What Can a Strong Estate Planning Attorney Help Me Accomplish?

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “When Should I Start My Estate Planning?” explains that, as we settle down, we should start considering how we’ll provide for and protect those you love.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney—one with the knowledge and skill to help you design a workable, legally binding estate plan that will keep your assets safe as they accumulate, protect your spouse and children and consider the possibility that you may become incapacitated when you least expect it.

No matter what your age, the estate planning attorney you hire should have outstanding credentials and testimonials to his/her efficiency and personal concern.

This legal professional must be able to:

  • Listen, understand, and address your individual needs
  • Clarify your options
  • Draft, review, and file all necessary estate planning documents
  • Make certain your estate plan covers all contingencies; and
  • Is prepared to modify your documents as your life circumstances change.

When you see that the future is unpredictable, you realize that estate planning can help you make that future as secure as possible.

Estate planning can be as complicated as it is essential. Accordingly, regardless of our age, speak with a highly competent estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shown us, planning for the unexpected can never be addressed too soon.

Reference: Legal Reader (June 23, 2020) “When Should I Start My Estate Planning?”

What Parts of Estate Plan Should Be Reviewed in the Pandemic?

Forbes’ April article entitled “6 Parts Of Your Estate Plan You Should Review Now” discusses several items in your plan that should be examined, in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

In this pandemic, who will make important financial and medical decisions for you, if you’re unable to make them for yourself?

Make certain that you’ve designated a person who is trustworthy and reliable. Don’t forget to name a back-up for your power of attorney and health care proxy.

Look at your will. Make sure the person you’ve named as the executor of your estate is current. This is the individual who’ll attend to your affairs after you die and take care of probating your will, if necessary. She will also file income and tax returns on behalf of the estate. If you have minor children, name a guardian for them in the will.

Review your trust. Your revocable living trust usually benefits you while you’re alive. It can also be used to benefit others, such as a spouse and children. Name those who will receive the assets at your death. If your beneficiaries are minors or not mature enough to handle a sizeable sum, you might hold assets for them in trust, until they’re old enough to handle the money themselves. Review your decision regarding your trustee and see that this is the right person to administer the trust, based on your wishes.

Be sure to fund the trust. This will avoid probate of the assets on your death and lets the successor trustee control the assets for your benefit, if you’re incapacitated. If you fail to do so, it will create a host of problems after you’re gone. Your heirs will need court authority to access your assets, which can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Update your beneficiary designations. This includes the beneficiary designations on your life insurance policies, retirement accounts and any brokerage accounts that are payable on death to a beneficiary.

Ask your estate planning attorney about taking advantage of estate tax opportunities. It is important to have everything in order in the pandemic.

Reference: Forbes (April 15, 2020) “6 Parts Of Your Estate Plan You Should Review Now”

What If Grandma Didn’t Have a Will and Died from COVID-19?

The latest report shows about 1.87 million reported cases and at least 108,000 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to data released by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Here’s a question that is being asked a lot these days: What happens if someone dies “intestate,” or without having established a will or estate plans?

If you die without a will in California and many other states, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” statutes.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “My loved one died without a will – now what?” explains that there are laws in each state that will dictate what happens, if you die without a will.

In Pennsylvania, the laws list the order of who receives upon your death, if you die without a will: your spouse, your children, and then your parents (if still alive), your siblings, and then on down the line to cousins, aunts and uncles, and the like. Typically, first on every state’s list is the spouse and the children.

You may also have some valuable assets that will not pass via your will and aren’t affected by your state’s intestate succession laws. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Any property that you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • Your life insurance proceeds
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • A payable-on-death bank account
  • Your vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration; or
  • Property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship.

These types of assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

It’s quite unusual for the government to claim a deceased person’s estate. While it might be allowed in some states, it’s considered a last resort. Typically, we all have some relatives.

If you have a loved one who has died without a will, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your next steps.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (June 1, 2020) “My loved one died without a will – now what?”

How Do I Avoid the Three Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes?

After you die, your last will and testament must be approved by the local probate court. The judge will determine if the document is the last will of the deceased, review the inventory of the estate and confirm who will administer the estate proceeds. It’s known as “executing” a will.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones” discusses some mistakes that people make and how to avoid them.

