How Important Is Estate Planning in the Pandemic?

Waiting to create a will leaves nothing but headaches for your heirs and relatives. With nearly 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in the U.S. alone, we are reminded of how fast our lives can change.

The Street’s recent article entitled “Life Changes Fast: The Importance of Estate Planning and Health Care Directives” also notes that this reminds us how important it is to make sure we have current estate planning decisions and end-of-life decisions in place.

Here is a basic overview of some important areas of estate and health care planning you should consider:

Your Assets and Belongings

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you determine if a will or a trust would best take care of your objectives and needs. Don’t make this decision on your own because there are major differences between these two types of documents.

Some people use a living trust instead of a will because it avoids the publicity and expense that comes with the probate process. Ask your attorney what is best for your family and situation.

You’ll need to name an executor, who will be in charge of making sure your requests are carried out, including the division of assets. In addition to your will or trust, be sure the beneficiaries on your life insurance and accounts, such as your bank and retirement accounts are current. You should also see how the title is held on any real estate property you own.

Health Care and Your Body

Make certain that it’s super clear and in writing as to what your final wishes are for your medical treatment and final arrangements. Your documents need to address what type of medical treatment you want, if you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. It should also be clear as to any specific life-preserving measures you would want taken.

A power of attorney for healthcare lets you name an agent to make health-related decisions for you, if you’re unable to do so. Some states combine both the power of attorney for health care and a living will into one document, which is called an advance directive. If you want to be an organ donor, make sure this is recorded and your wishes are known (some states have directories or it’s on a person’s driver’s license). Be sure that your hospital and doctor are aware of your wishes and they have copies of any necessary documents.

Guidance and Financial Help. Always consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that your wishes and objectives are properly spelled out and legally binding.

Reference:  The Street (Aug. 28, 2020) “Life Changes Fast: The Importance of Estate Planning and Health Care Directives”

Estate Planning Needs for Every Stage

Many people decide they need an estate plan when they reach a certain age, but when an estate plan is needed is less about age than it is about stages in life, explains a recent article “Life stages dictate estate planning needs” from The News-Enterprise. Life’s stages can be broken into four groups, young with limited assets, young parents, getting close to retirement and post-retirement life.

Every adult should have an estate plan. Without one, we can’t determine who will take care of our financial and legal matters, if we are incapacitated or die unexpectedly. We also don’t have a voice in how any property we own will be distributed after death.

The first stage—a young individual with limited assets—includes college students, people in the early years of their careers and young couples, married or not. They may not own real estate or substantial assets, but they need a fiduciary and beneficiary. Distribution of assets is less of a priority than provisions for life emergencies.

Once a person becomes a parent, he or she needs to protect minor children or special needs dependents. Lifetime planning is still a concern, but protecting dependents is the priority. Estate planning is used in this stage to name guardians, set up trusts for children and name a trustee to oversee the child’s inheritance, regardless of size.

Many people use revocable living trusts as a means of protecting assets for minor dependents. The revocable trust directs property to pass to the minor beneficiary in whatever way the parents deem appropriate. This is typically done so the child can receive ongoing care, until the age when parents decide the child should receive his or her inheritance. The revocable trust also maintains privacy for the family, since the trust and its contents are not part of the probated estate.

The third stage of life includes people whose children are adults, who have no children or who are near retirement age and addresses different concerns, such as passing along assets to beneficiaries as smoothly as possible while minimizing taxes. The best planning strategy for this stage is often dictated by the primary type of asset.

For people with special situations, such as a beneficiary with substance abuse problems, or a person who owns multiple properties in multiple states or someone who is concerned about the public nature of probate, trusts are a critical part of protecting assets and privacy.

For people who own a primary residence and retirement assets, an estate plan that includes a will, a power of attorney and medical power of attorney may suffice. An estate planning attorney guides each family to make recommendations that will best suit their needs.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 25, 2020) “Life stages dictate estate planning needs”

What Does Pandemic Estate Planning Look Like?

