Why Does Everyone Need an Estate Plan?

Twenty and thirty-year olds are busy building their lives, starting or growing careers, exploring personal goals, repaying student loans and maybe starting a family. They’re young and healthy and think nothing can happen to them—but that’s not true. A recent article from Kiplinger titled “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s” explains why even a twenty-year old with student loans needs an estate plan.

Student loans. Federal student loans discharge upon death, so no further payments are needed, including any federal Parent PLUS loans parents may have taken out. However, for private student loans, the decision is up to the lender. If the private loan was taken out by the student, the institution may forgive the loan. However, if a parent or another adult co-signed the loan, they might be responsible for paying the entire loan. The exception: if the loan was made after November 20, 2018, the co-signer may be protected by the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. If you took out loans after getting married, the surviving spouse is likely to be required to pay the loan if they co-signed the loan or if you live in a community property state.

Health Care Directive and Health Care Power of Attorney. The Health Care Directive is used to tell your family what you would want if you were near death, whether by injury or illness. Healthcare providers are obligated to follow your directions if they are stated in this document. Without it, you could be kept on life support for many years, regardless of what your family wants.

A Health Care Power of Attorney is used to name someone you trust to act as your “agent,” if you become incapacitated. This document is focused on your care and medical treatments. It also lets your agent speak with your health insurance company, obtain access to medical records and discuss your care with healthcare providers.

Last Will and Testament. This document isn’t just for people with homes, families, and retirement accounts. Young people have property too—your car, your personal possessions, and whatever financial resources you may have accumulated. If you have a will, you can direct who you want to receive what you own. Without one, the court will decide who gets your possessions and your family won’t have any say about it. With a will, you can determine who receives your property, including your digital assets. You’ll also name an executor in the will—the person who is in charge of distributing your property. An estate planning attorney will create a document to comply with your state’s laws. It doesn’t have to be a complicated document, but it is a good way to ensure your loved ones know your wishes.

Retirement Accounts and Beneficiaries. These accounts may not be as robust as they will be later in your life. However, they are still yours. Make sure that you have named beneficiaries who you want to receive them if you die. Singles may name a sibling, parents, partner, or another family member to receive these assets.

Digital Assets. A digital life means you need a digital estate plan. Creating an inventory list of all of your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. If an account has two-factor authentication, indicate how another person might gain access to the account. Don’t include any of this information in your will, as it becomes a public document after being submitted to the court for probate. Tell a trusted family member where the inventory is located. If you own cryptocurrency, research how crypto assets are passed if the original owner dies.

Guardianship. Your will is used to name a guardian for minor children. Without it, the court will appoint a guardian, and it may not be the family member you wish it would be.

Don’t Forget Your Furry Friends. You can add a pet guardianship clause to a will to ensure that your pet stays with a trusted friend or family member who has agreed to care for your pet. You can also set up a pet trust to set aside funds for your pet’s care, including food, veterinary visits, toys, training and treats.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 22, 2022) “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s”

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan

We call it the brother-in-law syndrome: your brother-in-law knows everything, even though he doesn’t. He tells anyone who’ll listen how much money he’s saved by doing things himself. Sadly, it’s the family who has to make things right after the do-it-yourself estate plan fails. This is the message from a recent article titled “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning” from Coastal Breeze News.

Online estate planning documents are dangerous for what they leave out. An estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney takes care of the individual while they are living, as well as taking care of distributing assets after they die. Many online forms are available. However, they are often limited to wills, and an estate plan is far more than a last will and testament.

An estate planning attorney knows you need a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, a living will and possibly trusts. These are essential protections needed but often overlooked by the do-it-yourselfer.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person to manage your personal affairs, if you are incapacitated. It allows your agent to handle your banking, investments, pay bills and take care of your property. There is no one-size-fits-all Power of Attorney. You may wish to give a spouse the power to take over most of your accounts. However, you might also want someone else to be in charge of selling your shares in a business. A Power of Attorney drafted by an estate planning attorney will be created to suit your unique needs. POAs also vary by state, so one purchased online may not be valid in your jurisdiction.

You also need a Health Care Power of Attorney or a Health Care Surrogate. This is a person named to make medical decisions for you, if you are too sick or injured to do so. These documents also vary by state,. There’s no guarantee that a general form will be accepted by a healthcare provider. An estate planning attorney will create a valid document.

A Living Will is, and should be, a very personalized document to reflect your wishes for end-of-life care. Some people don’t want any measures taken to keep them alive if they are in a vegetative state, for instance, while others want to be kept alive as long as there is evidence of brain activity. Using a standard form negates your ability to make your wishes known.