  1. You don’t have a will, or you have a will that was written in another state. You also should have a current will. Life changes, and you need a will for where you live in now. Residency is defined differently in each state, and an out-of-state will delays the probate process, because it fails to satisfy state requirements. Worse yet, it may even be declared invalid.

If there is no will, the deceased is said to have died “intestate,” and his estate must go through probate. However, an administrator will be named by the judge to distribute assets, according to state law. It can be a lengthy and often costly process.

Some people don’t want to hire an attorney to create their estate plan or write a will, because they believe it’s too expense or they never get around to doing it. However, if you die without a will, the legal costs will be even more and that will be paid by your estate—that decreases what’s left to give to your heirs.

  1. Mixing up estate taxes with probate. Your estate may be too small to be subject to federal tax, if it is less than the $11.58 million exemption. However, you still will be subject to probate and possibly a state estate tax. Therefore, you still need an estate plan.
  2. Disregarding easy things to keep some assets from probate. Most states have a “mini-probate” that is expedited for small estates. With this process, heirs may have fewer fees, less paperwork and shorter waiting.

You can also create a living trust (revocable trust) to avoid probate altogether, if done correctly. This is a legal vehicle to which all of your assets pass upon your death. Ask an estate planning lawyer to help you create a trust, because they can be complicated. Whether you need a trust, a will, or both, an experienced estate planning attorney has worked through a variety of situations and will have sound and creative ideas. Investing time and money with an attorney makes life easier for you now and for your family later.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 18, 2020) “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones”

What You Need to Know about Drafting Your Will

A last will and testament is just one of the legal documents that you should have in place to help your loved ones know what your wishes are, if you can’t say so yourself, advises CNBC’s recent article entitled, “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will.” In this pandemic, the coronavirus may have you thinking more about your mortality.

Despite COVID-19, it’s important to ponder what would happen to your bank accounts, your home, your belongings or even your minor children, if you’re no longer here. You should prepare a will, if you don’t already have one. It is also important to update your will, if it’s been written.

If you don’t have a valid will, your property will pass on to your heirs by law. These individuals may or may not be who you would have provided for in a will. If you pass away with no will —dying intestate — a state court decides who gets your assets and, if you have children, a judge says who will care for them. As a result, if you have an unmarried partner or a favorite charity but have no legal no will, your assets may not go to them.

The courts will typically pass on assets to your closest blood relatives, despite the fact that it wouldn’t have been your first choice.

Your will is just one part of a complete estate plan. Putting a plan in place for your assets helps ensure that at your death, your wishes will be carried out and that family fights and hurt feelings don’t make for destroyed relationships.

There are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, 401(k) plans, pensions, IRAs and life insurance policies.

Therefore, the individual designated as beneficiary on those accounts will receive the money, despite any directions to the contrary in your will. If there’s no beneficiary is listed on those accounts, or the beneficiary has already passed away, the assets automatically go into probate—the process by which all of your debt is paid off and then the remaining assets are distributed to heirs.

If you own a home, be certain that you know the way in which it should be titled. This will help it end up with those you intend, since laws vary from state to state.

Ask an estate planning attorney in your area — to ensure familiarity with state laws—for help with your will and the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: CNBC (June 1, 2020) “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will”

What Should I Keep in My Safety Deposit Box?

A safe deposit box isn’t a smart choice for everything. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box” advises that there are some items you might not want to lock up in your bank, which isn’t open nights, holidays, or weekends. zin this pandemic, hours of operation for many businesses are reduced. In fact, some financial institutions, like Bank of America, have temporarily closed some locations. There are other banks that require an appointment for in-branch services, like accessing your safe deposit box. This would create a headache for you in your attempt to retrieve important documents or items when you need them.

Here are some important items you should store elsewhere, because you’ll need to access more often or on short notice. Maybe they should be in a fireproof safe that’s secured to the floor in your home.

Cash. Keeping a wad of cash in a safe deposit box, isn’t a good idea because if you need it in a pinch and the bank is closed, you’re out of luck. In addition, that cash will lose its buying power over time because of inflation and some banks don’t allow cash in a safe deposit box. Finally, cash in a safe deposit box isn’t protected by the FDIC. To have FDIC insurance (covering up to $250,000 per depositor per insured bank), your cash needs to be deposited in a qualifying deposit account, such as a checking account, savings account, or CD.