In the pandemic, it’s a good idea to know your affairs are in order. If you already have an estate plan, it may be time to review it with an experienced estate planning attorney, especially if your family’s had a marriage, divorce, remarriage, new children or grandchildren, or other changes in personal or financial circumstances. The Pointe Vedra Recorder’s article entitled “Estate planning during a pandemic: steps to take” explains some of the most commonly used documents in an estate plan:

Will. This basic estate planning document is what you use to state how you want your assets to be distributed after your death. You name an executor to coordinate the distribution and name a guardian to take care of minor children.

Financial power of attorney: This legal document allows you to name an agent with the authority to conduct your financial affairs, if you’re unable. You let them pay your bills, write checks, make deposits and sell or purchase assets.

Living trust: This lets you leave assets to your heirs, without going the probate process. A living trust also gives you considerable flexibility in dispersing your estate. You can instruct your trustee to pass your assets to your beneficiaries immediately upon your death or set up more elaborate directions to distribute the assets over time and in amounts you specify.

Health care proxy: This is also called a health care power of attorney. It is a legal document that designates an individual to act for you, if you become incapacitated. Similar to the financial power of attorney, your agent has the power to speak with your doctors, manage your medical care and make medical decisions for you, if you can’t.

Living will: This is also known as an advance health care directive. It provides information about the types of end-of-life treatment you do or don’t want, if you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious.

These are the basics. However, there may be other things to look at, based on your specific circumstances. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney about tax issues, titling property correctly and a host of other things that may need to be addressed to take care of your family. Pandemic estate planning may sound morbid in these tough times, but it’s a good time to get this accomplished.

Reference: Pointe Vedra (Beach, FL) Recorder (July 16, 2020) “Estate planning during a pandemic: steps to take”

What Happens If I Don’t Fund My Trust?

Trust funding is a crucial step in estate planning that many people forget to do.

However, if it’s done properly, funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” looks at some of the benefits of trusts.

Avoiding probate and problems with your estate. If you’ve created a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You are also able to fund it, while you are alive. You can fund the trust now or on your death. If you don’t transfer assets to the trust during your lifetime, then your last will must be probated, and an executor of your estate should be appointed. The executor will then have the authority to transfer the assets to your trust. This may take time and will involve court. You can avoid this by transferring assets to your trust now, saving your family time and aggravation after your death.

Protecting you and your family in the event that you become incapacitated. Funding the trust now will let the successor trustee manage the assets for you and your family, if your become incapacitated. If a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

Taking advantage of estate tax savings. If you’re married, you may have created a trust that contains terms for estate tax savings. This will often delay estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during his or her lifetime while the ultimate beneficiaries are your children. Depending where you live, the trust can also reduce state estate taxes. You must fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Remember that any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Your beneficiary designations on life insurance policies should be examined to determine if the beneficiary can be updated to the trust.

You may also want to move tangible items to the trust, as well as any closely held business interests, such as stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC). Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the assets to transfer to your trust.

Fund your trust now to maximize your updated estate planning documents.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

What Basic Estate Planning Documents Do I Need?

AARP’s recent article entitled “Sign These Papers” suggests that the following documents will give you and your family financial protection, as well as peace of mind.

Advance Directive. This document gives your family, loved ones and medical professionals your instructions for your health care. A living will, which is a kind of advance directive, details the treatment you’d like to have in the event you’re unable to speak. It covers things like when you would want doctors to stop treatment, pain relief and life support. Providing these instructions helps your family deal with these issues later.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This document, regularly included in an advance directive, lets you name a trusted person (plus a backup or two) to make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable to do so.

Revocable Living Trust. Drawn up correctly by an experienced estate planning attorney, this makes it easy to keep track of your finances now, allow a trusted person step in, if necessary, and make certain that there are fewer problems for your heirs when you pass away. A revocable living trust is a powerful document that allows you to stay in control of all your finances as long as you want. You can also make changes to your trust as often as you like.

When you pass away, your family will have a much easiest task of distributing the assets in the trust to your beneficiaries. Without this, they’ll have to go through the probate process.  It can be a long and possibly costly process, if you die with only a will or intestate (i.e., without a will).

