Coronavirus News Should Make You Think about Estate Planning

The global Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has many of us thinking about what could happen, if the disease spreads more fully across the general population. We all need to plan for what could possibly happen. To protect yourself and your family, it’s smart to be certain that you have the following these documents prepared and updated, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things.”

  1. A will or revocable trust. Be sure that your assets will pass to those who you want to receive them after your death. This is critical during crisis times. You don’t want to make things any harder than they need to be. Create an estate plan to avoid potentially expensive and time-consuming processes like probate, which will have greater importance, if your family is confined to their homes in a quarantine situation.

A simple will can cover what happens to your assets at death. This typically works well, especially for modest estates. State laws differ on how complicated a probate process would be with a basic will. Some people opt to use a fully funded revocable trust that doesn’t require probate. For either a will or a revocable trust, make sure that it’s up to date and reflects your current preferences and family circumstances.

  1. Updated beneficiary designations. If you have an IRA, 401(k) account, or life insurance policy, those you name as beneficiaries of that account will receive the proceeds, despite a totally different from arrangement in your will or trust. Many of us also don’t designate any beneficiary for these accounts, which means added complications in the event of death.
  2. Healthcare power of attorney. When we’re in the midst of this Coronavirus, it’s even more urgent that you’ll be able to get the healthcare you need, if you’re hit with this illness. A durable power of attorney for healthcare will give the individuals you choose the ability to make whatever medical decisions you specify on your behalf. An estate planning attorney can help you draft documents that match your specific wishes.
  3. Financial power of attorney. You can designate an agent to help take care of your finances, if you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to handle your financial affairs. A general durable power of attorney for financial matters is another document that lets you delegate responsibility and authority to make financial transactions to the person you name.

Estate planning may not be the highlight of your week, but the Coronavirus outbreak has more people thinking about what they need to do. Make sure your family will have what they need even if something happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 8, 2020) “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things”

Why Do I Need to Have Up-to-Date Beneficiaries on My Accounts?

When a family member passes away, it can be a very unsettling time. There are many tasks that need to be accomplished in a short amount of time. One way that you can lessen that burden for your heirs by clearly telling them your preferences for your assets. One element of this is making certain that you have accurate beneficiaries to your retirement and investment accounts.

Nerd Wallet’s recent article entitled “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now” says taking the time to do this will help save your heirs and family time, money and energy when they need it most. Let’s take a look at some of the compelling reasons to do this.

  1. Your beneficiaries get to keep more money (and get it faster). When your beneficiaries are assigned to your investment and retirement accounts, the assets will pass directly to them. However, if they are not, those accounts may have to go through the probate process to settle an estate after someone dies. A typical probate case can drag on for a year or longer, and during that time, your beneficiaries are unable to access their inheritance. “Court” also means expenses, time, effort and added stress—all of which are things they’d rather avoid.
  2. Less stress for your heirs. When you make certain that you designate the beneficiaries for your accounts, it can relieve your family of a heavy burden, so they’re not trying to figure out your finances while they’re grieving.
  3. Your beneficiaries will supersede your will. If you have beneficiaries named, those choices will typically override what is written in your will. Therefore, you can see that keeping your beneficiaries up-to-date is extremely important.
  4. It’s easy and painless. If you have a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or an IRA, your account will typically have its own beneficiary form within the account itself. With this, you are able to choose your beneficiaries when you open your account or review them later. With a regular investment account, you’ll need to ask for a transfer on death (TOD) form to make beneficiary elections.
  5. You recently experienced a change in your circumstances. If you experience a big life change, like getting married or having a child, it’s critical to update or add beneficiary elections immediately. It’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.

Remember that in community property states, spouses may be entitled to half of the assets in an IRA — even if another beneficiary is listed — unless you have written consent. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney about state laws to be sure your money goes to whom you want.

Reference: Nerd Wallet (January 22, 2020) “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now”

What Is So Important About Powers Of Attorney?

