What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?
An concept Image of a power of attorney

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?

The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”

Is Succession Planning Necessary for Family Business Entities?

Failing to have a succession plan is often the reason family businesses do not survive across the generations. Creating, designing and implementing a succession plan can protect the family’s legacy, according to the article “Planning for Success: How to Create a Suggestion Plan” from Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals.

Start by establishing a vision for the future of the business and the family. What are the goals for the founder’s retirement? Will the business need to be sold to fund their retirement? One of the big questions concerns cash flow—do the founders need the business to operate to provide ongoing financial support?

Next, lay the groundwork regarding next generation management and the personal and professional goals of the various family members.

Several options for a successful exit plan include:

  • Family succession—Transferring the business to family members
  • Internal succession—Selling or transferring the business to one or more key employees or co-workers or selling the company to employees using an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)
  • External succession—Selling the business to an outside third party, engaging in an Initial Public Offering (IPO), a strategic merger or investment by an outside party.

Once a succession exit path is selected, the family needs to identify successors and identify active and non-active roles and responsibilities for family members. Decisions need to be made about how to manage the company going forward.

Tax planning should be a part of the succession plan, which needs to be aligned with the founding member’s estate plan. How the business is structured and how it is to be transferred could either save the family from an onerous tax burden or generate a tax liability so large, as to shut the company down.

Many owners are busy with the day-to-day operations of the business and neglect to do any succession planning. Alternatively, a hastily created plan skipping goal setting or ignoring professional advice occurs. The results are bad either way: losing control over a business, having to sell the business for less than its true value or being subject to excessive taxes.

Every privately held, family-owned business should have a plan in place to establish what will happen if the owners die or become incapacitated.

An estate planning attorney who has experience working with business owners will be able to guide the creation of a succession plan and ensure that it works to complement the owner’s estate plan. With the right guidance, the business owner can work with their team of professional advisors to ensure that the business continues over the generations.

Reference: Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals (March 31, 2022) “Planning for Success: How to Create a Suggestion Plan”

Who Is the Best Choice for Power of Attorney?

Picking a person to serve as your Power of Attorney is an extremely important part of your estate plan, although it is often treated like an afterthought once the will and trust documents are completed. Naming a POA needs to be given the same serious consideration as creating a will, as discussed in this recent article “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes” from Medical Economics.

Choosing the wrong person to act on your behalf as your Power of Attorney (POA) could lead to a host of unintended consequences, leading to financial disaster. If the same person has been named your POA for healthcare, you and your family could be looking at a double-disaster. What’s more, if the same person is also a beneficiary, the potential for conflict and self-dealing gets even worse.

The Power of Attorney is a fiduciary, meaning they are required to put your interests and the interest of the estate ahead of their own. To select a POA to manage your financial life, it should be someone who you trust will always put your interests first, is good at managing money and has a track record of being responsible. Spouses are typically chosen for POAs, but if your spouse is poor at money management, or if your marriage is new or on shaky ground, it may be better to consider an alternate person.

If the wrong person is named a POA, a self-dealing agent could change beneficiaries, redirect portfolio income to themselves, or completely undo your investment portfolio.

The person you name as a healthcare POA could protect the quality of your life and ensure that your remaining years are spent with good care and in comfort. However, the opposite could also occur. Your healthcare POA is responsible for arranging for your healthcare. If the healthcare POA is a beneficiary, could they hasten your demise by choosing a substandard nursing facility or failing to take you to medical appointments to get their inheritance? It has happened.

Most POAs, both healthcare and financial, are not evil characters like we see in the movies, but often incompetence alone can lead to a negative outcome.

How can you protect yourself? First, know what you are empowering your POAs to do. A boilerplate POA limits your ability to make decisions about who may do what tasks on your behalf. Work with your estate planning attorney to create a POA for your needs. Do you want one person to manage your day-to-day personal finances, while another is in charge of your investment portfolio? Perhaps you want a third person to be in charge of selling your home and distributing your personal possessions, if you have to move into a nursing home.

If someone, a family member, or a spouse, simply presents you with POA documents and demands you sign them, be suspicious. Your POA should be created by you and your estate planning attorney to achieve your wishes for care in case of incapacity.

Different grown children might do better with different tasks. If your trusted, beloved daughter is a nurse, she may be in a better position to manage your healthcare than another sibling. If you have two adult children who work together well and are respected and trusted, you might want to make them co-agents to take care of you.

Your estate planning attorney has seen all kinds of family situations concerning POAs for finances and healthcare. Ask their advice and don’t hesitate to share your concerns. They will be able to help you come up with a solution to protect you, your estate and your family.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 3, 2022) “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes”

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning
Young doctor holding the old lady's hand

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is not to wait for the “right time” to prepare for death or incapacity. Aging parents who don’t have a plan in place leave their children with a number of obstacles, says this recent article entitled “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from NASDAQ.

