Can I Protect My Family after Death?

Estate planning involves a close look at personal and financial goals while you are living and after you have died, as explained in a recent article titled “Professional Advice: Secure your future with estate planning” from Northwest Indiana Business Magazine. Having a comprehensive estate plan ensures that your wishes will be carried out and loved ones protected.

Your last will and testament identifies the people who should receive an inheritance—heirs—who will manage your estate—executor—and who will take care of your minor children—guardian. Without a valid will, the state will rely on its own laws to distribute assets and assign a guardian to minor children. The state laws may not follow your wishes. However, there won’t be anything your family can do if you didn’t prepare a will.

Assets with beneficiary designations can be passed to heirs without going through probate. Certain assets, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts, allow a primary and secondary beneficiary to be named. These assets can be transferred to the intended beneficiaries swiftly and efficiently.

Many people use trusts to pass assets for a variety of reasons. For example, a trust can be created for a family member with special needs, protecting their eligibility to receive government benefits. Depending on the type of trust you create, you might be able to eliminate estate taxes. Certain trusts are also useful in protecting assets from creditors and lawsuits, and ensure that assets are distributed according to your wishes.

Revocable living trusts provide protection in case of incapacity, avoid probate and ancillary probate and may provide asset protection for beneficiaries. If you are the creator of a trust—grantor—you will need to appoint a successor trustee to manage the trust if you are the original trustee and become incapacitated. Upon death, a revocable trust usually becomes irrevocable. Assets placed in the trust avoid probate, the court proceeding used to settle an estate, which can be both time-consuming and costly.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person who will handle your financial affairs and protect assets in the event of incapacity. That person—your agent—may pay bills, sell assets and work with an elder law estate planning attorney on Medicaid planning. The POA should be customized to your personal situation. you may give the agent broad or narrow powers.

Everyone should also have a Health Care Proxy, which gives the person named the legal right to make health care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to. You’ll also want to have a HIPAA Release Form (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), so your agent can speak with all health care providers, access medical records and speak with the health insurance company on your behalf.

A Living Will is the document used to convey your wishes regarding end-of-life care if you are unable to do so yourself. It is certainly not pleasant to contemplate. However, it should be thought of as a kindness to your loved ones. Without knowing your wishes, they may be forced to make a decision and will never know if it was what you wanted. A Living Will also avoids conflicts between health care providers and family members and makes a stressful time a little less so.

Having a comprehensive estate plan provides protection for the individual and their family members. It avoids costly and stressful problems arising from the complex events accompanying illness and death. Every three to five years (or when life or financial circumstances warrant), meet with an estate planning attorney to keep your estate plan on track.

Reference: Northwest Indiana Business Magazine (Dec. 27, 2022) “Professional Advice: Secure your future with estate planning”

Why Professionals and High Net Worth Families Need Estate Planning

Even those whose daily tasks bring them close to death on a daily basis can be reluctant to consider having an estate plan done. However, any high-income earner needs to plan their estate to protect assets and prepare for incapacity. Estate planning also makes matters easier for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “Physician estate planning guide” from Medical Economics. An estate plan gets your wishes honored, minimizes court expenses and maintains family harmony.

Having an estate plan is needed by anyone, at any age or stage of life. A younger professional may be less inclined to consider estate planning. However, it’s a mistake to put it off.

Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your home state. Have a power of attorney drafted to give a trusted person the ability to make decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. Not having this legal relationship leads to big problems. Your family will need to go to court to have a conservatorship or guardianship established to do something as simple as make a mortgage payment. Having a POA is a far better solution.

Next, talk with your estate planning attorney about a last will and testament and any trusts you might need. A will is a simpler method. However, if you have substantial assets, you may benefit from the protection a trust affords.

A will names your executor and expresses your wishes for property distribution. The will doesn’t become effective until after death when it’s reviewed by the court and verified during probate. The executor named in the will is then appointed to act on the directions in the will.

Most states don’t require an executor to be notified in advance. However, people should discuss this role with the person who they want to appoint. It’s not always a welcome surprise, and there’s no requirement for the named person to serve.

A trust is created to own property outside of the estate. It’s created and becomes effective while the person is still living and is often described as “kinder” to beneficiaries, especially if the grantor owns their practice and has complex business arrangements.

Trusts are useful for people who own assets in more than one state. In some cases, deeds to properties can be added into one trust, streamlining and consolidating assets and making it simpler to redirect after death.

Irrevocable trusts are especially useful to any doctor concerned about being sued for malpractice. An irrevocable trust helps protect assets from creditors seeking to recover assets.

Not being prepared with an estate plan addressing incapacity and death leads to a huge burden for loved ones. Once the plan is created, it should be updated every three to five years. Updating the plan is far easier than the initial creation and reflects changes in one’s life and in the law.

