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”

Did Actress Anne Heche have a Will?

Homer Laffoon, actress Anne Heche’s 20-year-old son, is asking that he be awarded control of his mother’s assets. His mother died last month after a car crash at age 53 and did not have a will, according to a copy of the petition obtained by CNN.

“Filed concurrently with this petition is a Petition for Appointment of Guardian ad Litem for the minor,” the docs read, “which specifically requests that the guardian ad litem be granted the authority to waive bond on behalf of the minor.”

The petition names Laffoon and Heche’s 13-year-old son, Atlas Tupper as heirs.

“The Estate consists of two (2) intestate heirs—Homer Heche Laffoon and Atlas Heche Tupper,” the petition states “Homer Heche Laffoon is an adult and the proposed Administrator. Atlas Heche Tupper is a minor.”

CNN’s recent article entitled “Anne Heche’s son petitions to assume control of her estate” reports that an October 11 hearing is scheduled to evaluate this request. Also, it’s been noted that the estimated worth of Anne Heche’s estate will need to undergo forensic accounting. That’s because it’s not known how much the star was worth upon her death.

While there’s no official will documenting Heche’s wishes for her estate, Homer’s stated that his mom’s final resting place will be at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. She also designated her organs for donation at her passing before her remains were cremated.

In the aftermath of the grief, these unexpected events will provide some legal hurdles.

Heche’s car crashed into a Los Angeles home and erupted into flames on August 5. She experienced a “severe anoxic brain injury,” depriving her brain of oxygen, among other critical injuries, her family and friends said in a statement. Anne passed away a few days later after being taken off life support.

“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom. After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness,” Lafoon said in statement to CNN on Aug. 14. “Hopefully my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom.”

Reference: CNN (Sep. 1, 2022) “Anne Heche’s son petitions to assume control of her estate”

Why Is a Will So Important?

A 2020 Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans have a will or have made plans regarding how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have one.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will” says that no matter your age, it’s important to have a will to be in control of what happens with your own assets. A will is a legal document that establishes a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.

Without this type of legal document, the state law may control who gets your “probate” assets and when. Having one can save an enormous amount of time and money in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children, if needed.

There’s a big difference between a will and a living will. A living will is a document that lets you state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical situations, if you’re unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.

These differ by state law. However, they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options. General medical decisions unrelated to end of life care are typically covered in a health care power of attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive.

Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, it lets you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate. If you have minor children, it also allows you to nominate a guardian for them.

When creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.” To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What assets do you have?
  • To whom do you want to leave them?
  • Who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
  • Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
  • How do you want the assets transferred?

Reference: Yahoo News (Aug. 17, 2022) “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will”

What’s the Latest with the Queen of Soul’s Estate?

Clearing the Queen of Soul’s tax debts could clear the way for her four sons to finally take over her post-death affairs and fully benefit from revenues flowing into her estate — which could be millions of dollars.

The Detroit Free Press reports in its recent article entitled “Aretha Franklin estate says $7.8 million IRS bill is paid; could spell windfall for sons” reports that Franklin’s tax burden had been an immovable hurdle as her heirs sorted out other estate matters — sometimes combatively — in Oakland County Probate Court following her 2018 death.

The IRS debt prevented the sons from receiving money, even while the late star’s music and movie projects generated big revenue in her name. The remaining tax liability was paid off in June with delivery of a cashier’s check to the IRS.

The IRS said that the singer’s estate had nearly $8 million in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest that had piled up during the previous seven years. The estate at last struck a deal with the IRS in April 2021 with an accelerated payoff schedule that also set up limited but regular payments to Franklin’s sons.

The IRS deal earmarked 45% of incoming Aretha Franklin revenue to pay down the standing tax balance. Another 40% was directed to an escrow account to handle taxes on newly generated income.

With the tax debt now purportedly off its back, the estate contends that most of the incoming cash should get distributed equally among the four sons each month. From that point, income tax obligations would be on each individual. Oakland County (MI) Probate Judge Jennifer Callaghan would have to approve the request.

In the meantime, there’s still the issue of multiple wills that were apparently signed by Franklin. That includes three handwritten documents discovered in her home in 2019.

A fourth will draft suddenly was discovered last year — a typed document prepared by a Troy law firm in 2017 but left unsigned by the star.

The documents contain conflicting instructions about Franklin’s wishes for her estate, including which heirs were to get what, and their emergence exacerbated tensions among sons Clarence, Edward, Teddy and Kecalf.

A trial to clear up the situation was planned for 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Reference: Detroit Free Press (July 11, 2022) “Aretha Franklin estate says $7.8 million IRS bill is paid; could spell windfall for sons”

Did COVID Spark More Estate Planning?

Those who have had a serious bout with the coronavirus (COVID-19) are 66% more likely to have created a will than those who did not get as sick, according to Caring.com’s 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study.

COVID has accounted for more than one million deaths in the United States thus far.

MSN’s recent article entitled “More Young Adults Are Making This Surprising and Smart Money Move” says that it may be even more surprising that the number of adults in the 18-to-34 age range who now have estate planning documents has jumped 50% in the pandemic era.

Nonetheless, many people of all ages continue to put off the process of creating this key estate planning document.

Two-thirds of Americans still don’t have a will.

Caring.com found that among those who don’t have a will, a third say they think they don’t have enough wealth to warrant one.

However, even if you don’t have an expensive home, a large IRA and other valuable assets to pass on, you can still benefit from creating a will.

There’s no minimum level of wealth needed to have an estate plan, and every adult should have a basic plan in place to care for their own needs and the needs of their family.