One is scrambling to unravel the family finances at a time when you are still grief-stricken. Another is managing costs associated with severe illness and death. Incapacity can be even more complicated. It is more so, if the family has to apply for guardianship to make medical and financial decisions for a parent who can’t speak for themselves or manage their financial affairs.

To prevent a host of problems and expenses, start talking with aging parents about estate planning.  They don’t have to live in an” estate” to have an estate. This is simply the term used to describe all assets owned by a couple or individual.

An estate plan is a tool to convey intentions about assets and health. The first step may be to create an inventory of all assets and belongings, from the family home to personal belongings and digital assets. Next, is to have some tough conversations about their wishes for end-of-life care and medical decisions.

A few questions to get started:

  • Who should be the primary caregiver and decision maker?
  • How will health care expenses be paid?
  • Who do you want to make medical decisions?
  • What do you want to happen to your property after you die?
  • Should the family sell the home, or should one of the children inherit it?
  • Do you have any estate planning documents, and where are they kept?

Estate planning is different for everyone, so be wary of downloading basic estate documents from the web and hoping they will be valid. An experienced estate planning attorney will create the necessary documents, as per the laws of your parents’ state of residence, and reflecting their wishes.

If there is no will, or if a will is deemed invalid by the court, the laws of the state will govern how assets are distributed. Making sure a will is properly prepared, along with other estate planning documents, is a more efficient and less costly way to go.

Estate planning includes tax planning, which occurs when property passes from one person to another. Estate and inheritance taxes are the most common concern. While most Americans don’t need to worry about the federal estate tax, individual states have their own rules and thresholds. Some states have both state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. There are ways to minimize taxes, from gifting during your parent’s lifetimes, to establishing trusts for beneficiaries.

An estate plan includes a will, a Power of Attorney for financial matters, a Health Care Proxy so someone can make health care decisions, a Living Will (also known as an Advance Care Directive) and usually some kind of trust. Each serves a different purpose, but all name a designated person to act in a legal manner to handle the affairs of the person, while they are living and after they have passed.

Some families are more comfortable than others about talking about death and money, so you probably already know what to expect from your parents when trying to have this conversation. Be mindful of their feelings, and those of your siblings. These are hard, but necessary, conversations.

Reference: NASDAQ (Nov. 10, 2021) “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”

Talk to Parents about Estate Planning without Making It Awkward

If you don’t have this conversation with parents when they are able to share information and provide you with instructions, helping with their care if they become incapacitated or dealing with their estate after they pass will be far more difficult. None of this is easy, but there are some practical strategies shared in the article “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from The Balance.

Parents worry about children fighting over estates after they pass, but not having a “family meeting” to speak about estate planning increases the chance of this happening. In many cases, family conflicts lead to litigation, and everyone loses.

Start by including siblings. Including everyone creates an awareness of fairness because no one is being left out. A frank, open conversation including all of the heirs with parents can prevent or at least lessen the chances for arguments over what parents would have wanted. Distrust grows with secrets, so get everything out in the open.

When is the right time to have the conversation? There is no time like the present. Don’t wait for an emergency to occur—what most people do—but by then, it’s too late.

Estate planning includes preparing for issues of aging as well as property distribution after death. Health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney need to be prepared, so family members can be involved when a parent is incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will draft these documents as part of creating an estate plan.

The unpredictable events of 2020 and 2021 have made life’s fragile nature clear. Now is the time to sit down with family members and talk about the plans for the future. Do your parents have an estate plan? Are there plans for incapacity, including Long-Term Care insurance? If they needed to be moved to a long-term facility, how would the cost be covered?

Another reason to have this conversation with family now is your own retirement planning. The cost of caring for an ailing parent can derail even the best retirement plan in a matter of months.

Define roles among siblings. Who will serve as power of attorney and manage mom’s finances? Who will be the executor after death? Where are all of the necessary documents? If the last will and testament is locked in a safe deposit box and no one can gain access to it, how will the family manage to follow their parent’s wishes?

Find any old wills and see If trusts were established when children were young. If an estate plan was created years ago and the children are now adults, it’s likely all of the documents need to be revised. Review any trusts with an estate planning attorney. Those children who were protected by trusts so many years ago may now be ready to serve as executor, trustees, power of attorney or health care surrogate.

Usually, a complete understanding of the parent’s wishes and reasons behind their estate plan takes more than a single conversation. Some of the issues may require detailed discussion, or family members may need time to process the information. However, as long as the parents are living, the conversation should continue. Scheduling an annual family meeting, often with the family’s estate planning attorney present, can help everyone set long-term goals and foster healthy family relationships for multiple generations.

Reference: The Balance (Oct. 15, 2021) “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”

When Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets don’t have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they won’t perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”

What are Digital Assets in an Estate?