Powers of attorney can provide significant authority to another person, if you are unable to do so. These powers can include the right to access your bank accounts and to make decisions for you.

AARP’s article from last October entitled, “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving,” describes the different types of powers of attorney.

Just like it sounds, a specific power of attorney restricts your agent to taking care of only certain tasks, such as paying bills or selling a house. This power is typically only on a temporary basis.

A general power of attorney provides your agent with sweeping authority. The agent has the authority to step into your shoes and handle all of your legal and financial affairs.

The authority of these powers of attorney can stop at the time you become incapacitated. Durable powers of attorney may be specific or general. However, the “durable” part means your agent retains the authority, even if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. In effect, your family probably won’t need to petition a court to intervene, if you have a medical crisis or have severe cognitive decline like late stage dementia.

In some instances, medical decision-making is part of a durable power of attorney for health care. This can also be addressed in a separate document that is just for health care, like a health care surrogate designation.

There are a few states that recognize “springing” durable powers of attorney. With these, the agent can begin using her authority, only after you become incapacitated. Other states don’t have these, which means your agent can use the document the day you sign the durable power of attorney.

A well-drafted power of attorney helps your agent help you, because she can keep the details of your life addressed, if you cannot. That can be things like applying for financial assistance or a public benefit, such as Medicaid, or verifying that your utilities stay on and your taxes get paid. Attempting to take care of any of these things without the proper document can be almost impossible.

In the absence of proper incapacity legal planning, your loved ones will need to initiate a court procedure known as a guardianship or conservatorship. However, these hearings can be expensive, time-consuming and contested by family members who don’t agree with moving forward.

Don’t wait to do this. Every person who’s at least age 18 should have a power of attorney in place. If you do have a power of attorney, be sure that it’s up to date. Ask an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney to help you create these documents.

Reference: AARP (October 31, 2019) “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving”

How Can I Move On after a Loved One Dies?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One” says that there really are no rules about how you should feel or how long it will take you to regain your energy and ability to move forward. Grief is difficult to avoid, but there are many financial and legal tasks that will require your immediate attention. Here are some of the actions that can ease this process and help you to get back on track financially.

Here’s a breakdown of what you will need to address in the near future:

  • Gather important information, such as the deceased’s Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate and military discharge papers.
  • Obtain at least 10 copies of the death certificates, because each claim will need to have an original copy of the death certificate attached.
  • Inform the Social Security office about the death and file a Social Security benefits claim form to qualify for the death benefit.
  • Find the title to any automobiles
  • Print out up-to-date statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.
  • The executor should file the deceased’s will (if there is one) with the Probate Court.
  • The executor should obtain letters testamentary from the court.
  • File a death claim with the deceased’s life insurance company, if applicable.
  • Contact the Employer’s Benefits department about survivorship pension, health insurance, unpaid salary and life insurance benefits, if applicable.
  • Prepare a preliminary monthly budget and income summary.

You should seek the advice of an experienced estate planning or probate attorney. You should also retitle any joint accounts into your name and transfer any inherited IRA into your name and take out a required minimum distribution (RMD), if applicable. New beneficiaries should also be named and deeds for any real estate jointly held with rights of survivorship updated.

You need to file a federal estate tax return within nine months.

Don’t face these challenges alone. Contact an experienced estate planning lawyer for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 8, 2020) “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One”

How is a Guardianship Determined?

Because the courts call guardianship “a massive curtailment of liberty,” it’s important that guardianship be used only when necessary.

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article asks, “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?” As the article explains, courts must be certain that an individual is truly “incapacitated.”

For example, Oklahoma law defines an incapacitated person as a person 18 years or older, who is impaired by reason of:

  1. Mental illness;
  2. Intellectual or developmental disability;
  3. Physical illness or disability; or
  4. Drug or alcohol dependency.

In addition, an incapacitated person’s ability to receive and evaluate information or to communicate decisions is impaired to such a level that the person (i) lacks capacity to maintain health and safety; or (ii) is unable to manage financial resources.

