Why Is Power of Attorney So Important for Estate Planning?

One of the most overlooked and important documents in estate planning is the Power of Attorney. A recent article from Farm Progress, “Often overlooked estate planning issues: Powers of attorney,” explains how this document works and why it’s so important.

Most people will become incapacitated at some point in our lives, especially as we age. Some experts believe this number is as high as two-thirds of all Americans who, at some point in their lives, will become incapacitated. We are living longer and the chances of developing a condition to impair or rob us of the ability to make important health or financial decisions increases every year.

Powers of Attorney are just as important for young adults because the risk of disability or impairment is often actually higher than death for someone younger.

Designating a Power of Attorney gives you the control of choosing a trusted person to step in and act as your agent. A “Durable” POA remains in effect until it is revoked, or upon the death of the person who made it.

The person establishing the POA is the “principal.” The principal has the right to revoke the POA until they lack capacity to do so. The person or persons named to act for you through your POA is your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent.”

You may choose to have the POA in a “durable” form or a “springing” POA. The springing POA becomes effective only when you have been determined to be incapacitated. This sounds like a good idea. However, it comes with an issue: for the springing POA to become active, there must be proof of incapacity.

Depending upon your state, this may require a court to review documents attesting to your incapacity from a physician or health care provider. The durable POA is always in effect and your agent can step in for you immediately.

Everyone should also have a Health Care Power of Attorney, sometimes called a Health Care Proxy or a medical POA. The Health Care POA should be someone who can act quickly, so it’s optimal to name someone who lives nearby, in case there’s an emergency and decisions need to be made in a timely manner.

While it’s tempting to simply download a form from the internet, these two POAs are best prepared with an estate planning attorney, so they align with your state’s laws and your wishes. You may want someone to make all decisions for you, or you may want to limit their powers. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a document to suit your specific needs.

It’s also important for your estate plan to address digital assets, since today so much of our financial and medical information is stored online. Your agent also needs to be able to access your digital life, to keep your life running smoothly and make informed decisions.

Reference: Farm Progress (Oct. 18, 2022) “Often overlooked estate planning issues: Powers of attorney.”

Is Spouse Automatically Your Beneficiary?

People make a grave error when they don’t have a will because they think their surviving spouse will automatically inherit all of their worldly goods. The laws of intestacy work differently, as explained in a recent article “Estate Planning: The spouse doesn’t always get everything” from nwi.com.

The surviving spouse rarely receives everything under the intestate laws. This often comes as a surprise to people. The usual response is “Oh, that can’t be right.” Oh, but it is!

In many states, one half of the decedent’s probate assets are distributed to the spouse and the other half are distributed to the decedent’s child or children.

If it’s a second or third marriage and the couple didn’t have children of their own, the surviving spouse ends up with even less.

Assets are divided between the spouse and biological children.

Bear in mind the intestate laws only apply to probate assets. Assets owned jointly will go to the other joint owner, as well as assets listing the surviving spouse as the beneficiary.

If you’d prefer to leave more to your surviving spouse, you need a will. Intestacy literally translates to dying without a will. If you have a will and then die, you haven’t died intestate, and the provisions don’t apply.

However, there’s more to consider. Depending on your state’s laws, if you die and there are no living children, the spouse still doesn’t necessarily inherit everything. If your parents are living, they are also entitled to a portion of the estate.

This is another reason why it’s so important to have a complete estate plan, including a last will and testament, powers of attorney and health care power of attorney.

Trusts are used to control how assets are distributed, either during life or upon death. You can create a trust to be used by your spouse by creating the trust, funding it with assets and setting the terms of the distribution.

Each state has its own laws of intestacy, so an estate planning attorney who practices in your state needs to be contacted to determine what would happen to your spouse if you didn’t have a will. Your best recommendation is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and create a plan to protect your spouse and your children

Reference: nwi.com (Oct. 23, 2022) “Estate Planning: The spouse doesn’t always get everything”

Who Should I Name as a Co-Trustee?

