-grantor beneficiaries that allow contributed assets to appreciate outside of the grantor’s estate, while the income produced by the trust is taxed to the grantor, and not the trust. The external appreciation requires the grantor to use non-trust assets to pay the trust’s income taxes, which equals a tax-free gift to the beneficiaries of the trust, while reducing the grantor’s estate. Trust assets can grow tax-free, which creates additional appreciation opportunities for trust beneficiaries. IDGTs are especially useful to owners of real estate, closely held businesses or highly-appreciating assets that are or will likely be exposed to estate tax.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs): GRATs allow asset owners to put assets irrevocably into trusts to benefit others, while receiving fixed annuity payments for a period of time. GRATs are especially effective in situations where low asset values and/or interest rates are present, because the “hurdle rate” of the annuity payment will be lower, while the price appreciation is potentially greater. GRATs are often used by asset owners with estate tax exposure who want to transfer assets out of their estate and retain access to cash flow from those assets, while they are living.

Debt strategies: Debt repayment represents an absolute and/or risk-adjusted rate of return that is often the same or better than savings rates or bond yields. Some debt strategies that are now useful include:

Mortgage refinancing: Interest rates are likely to be low for the foreseeable future. People with long-term debt may find refinancing right now an advantageous option.

Opportunistic lines of credit: The low interest rates may make tapping available lines of credit or opening new lines of credit attractive for investment opportunities, wealth transfer, or additional liquidity.

Low-rate intra-family loans: When structured properly, loans between family members can be made at below-interest, IRS-sanctioned interest rates. An estate planning attorney will be able to help structure the intra-family loan, so that it will be considered an arms-length transaction that does not impose gift tax consequences for the lender.

High-rate intra-family or -entity loans: This sounds counter-intuitive, but if structured properly, a high-rate intra-family or -entity loan can charge a higher but tax-appropriate rate that increases a fixed income cash flow for the borrower, while avoiding gift and income tax.

All of these techniques should be examined with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that they align with the overall estate plan for the individual and the family.

Reference: Traders Magazine (May 6, 2020) “Planning Strategies During Market Uncertainty & Volatility: Estate Planning and Debt Usage”

Everyone Should Have a Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney

Before snowbirds begin their seasonal journey to warmer climates, it’s time to be sure that they have the important legal documents in place, advises LimaOhio.com in a recent article “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind.” The two documents are a healthcare power of attorney and a financial power of attorney, and they should be prepared and be ready to be used at any time.

These documents name another person to make healthcare and financial decisions, in case you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. We never think that anything will really happen to us, until it does. Having these documents properly prepared and easily accessible helps our loved ones. They are the ones who will need the powers given by the documents. Without them, they cannot act in a timely manner.

If traveling between a home state and a winter home, it is wise to have a set of documents that align with the laws of both states. It may be necessary to have a separate set of documents for each state, if the laws differ.

Financial powers of attorney typically need updating more often than healthcare powers of attorney. The law has changed in recent years, and there are a number of specific powers that need to be stated precisely, so that the document can grant those powers. This includes the power to gift assets and make a person eligible for nursing home and other healthcare assistance, like Medicaid.

If these documents are not in place and are needed, the only way that someone else can make decisions for the person, is to become a guardian of that person. That includes spouses. Many people think that the fact that two people are married gives them every right, but that is not the case. Guardianship takes considerably more time and costs more than these two documents. It should be noted that once guardianship is established, the person who is the guardian will need to report to the court on a regular basis.

Another document that needs to be in place is a living will or advance directive. This is a document prepared to instruct others as to your wishes for end-of-life care. The document is created when a person is mentally competent and expresses their wishes for what they want to happen, if they are being kept alive by artificial means. For loved ones, this document is a blessing, as it lets them know very clearly what their family members wishes are.

Peace of mind is a wonderful thing to take with you as you prepare for a warm winter in a different climate. Talk with an estate planning attorney to be sure that your estate planning documents will be acceptable in your winter home.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 26, 2019) “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind”

Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

When names change, executing documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also to their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, but it does have to be addressed. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts. If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is use: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation noted above, most attorneys to want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, there are two people in the family with similar names. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second is that the document being discussed is a healthcare designation. Usually when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

Why A Health Care Power of Attorney Makes Sense

Having a Health Care Power of Attorney in place before it is needed, is one of the best ideas of estate planning, along with having a Power of Attorney in place before it is needed. Why? This is because taking a pro-active approach to both of these documents, means that when the unexpected occurs and that is exactly how things occur—unexpectedly—the person or persons you have named for these important roles will be able to step in quickly and made decisions.

