What Estate Planning Documents Should Everyone Have?

This is the time of year when people start thinking about getting piles or files of paperwork in order in preparing for a new year and for taxes. A recent article “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents” from The Street gives useful tips on how to do this.

First, the most important documents:

Estate Planning documents, including your Will, Power of Attorney (POA), Healthcare Proxy, Living Will (often called an Advance Care Directive). The will is for asset distribution after death, but other documents are needed to protect you while you’re alive.

The POA is used to name someone to act on your behalf, if you cannot. A POA can be created to be specific, for example, to have someone else pay your bills, or it can be general, letting someone do everything from paying bills to managing the sale of your home. Be cautious about using standard POA documents, since they don’t reflect every situation.

A Healthcare Proxy empowers someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf. The Living Will or Advance Care Directive outlines the type of care you do (or don’t) want when at the end of your life. This alleviates a terrible burden on your loved ones, who may not otherwise know what you would have wanted.

Add a Digital POA so someone will be able to access and manage your online accounts (subject to the terms and conditions of each digital platform).

Your Last Will and Testament conveys how you want your estate—that is, everything you own that does not have a surviving joint owner or a designated beneficiary—to be distributed after death. Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. It is also used to name an executor, the person who will be in charge of carrying out the instructions in the will.

A list of all of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, savings and checking accounts, will make it easier for your executor to identify and distribute assets. Don’t forget to check to see which accounts allow you to name a beneficiary and make sure those names are correct.

Both wills and trusts are used to convey assets to beneficiaries, but unlike a will, “funded” trusts don’t go through the probate process. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a trust to distribute almost any kind of property and follow your specific directions. Do you want your children to gain access to the trust after they have reached a certain age? Or when they have married and had children of their own? A trust allows for greater control of your assets.

Finally, talk with your family members about your estate plan, your wishes for end-of-life medical care and what you want to happen after you die. Write a letter of intent if it’s too hard to have a face-to-face conversation about these topics, but find a way to let them know. Your estate planning attorney has worked with many families and will be able to provide you with suggestions and guidance.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 20, 2021) “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents”

Should Young Adults have a Will?

Young adults are starting to get their affairs in order, contacting estate planning attorneys because they are concerned about dying unexpectedly. A study by Caring.com, a senior referral service, said that almost a third of young adults, ages 18—34, had a will in 2021, compared to 18% in 2019. The leap, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Millennials, Feeling Their Mortality During Covid-19, Start Writing Their Wills” can be directly attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The concern over continued uncertainty regarding whether the young adults themselves or their family members will become sick, and die is all too real. Millennials also haven’t experienced another event: sharply rising inflation. The general sense of unease and instability is leading young adults to make sure they have wills and healthcare proxies in place to give some sense of control in the face of an unstable world. Those with young families are especially concerned, as new variants of Covid emerge.

Before the pandemic, young adults, even with those with children, didn’t feel the need to have an estate plan created. That’s changed.

Just under half of all Americans have a will, and people 65 and up have traditionally been more likely to have one, according to a May 2021 study by Gallup. This number has been relatively stable since about 1990.

If you die without a will, the state law determines how to distribute assets, under court supervision. The process is slower and far more costly for survivors. In many situations, not having a will can be catastrophic. If beneficiaries with special needs inherit funds outright, and not in a Supplemental Needs Trust (or a Special Needs Trust), they could lose government benefits necessary for their day-to-day lives.

Wills are also used to name a guardian to care for minor children. If both parents die and there is no will, a court will decide who should raise a child. The court may not necessarily name a family member, and the person may not be who the parents or grandparents might have wished.

Similarly, news about young celebrities dying unexpectedly also pushes the “go” button for millennials to get their wills completed. When Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs died of a fentanyl overdose in 2019, calls to estate planning attorneys from millennial males increased in many law offices. At the same time, millennials who are aware of the importance of a will for themselves and their families are pressing their parents to get their wills prepared or updated.