If you’ve already created a revocable trust, congratulations—that means you’ve taken steps to protect the people important to you and eliminated concerns they may have about what will happen when you’re gone. A recent article, “3 Things to Consider when Naming Co-Trustees,” from The Street, asks if you should name an adult child as your co-trustee.

Most people name themselves as a trustee of a revocable living trust, allowing themselves to maintain control over how the funds are managed. As children become adults, you may start including them in your estate planning discussions, which may lead them to propose a relatively straightforward idea: letting them serve alongside you, by being named as co-trustees.

This might make sense. However, it may not. You need to ask some hard questions.

First, are you and your adult child in alignment on financial matters? If you are conservative when it comes to money and investing, but your child is a free-wheeling, come-what-may person, then you definitely don’t want to have them as a co-trustee. Not only will you disagree on how assets are to be used, you may also find yourself in a situation where your assets are funding a lot of fun, which is likely not what you have in mind for assets in a revocable trust.

As the primary trustee of the revocable trust, you have the legal power to fire a co-trustee. This presents another obstacle. Firing your child, especially if you’re firing one child and replacing them with another child, could lead to a lot of family friction. Many estate planning attorneys have seen what happens when parents are reluctant to act, even when it is crystal clear they need to be fired.

Second, does their logistical status make this person a good co-trustee candidate? Location and even time zones are not as confining as they used to be. However, there is a real benefit to being able to show up in person if something goes wrong. What if there’s an issue processing something and the bank will not accept a document sent by email or fax, but requires an in-person signature?

Your trust might include language allowing each co-trustee to act independently of the other. However, this opens the door to your co-trustee being able to act unilaterally. If you’re still able to manage your own finances, you may not want to give up this amount of control to an adult child.

Would a co-trustee role with a child require you to revise the entire estate plan? For some trust creators, making one adult child their revocable living trust co-trustee means they need to change their estate plan to be fair to their other children. Sometimes they feel that another child should be named as a Power of Attorney or Health Care Power of Attorney.

“Fairness” or “keeping the peace” should never, ever, be a reason for children or other individuals to be named for estate planning roles. Each agent has a task to do in carrying out your wishes as directed by your last will and testament, POAs and trust documents. Naming a kid who’s a financial disaster as a co-trustee is asking for trouble. Naming someone who doesn’t share your beliefs about end-of-life treatment means your wishes are not likely to be followed.

However, it is possible to have your estate planning attorney create a workable co-trustee arrangement between you and an adult child. If they live close by, you mainly agree on financial matters and they can be available to you on short notice, it’s likely the arrangement will work. If there is no one who could serve, speak with your estate planning attorney about alternatives. For instance, making an adult child a successor trustee will let them step in if and when you are not able to manage your affairs, while you retain full and complete authority while you are still able to do so.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 11, 2022) “3 Things to Consider when Naming Co-Trustees”

Estate Planning for Different Ages and Stages of Life

Estate planning is a critical means of protecting your financial legacy, providing for loved ones, reducing taxes and preventing unnecessary expenses, says a recent article from The Seattle Times, “Estate planning needs vary at every stage of your life.” The reasons for an estate plan change depending on your stage of life. However, no matter what your income is, you need an estate plan.

There are certain events during life known as “trigger points” sparking reminders to either create an estate plan or update an existing one.

Welcoming a new member of the family. Estate planning often starts when a child is welcomed into the family, or when someone marries. An estate planning attorney can provide you with options based on your specific situation, so your will reflects your wishes and the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will also guide you through other parts of the plan.

Once you have an estate plan in place, you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that you and your loved ones are protected with a legal safety net.

Midlife challenges. The sandwich generation, typically people in their 40s and 50s, are busy raising children and helping parents as they age. Having a power of attorney for financial and medical matters is important for an adult child who is involved in their parent’s healthcare, if the child needs to be able to speak with physicians. Parents also need health care directives addressing end-of-life care, so loved ones know what their wishes are.

