What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

Why A Health Care Power of Attorney Makes Sense

Having a Health Care Power of Attorney in place before it is needed, is one of the best ideas of estate planning, along with having a Power of Attorney in place before it is needed. Why? This is because taking a pro-active approach to both of these documents, means that when the unexpected occurs and that is exactly how things occur—unexpectedly—the person or persons you have named for these important roles will be able to step in quickly and made decisions.

Time is often of the essence, when these documents are needed.

According to the article “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney” from The News Enterprise, a health care power of attorney is a document that grants another person the power to make medical decisions for you, when you no longer have the ability to make those decisions for yourself. It is known by a few other names, depending on the state where you live: health care proxy, a medical power of attorney or a health care surrogate.

It needs to have HIPAA-compliant language, which will allow the person you name the ability to review medical information and discuss protected health information with your health care providers.

A health care power of attorney may also include language for an advance medical directive, which gives instructions for end-of-life decisions. This is often called a “living will,” and is your legal right to reject medical treatment, decisions about feeding tubes and the number of doctors required to determine the probability of recovery and pain management.

A health care power of attorney does not generally empower another person to make decisions, until you are unable to do so. Unlike a general durable power of attorney, which permits another person to make financial or business decisions with you while you are living, as long as you are able to understand your medical situation, you are still in charge of your medical decisions.

A guardianship is completely different from these documents. A guardian may only be appointed, if a judge or jury finds you wholly or partially disabled in such a way that you cannot manage your own finances or your health. The appointment of a guardian is a big deal. Once someone has been appointed your guardian, you do not have any legal right to make decisions for yourself. A court will also appoint a legal fiduciary, who will make your financial decisions.

There are record-keeping requirements with a guardianship that do not exist for a power of attorney. The court-appointed representative is responsible for reporting to the court any actions that they have taken on your behalf.

To have power of attorney documents executed, the person must be capable of understanding what they are signing. This means that someone receiving a diagnosis of dementia needs to have these documents prepared, as soon as they learn that their capacity will diminish in the near future.

If the documents are not prepared and executed in a timely fashion, a guardianship proceeding may be the only option. Planning in advance is the best way to ensure that the people you trust are the ones making decisions for you. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney now to have these documents in place.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Oct. 13, 2019) “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney”

Steps to Take as a Parent’s Condition Takes a Turn

An 80-year-old man had seizures several months ago. He was treated in the hospital and since then, has had some lapses in short-term memory. His long-term memory is okay, but he is not retaining day-to-day matters very well. His awareness of a loss of some functionality has left him frustrated and a little depressed, as described in the article “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens” from the Davis Enterprise. The use of some antidepressants and medication has been helpful, and he seems better. However, what should the children be doing, at this time, to prepare for what may come next?

The children should make arrangements to have their parents go see an estate planning attorney soon. The fact that only the wife is power of attorney, and that the forms have not been updated in many years is cause for serious concern. While their mom may be capable right now of handling his personal and financial affairs, the stress of caretaking for her husband is likely to take its toll on her. If the father’s condition deteriorates, she will likely need help. If for some reason she’s unable to act, then it will be far better if the children, or one of the children, has the legal right to step in.

The first question is whether the father has the legal capacity to create new powers of attorney for financial management and health care. To execute a power of attorney, a person must have mental capacity. The legal standard for this is the same as it is for someone signing a contract: the person must understand and appreciate the consequences of the document being signed.

There are four broad categories of mental deficits that impact a person’s capacity: alertness and attention, information processing, thought processes and the ability to modulate mood. Short-term memory problems and depression may be considered deficits in both information processing and mood. However, that is only one part of the analysis.

Most estate planning attorneys will suggest that any client whose mental capacity may be questionable, should obtain a note from their treating physician that they are capable of understanding and signing legal documents. This is not a legal requirement, but it will help if there is a challenge to the documents he signed, and someone claims that he lacked capacity.

If the father indeed has capacity to execute a new power of attorney, then the adult children can be identified as alternates to the wife. If she is not able to act as an agent, then the siblings will be able to step up. However, if he is unable to execute a new power of attorney, the previous power of attorney would be the operative document. If for some reason, the wife is unable to perform as his agent, there is no one to serve as a backup.

In that case, a petition would need to be filed in the probate court to have a child or children appointed conservator. While that would give the child(ren) the same power as a power of attorney, they will also need to report to the court on an on-going basis. Conservatorship proceedings are expensive and time-consuming and should be a last resort.

These problems rarely get better over time. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as possible to prepare for the future.

Reference: Davis Enterprise (Oct. 2019) “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens”

Do you have Kids in College? Are you aware of the Estate Planning Documents they should have?

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Documents that Parents and College Students Need,” explains that many parental rights are no longer applicable, when a child legally reaches adulthood (age 18 in most states).

However, with a few estate planning documents, you can still be involved in your child’s medical and financial affairs. Many parents don’t know that they need these documents. They think they can access a child’s medical and other information, because their son or daughter is still on the family’s insurance plan and the parents are paying the medical and tuition bills.

Here are four documents you and your son or daughter will need:

HIPAA Authorization Form. This is a federal law that protects the privacy of medical records. You child must sign a HIPAA authorization form to let you to receive information from health care providers, such as the college’s health clinic, about their health and treatment. If your son or daughter doesn’t want to share her entire medical record, he or she can set restrictions on what information you can receive.

Medical Power of Attorney. This lets your son or daughter name a person to make medical decisions, if they are incapacitated and unable to make medical decisions. Your child should select both a primary agent and a secondary agent, in the event the first one is unavailable.