A person who is requesting to be appointed guardian by the court must show evidence to prove the person’s incapacity. This evidence is typically presented with the professional opinion of medical, psychological, or administrative bodies.

In some instances, a court may initiate its own investigation with known medical experts. In these cases, the type of professional chosen to provide an opinion should match the needs of the person (the “ward”), who will be subject to guardianship.

The court will receive this evidence and if it’s acceptable, in many cases, require that the experts provide a plan for the care and administration of the ward and his assets. This plan will become a control measure, as well as guidance for the guardian who’s appointed.

These controls will include regular monitoring and reports of performance back to the court.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Jan. 23, 2020) “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?”

Fixing an Estate Plan Mistake

When an issue arises, you need to seek the assistance of a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney, who knows to fix the problems or find the strategy moving forward.

For example, an irrevocable trust can’t be revoked. However, in some circumstances it can be modified. The trust may have been drafted to allow its trustees and beneficiaries the authority to make certain changes in specific circumstances, like a change in the tax law.

Those kinds of changes usually require the signatures from all trustees and beneficiaries, explains The Wilmington Business Journal’s recent article entitled “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess.”

Another change to an irrevocable trust may be contemplated, if the trust’s purpose may have become outdated or its administration is too expensive. An estate planning attorney can petition a judge to modify the trust in these circumstances when the trust’s purposes can’t be achieved without the requested change. Remember that trusts are complex, and you really need the advice of an experienced trust attorney.

Another option is to create the trust to allow for a “trust protector.” This is a third party who’s appointed by the trustees, the beneficiaries, or a judge. The trust protector can decide if the proposed change to the trust is warranted. However, this is only available if the original trust was written to specify the trust protector.

A term can also be added to the trust to provide “power of appointment” to trustees or beneficiaries. This makes it easier to change the trust for the benefit of current or future beneficiaries.

There’s also decanting, in which the assets of an existing trust are “poured” into a new trust with different terms. This can include extending the trust’s life, changing trustees, fixing errors or ambiguities in the original language, and changing the legal jurisdiction. State trust laws vary, and some allow much more flexibility in how trusts are structured and administered.

The most drastic option is to end the trust. The assets would be distributed to the beneficiaries, and the trust would be dissolved. Approval must be obtained from all trustees and all beneficiaries. A frequent reason for “premature termination” is that a trust’s assets have diminished in value to the extent that administering it isn’t feasible or economical.

Again, be sure your estate plan is in solid shape from the start. Anticipating problems with the help of your lawyer, instead of trying to solve issues later is the best plan.

Reference: Wilmington Business Journal (Jan. 3, 2020) “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”

What’s the Best Thing to Do with an Inherited Investment?

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Handle Inherited Investments” provides us with some of the top inheritance considerations:

Consider Cash. Besides cash, the most common inheritances are securities, real estate and art. These assets usually go up in value, but another big benefit is their favorable tax treatment. The heirs won’t pay capital gains on unsold investments that went up in value during the lifetime of the deceased (estate taxes would apply). Those taxes would only apply to the gains that happened after they took possession.  There’s a good reason to hang onto these investments. These types of property carry some risks, so you may consider putting some of your inherited investments into cash, cash equivalents, or life insurance with a guaranteed payout to avoid exposure to undue risk.

Beware of Concentration Risk. It’s not unusual for an inheritance to be heavily concentrated within a specific asset. While the deceased’s instincts may have been accurate at the time of their initial investment, there’s no guarantee that their strategy will continue to pay dividends long term.  Diversifying into other areas—even with high-volatility vehicles that are unrelated to the original inherited investment—can lessen that concentration risk. An even safer strategy would be to build a portfolio of diverse holdings that includes multiple asset classes across different sectors.