Parents will do their children a favor by telling them what they want and back up their wishes with the appropriate legal documents. This spares the children from having to figure out “what mom wanted” or fighting over “what dad really meant.”

Before and after retirement. The years just before and just after retirement are often when health issues crop up. Retirement is the right time to review estate planning documents and review named beneficiaries. The people you named ten, or even five, years ago to handle your estate may no longer be in your life. You may have new grandchildren you want to provide for. All of these matters need to be reviewed with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure they reflect your wishes right now.

Updating an estate plan throughout the ups and downs of life ensures you’ll be able to enjoy the retirement you worked for and focus your attention on the present.

Reference: The Seattle Times (Oct. 17, 2022) “Estate planning needs vary at every stage of your life”

Factors to Consider when Picking Executor, Trustees and POAs

Having your estate planning documents created with an experienced professional is important, as is naming the people who will be putting your plan into action. A key sticking point is often deciding who is the right person for the role, says an article from Nasdaq titled “Estate Planning: 5 Tips to Pick Trustees, Executors and POAs.” It helps to stop thinking about how people will feel if they are not selected and focus instead on their critical thinking and decision making abilities.

Consider who will have the time to help. Having adult children who are highly successful in their professions is wonderful. However, if they are extremely busy running a business, leading an organization, etc., will their busy schedules allow the flexibility to help? A daughter with twins may love you to the moon and back. However, will she be able to handle the tasks of estate administration?

Take these appointments seriously. Selecting someone on an arbitrary basis is asking for trouble. Just because one child is older doesn’t necessarily mean they are capable of managing your estate. Making a decision based on gender can be equally flawed. Naming agents and executors with financial acumen is more important than giving your creative child the chance to learn how to manage money through your estate.

Don’t make the process more complicated. There are many families where parents name all the siblings to act on their behalf, so no one feels left out. This usually turns into an estate disaster. An odd number of siblings can lead to one group winning decisions by sheer numbers, while aggressive, win-at-all-costs siblings—even if it’s just two of them—can lead to delayed decisions and family divisions.

Name the right person for right now. Younger people who don’t yet have children often aren’t sure who their best agent might be. Picking a parent may become problematic, if the parent becomes sick or dies. Naming a close friend in your thirties may need updating if your friendship wanes. Make it simple: appoint the best person for today, with the caveat of updating your agents and documents as time goes on and circumstances change. Remember, circumstances always change.

Consider the value of a professional trustee or fiduciary. The best person to be a trustee, executor or power of attorney may not always be a family member or friend. If a trustee is one sibling and the beneficiary of the trust is another sibling who can’t manage money, the relationship could suffer. If a large estate includes generational trusts and complex ownership structures, a professional may be better suited to deal with management and tax issues.

The value of having an estate plan cannot be overstated. However, the importance of who will be appointed to oversee and administer the estate is equally important. The success of an estate plan often rests on the people who are assigned to handle their respective tasks.

Be candid when speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney about the people in your life and their abilities to manage the roles.

Reference: nasdaq (Sep. 4, 2022) “Estate Planning: 5 Tips to Pick Trustees, Executors and POAs”

Does My College Kid Need an Estate Plan?

When it comes to estate planning, we usually think of older adults. However, it’s a topic that we should also consider for college students.

WDIO’s recent article entitled “Estate planning is for college students too” reminds us that there’s a number of documents you can put into place in the case of an emergency.

Power of Attorney. There are two types of POAs. The financial power of attorney allows a named agent to make financial decisions on behalf of the college student, in the event they are unable to do so. A medical power of attorney names a healthcare agent.

These can have HIPAA language written into them that authorizes their medical provider to release information about them. Remember, if your student travels away from home for college, you may need a POA for that state.

Will. A typical college student might not have a lot of money. However, they do have their own stuff, and someone needs to make the decision regarding what happens to that stuff. Ask the student to name the parents as the executor of his or her will.