Time is often of the essence, when these documents are needed.

According to the article “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney” from The News Enterprise, a health care power of attorney is a document that grants another person the power to make medical decisions for you, when you no longer have the ability to make those decisions for yourself. It is known by a few other names, depending on the state where you live: health care proxy, a medical power of attorney or a health care surrogate.

It needs to have HIPAA-compliant language, which will allow the person you name the ability to review medical information and discuss protected health information with your health care providers.

A health care power of attorney may also include language for an advance medical directive, which gives instructions for end-of-life decisions. This is often called a “living will,” and is your legal right to reject medical treatment, decisions about feeding tubes and the number of doctors required to determine the probability of recovery and pain management.

A health care power of attorney does not generally empower another person to make decisions, until you are unable to do so. Unlike a general durable power of attorney, which permits another person to make financial or business decisions with you while you are living, as long as you are able to understand your medical situation, you are still in charge of your medical decisions.

A guardianship is completely different from these documents. A guardian may only be appointed, if a judge or jury finds you wholly or partially disabled in such a way that you cannot manage your own finances or your health. The appointment of a guardian is a big deal. Once someone has been appointed your guardian, you do not have any legal right to make decisions for yourself. A court will also appoint a legal fiduciary, who will make your financial decisions.

There are record-keeping requirements with a guardianship that do not exist for a power of attorney. The court-appointed representative is responsible for reporting to the court any actions that they have taken on your behalf.

To have power of attorney documents executed, the person must be capable of understanding what they are signing. This means that someone receiving a diagnosis of dementia needs to have these documents prepared, as soon as they learn that their capacity will diminish in the near future.

If the documents are not prepared and executed in a timely fashion, a guardianship proceeding may be the only option. Planning in advance is the best way to ensure that the people you trust are the ones making decisions for you. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney now to have these documents in place.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Oct. 13, 2019) “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney”

Why Advance Directives are Needed

There are two sad parts to this story. The first was that the family panicked and had a feeding tube put in, despite their mother’s wishes. The second, says WRAL in the article “Advance directives lift burden of tough decisions at end of life,” was that after the woman died several years later, her family found the advance directive.

Without knowing about a loved one’s wishes for their end-of-life care, it’s hard to honor them. That’s why documentation, like advance directives, are so important. So is telling your family where your important legal documents are.

What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is a broad legal term that can include a few different documents, but mostly includes a Living Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These documents give a person the ability to express what medical care they want and don’t want.

Cases like the women mentioned earlier highlight the importance of this kind of document. While her advance directive was misplaced, many people don’t have them at all. These are important to address non-financial end-of-life issues, both for the person and for their families.

Most people would prefer not to have life-prolonging measures implemented. Without this document, the decision to remove a breathing machine or a heart machine can be even more difficult for a spouse or a child. The burdens are not just emotional.

If there is no decision maker named and family members disagree about what their loved one would have wanted, a battle may break out in the family that results in a court fight.

A few notes on advance directives:

  • They can be created at any time, but most people tend to consider them at midlife or close to retirement.
  • The document can be amended at any time and should be reassessed through the course of life.
  • One decision maker should be appointed to avoid arguments.

Health care agents, doctors and loved ones should all be provided with copies, and the originals should be accessible. Some people put them on the refrigerator, so first responders can find them quickly.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about including an advance directive and a health care power of attorney among your estate planning documents. This is a burden that you can make lighter for those you love.

Reference: WRAL (Sep. 18, 2019) “Advance directives lift burden of tough decisions at end of life”

Managing an Aging Parent’s Financial and Legal Life

As parent’s age, it becomes more important for their children or another trusted adult to start helping them with their finances and their legal documents, especially an estate plan. In “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,” ABC7 On Your Side presents the important tasks that need to be done.

Make sure the family knows where important personal and financial documents are in an emergency. Start with a list that includes:

  • Bank, brokerage and credit card statements
  • Original wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and living will
  • Insurance policies
  • Social Security information
  • Pension records
  • Medicare information

They’ll need a list of all accounts, safe deposit boxes, financial institutions and contact information for their estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisors. Even if they don’t want to share this information until an emergency occurs, make sure it is somewhere a family member can find it easily.