In every case, having a will is far less costly than not having a will. The cost of preparing a will depends on many factors: the size of the estate, the complexity of the family situation, the nature of assets and where the will is being prepared. Other documents are necessary. For example, every adult should have a power of attorney, health care proxy, living will and possibly a trust.

The last gift you leave your heirs is a plan and organized documents, so they can grieve properly after you pass, rather than having to embark on a scavenger hunt through decades of paperwork and old files.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 6, 2021) “Millennials, Feeling Their Mortality During Covid-19, Start Writing Their Wills”

Should I Start Estate Planning Now?

The coronavirus has taken a toll on our finances, as well as our physical and mental health. As a result, it’s important to plan appropriately for your health care and financial needs in an estate plan to provide much-needed peace of mind, say Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning During a Pandemic – Quit Stalling.” The article lists the important components of a comprehensive estate plan:

Advance Health Care Directive. This is a written plan that states your wishes, in the event you can’t speak for yourself. Your wishes need to be in writing, and the document should be updated as your health changes. Review your advance health care directive with your doctor and the person you select as your health care proxy to be certain it’s completed correctly.

Health Care Power of Attorney. This legal document lets you name someone who can review your medical records and make decisions, such as how and where you should be treated. This would be applicable, if you were incapacitated and unable to make medical decisions for yourself.

Living Will. A living will is a type of advance health care directive that specifically states your end-of-life decisions in the event you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious. This covers specific medical treatments, like CPR, ventilation, pain management, tube feeding and organ and tissue donation.

Financial Power of Attorney. This document lets you name someone to help with your finances, if you become incapacitated and unable to do so. You can state how much control your power of attorney will have, like accessing accounts, selling stock and managing real estate.

Trusts. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a trust to protect your assets as you pass them down to your heirs. If your children or grandchildren aren’t old enough or mature enough to handle their inheritance, you can set up a trust that provides them with a small amount of money each year, increasing that amount as they get older. You can also direct that the money be specifically used for an adult child’s mortgage or student loans.

Beneficiaries. Many people forget to update their life insurance policies, bank, brokerage accounts and retirement plans. These all have beneficiary forms, which supersede a will. These should be updated, along with your estate plan, every few years and after every major life change. That’s something like a marriage, divorce, death, adoption, or birth.

Make certain that you are reviewing and updating your estate plan when you review your retirement plan each year or so.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Oct. 31, 2021) “Estate Planning During a Pandemic – Quit Stalling”

How Important Is an Estate Plan?

Estate planning is preparing for two things: incapacity and death. It includes making sure you’ve conveyed your wishes about medical care in the case of a serious or terminal illness, who you want to receive your possessions when you pass and a series of documents to tell your loved ones your wishes. A recent article from The Street, “Everyone Needs an Estate Plan,” explains how to make this happen.

The foundation of the estate plan is your will, aka Last Will and Testament. It’s used to name several individuals for key roles. One is a guardian for minor children—if you don’t have a will or fail to name a guardian, a court will decide who should raise your children. Another is the executor, the person who will be in charge of overseeing your estate and your instructions. If you have animal companions, you may name a person to be their caretaker. However, you may want to go a step further and create a pet trust to provide funds for their maintenance.

You’ll also want a Living Will. This is a document conveying your wishes, if you are no longer able to make healthcare decisions for yourself. It focuses on end of life care. Do you want to be kept alive with artificial means, and if so, which ones are acceptable? How would you want pain management to be handled? Do you want to donate your organs? Yes, it’s a little scary, but imagine your loved ones in a highly emotional state having to guess what you would have wanted. It’s better for you and your family to know what you would want.

A personalized Power of Attorney. Naming a person as a Power of Attorney lets them handle your financial affairs and act as your agent or representative. However, here’s a pitfall: using a standardized form can lead to trouble. You may want your POA to be able to manage your day-to-day finances, but there may be some things you’d prefer them not to do. A customized POA can be as broad or as narrow as you wish.