Will. Drafting a will with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney lets you avoid potential family fighting over what you’ve left behind. Your will can describe in succinct language whom you want to inherit items that might not be in your trust — your home or car, or specific keepsakes, such as your baseball card collection and your Hummel Figurines.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney. If you’re alive but incapacitated, the only way a trusted person, acting on your behalf, can access an IRA, pension or other financial account in your name is with a durable financial power of attorney. Many brokerages and other financial institutions have their own power of attorney forms, so make sure you ask about this.

These five documents (sometimes four, if your advance directive and health care power of attorney are combined) help you enjoy a happier, less stressful life.

In drafting these documents, you know that you’ve taken the steps to make navigating the future as smooth as possible. By making your intentions clear and easing the inheritance process as much as you possibly can, you’re taking care of your family. They will be grateful that you did.

Reference: AARP (August/September 2018) “Sign These Papers”

What Does My Estate Plan Look Like after Divorce?

Planning an estate after a divorce involves adopting a different type of arithmetic. Without a spouse to anchor an estate plan, the executors, trustees, guardians or agents under a power of attorney and health care proxies will have to be chosen from a more diverse pool of those that are connected to you.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce” explains that beneficiary forms tied to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) and life insurance will need to be updated to show the dissolution of the marriage.

There are usually estate planning terms that are included in agreements created during the separation and divorce. These may call for the removal of both spouses from each other’s estate planning documents and retirement accounts. For example, in New York, bequests to an ex-spouse in a will prepared during the marriage are voided after the divorce. Even though the old will is still valid, a new will has the benefit of realigning the estate assets with the intended recipients.

However, any trust created while married is treated differently. Revocable trusts can be revoked, and the assets held by those trusts can be part of the divorce. Irrevocable trusts involving marital property are less likely to be dissolved, and after the death of the grantor, distributions may be made to an ex-spouse as directed by the trust.

A big task in the post-divorce estate planning process is changing beneficiaries. Ask for a change of beneficiary forms for all retirement accounts. Without a stipulation in the divorce decree ending their interest, an ex-spouse still listed as beneficiary of an IRA or life insurance policy may still receive the proceeds at your death.

Divorce makes children assume responsibility at an earlier age. Adult children in their 20s or early 30s typically assume the place of the ex-spouse as fiduciaries and health care proxies, as well as agents under powers of attorney, executors and trustees.

If the divorcing parents have minor children, they must choose a guardian in their wills to care for the children, in the event that both parents pass away.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the issues that are involved in estate planning after a divorce.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 7, 2020) “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce”

Can I Add Real Estate Investments in My Will?

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “How to Include Real Estate Investments in Your Will” details some options that might make sense for you and your intended beneficiaries.

A living trust. A revocable living trust allows you to transfer any deeds into the trust’s name. While you’re still living, you’d be the trustee and be able to change the trust in whatever way you wanted. Trusts are a little more costly and time consuming to set up than wills, so you’ll need to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help. Once it’s done, the trust will let your trustee transfer any trust assets quickly and easily, while avoiding the probate process.

A beneficiary deed. This is also known as a “transfer-on-death deed.” It’s a process that involves getting a second deed to each property that you own. The beneficiary deed won’t impact your ownership of the property while you’re alive, but it will let you to make a specific beneficiary designation for each property in your portfolio. After your death, the individual executing your estate plan will be able to transfer ownership of each asset to its designated beneficiary. However, not all states allow for this method of transferring ownership. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the laws in your state.

Co-ownership. You can also pass along real estate assets without probate, if you co-own the property with your designated beneficiary. You’d change the title for the property to list your beneficiary as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. The property will then automatically by law pass directly to your beneficiary when you die. Note that any intended beneficiaries will have an ownership interest in the property from the day you put them on the deed. This means that you’ll have to consult with them, if you want to sell the property.

Wills and estate plans can feel like a ghoulish topic that requires considerable effort. However, it is worth doing the work now to avoid having your estate go through the probate process once you die. The probate process can be expensive and lengthy. It’s even more so, when real estate is involved.

Reference: Motley Fool (June 22, 2020) “How to Include Real Estate Investments in Your Will”

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?”

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 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”