The Caring.com survey of more than 2,600 adults found that—you guessed it—good old-fashioned procrastination is the primary reason people don’t create a will. About 40% admit to this factor.

Not surprisingly, the survey also found that those with higher incomes are more likely to put off getting a will due to procrastination.

Those people with lower incomes don’t prioritize a will because they don’t feel they have the assets to justify this important legal document.

Reference: MSN (July 24, 2022) “More Young Adults Are Making This Surprising and Smart Money Move”

What If Your Spouse Refuses Estate Planning?

Blended families are quite common in the U.S.

A married couple may have a small child—but one spouse may also have children from a first marriage. The spouse may be concerned about assets and protecting those older children in estate planning.

A spouse on a second or third marriage may insist on a prenup with the other spouse relinquishing any rights. As compensation, many spouses will purchase life insurance with the other spouse as beneficiary. However, what if this plan never comes to fruition?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My husband won’t make an estate plan. What can I do?” says that many spouses want to provide for children from a first marriage. However, second marriages can get messy when it comes to estate plans.

Even if the spouse doesn’t help, there are steps a recently married individual can take. One thing is having estate documents prepared by an experienced wills, trusts and estate attorney.

Another is to secure life insurance policies that designate the child or children of the second marriage as beneficiary and naming their mother or father as trustee.

A life insurance policy is a non-probate asset; as such, a beneficiary can receive the proceeds from the policy more quickly than if they had to wait for your estate to be settled through a probate court.

A person in this situation should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about a will and the life insurance.

A will provides direction for what happens after a person dies and can distribute his or her property to their loved ones, name an executor to handle their affairs, name a guardian for any minor children and specifically state a person’s wishes for family and friends.

It may also be beneficial to look into a trust or other estate planning tools with an attorney to distribute the assets. Exploring these options early in the child’s life in the above example may make a parent feel more prepared for the future, and more secure with the circumstances of the second marriage.

If the spouse tells the other that he or she has an appointment with an estate planning attorney, they just might decide to attend.

Reference: nj.com (March 10, 2022) “My husband won’t make an estate plan. What can I do?”

When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

What Should I Know about Guardianships?

Guardianships – also known as conservatorships – are drastic and invasive. They strip away control adults otherwise exercise over their own lives and establish someone else as the decision-maker.  They require a rigorous showing of legal incapacity and approval by a judge. In many jurisdictions, parties must establish a specific need for guardianship and demonstrate that other alternatives considered would not adequately protect the individual.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First” says that guardianships should never be undertaken lightly. Once established, they can be extremely difficult to undo. Therefore, other options should always be considered first.

Guardianships ensure that those who are unable to handle their own affairs aren’t exploited or injured. There are circumstances when a guardianship may be the best – or only – choice. For example, an elderly gentleman with dementia may have lacked the planning to make adequate provisions in his will or trust for management of his affairs. Without a plan for oversight of his assets, he could end up jeopardizing the estate he intended to pass on to his family. In that case, the heirs may look to have a court-appointed guardian appointed who will ensure that their father or grandfather doesn’t sign away his estate or compromise his physical well-being.

Transparency is important. Before it becomes necessary for a guardian to be appointed to handle your physical or financial decisions, consider whom you’d trust to act in that capacity and put it in writing.

It also informs others that, if a guardian is needed, this person is the one you’d like to see serve in that capacity.

A one-page directive will make your wishes clear and keep this important decision from a judge who will know nothing about you or your priorities or your specific circumstances.

In addition, you should delegate a second person now to support you in the future. It’s preferable that this is someone younger whom you trust. This individual will bring a fresh perspective to the situation. They should also possess a sound understanding of money management.

If you don’t consider these things now, the state will make the decision for you after you no longer can make such decisions for yourself.

Talk with an experienced elder law attorney and create the documents now that will save your loved ones from having to seek guardianship for you in the future.

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

What Is a TOD Beneficiary?

You can name anyone as a TOD beneficiary. However, if you’re married, your spouse may have special rights over your assets that take precedence over your named TOD beneficiaries. These laws vary by state, though, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Who Can Be a Transfer on Death (TOD) Beneficiary?” explains that, if you name TOD beneficiaries, it’s very clear who you want to receive your assets when you pass away.

A TOD instruction allows your heirs to avoid probate for these assets. This will take precedence over anything in your will. This can make the legal process of distributing assets much faster than it otherwise would be.

It’s important to know that naming TOD beneficiaries may not achieve everything you would like to achieve in your inheritance settlement. Passing on assets to a TOD beneficiary won’t provide much creditor protection. In that case, a trust may be a better option.

Your TOD beneficiaries will also be responsible for paying taxes on the money they receive. This will complicate their tax situation and may also mean a large tax bill for them.

Remember that a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary can be a person, charity, business, or trust. If the beneficiary is a person, they can be a relative, child, spouse, friend, or anyone else you happen to know. But again, if you’re married, your spouse may have special rights over your assets that take precedence over your named TOD beneficiaries, according to state law.

Contact your account provider to see if you can add a TOD beneficiary. It’s available for many account types—not only retirement accounts but also certificates of deposit (CDs), savings accounts and brokerage accounts.

Naming a TOD beneficiary (or several) can have advantages during the inheritance process, since this makes it very clear who you would like to inherit your assets. These funds can then be distributed without passing through the potentially costly process of probate. It can make the inheritance process much simpler because your named beneficiary will automatically receive the assets in the account—bypassing probate as a result.

Reference: Investopedia (May 19, 2022) “Who Can Be a Transfer on Death (TOD) Beneficiary?”