Your Passport. OK, most of us don’t need your passport in hand at a moment’s notice. However, you may need to take an emergency trip, which will happen during non-banking hours. Without your passport handy, there’s not much you can do about those calls in the middle of the night requiring you to dash.

The Original Copy of Your Will. You may want to keep a copy of your own will, your spouse’s and any in which you’re named the executor in a safe deposit box. However, don’t store the original copy of your will there, particularly if you’re the only owner of the safe deposit box. That’s because after your death, the bank will seal the safe deposit box, until your executor can prove she has the legal right to access it. This could mean a long and potentially expensive delay before your will is executed and your assets can be disbursed to the intended heirs. Keep the original copy of your will with your estate planning attorney or in a location where your executor can get to it without any legal hassles.

Letters of Instruction. Many people write a letter of instruction to accompany their will. This letter can describe whether you want to be buried or cremated and the type of service you want. This letter can include details on specific bequests of sentimental items, but it’s no help if its’ locked in your safe deposit box.

Durable Power of Attorney (POA). This document gives a trusted friend, family member, or professional adviser the authority to financial make decisions on your behalf. However, if your POA is in a safe deposit box that no one can access, the person you’re depending on to protect you at your time of need could find her hands tied. Keep the original POA with the original copy of your will and give copies to those who may need it one day.

Advance Directives. A living will and a health care proxy are sometimes collectively known as advance directives, but each has a unique purpose. A living will states your wishes for end-of-life care, and a health care proxy (also known as a health care power of attorney) names a person to make medical decisions for you, if you can’t make them yourself. Neither is any good locked away in an inaccessible safe deposit box.

Uninsured Jewelry and Collectibles. Heirloom jewelry and your valuable stamp collection and rare coins are good candidates for a safe deposit box, but they must be properly insured. The FDIC doesn’t insure safe deposit box contents, and neither does the bank, unless it’s stated in your agreement.

Any Illegal or Dangerous Items. Your bank should provide you with a list of items that are not permissible to keep in a safe deposit box. This will include things like firearms, illegal drugs and hazardous materials.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 1, 2020) “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box”

What Should My Estate Plan Include?

The Huffington Post’s recent article entitled “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic” says that almost everyone should have an estate plan—even if there’s no major health threat. If you don’t have one, right now is a great time to put it together.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most critical documents to have are medical and financial powers of attorney. You should name someone to do your banking or make your medical decisions, if you are quarantined in your home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. When you have those in place, you need to create a comprehensive estate plan. Let’s look at the documents you should have and what they mean.

  1. A Financial Power of Attorney. This is a legal document that gives your agent authority to take care of your financial affairs and protect your assets by acting on your behalf. For example, your agent can pay bills, write checks, make deposits, sell or purchase assets, or file your tax returns. Without an FPOA, there’s no one who can act on your behalf. Family members will have to petition the probate court to appoint a guardian to have these powers, and this can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
  2. A Health Care Power of Attorney. Like a financial power of attorney, this legal document gives an agent the power to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you become incompetent or incapacitated. If you’re over the age of 18 and don’t have an HCPOA, your family members will have to ask the probate court to again appoint a guardian with these powers.
  3. A Living Will (Advance Health Care Directive). This allows you to legally determine the type of end-of-life treatment you want to receive, in the event you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious and cannot survive without life support. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support is thrust upon your health care agent or family members, and it can be an extremely stressful decision. If you draft a living will, you detail your wishes and take that decision out of their hands.
  4. A HIPAA Waiver. An advance health care directive will likely contain language that allows your agent to access your medical records, but frequently hospitals will refuse access to medical information without a separate HIPAA waiver. This lets your agents and family members access your medical data so they can speak freely with your physicians, if there is a medical emergency or you become incapacitated.
  5. A Will. A last will and testament is a legal document through which you direct how you want your assets disbursed when you pass away. It also allows you to name an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the distribution of your assets will be dictated by state law, and the court will name someone to oversee the administration of your estate. A will also lets you name a guardian to take care of your minor children.
  6. A Living Trust. A revocable living trust is a legal tool whereby you create an entity to hold title to your assets. You can change your trust at any time, and you can set it up to outlive you. In the event you become incapacitated or are unable to manage your estate, your trust will bypass a court-appointed conservatorship. A trust also gives you privacy concerning the details of your estate, because it avoids probate, which is a public process. A living trust can also help provide for the care, support, and education of your children, by releasing funds or assets to them at an age you set. A living trust can also leave your assets to your children in a way that will lessen the ability of their creditors or ex-spouses to take your children’s inheritance from them.