FERPA Waiver. FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Without this waiver, a parent has no authority to call the college and request information about your student if their over 18. With a waiver, you can request a transcript and student loan information.

HIPAA Waiver. A HIPAA waiver allows an adult child’s health information to be disclosed. It’s usually for medical facilities, doctors, schools, or any other person where they are in possession of the health information of a person where that individual authorizes the release of the information to a designated person.

Reference: WDIO (Sep. 28, 2022) “Estate planning is for college students too”

How Can an Elder Law Attorney Help Me?

Seasons’ recent article entitled “Finding an elder care lawyer” discusses ways in which an experienced elder law attorney can help you.

Social Security. Did you know that you’re statistically more likely to achieve a positive outcome when you get help from a lawyer when approaching the Social Security Administration?

Elder attorneys know the steps they can take to get the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) your senior deserves. Both of these programs can provide your senior with considerable financial assistance as they age.

Medicare and Medicaid planning. An elder attorney can accurately assess your eligibility and determine if it’s worth applying for Medicaid. If your application is denied, your attorney can also help you to appeal this decision.

An experienced Medicare lawyer can also help you to understand the various options available to you, letting you move forward and pursue the best possible health care assistance for your elder loved one. You may be paying more than necessary in premiums or out-of-pocket expenses, and a lawyer can guide you toward more suitable choices.

Probate. You may need to engage an elder law lawyer after your senior loved one has died. They can guide the entire family through this difficult time, assisting executors and ensuring that beneficiaries receive their inheritances.

While the probate process can be avoided entirely if your senior works with a qualified estate planning attorney prior to their death, there are several estate planning tools that can make inheriting assets much easier, including trusts.

With help from an experienced estate planning attorney, your senior can identify the most effective types of legal documents for their needs. Estate planning attorneys can also help with wills, advance directives, powers of attorney and more.

Reference: Seasons (Aug. 30, 2022) “Finding an elder care lawyer”

Important Documents in Your Estate Plan

The Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) and a Health Surrogacy or Advanced Health Directive are used for situations where you can’t make decisions for yourself, explains Parent Your Parents recent article entitled “What You Should Know about Durable Powers of Attorney and Health Surrogacies.”

A Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA). This is written authorization to represent or act on another’s behalf in private affairs, business, or legal matters. The person authorizing the other to act is the “principal” or “grantor.” The person given the power is called the “agent” or “attorney-in-fact.” There are two types of power of attorney: (1) a Springing Durable Power of Attorney, which “springs” into action when you become incapacitated; and (2) a General Durable Power of Attorney, which becomes effective as soon as it is signed and continues until you die.

If you live in a “Springing POA” state and move to a “Durable POA” state, the document is treated as a Durable Power of Attorney, and your agent can act without your consent. You should consider who you trust to be your agent.

It is typically a family member, a friend, or a professional agent. You should also have an alternate designated who can step in if something happens to your first choice and he or she is unable to serve.

Health Surrogacy or Advanced Directive. This document is called a variety of things: a Power of Attorney for Health, Designation of Health Surrogate, or a Living Will. No matter what it’s called, you’re appointing an adult to make healthcare decisions for you when you are unable to make them for yourself.

When you’re in an accident, unconscious, or injured and need a specific medical procedure, the designated agent steps in and makes important decisions in your stead.

If you’re in your 60s but still don’t have a legal document describing what you want to happen when you’re incapacitated, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Your family, close friends, and healthcare professionals should know how you feel about end-of-life treatments and have your detailed directions as to various circumstances and how you would like them handled.

Reference: Parent Your Parents (Sep. 15, 2022) “What You Should Know about Durable Powers of Attorney and Health Surrogacies”

The Most Important Part of Estate Plan Is Planning for Living

Most people think of estate planning as planning for death. However, a well-titled article “Planning for death probably isn’t the most important part of your estate plan” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press presents another reason for estate planning in clear terms. Estate planning is planning for the unexpected eventualities of life.