Durable Power of Attorney. This lets your son or daughter authorize a person to handle financial or legal matters on his or her behalf. A durable power of attorney is usually written, so it takes effect when a person becomes incapacitated. However, if your child would like you to manage his or her financial accounts or file tax returns while away at school, they can make the document effective immediately.

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act Waiver. Once your child is an adult, you’re no longer entitled to see their grades without express permission. It seems a bit crazy that you can be paying for tuition, but you don’t have access to their academic records. This waiver signed by your child will allow you permission to receive his or her academic record. Many colleges provide this form, or you can find it online.

Once you get these documents, make sure you have ready access to them, if required.

Reference: Kiplinger (September 24, 2019) “Documents that Parents and College Students Need”

Am I Too Young to Think About Estate Planning?

It’s wise for younger generations to consider estate planning, advises The Cleveland Jewish News in the recent article “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that an estate plan is only for older people or the ultra-wealthy. Many younger adults have been financially successful and also have experienced changes with marriage and families.

A young married couple should talk about their vision and goals for their legal affairs, in case something happens to one of them or within their family.

Estate plans provide some certainty into an otherwise uncertain life. There are many reasons to start early. One reason is that you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make certain that all of your assets are in place.

When creating an estate plan, there are a few things that younger people should consider, such as making sure all their accounts have named a beneficiary. This includes life insurance, retirement, and checking and savings accounts. These beneficiaries need to be updated for life and family changes.

Many younger adults will be fine with a will and a health care power of attorney. However, marriage is a time when people have more complexity in their professional lives. This can include starting a business, becoming leaders at companies and needing more complex and protective plans.

While younger generations are known to be independent and to try to meet all their needs online, estate plans should be treated differently. There are numerous online tools or ‘do-it-yourself’ strategies, but professional legal assistance can make it an easier and a more thorough process.

Start as early as you can and set the foundation for more complex planning that will come in the future. This preparation will mean less stress for those left behind, after you pass away.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (September 19, 2019) “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too”

Managing an Aging Parent’s Financial and Legal Life

As parent’s age, it becomes more important for their children or another trusted adult to start helping them with their finances and their legal documents, especially an estate plan. In “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,” ABC7 On Your Side presents the important tasks that need to be done.

Make sure the family knows where important personal and financial documents are in an emergency. Start with a list that includes:

  • Bank, brokerage and credit card statements
  • Original wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and living will
  • Insurance policies
  • Social Security information
  • Pension records
  • Medicare information

They’ll need a list of all accounts, safe deposit boxes, financial institutions and contact information for their estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisors. Even if they don’t want to share this information until an emergency occurs, make sure it is somewhere a family member can find it easily.

Set up direct deposit for any incoming funds. Automating the deposit of pension and benefit checks is far more secure and convenient for everyone. This prevents a delay in funds being deposited and checks can’t be stolen in the mail or lost at home.

Set up automatic bill payment or at least online bill payment. Making these payments automatic will save a lot of time and energy for all concerned. If your parents are not comfortable with an automatic payment, and many are not, try setting up the accounts so they can be paid online. Work with your parents, so they are comfortable with doing this. They will appreciate how much easier it is and saving themselves a trip to the post office.

Have a “Durable Power of Attorney” prepared. This is a legal document prepared by an estate planning attorney that gives one or more people the legal authority to handle finances or other matters, if they become mentally or physically incapacitated.

Have a “Living Will” and a “Healthcare Power of Attorney” prepared. The Healthcare Power of Attorney allows a person to make health care decisions for another person, if they are mentally or physically incapacitated. The Living Will allows a person to express their wishes about end-of-life care, if they are terminally ill and unable to express their wishes.

Take precautions to guard against fraud. Seniors are the chief targets of many scams, for two reasons. If they have any kind of cognitive decline, no matter how slight, they are more likely to comply with a person posing as an authority figure. They have a lifetime of assets and are a “rich” target.

An estate planning attorney can work with your parents to assist in preparing an estate plan and advising the family on how to help their parents as they age. Most estate planning attorneys have access to a large network of related service providers.

Reference: ABC7 On Your Side (Sep. 5, 2019) “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,”

Estate Planning Is for Everyone, at Every Age

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All new adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow someone else to step in, if something occurs.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be merged, and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, in case someone needs to access accounts.

When children join the family. Whether born or adopted, the entrance of children into the family makes an estate plan especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for more than half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any controlling-on-death accounts are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?
Two Wills documents with an Estate Tax form.

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?

Forbes’ recent article, “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have,” says that in this time of life, while emotions are running high, it’s critical to be make sure your financial and legal matters are in order.

Putting together a well thought out financial plan and creating an estate plan lets you be certain that personal, financial, and health wishes will be carried out the way you want. Managing your estate, regardless of the size, starts with working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will help give you greater control, privacy and security of your legacy. Here are the documents you need to get started:

Will. This is a legal document that is used to detail your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets and property, as well as the care of any minor children, by naming a guardian in the event your pass away while they’re still young.

Power of Attorney. This is a written authorization that gives a trusted family or friend the authority to act on your behalf in business, legal, and financial matters, if you’re unable to act for yourself due to a mental or physical disability. The requirements are different in each state, so ask your attorney about the right form and language to include.

Health Care Directive. This is also known as a living will. It is another legal document that states your health-care preferences, in case you become incapacitated or unable to speak for yourself. It also allows you to say how you’d like your end-of-life care to be handled.

Information Document. Another important part of your estate plan is a document that contains bank account information, passwords, insurance policies, contact information for attorneys, financial planners and any other significant data regarding your personal estate and final wishes. It’s also called a Letter of Last Instruction that provides this important information to family in the event of an emergency.

Plan for the future, by making certain that your loved ones know and are able to carry out your final wishes.

Reference: Forbes (August 28, 2019) “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have”

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