If the Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney or Living Will documents are not prepared properly, declared invalid or are missing, the family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which is the legal right to make decisions on your behalf. Guardianships are expensive and intrusive. If your incapacity is temporary, you’ll need to undo the guardianship when you are recovered. Otherwise, you have no legal rights to conduct your own life.

DIYers are also fond of setting up property and accounts so they are Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts. This only works if the beneficiaries outlive the original owner. If the beneficiary dies first, then the asset goes to the beneficiary’s children. Many financial institutions won’t actually allow certain accounts to be set up this way.

The other DIY disaster zone: real estate. Putting children on the title as owners with rights of survivorship sounds like a reasonable solution. However, if the children predecease the original owner, their children will be rightful owners. If one grandchild doesn’t want to sell the property and another grandchild does, things can turn ugly and expensive. If heirs of any generation have creditors, liens may be placed on the property and no sale can happen until the liens are satisfied.

With all of these sleight of hand attempts at DIY estate planning comes the end all of all problems: taxes.

When children are added to a title, it is considered a gift and the children’s ownership interest is taxed as if they bought into the property for what the parent spent. When the parent dies and the estate is settled, the children have to pay income taxes on the difference between their basis and what the property sells for. It is better if the children inherit the property, as they’d get a step-up in basis and avoid the income tax problem.

Finally, there’s the business of putting all the assets into one child’s name, with the handshake agreement they’ll do the right thing when the time comes. There’s no legal recourse if the child decides not to share according to the parent’s verbal agreement.

A far easier, less complicated answer is to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, have the correct documents created properly and walk away when your brother-in-law starts talking.

Reference: Coastal Breeze News (Aug. 4, 2022) “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning”

What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

When Does Someone Need a Guardian?

When a person is legally deemed incapable of managing their own affairs and has not named a financial power of attorney to do so, a guardian or conservator may be needed. A family member may be appointed to the task, as explained in a recent article “What to Do When a Family Member Needs a Guardian” from Kiplinger.

Guardians are usually responsible for personal affairs, while a conservator is generally limited to financial matters. These terms vary by state, so ask the estate planning attorney which ones are most appropriate for your situation. In many cases, one person takes on both roles.

The control over another person’s life and money has been in the news a lot lately. The years-long battle between Brittney Spears and her father showed how things can go wrong, as did the movie “I Care a Lot,” about a professional guardian who steals life savings from elderly people.

It is better for an adult child to care for a parent through the use of Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney than having to go to court to gain control through a guardianship. Having these documents prepared while the person still has legal capacity to execute them is far easier and less costly. Guardianship and conservatorship are last resorts when no prior planning has been done.

How does it work? Rules vary from state to state, but generally, a person—referred to as the petitioner—files a petition with a local court to seek guardianship. A judge holds a hearing to determine whether the person in question, known as the respondent, meets the state’s standards for needing a guardian. The respondent has a right to have an attorney represent them, if they do not feel they need or want to have a guardian.

Guardianship does more than give another person the right to make financial decisions for another person. Under guardianship, a person may lose the right to vote, marry, travel, or make certain medical decisions. Courts are often reluctant to take away all of these rights. In many states, courts are allowed to limit the guardian’s authority to managing bills and maintaining a home.

The least intrusive option is preferable, which would be using the Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney in the first place.

Another point—most courts will not grant a guardianship, if a person is physically disabled but mentally sharp. Making bad decisions, like handling money irresponsibly, or keeping company with people who are potentially preying on a senior, is not enough reason to put someone under guardianship. You cannot always protect someone from themselves.

However, the need for guardianship is clear if a person has suffered a stroke and is in a coma or is suffering from dementia. Other reasons are severe depression where a person cannot function or delirium, when a person is unaware of their environment and confused by everything around them. Delusional disorders are also reasons for guardianship.

When the person meets the standard of need, the courts typically prefer to appoint a family member. However, if there is no appropriate person, a public guardian paid by the state or a professional guardian paid by the family can be appointed.

Filing a guardianship petition can cost thousands of dollars, and a professional guardian can charge upwards of $250 an hour. Most guardians are well meaning, but often run into conflicts with family members. The guardian’s job is to protect the person, not serve the interest of the family. If the family’s sole interest is in protecting their inheritance, the guardian can find themselves in a difficult situation.

Family members serving as guardians can also find themselves in difficult situations. The guardian, whether a professional or family member, must keep meticulous records of any monies spent and the tasks performed on behalf of the person.

The better solution is to prepare in advance with a Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and all of the estate planning documents needed so the family can act without court intervention, the costs of applying for guardianship and the possibility of a professional guardian being appointed.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 25, 2022) “What to Do When a Family Member Needs a Guardian”