Learn about Trusts. Sometimes when people inherit assets through a trust, they don’t think it’s critical to require anything but a superficial understanding of how these work. This is because the trustee assumes nearly all the fiduciary duties. However, this could change when a beneficiary attains a certain age, which often triggers a dissolution of the trust or stipulates a transfer of trustee responsibilities to them. You should understand what will happen at that point. You may want to create your own trust to distribute part or all of your unmanaged inherited assets to heirs in a framework that suits you best, and without having to go through the probate process. In any event, you should learn how trusts work and the difference between revocable and irrevocable trusts. Ask your estate planning attorney about your specific situation and whether there is a trust that may be best for your circumstances.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 7, 2020) “How to Handle Inherited Investments”

How Do I Incorporate My Business into My Estate Planning?

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about having it continue after you retire or pass away.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen next or what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.

Business continuity is the biggest concern for entrepreneurs. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge rather than leaving the company’s future in the hands of others who are emotionally invested in you or in your work. One option is to create a living trust and will to put in place parameters that a trustee can carry out. With these names and decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.

Let them be upset with you, rather than with each other. This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names successor trustees to be in charge of operating the business, if you become incapacitated or die.

A power of attorney document will nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning will also preserve your business assets, as advanced tax planning strategies might be implemented to establish specific trusts to minimize the estate tax.

Estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

What Should I Know About Being an Executor?

You’re named executor because someone thinks you’d be good at collecting assets, settling debts, filing estate tax returns where necessary, distributing assets and closing the estate.

However, Investopedia’s article from last summer, “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor,” explains that the person named as an executor isn’t required to accept the appointment. Prior to agreeing to act as an executor, you should know some of the hazards that can result, as well as how you can address some of these potential issues, so that being an executor can run smoothly.

  1. Conflicts with Co-Executors. Parents will frequently name more than one adult child as co-executor, so they don’t show favoritism. However, for those who are named, this may not work well because some children may live far way, making it difficult to coordinate the hands-on activities, like securing assets and selling a home. Some adult children may also not have the financial ability to deal with creditors, understand estate tax matters and perform effective accounting to satisfy beneficiaries that things have been properly handled. In addition, multiple executors mean additional paperwork. Instead, see if co-executors can agree to allow only one to serve, and the others will waive their appointment. Another option is for all of the children to decline and allow a bank’s trust department to handle the task. Employing a bank to serve instead of an individual as executor can alleviate conflicts among the children and relieves them from what could be a very difficult job.
  2. Conflicts with Heirs. It’s an executor’s job to gather the estate assets and distribute them according to the deceased person’s wishes. In some cases, heirs will land on a decedent’s home even before the funeral, taking mementos, heirlooms and other valuables. It’s best to secure the home and other assets as quickly as possible. Tell the heirs that this is the law and share information about the decedent’s wishes, which may be described in a will or listed in a separate document. This Letter of Last Instruction isn’t binding on the executor but can be a good guide for asset disbursements.
  3. Time-Consuming Responsibilities. One of the major drawbacks to be an executor is the amount of time it takes to handle responsibilities. For example, imagine the time involved in contacting various government agencies. This can include the Social Security Administration to stop Social Security benefits and, in the case of a surviving spouse, claim the $255 death benefit. However, an executor can permit an estate attorney to handle many of these matters.
  4. Personal Liability Exposure. The executor must pay taxes owed, before disbursing inheritances to heirs. However, if you pay heirs first and don’t have enough funds in the estate’s checking account to pay taxes, you’re personally liable for the taxes. Explain to heirs who are chomping at the bit to receive their inheritances that you’re not allowed to give them their share, until you’ve settled with creditors, the IRS and others with a claim against the estate. You should also be sure that you understand the extent of the funds needed to pay what’s owed.
  5. Out-of-Pocket Expenses. An executor can receive a commission for handling his duties. The amount of the commission is typically determined by the size of the estate (e.g., a percentage of assets). However, with many cases, particularly smaller estates and among families, an executor may waive any commission. You should pay the expenses of the estate from an estate checking account and record all out-of-pocket expenses, because some of these expenses may be reimbursable by the estate.

Being an executor can be a challenge, but somebody must do it. If that person’s you, be sure to know what you’re getting into before you agree to act as an executor.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor”

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