Healthcare Power of Attorney and HIPAA Authorization. Information and decision making about healthcare today is complicated today. Your representatives will need to have these documents to speak with your medical care providers, to make decisions and to gain access to your medical records. Without a HIPAA form, you won’t be able to see their medical records, even if you are a sibling or spouse. It’s best to have these documents in place long before they are needed.

The laws about these and other estate planning documents vary from state to state. Therefore, you’ll need to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area to make sure that all of your documents are valid. If you own a business or have a complex financial situation, there are many legal methods to protect your assets and convey them to your heirs.

Reference: The Street (Nov. 22, 2021) “Everyone Needs an Estate Plan”

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

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning

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

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

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

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

A few questions to get started:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can My Power of Attorney Change My Will?

A power of attorney can’t change a properly written will. But note that an agent can make many changes to the assets in the estate, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Can a Power of Attorney Change a Will?”

A power of attorney is a document that grants a person, known as the attorney in fact or agent, the authority to make legally binding decisions on your behalf. This can mean managing financial assets, making choices regarding medical care, signing contracts and other commitments.

Your attorney in fact can access confidential materials and their decisions are as binding as if you had made them yourself. In some instances, you may want your power of attorney to be broad and at other times you may want to limit the authority under your power of attorney by time, scope, or both.

Provided a will is valid, an attorney in fact under a power of attorney can’t modify or rewrite it. It’s not within their scope of authority, even if it specifically says otherwise in their power of attorney assignment.

A will written by a power of attorney is invalid on its face.

The authority of a power of attorney typically ends once the principal (the person granting authority) dies. At that point, the principal’s legal rights transfer to their estate. The executor of the estate takes over and manages all of the deceased’s affairs from that point forward.

Thus, an attorney in fact appointed under a power of attorney can’t change a will while the principal is alive because they don’t have the authority to do so. In addition, they can’t change an estate once the principal dies because their role as attorney in fact under the power of attorney ends with his or her death.

It’s important to understand that a person with a general power of attorney can still change the circumstances surrounding a will. He or she can make changes to your estate—essentially, before it becomes your estate. For example, an attorney in fact can make significant financial decisions on your behalf. As a result, they may be able to restructure your personal finances according to their own best judgment. The effect is that it may invalidate sections of your will if the power of attorney dissolves or changes assets that you had assigned to various heirs. This doesn’t always require bad faith and unfair dealing, but that can also occur.

If you include a general power of attorney as part of your elder care plan, you should discuss your estate wishes with your attorney in fact in advance. Remember that issues such as power of attorney and estate law are highly specific to each state. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about a power of attorney.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Sep. 17, 2021) “Can a Power of Attorney Change a Will?”

What Estate Planning Does My Child Need at 18?
Chocolate birthday cake with birthday candles.

What Estate Planning Does My Child Need at 18?

This 18th birthday milestone legally notes the transition from minors to official adults, bringing with it major changes in legal status, says NJ Family’s recent article entitled “What You Need to Know (Legally and Medically) On Your Teen’s 18th Birthday.”

Adults—even your 18-year-old— is entitled to privacy rights. This means that anyone not given explicit rights via a power of attorney and HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) release, among other important documents, can be denied info and access—even parents. Here’s what every family should have:

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney (POA) gives an agent (such as you as the parent) the authority to act on behalf of a principal (your adult child) in specific matters stated in the POA.

You can also have a POA for medical decisions and one for finances.

HIPAA Release. When kids become legal adults, they have a right to complete health privacy under HIPAA. That means no one can see their information without permission, even you!

Ask your child to sign a HIPAA release form (which is often included along with the medical power of attorney), to let their health providers share relevant information.

Wills. A simple Will is a good idea. It may also be a good time for you to review your estate plan to see how circumstances changed.

The wisest and safest way to get a credit card for your adult child is to add your child to your account. That way you can monitor transactions. Students also get an immediate bump in their credit score, which is important for renting apartments. However, the main point is to teach them skills and how to be responsible with money.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about drafting all of the necessary legal documents for your newly-minted legally adult kid.