Planning for what would happen to our intangible, digital assets in the event of incapacity or death is now as important as planning for traditional assets, like real property, IRAs, and investment accounts. How to accomplish estate planning for digital assets is explained in the article, aptly named, “Estate planning for your digital assets” from the Baltimore Business Journal.

Digital asset is the term used to describe all electronically stored information and online accounts. Some digital assets have monetary value, like cryptocurrency and accounts with gaming or gambling winnings, and some may be transferrable to heirs. These include bank accounts, domains, event tickets, airline miles, etc.

Ownership issues are part of the confusion about digital assets. Your social media accounts, family photos, emails and even business records, may be on platforms where the content itself is considered to belong to you, but the platform strictly controls access and may not permit anyone but the original owner to gain control.

Until recently, there was little legal guidance in managing a person digital files and accounts in the event of incapacity and death. Accessing accounts, managing contents and understanding the owner, user and licensing agreements have become complex issues.

In 2014, the Uniform Law Commission proposed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) to provide fiduciaries with some clarity and direction. The law, which was revised in 2015 and is now referred to as RUFADAA (Revised UFADAA) was created as a guideline for states and almost every state has adopted these laws, providing estate planning attorneys with the legal guidelines to help create a digital estate plan.

A digital estate plan starts with considering how many digital accounts you actually own—everything from online banking, music files, books, businesses, emails, apps, utility and bill payment programs. What would happen if you were incapacitated? Would a trusted person have the credentials and technical knowledge to access and manage your digital accounts? What would you want them to do with them? In case of your demise, who would you want to have ownership or access to your digital assets?

Once you have created a comprehensive list of all of your assets—digital and otherwise—an estate planning attorney will be able to update your estate planning documents to include your digital assets. You may need only a will, or you may need any of the many planning tools and strategies available, depending upon the type, location and value of your assets.

Not having a digital asset estate plan leaves your estate vulnerable to many problems, including costs. Identity theft against deceased people is rampant, once their death is noted online. The ability to pay bills to keep a household running may take hours of detective work on your surviving spouse’s part. If your executor doesn’t know about accounts with automatic payments, your estate could give up hundreds or thousands in charges without anyone’s knowledge.

There are more complex digital assets, including cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with values from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. The rules on the valuation, sale and transfers of these assets are as yet largely undefined. There are also many reports of people who lose large sums because of a lack of planning for these assets.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your state’s laws concerning digital assets and protect them with an estate plan that includes this new asset class.

Reference: Baltimore Business Journal (Sep. 16, 2021) “Estate planning for your digital assets”

Common Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Every family has one: the brother-in-law or aunt who knows everything about, well, everything. When the information is wrong, expensive problems are created, especially when it comes to estate planning. Estate planning attorneys devote a good deal of time to education to help prevent unnecessary and costly mistakes, as described in the article “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes” from The News-Enterprise.

The most common is the idea of a “simple” estate plan. What does “simple” mean? For most people, the idea of “simple” is appealing—they don’t want to deal with long and complicated documents with legal phrases they don’t understand. However, those complex phrases are necessary, if the estate plan is to protect your interests and loved ones.

Another mistake is thinking an estate plan is a one-and-done affair. Just as people’s lives and fortunes change over time, so should their estate plan. An estate plan created for a young family with small children won’t work for a mature couple with grown children and significant savings.

Change also comes to family dynamics. The same cousin who was like a sister during your teen years may not be as close in values or geography, when you both have elementary school children. Do you still want her to be your child’s guardian? An updated estate plan takes into account the changing relationships within the family, as well as the changing members of the family. A beloved brother-in-law isn’t so beloved, if he divorces your favorite sister. When families change, estate plans need to be updated.

Here is a huge mistake rarely articulated: somehow not thinking about death or incapacity might prevent either event from happening. We know that death is inevitable, and incapacity is statistically probable. Planning for both events in no way increases or decreases their likelihood of occurring. What planning does, is provide peace of mind in knowing you have prepared for both events.

No one wants to be in a nursing home but telling loved ones you want to remain at home “no matter what happens” is not a plan for the future. It is devastating to move a loved one into a nursing home. However, people with medical needs need to be there to receive proper care and treatment. Planning for the possibility is better than a family making arrangements, financial and otherwise, on an emergency basis.

Do you remember that all-knowing family member described in the start of this article? Their advice, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous. Alternatives to estate planning take many shapes: putting the house in the adult child’s name or adding the adult child’s name to the parent’s investment accounts. If the beneficiary has a future tax liability, debt or divorce, the parent’s assets are there for the taking.

Properly done, with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney, your estate plan protects you and those you love, as well as the assets you’ve gained over a lifetime. Don’t fall for the idea of “simple” or back-door alternatives. Formalize your goals, so your plans and wishes will be followed.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 24, 2021) “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”