Special Needs Planning
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Special Needs Planning

When a family includes a disabled individual, sometimes referred to as a “person with special needs,” estate planning needs to address the complexities, as described in a recent article titled “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries” from The News-Enterprise. Failing to do so can have life-long repercussions for the individual.

This often occurs because the testator, the person creating the estate plan, does not know the implications of failing to take the disabled person’s situation into consideration, or when there is no will.

The most common error is leaving the disabled beneficiary receiving an outright inheritance. With a simple will, or no will, the beneficiary receives the inheritance and becomes ineligible for public benefits they may be receiving. The disruption can impact their medical care, housing, work and social programs. It may also lead to the loss of their inheritance.

If the disabled beneficiary does not currently receive benefits, it does not mean they will never need them. After the death of a parent, for instance, they may become completely reliant on public benefits. An inheritance will put them in jeopardy.

A second common error is naming the caregiver as the beneficiary, rather than the disabled individual. This causes numerous problems. The caregiver has the right to do whatever they want with the assets. If they no longer wish to care for the beneficiary, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

If the caregiver has any liabilities of their own, or when the caregiver becomes incapacitated or dies, the assets intended for the disabled individual will be subject to any estate taxes or creditors of the caregiver. If the caregiver has any children of their own, they will inherit the assets and not the disabled person.

The caregiver does not enjoy any kind of estate tax protection, so the estate may end up paying taxes on assets intended for the beneficiary.

The third major planning mistake is using a will instead of a trust as the primary planning method. A Special Needs Trust is designed to benefit a disabled individual to protect the assets and protect the individual’s public benefits. The trust assets can be used for continuity of care, while maintaining privacy for the individual and the family.

Planning for individuals with special needs requires great care, specifically for the testator and their beneficiaries. Families who appear to be similar on the outside may have very different needs, making a personalized estate plan vital to ensure that beneficiaries have the protection they deserve and need.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (March 15, 2022) “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries”

What Legal Terms in Estate Planning do Non-Lawyers Need to Know?

Having a working knowledge of the legal terms used in estate planning is the first step in working successfully with an estate planning attorney, says a recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise. Two of those key words:

Principal—the individual on whose behalf documents are prepared, and

Fiduciary—the person who signs some of these documents and who is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the principal and the estate.

In estate planning and in business, the fiduciary is the person or business who must act responsibly and in good faith towards the person and their property. You’ll see this term in almost every estate planning or financial document.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: beneficiary, conservator, executor, grantor, guardian, testator, and trustee are some of the more commonly used terms for the roles people take.

The testator is the principal, the person who signs the will and on whose behalf the will was drafted.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate after death. Contingent beneficiaries are “back-up” beneficiaries, in case the beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance. In most wills, the beneficiaries are listed “or to descendants, per stirpes.” This means if the beneficiary dies before the testator, the beneficiary’s children receive the original beneficiary’s share.

In most cases, specific distributions are made first, where a specific asset or amount of money goes to a specific person. This includes charitable donations. After all specific distributions are made, the rest of the estate, referred to as the “residuary estate,” is distributed. This includes everything else in the probate estate.

The administrator or executor is the fiduciary charged with gathering assets, paying bills and making the distribution to beneficiaries. The executor is the term used when there is a will. If there is no will, the person in the role is referred to as the administrator and may be appointed by the court.

If a beneficiary is unable to take the inheritance because they are a minor or incapacitated, the court will appoint a conservator to act as fiduciary on behalf of the beneficiary.

A guardian is the person who takes care of the beneficiary, or minor children, and is named in the will. If there is no guardian named in the will, or if there is no will, a court will appoint a person to be the guardian. Judges do not always select family members to serve as guardians, so there should always be a secondary guardian, in case the first cannot serve. If the first guardian does not wish to serve or is unable to, naming a secondary guardian is better than a child being sent to foster care.

Finally, the trustee is the person in charge of a trust. The person who creates the trust is the grantor or settlor. It’s important to note the executor has no control or input over the trust. Only the trustee or successor trustee may make distributions and they are the trust’s fiduciary.

Getting comfortable with the terms of estate planning will make the process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and hand wrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”