Reference: Medical Economics (Nov. 30, 2022) “Physician estate planning guide”

Planning for Crypto and NFT Assets in Estate Plan

People generally don’t like to deal with their own mortality. However, assets need the protection of an estate plan. If they are digital assets, planning is even more important. According to a recent article from nft.now titled “What Happens to Your Crypto and NFTs When You Die?”, Bitcoin’s total circulation is unlikely to reach its stated limit of 21 million due to early adopters who either died without an estate plan or lost their private keys and access to their bitcoin permanently.

The challenge of digital asset distributions is built into the decentralized nature of the blockchain. The core of the Web3 security is not to give away private keys, even to friends or loved ones, since there’s no centralized authority to address any wrongdoing. Striking a balance between security and accessibility about crypto asset management and inheritance is still an evolving process.

Estate planning attorneys know doing nothing is the worst thing to do. While state laws account for intestacy (what happens when there’s no will), and state law will be applied by the court to distribute assets if there’s no will, one option is to put digital assets into a will. However, there are potential pitfalls.

A will becomes a public document during probate. If the purpose of owning crypto is to keep the existence of the crypto wealth private, a will is not the best option. Wills are useful for many assets, but in the eyes of many, trusts are the preferred means of transferring crypto assets.

Managing digital inheritances with trusts offers many benefits, since the trusts bypass the courts and do not become public documents. Trusts are managed by a trustee, during life and after death.  Therefore, the trustee can act quickly if managing NFTs or crypto. The volatile nature of cryptocurrencies makes speed and easy access a necessity to protect digital fortunes.

When setting up a trust to manage cryptocurrency or NTFs, be sure that the trustee is well-versed in digital assets. If they don’t know how to manage your wallet, the assets could be lost. One means of overcoming this is to add a provision in the trust to allow the trustee to hire someone who has expertise with cryptocurrency and NFTs, so they will be properly managed.

Trusts do have some vulnerabilities. Estate planning for crypto requires some sharing of private keys or transferring digital assets. However, the typical crypto investor is usually loathe to hand over this information. It may be more acceptable for them to leave behind instructions on where the trustee can find the information. However, this creates another layer of vulnerability.

Solutions to the issue of digital asset dispersal in the event of incapacity or death are still evolving. There are a number of commercial solutions, some of which are as technical to the layperson as cryptocurrency is to the non-user.

An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide you in planning for digital and traditional assets, so they are not lost in the real world or in cyberspace. Prior planning is needed to protect wealth, whatever form it takes.

Reference: ntf.now (Oct. 27,2022) “What Happens to Your Crypto and NFTs When You Die?”

Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

For one woman in the middle of preparing for a no-contest divorce, the idea of a pet trust was a novel one. She was estranged from her sister and didn’t want her ex-husband to gain custody of her seven horses, three cats and five dogs if she died or became incapacitated. Who would care for her beloved animals?

The solution, as described in the article “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family” from AARP, was to form a pet trust, a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of a person’s disability or death.

Creating a pet trust and establishing a long-term plan requires state-specific paperwork and funding mechanisms, which are different from leaving property and assets to human family members. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to ensure that the protections in place will work.

Shelters nationally are seeing a big increase in animals being surrendered because of COVID or people who are simply not able to take care of their pets. Suddenly, a companion pet accustomed to being near its human owner 24/7 is left alone in a shelter cage.

When pet parents have not made plans for their pets, more often than not these pets end up in shelters. However, not all animal shelters are no-kill shelters. In 2021, data from Best Friends Animal Society shows an increase in the number of pets euthanized in shelters for the first time in five years.

For pet owners who can’t identify a caregiver for their companions, the best option may be to find an animal sanctuary or a shelter providing perpetual care.

The woman described above had a pet trust created and funded it with a long-term care and life insurance policy. The trust was designed with a board of three trustees to check and balance one another to determine how the money will be allocated and what will happen to her assets. Her horse property could be sold, or a long-term student or trainer could be brought in to run her barn.

It is not legally possible to leave money directly to an animal, so setting up a trust with one trustee or a board is the best way to ensure that care will be given until the animals themselves pass away.

The stand-alone pet trust (which is a living trust) exists from the moment it is created. A dedicated bank account may be set up in the name of the pet trust or it could be named as the beneficiary of a life insurance or retirement plan.

A pet trust can also be set up within a larger trust, like a drawer within a dresser. The trust won’t kick in until death. These plans prevent the type of delays typical with probate but is problematic if the person becomes incapacitated.

If a trust is created as part of another trust, there can still be delays in accessing the month, if the pet trust is getting money from the larger trust.

With costlier animals likes horses and exotic birds, any delay in funding could be catastrophic.

How long will your pet live? A parrot could live for 80 years, which would need an endowment to invest assets and earn income over decades. A long-living pet also needs a succession of caregivers, as a tortoise with a 150 year lifespan will outlive more than one caregiver.

Reference: AARP (Sep. 14, 2022) “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family”

Why Is It Important to have an Estate Plan?

Right now, the federal estate tax exemption is so high as to be a non-issue for most taxpayers, but this will not always be the case, and there are also state estate taxes to consider. Regardless of taxes, there are other reasons why everyone needs to have an estate plan, affirms a recent article from mondaq titled “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?” The short answer is yes, you definitely do.

The first thing a will does is distribute your assets according to your directions. If you have grandchildren, there are ways for you to gift them assets and minimize taxes, but you’ll need to plan for generation skipping taxes.

If you own a business, you will need a succession plan to align with your estate plan. Will family members become owners, or will the business be sold?

Does the family include a disabled or individual with special needs? A special needs trust can add an extra layer of resources. Guardianship planning needs to be done for the parents and guardians be named for when the parents are no longer able to care for the person.

The will is also used to name an executor, the person to handle all the decisions you express in the will and carry them out.

Gifting is another part of your estate plan. If you have any charitable organizations or individuals outside of your family who you’d like to make a gift to, this can be done through your will or through a number of gifting strategies.

The current federal estate tax exemption is set to end in 2025 and revert back to 2017 levels. Tax planning should be done well in advance to protect your estate and heirs.

A review of life insurance should be part of your estate plan. Do you know who your named beneficiary is on your life insurance policies? If your estate is the beneficiary, your estate’s value may exceed the federal or state estate tax limits.

Many people today create an ethical will. This is not a legally binding document; instead, it is used to express your values and your wishes for heir’s futures. It may also be used to give them insight into how your will was structured and why. If there is controversy in the family, an ethical will or statement of intentions may help bolster your will if there are any legal challenges.

Your retirement benefits and any workplace benefits have beneficiaries named in the event of your death. Do you know who they are, and do you still wish for those named to be your beneficiaries?

Estate planning includes addressing incapacity and illness. You’ll want a Power of Attorney for someone to act on your behalf if you are sick or injured and cannot handle your personal finances. You’ll also need a Health Care Proxy for someone who will be empowered to speak with healthcare personnel and make care decisions for you if you cannot.

Without a comprehensive estate plan, the difficulties facing your loved ones upon your illness and upon your death will be magnified. Yes, you need an estate plan. The sooner, the better. Speak with an estate planning attorney to get the process started.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 24, 2022) “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?”

Is it Important to have an Estate Plan?

Everyone needs to have an estate plan to ensure that their family can take part in medical care, assets will pass to the heirs they want and to protect minor children, as explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone” from mondaq.com. An estate plan does all this, and more. Having an estate plan can also protects privacy; any assets moved into a trust do not become part of the public record.

Here are the documents making up the foundation of an estate plan.

Last Will and Testament. This is used to direct the disposition of assets and appoints an executor to handle final affairs after your death. If there is no will, the state law controls how your estate is distributed.

Revocable Trust. Trusts permit more control of the management and disposition of assets in a more private and tax-efficient way during your lifetime and after death.

General Durable Power of Attorney. This document usually names a spouse, adult child or trusted individual who can take over your legal and financial affairs, especially if you should become incapacitated.

Health Care Power of Attorney. Everyone over age 18 should have this document. This nominates a person you choose to make health care decisions. Without it, parents of teenagers and young adults may not be involved in their care. Treating physicians will not be able to discuss your loved one’s care, or you may need to petition the court for guardianship.

Living Will. This document allows you to express your wishes with regard to end-of-life care and medical treatment decisions. It alleviates the emotional burden of guessing what you would have wanted by family members.

HIPAA Authorization. Your medical and health insurance records are protected from being released to third parties without the patient’s consent. While this is helpful for patients seeking to maintain their privacy, it also means parents or loved ones will not have any access to medical records and healthcare providers will not discuss the patient’s medical condition with family members. Fines and penalties for professionals and facilities are strict.

Asset and Beneficiary Designations. Part of an estate plan includes ensuring that assets are in alignment with your wishes. Your will does not control how assets with a beneficiary designation or those with joint ownership titles will be inherited. For your estate to achieve the outcome you want, you’ll need to dig deep into your records and ensure that all assets are properly titled, including insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, property and any other assets.

If you have an estate plan in place and have not updated it in recent years, or failed to get one or more of the above-mentioned documents, there is no time like the present to do so. Unexpected events are always around the corner and being prepared in advance helps ensure your wishes will be achieved and your family will be protected.

Reference: mondaq.com (July 29, 2022) “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone”

What are Alternatives to Guardianship?

Guardianships are drastic and very invasive. They strip individuals of their legal autonomy and establish the guardian as the sole decision maker. To become a guardian requires strong evidence of legal incapacity, and approval by a judge, explains an article titled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First” from Kiplinger. They should not be undertaken unless there is a serious need to do so. Once they’re in place, guardianships are difficult to undo.

If an elderly person with dementia failed to make provisions durable powers of attorney for health care and for financial matters before becoming ill, a guardianship may be the only ways to protect the person and their estate. There are also instances where an aging parent is unable to care for themselves properly but refuses any help from family members.

Another scenario is an aging grandparent who plans to leave funds for minor beneficiaries. Their parents will need to seek guardianships, so they can manage the money until their children reach the age of majority.

Laws vary from state to state, so if you might need to address this situation, you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney in the elderly parent or family member’s state of residence. For the most part, each state requires less restrictive alternatives to be attempted before guardianship proceedings are begun.

Alternatives to guardianship include limited guardianship, focused on specific aspect of the person’s life. This can be established to manage the person’s finances only, or to manage only their medical and health care decisions. Limited guardianships need to be approved by a court and require evidence of incapacity.

Powers of attorney can be established for medical or financial decisions. This is far less burdensome to achieve and equally less restrictive. A Healthcare Power of Attorney will allow a family member to be involved with medical care, while the Durable General Power of Attorney is used to manage a person’s personal financial affairs.

Some families take the step of making a family member a joint owner on a bank, home, or an investment account. This sounds like a neat and simple solution, but assets are vulnerable if the co-owner has any creditor issues or risk exposure. A joint owner also doesn’t have the same fiduciary responsibility as a POA.

An assisted decision-making agreement creates a surrogate decision-maker who can see the incapacitated person’s financial transactions. The bank is notified of the arrangement and alerts the surrogate when it sees a potentially suspicious or unusual transaction. This doesn’t completely replace the primary account holder’s authority. However, it does create a limited means of preventing exploitation or fraud. The bank is put on notice and required to alert a second person before completing potentially fraudulent transactions.

Trusts can also be used to protect an incapacitated person. They can be used to manage assets, with a contingent trustee. For an elderly person, a co-trustee can step in if the grantor loses the capacity to make good decisions.

Planning in advance is the best solution for incapacity. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect loved ones from having to take draconian actions to protect your best interests.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

What Is Power of Attorney and Is It Important?

Most people realize the importance of the last will and testament. However, they remain unaware of the importance of a durable power of attorney. This document authorizes another person to act on your behalf while you are alive and expires upon death, as explained in a recent article titled “Power of attorney likely to be first vital estate document” from The News-Enterprise.

The power of attorney is used to give authorization regarding legal and financial matters. It can be tailored to be as broad or as narrow as one wishes. A healthcare proxy, also known as a healthcare power of attorney, is used to give authorization for medical decisions.

The general Power of Attorney is used when a person is unable to act for themselves due to illness or injury. It is also needed when a person is unable to act on their own behalf because of mental incapacity. The POA is also used for when someone prefers to have another person manage their financial affairs.

Spouses use POAs to handle day-to-day financial tasks, from dealing with insurance companies to managing bank accounts, loans, or other financial matters. If one spouse cannot attend a real estate closing, for instance, the other will need a POA so they may represent their spouse.

Some people think just adding another person to an account will work the same way as a POA. However, this is not accurate. A co-owner might be able to pay bills. However, their ability to do anything else will be limited. They won’t be able to amend the account, unless both parties are present, for instance.

POAs are state-specific documents, so any Power of Attorney, whether for healthcare or finances, should be created by an estate planning attorney in the state where you live and any state where you own property.

Some powers, including the ability to make gifts of the principal’s property or to change beneficiaries for retirement accounts or life insurance policies, may sound as if they are far beyond what’s needed when these documents are first drafted. However, unexpected things happen at all stages of life, and situations arise where these powers are needed. Seemingly simple tasks become far more complicated, if the POA doesn’t permit these types of additional powers.

If there is concern about broad powers, the document can include limited language. For instance, a POA can include a limit on gifting the principal’s property pursuant to any previously documented wishes. This will allow gifting to be completed, but only to the terms already indicated. However, be careful about broad limiting language, like limiting gifts to annual gift exclusions. Prohibiting an agent from acting in ways to protect the principal’s property and best interest could be counterproductive.

Drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney to suit the specific needs of the individual, a power of attorney can make it possible for a trusted individual to conduct your wishes and protect your best interests. Make sure that you have one and update it whenever you update your overall estate plan.

Reference: The News Enterprise (June 25, 2022) “Power of attorney likely to be first vital estate document”