Estate planning documents address how things will work while you are still living but if you have become incapable of making your own decisions. In many cases, this is more important than distributing your worldly possessions.

Yes, you should have a will (last will and testament). But you should also have Power of Attorney documents—one for health care purposes and another for financial purposes.

The Power of Attorney document states who will be your substitute decision maker, or agent, if you are incapacitated or unable to make your own decisions while still living. This should be a personalized document prepared by an estate planning attorney to include the scope of tasks and the limits, if any, you want to set for your agent. The financial POA is an important one, as it gives your chosen agent the legal authority to make financial decisions on your behalf.

The health care power of attorney gives your agent the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf.

With both of these documents properly prepared and available, someone you name will be empowered to serve as your decision maker if necessary.

The will is used to state what happens to your possessions and assets when you die. It is also the legal document used to name your executor—the person who will be in charge of carrying out your instructions. The will tells the probate court how you want your estate to be administered after death.

Why do you need these and other documents? Your will only becomes effective after death. Your POA documents are effective if you become incapacitated. They are both part of your estate plan, which is a collection of legal documents and has nothing to do with whether you reside in a palatial estate.

Here’s how it might work. If you become seriously ill and cannot speak on your own behalf, but you have a Power of Attorney naming your daughter Carol to serve as your POA for healthcare and financial decisions, Carol will be able to pay bills, including paying the mortgage, keeping your car lease up to date, and taking care of all of the financial aspects of your life. If she is also named as your Health Care POA, she will be able to speak with your medical team, be involved in decisions about your course of care and follow the wishes you’ve expressed in your POA.

If you die, and Carol has also been named your executor, she will be able to transition into this new role by representing you through the probate process. She will be able to work with your estate planning attorney to have your will filed with the court and follow your directions for distribution of your assets.

Having only a last will and testament would not protect you while you are living. Having only a Power of Attorney would not protect your wishes after you have died. All of these documents—and there are others not mentioned here—work together to protect you during life and after you’ve passed.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (Aug. 29, 2022) “Planning for death probably isn’t the most important part of your estate plan”

There are Less Restrictive Alternatives than Guardianship

The benefit of restrictive alternatives to guardianships is that they don’t require court approval or judicial oversight. They are also much easier to set up and end.

The standard for establishing incapacity is also less rigorous than the standard required for a guardianship, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First.”

Limited guardianships. A guardianship takes away an individual’s right to make decisions, just as full guardianships do, but they are specific to only some aspects of the person’s life. A limited guardianship can be established to manage an individual’s finances and estate or to control medical and health care decisions. These types of guardianships still require court approval and must be supported by a showing of incapacity.

Powers of attorney. Powers of attorney can be established for medical or for financial decisions. A second set of eyes ensures that financial decisions are well-considered and not harmful to the individual or his or her estate. A medical power of attorney can allow an agent to get an injunction to protect the health and well-being of the subject, including by seeking a determination of mental incapacity. A durable power of attorney for health care matters gives the agent the right to make medical decisions on behalf of the subject if or when they are unable to do so for themselves. Unlike a guardianship, powers of attorney can be canceled when they are no longer needed.

Assisted decision-making. This agreement establishes a surrogate decision-maker who has visibility to financial transactions. The bank is informed of the arrangement and alerts the surrogate when it identifies an unusual or suspicious transaction. While this arrangement doesn’t completely replace the primary account holder’s authority, it creates a safety mechanism to prevent exploitation or fraud. The bank is on notice that a second approval is required before an uncommon transaction can be completed.

Wills and trusts. These estate planning documents let people map out what will happen in the event they become incapacitated or otherwise incapable of managing their affairs. Trusts can avoid guardianship by appointing a friend or relative to manage money and other assets. A contingent trust will let the executor manage assets if necessary. For seniors, it may be wise to name a co-trustee who can oversee matters and step in should the trustor lose the capacity to make good decisions.

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