Set up direct deposit for any incoming funds. Automating the deposit of pension and benefit checks is far more secure and convenient for everyone. This prevents a delay in funds being deposited and checks can’t be stolen in the mail or lost at home.

Set up automatic bill payment or at least online bill payment. Making these payments automatic will save a lot of time and energy for all concerned. If your parents are not comfortable with an automatic payment, and many are not, try setting up the accounts so they can be paid online. Work with your parents, so they are comfortable with doing this. They will appreciate how much easier it is and saving themselves a trip to the post office.

Have a “Durable Power of Attorney” prepared. This is a legal document prepared by an estate planning attorney that gives one or more people the legal authority to handle finances or other matters, if they become mentally or physically incapacitated.

Have a “Living Will” and a “Healthcare Power of Attorney” prepared. The Healthcare Power of Attorney allows a person to make health care decisions for another person, if they are mentally or physically incapacitated. The Living Will allows a person to express their wishes about end-of-life care, if they are terminally ill and unable to express their wishes.

Take precautions to guard against fraud. Seniors are the chief targets of many scams, for two reasons. If they have any kind of cognitive decline, no matter how slight, they are more likely to comply with a person posing as an authority figure. They have a lifetime of assets and are a “rich” target.

An estate planning attorney can work with your parents to assist in preparing an estate plan and advising the family on how to help their parents as they age. Most estate planning attorneys have access to a large network of related service providers.

Reference: ABC7 On Your Side (Sep. 5, 2019) “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,”

Living Together Isn’t as Simple as You Think

One reason for the popularity of living together without marriage, is that many in this generation have experienced one or more difficult divorces, so they’re not always willing to remarry, says Next Avenue in the article “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.” However, like many aspects of estate planning, what seems like a simple solution can become quite complex. Unmarried couples can face a variety of problematic and emotionally challenging issues, because estate planning laws are written to favor married couples.

Consider what happens when an unmarried couple does not plan for the possibility of one partner losing the ability to manage his or her health care because of a serious health issue.

If a spouse is rushed to the hospital unconscious and there is no health care power of attorney giving the other spouse the right to make medical decisions on his or her behalf, a husband or wife will likely be permitted to make them anyway.

However, an unmarried couple will not have any right to make medical decisions on behalf of their partner. The hospital is not likely to bend the rules, because if a blood relative of the person challenged the medical facility’s decision, they are wide open to liability issues.

Money is also a problem in the absence of marriage. If one partner becomes incapacitated and estate planning has not been done, without both partners having power of attorney, an illness could upend their life together. If one partner became incapacitated, bank accounts will be frozen, and the well partner will have no right to access any assets. A court action might be required, but what if a family member objects?

Without appropriate advance planning, courts are generally forced to rely on blood kin to take both financial and medical decision-making roles. An unmarried partner would have no rights. If the home was owned by the ill partner, the unmarried partner may find themselves having to find new housing. If the well partner depended upon the ill partner for their support, then they will have also lost their financial security.

Unmarried couples need to execute key estate planning documents, while both are healthy and competent. These documents include a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a living will, which applies to end of life decisions. A living trust could be used to avoid the problem of finances for the well partner.

Another document needed for unmarried couples: a HIPAA release. HIPAA is a federal health privacy law that prevents medical facilities and health care professionals from sharing a patient’s medical information with anyone not designated on the person’s HIPAA release form. Unmarried couples should ask an estate planning attorney for these forms to be sure they are the most current.

If one of the partners dies, and if there is no will, the estate is known as intestate. Assets are distributed according to the laws of the state, and there is no legal recognition of an unmarried partner. They won’t be legally entitled to inherit any of the assets.

If a married partner dies without a will in a community property state, the surviving spouse is automatically entitled to inherit as much as half the value of the deceased assets.

Beneficiary designations usually control the distribution of assets including life insurance policies, retirement accounts and employer-sponsored group life insurance policies. If the partners have not named each other as beneficiary designations, then the surviving partner will be left with nothing.

The lesson for couples hoping to avoid any legal complications by not getting married, is that they may be creating far more problems than are solved as they age together. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to make sure that all the correct planning is in place to protect both partners, even without the benefit of marriage.

Reference: Next Avenue (Aug. 28, 2019) “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.”