Reference: The Huffington Post (April 7, 2020) “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic”

What Do I Do If I’m Named Financial Power of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a document whereby the “principal” appoints a trusted someone known as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on behalf of the principal, especially when the principal is incapacitated. It typically permits the attorney-in-fact to pay the principal’s bills, access his accounts, pay his taxes and buy and sell investments or even real estate. In effect, the attorney-in-fact steps into the shoes of the principal and is able to act for him in all matters, as described in the POA document.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” says these responsibilities may sound overwhelming, and it’s only natural to feel this way initially. Let’s look at the steps to take to do this important job:

  1. Don’t panic but begin reading. Review the POA document and determine what the principal has given you power to do on his behalf. A POA will typically include information addressed to the agent that explains the legal duties he or she owes to the principal.
  2. See what you have to handle for the principal. Create a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the principle is organized, it’ll be easy. If not, you will need to find their brokerage and bank accounts, 401(k)s/IRAs/403(b)s, the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other bills (utilities, phone, cable and internet).
  3. Protect the principal’s property. Be sure the principal’s home is secure and make a video inventory of the home. If it looks like your principal will be incapacitated for an extended period of time, you may cancel the phone and newspaper subscriptions. You may need to change the locks on the principal’s home. If you have control of the principal’s investments and their incapacitation may continue for a long time, review their brokerage statements for high-risk positions that you don’t understand, like options, puts and calls, or commodities. Get advice on liquidating positions you don’t have the know-how to handle.
  4. Pay all bills, as necessary. Look at your principal’s bills and credit card statements for potential fraud. Perhaps you should suspend their credit cards that you won’t be using on the principal’s behalf. Note that they may have bills automatically paid by credit card and plan accordingly.
  5. Pay the taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes during the principal’s lifetime. If the principal passes away, the executor of the principal’s last will is responsible for preparing any final taxes.
  6. Keep meticulous records. Track every expenditure you make and every action you take on the principal’s behalf. You’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests. It will also be important for you to receive reimbursement for expenses, and (if the power of attorney provides for it) the time you spent acting as agent.

Finally, you must always act in the principal’s best interest.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

Why Do I Need an Advanced Healthcare Directive?

During the prime of our lives, we typically don’t give much attention to thoughts about becoming seriously ill or about the end of life. Conversations about sickness and your own mortality aren’t easy topics to raise. However, it’s important for us to approach these heavy topics with our families, so we rest easy knowing their needs will be met if or when our health fails.

Rome News-Tribune’s recent article entitled “Things to know before drafting a living will” explains that an advanced healthcare directive, also called a living will, is a legal document in which you can detail the specific types of medical care and comfort treatment that you want, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself because of illness or incapacity. A living will can state whether life support should be used and whether pain medication should be administered.

A living will is separate and distinct from a traditional will. A will is a legal document that states how you would like your assets distributed after you pass away.

A living will is not always required, if you don’t have any strong feelings about the decisions made on your behalf while you are incapacitated. However, if you do want to provide instruction about your treatment and care, a living will is the best way to be certain that your choices will be carried out. Here are some other questions you may want to ask yourself about a living will.

  • Do I want to eliminate the stress of difficult decisions from my family? A living will can relieve your grieving family of the responsibility of making very tough decisions of invoking lifesaving (“heroic”) measures.
  • Do I have strong feelings about life-saving methods? A living will allows you to state your exact preferences on feeding tubes, life support when brain function is minimal and many other circumstances.
  • Do I have a trusted person who is able to carry out wishes? A health care proxy is an individual that you name and give the power to make decisions for you, if you are unable to express your preferences for medical treatment. Along with a living will, the health care proxy or “durable medical power of attorney” can fulfill your wishes accordingly.

Ask your estate planning attorney about this important component of medical and estate planning.

Reference: Rome News-Tribune (March 7, 2020) “Things to know before drafting a living will”