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.”

 

Feeling Squeezed? You Might be a Sandwich

The phrase “sandwich generation” is used to describe people who are caring for their parents and their children at the same time. The number of people who fall into this category is growing, according to an article from The Motley Fool, “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement.” A survey found that about 16% of Americans are currently caring for an elderly relative, and this number is expected to double within the next five years.

What’s worse, very few people are planning for this situation.

Planning is the only way to stop what has been called a self-perpetuating cycle. Without planning, caring for parents could derail your own retirement, making you need the support of your children when you get older, and while your kids are trying to save for their children’s college educations and preparing for their own retirement. Sound familiar?

What can you do to prevent this cycle?

See if your parents qualify for any assistance programs. There are government and private programs to help with housing, food, utilities and healthcare. The programs vary by location and the situation of the people who are seeking help, but there is help, if you know where to find it.

If parents are over 65, there is something called Supplemental Social Security Income, or SSI. This is in addition to the regular Social Security benefits and might be enough to close the finance gap. In 2019, SSI provides up to $771 per month for an individual or $1,157 for a couple, if the requirements are met.

Cost cutting. If your parents don’t have a budget, help them create one so you can all be aware of how much money is coming in and how much is going out of the household. Could they tighten their discretionary spending? They could also consider a reverse mortgage on their home, if they have enough equity. Are you willing or able to have them come live with you?

Selling items could also free up cash for living expenses. If they have a house filled with memorabilia, or valuable antiques, and are willing to do so, they can combine downsizing with making some income.

Creating a plan. Get everyone in the room—parents, siblings and spouses. Discuss the challenges ahead and make sure that everyone is clear on what expenses everyone can help with. Housing and healthcare are necessary. Luxury cars and vacations are not.

If the adult siblings need to adjust their own spending to help the parents, be realistic with each other. How much are you able to contribute, and how much are you willing to contribute? No one sibling should have to shoulder the burden themselves, unless they are wildly wealthy, and it won’t make a dent in their lifestyle.

Along with the financial planning, make sure that your parents have an estate plan. They’ll need a will, a power of attorney for finances and a healthcare power of attorney. The cost of working with an estate planning attorney to ensure that this is in place, is far less than dealing with court proceedings, if you need to pursue guardianship or settle the estate without a will.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 25, 2019) “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement”

The Conversation with Your Doctor, Estate Planning Lawyer and Family Members

Everyone needs to have an annual checkup, taking stock of their health with their primary physician and making sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to instructions for health care and an advanced healthcare directive, also known as a living will. When people sign their last will and testament, everyone breathes a big sigh, says The Huntsville Item’s article “Make sure you talk to your doctor and family.” But that’s not the end of estate planning.

Your primary care provider needs to know what your wishes are, as well as your spouse and children. The best way to make sure they have this information, in addition to having a conversation, is to bring a copy of an advanced healthcare directive or living will with you to your next check up and talk with your doctor about it. Ask them to keep a copy on file.

It’s a good idea to give a copy of the Medical Power of Attorney and Medical Directive to Physicians and Family to each primary care physician, and a copy to the healthcare agents you have selected.  Don’t forget to keep a copy or two in your records to take with you, if you ever have to go to the hospital. The signed original should be kept with all of your estate planning documents—in a safe place in your home, possibly in a fireproof safe.

Make sure to tell a few family members where these documents are, in case of an emergency.

The hardest part of estate planning is not usually picking the right fiduciaries or deciding how to distribute assets among loved ones. The hardest part is almost always having these conversations with family and loved ones.

It can be so daunting that families often don’t have these important discussions. Here’s the problem: avoiding the conversation doesn’t mean the issues go away. More family infighting takes place after a death than any other time. Emotions are running high, old wounds are opened, and unresolved issues, especially between siblings, come pouring out. If the parent who has died has always been the one who made peace between everyone, that buffer is gone.

Having this discussion in a low-pressure, non-emergency time, is something that every parent should do for their children. Consider a family gathering where the underlying agenda is to get everyone comfortable with the concept of talking about what the future holds. It doesn’t have to be a formal meeting; a casual family get-together is more likely comfortable for everyone.

If the conversations are taking place in a casual manner over an extended period of time, a lot of ground can be covered with less tension and stress. Getting people used to the idea that you know that you are not going to live forever, and you want to be sure they are taken care of, may make it easier for everyone when the time does come.

In some families, these conversations begin when all are invited to attend a family meeting with the estate planning attorney to discuss wills, powers of attorney and medical power of attorney. Sometimes having this conversation with an experienced professional can take some of the sting out of planning for the future.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (June 30, 2019) “Make sure you talk to your doctor and family”

 

Can a Trust Be Amended?

A son has contacted an elder law estate planning attorney now that mom is in a nursing home and he’s unsure about many of the planning issues, as reported by the Daily Republic. The article, “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision,” describes the family’s situation.

There is one point to consider from the start. If the son been involved in the planning from the start, in a family meeting with the attorney and discussions with his parents, he might have less uncertainty about the plan and the details.

As for the details: the parents are in their 90s, with some savings, a few annuities, a CD and a checking account. They also have five acres of land, which has their home and a duplex on it and 12 additional acres, with a rental property on it. Everything they own has been placed in a family trust. The son wants to be able to pay her bills and was told that he needs to have a power of attorney and to be named trustee to their trust.

He reports that his parents are good with this idea, but he has a number of concerns. If they are sued, will he be personally liable? Would the power of attorney give him the ability to handle their finances and the real estate in the trust?

If his parents have a revocable or living trust, there are provisions that allow one or more persons to become the successor trustees, in the event that the parent becomes incapacitated or dies.

What happens when they die, as they each leave each other their share of the assets? The son would become the trustee, when the last parent passes.

Usually the power of attorney is created when the trust is created, so that someone has the ability to take control of finances for the person. See if the trust has any of these provisions—the son may already be legally positioned to act on his parents’ behalf. The trust should also show whether the successor trustee would be empowered to sell the real estate.

Trusts can be drafted in any way the client wants it written, and the successor trustee receives only the powers that are given in the document.

As for the liability, the trustee is not liable to a buyer during the sale of a property. There are exceptions, so he would need to speak with an estate planning attorney to help with the sale.

More specifically, assuming the trust does not name the son as a successor trustee and also does not give the son power of attorney, the bigger question is are the parents mentally competent to make important decisions about these documents?

Given the age of these parents, an attorney will be concerned, rightfully so, about their competency and if they can freely make an informed decision, or if the son might be exercising improper influence on them to turn over their assets to him.

There are a few different steps that can be taken. One is for the son, if he believes that his parents are mentally competent, to make an appointment for them with an estate planning attorney, without the son being present in the meeting, in order to determine their capacity and wishes. If the attorney is not sure about the influence of the son, he or she may want to refer the parents for a second opinion with another attorney.

If the parents are found not competent, then the son may need to become their conservator, which requires a court proceeding.

Planning in advance and discussing these issues are best done with an experienced estate planning attorney, long before the issues become more complicated and expensive to deal with.

Reference: Daily Republic (Aug. 10, 2019) “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision”