Why You Need an Estate Plan

Did you think you had to be rich to have an estate? Think again! From a legal perspective, your estate includes everything you own, from tangible property like a car, house, furniture, as well as intangible assets like insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts. You don’t have to be rich to have an estate, says the recent article “How to Plan Your Estate” from The Military Wallet. However, you do need to have an estate plan, and the best time to start planning is right now.

An estate plan is more than simply passing your property along to heirs. It is also how you prepare for the unpleasantries of life, including becoming incapacitated or being unable to make decisions on your own.

Your estate plan protects you and your beneficiaries. Without a will, the court will determine who will get your assets subject to probate, following the laws of your state. With a will, you determine who should receive your probated property, from family members to charities.

Your estate plan protects your children. Your will nominates a guardian who will care for your children if you die before they turn age 18, or, if you have a disabled child with special needs, who will care for them for the rest of their life. Without a will nominating a guardian, the court will make these decisions.

Your estate plan protects your family by preventing conflict. Your wishes are made clear in a will and in other estate planning documents. The more details, the better. No one can say they knew what you really wanted, because what you really wanted is documented and memorialized in your estate plan.

Getting ready to meet with an estate planning attorney will be easier if you take it step by step.

Make an inventory of all assets, including

  • House, land and any real estate property
  • Cars, boats and any other vehicles
  • Bank, investment and retirement accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Health savings accounts
  • Jewelry, valuables and collectibles
  • Digital assets, including website URL, username and password
  • Cryptocurrency, including all information for an executor to be able to access accounts

Create a plan for the different scenarios in your life. Who would you want to raise your children if you and your spouse die while children are minors or are unable to care for them because of illness or injury? How will your spouse pay the mortgage if you die unexpectedly?

Make a list of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This typically includes life insurance, retirement plans and annuities. Any time you have a major life event like marriage, divorce, birth or death, these designations should be reviewed.

You’re now ready to meet with an estate planning attorney. Your estate plan should include a last will and testament, outlining who should receive your property, who will distribute your estate (your executor) and who should raise your children if you die while they are under legal age.

A Health Care Proxy is used to name a person who can make decisions about your healthcare if you cannot. A Living Will outlines the details for medical treatment you want or don’t want when you are near death.

Power of Attorney is a document giving someone else the power to take care of your finances at any point, if you can’t because of illness or incapacity. This avoids your family members having to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which takes time and is a costly proceeding.

Reference: The Military Wallet (Aug. 25, 2022) “How to Plan Your Estate”

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”

What Do You Need to Do When a Spouse Dies?

Life events require planning, even the most heartbreaking, like the death of a spouse. Spouses ideally create a blueprint together so when the inevitable occurs, they are prepared, says the article “The important financial steps to take after a spouse dies” from The Globe and Mail. It may sound cold to take a business approach, but by doing so, the surviving spouse will know what to expect and what to do.

Some people use a spreadsheet to clearly see what their financial picture will look like before and after the death of a spouse.

There are pieces of information that are vital to know:

  • What health insurance coverage does the spouse have?
  • Will the coverage remain in place after the death of the spouse?
  • Do any accounts need to be changed to joint ownership before death?
  • What investments do both spouses have, and will they be accessible after death of one spouse?
  • Is there a last will and testament, and where is it located?

Many people are wholly unprepared and have to tackle their entire financial situation immediately after their spouse dies. If they were not involved in family finances and retirement planning, it can lead to costly mistakes and make a difficult time even harder.

If assets are owned jointly with rights of survivorship, the transition and access to finances is easier. If the accounts are only in one name, the surviving spouse will have to wait until the estate goes through probate before they can access funds. If there are bills to pay, the surviving spouse may have to tap retirement funds, which can come with penalties, depending on the accounts and the surviving spouse’s age.

All of this can be avoided by taking the time to create an estate plan which includes planning for asset distribution and may include trusts. There are many trusts designed for use by spouses to take assets out of the probate estate, provide an income source and minimize taxes. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help prepare for this event, from a legal and practical standpoint.

What happens when there’s no will?

No will usually indicates no planning. This leaves spouses and family members in the worst possible situation. The laws of your state will be used to determine how assets are distributed. How much a surviving spouse and descendants will inherit will be based solely on the law. The results may not be optimal for anyone. It’s best to meet with an estate planning attorney and create a will.

Reviewing beneficiary designations for life insurance policies and retirement accounts should be done every few years. If the beneficiary is no longer part of the account owner’s life, the designation needs to be updated. If the beneficiary had died, most accounts would go into the probate estate, where they otherwise would pass directly to the beneficiary.

Reference: The Globe and Mail (July 13, 2022) “The important financial steps to take after a spouse dies”

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”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Perhaps getting hit by a cement truck is too blunt for some, but unexpected things happen all the time. An estate plan, including a will and other important documents, is good preparation, especially for caregivers of people with special needs. A recent article from Forbes titled “Where There is a Will, There is a Way” explains the steps everyone, especially caregivers, need to follow.

Creating a last will and testament

This is the foundation of an estate plan. Without a will, the court will distribute assets to children equally. If a disabled person receiving government benefits receives an inheritance, they will become ineligible and lose access to services. The court will also assign guardianship to minors or disabled individuals, if there is no will. A will, in tandem with proper estate planning, ensures protection for an individual with special needs, including naming a guardian of your choice.

Having a General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

A POA allows you to name a person you trust to manage finances, real estate property, investments, or any aspect of your life, if you become incapacitated. A POA should be created for your needs, so you may decide in advance what you do and do not want your agent to be able to do for you.

Creating a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This important legal document, paired with a HIPAA release form, allows someone of your choice to take charge of your healthcare, talk with healthcare providers and make decisions based on your expressed wishes. You may name more than one person for this role but doing so could make it harder if the two people don’t agree on your care.

Naming a Guardian

This is a critical step if you are a caretaker for a person who will likely be unable to manage their own affairs, even after attaining legal age. By naming a guardian in your will, you can select the people who will be in charge of your special needs family member or minor children. Without a guardian named in your will, the courts will make this decision.

Drafting a “Letter of Intent”

A letter of intent is a guide with important information only you know. It is especially important for caretakers. Explaining in detail your disabled individual’s preferences can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives when you are no longer available. What are their likes and likes, what people do they enjoy spending time with and what foods do they prefer, etc. If your children are minors, this letter is an opportunity to describe your preferences for how they should be raised, including religious preferences, vocational choices and even nighttime rituals.

Providing Financial Security

If your family includes a loved one with Special Needs, you can protect their ability to have funds for things not covered by government benefits through a Special Needs Trust. Your estate planning attorney will create an SNT with a trustee and a secondary trustee to oversee the funds and ensure that they are used for qualified expenses.

Reference: Forbes (July 6, 2022) “Where There is a Will, There is a Way,”

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”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

How to Know If a Last Will Is Invalid

One of the many reasons an experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource for creating an estate plan, including a Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, is the confidence of knowing your estate plan has been properly prepared. People who believe they know better than an experienced lawyer, often send their families into a legal, financial, and emotional black hole after they die. The article “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will” from The National Law Journal provides a closer look at why it pays to work with a professional.

When a decedent executes a new Last Will near the end of their life and makes a dramatic change to previous estate plans, there may be trouble ahead. When this is the case, several issues need to be examined to ensure that the document is valid. Strong consideration must be given to whether the person had sufficient capacity to execute the document.

When a person is suffering from an illness or near death, they may be susceptible to the improper influence of people who may cause them to make uncharacteristic changes to their estate plan. Any Last Will drafted within the last few months of a person’s life requires careful review.

If, shortly after a person has handed the reins of their financial life to another, using a Power of Attorney in any of its forms (Durable POA, Springing POA) and a new Last Will is created, a red flag should be raised, especially if the Last Will has been changed to benefit this person.

What if a person’s capacity was hovering near the borderline of capacity and incapacity? If a decedent’s mental capacity was questionable at the time the Last Will was executed, the Last Will may not be valid. A person with legal mental capacity must understand the assets they own and clearly understand to whom they are bequeathing assets. The standard for this issue is low, but if the decedent was suffering from a degenerative mental condition or a sudden onset of incapacity due to an illness or accident, the Last Will may be challenged.

If a layperson creates a Last Will or uses an online service to create it and the Last Will does not comply with the state’s estate laws, the Last Will may have technical issues rendering it invalid. When this occurs, it is as if there were no Last Will at all and the estate is distributed according to the laws of the state.

The biggest red flag is the presence of any large changes from the next to Last Will to the final Last Will, with no known reason for the change having been made. This may be a result of changes to mental capacity or undue influence of a third party. An experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource to create a Last Will. They will be among the first to ask why significant changes from a prior Last Will are being requested.

Reference: The National Law Journal (March 30, 2022) “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will”

Why Is Beneficiary Designation Important?

The beneficiary designation will always supersede language of your will. Neglecting to know which assets have beneficiary designations and failing to update the designations can undo even the best estate plan.

The beneficiary designation for your life insurance or retirement account custodian provides an opportunity to tell the company who is to receive life insurance proceeds or retirement savings upon your death, explains a recent article titled “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press. If these are not coordinated with a last will and testament, the results are problematic at best, and worse, financially, and emotionally devastating.

This epic fail comes in many different forms, but the most common is when a life insurance policy has never been updated and an ex-spouse receives the policy proceeds. The rules differ between retirement accounts and life insurance and can be impacted by various state and federal laws (and the divorce decree, if the life insurance policy was included). However, for the most part, the ex will receive the proceeds and litigation will not succeed.

Another common beneficiary designation mistake is when a person has created a living trust or revocable trust to prevent assets from going through probate when they die. Probate can take many months to complete and there are several strategies used to take assets out of the probate estate.

When the living trust is established and assets are transferred into the trust, those assets do not pass through probate.

However, if a person (or married couple) established a living trust and fails to list both primary and secondary beneficiaries for life insurance and/or retirement accounts, it is entirely possible that the assets will go through probate.

Take the time to make an inventory of all assets and accounts. Determine which ones have a beneficiary designation and find out who is named as the beneficiary. If your retirement accounts and life insurance policies were established decades ago, this is especially important.

Failing to coordinate beneficiary designations with your estate plan could undermine your wishes. Review these items with your estate planning attorney to avoid these and many other potential pitfalls.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (May 23, 2022) “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”