Reference: NJ Family (Oct. 6, 2021) “What You Need to Know (Legally and Medically) On Your Teen’s 18th Birthday”

When Should I Consult with an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys assist seniors or their family caregivers with legal issues and planning that related to the aging process. These attorneys frequently help with tax planning, disability planning, probate and administration of an estate, nursing home placement and many other legal issues.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney,” explains that elder law attorneys are specialists who work with seniors or caregivers of aging family members on legal matters that older adults face as they age. Many specialize in Medicaid planning to help protect a person’s financial assets, when they have Alzheimer’s disease or another debilitating illness that may require long-term care. They can also usually draft estate documents, including a durable power of attorney for health and medical needs, and even a trust for an adult child with special needs.

As you get older, there are legal issues you, your spouse or your family caregivers face. These issues can also change. For instance, you should have powers of attorney for financial and health needs, in case you or your spouse become incapacitated. You might also need an elder law attorney to help transfer assets, if you or your spouse move into a nursing home to avoid spending your life savings on long-term care.

Elder law attorneys can help with a long list of legal matters seniors frequently face, including the following:

  • Preservation and transfer of assets
  • Accessing health care in a nursing home or other managed care environment and long-term care placements
  • Estate and disability planning
  • Medicare, Social Security and disability claims and appeals
  • Supplemental insurance and long-term health insurance claims and appeals
  • Elder abuse and fraud recovery
  • Conservatorships and guardianships
  • Housing discrimination and home equity conversions
  • Health and mental health law.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2021) “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney”

Why Should I Update My Estate Plan?

The majority of Americans don’t have an updated estate plan in place. This can create a major headache for their families, in the event that anything happens to them.

Fox 43’s recent article entitled “Majority of Americans have outdated estate plans” explains that estate planning is making some decisions now for what you want to happen in the future, if you’re unable to make decisions then.

It’s important that every adult has an estate plan in place. Moreover, as you get older and you have a family, an estate plan becomes even more important.

These decisions can impact your family. It involves deciding who will care for your children. If you’re a parent with children under the age of 18, your estate plan can name the guardians of those children.

This is accomplished by having a clause in your will that states which person(s) will have the responsibility of caring for your minor children, in the event that you and your spouse pass away unexpectantly.

In your will, you’ll also name an executor who will carry out your wishes after your death.

You may ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether you should have a trust to protect some of your assets.

You also should have your attorney draft a power of attorney, healthcare directive, living will and HIPAA waiver.

Many people don’t know where to get started. However, the good thing is ultimately it’s your decisions about what you want to happen, if you are unable to care for your loved ones.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney and do this sooner rather than later.

Reference: Fox 43 (Oct. 27, 2021) “Majority of Americans have outdated estate plans”

How Does Power of Attorney Work?

Depending on how you structure a power of attorney, an agent can – in some instances – transfer money and property to themselves.

However, it’s uncommon and only allowed in specific circumstances and the laws vary by state.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Can a Power of Attorney Transfer Money to Themselves?” explains that a power of attorney is when you assign someone (known as an agent or attorney-in-fact) the authority to make legally binding decisions on your behalf. Most of these documents have a limited grant of authority.

A general power of attorney is a type of durable power of attorney (the other two are special power of attorney and healthcare or medical power of attorney). With this, an agent is permitted to make just about any decisions at all on your behalf while the power of attorney assignment remains valid. However, even a general power of attorney has limits.

An agent typically can’t transfer money, personal property, real estate, or any other assets from the grantee to him or herself, and it’s usually deemed a fraudulent conveyance.

However, a power of attorney can transfer assets to themselves, if they have specific written consent from the grantee (or creator of the document).

The grantee can authorize most forms of property transfer, provided the assets are theirs to give and the authorization is specific.

A grantee can only give this authority to an agent, if he or she is mentally and legally competent.

If you think you’ll want your power of attorney to have this authority at some point, be sure to write it out in the original grant because you may not be able legally to amend this document when the issue comes up in the future.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Sep. 21, 2021) “Can a Power of Attorney Transfer Money to Themselves?”