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”

Why Is It Important to have an Estate Plan?

Right now, the federal estate tax exemption is so high as to be a non-issue for most taxpayers, but this will not always be the case, and there are also state estate taxes to consider. Regardless of taxes, there are other reasons why everyone needs to have an estate plan, affirms a recent article from mondaq titled “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?” The short answer is yes, you definitely do.

The first thing a will does is distribute your assets according to your directions. If you have grandchildren, there are ways for you to gift them assets and minimize taxes, but you’ll need to plan for generation skipping taxes.

If you own a business, you will need a succession plan to align with your estate plan. Will family members become owners, or will the business be sold?

Does the family include a disabled or individual with special needs? A special needs trust can add an extra layer of resources. Guardianship planning needs to be done for the parents and guardians be named for when the parents are no longer able to care for the person.

The will is also used to name an executor, the person to handle all the decisions you express in the will and carry them out.

Gifting is another part of your estate plan. If you have any charitable organizations or individuals outside of your family who you’d like to make a gift to, this can be done through your will or through a number of gifting strategies.

The current federal estate tax exemption is set to end in 2025 and revert back to 2017 levels. Tax planning should be done well in advance to protect your estate and heirs.

A review of life insurance should be part of your estate plan. Do you know who your named beneficiary is on your life insurance policies? If your estate is the beneficiary, your estate’s value may exceed the federal or state estate tax limits.

Many people today create an ethical will. This is not a legally binding document; instead, it is used to express your values and your wishes for heir’s futures. It may also be used to give them insight into how your will was structured and why. If there is controversy in the family, an ethical will or statement of intentions may help bolster your will if there are any legal challenges.

Your retirement benefits and any workplace benefits have beneficiaries named in the event of your death. Do you know who they are, and do you still wish for those named to be your beneficiaries?

Estate planning includes addressing incapacity and illness. You’ll want a Power of Attorney for someone to act on your behalf if you are sick or injured and cannot handle your personal finances. You’ll also need a Health Care Proxy for someone who will be empowered to speak with healthcare personnel and make care decisions for you if you cannot.

Without a comprehensive estate plan, the difficulties facing your loved ones upon your illness and upon your death will be magnified. Yes, you need an estate plan. The sooner, the better. Speak with an estate planning attorney to get the process started.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 24, 2022) “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?”

Can Unequal Inheritances Be Fair?

Estate planning attorneys aren’t often asked to create estate plans treating heirs unfairly. However, when they do it, it is usually because a parent is estranged from one child and wishes to leave him or her nothing. When it comes to estate planning, equal isn’t the same as fair, explains the article “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?” from Advisor Perspectives.

An example of this can be seen in the case of a widow with four adult children who asked an estate planning attorney how to approach distributing her assets. Three of her children were high-income earners, already building substantial net worth. A fourth child had mental health issues, limited education, had been in and out of jail and was unable to hold a job.

She understood that her fourth child needed the financial stability the others did not. She wanted to provide some support for him, but knew any money left directly to him would be gone quickly. She was considering leaving money for him in a trust to provide a monthly income stream, but also wanted to be fair to the other three children.

The trust would be the best option. However, there were problems to consider. If the estate were to be divided in four equal parts, the fourth child’s share of the estate would be small, so trustee fees would take a significant amount of the trust. If she left her entire estate for him, it would be more likely he’d have funding for most, if not all, of his adult life.

The worst thing the mother could do was to leave all the funds for the fourth child in a trust without discussing it with the other three siblings. Unequal inheritances can lead to battles between siblings, sometimes bad enough to lead them into a court battle. This is often the case where one child is believed by others to have unduly influenced a parent, when they have inherited all or the lion’s share of the estate.

Sibling fights can occur even when the children know about and understand the need for the unequal distribution. The children may suppress their emotions while the parent is living. However, after the parent dies and the reality sets in, emotions may fire at full throttle. Logically, in this case the three successful siblings may well understand why their troubled sibling needs the funds. However, grief is a powerful emotion and can lead to illogical responses.

In this case, the woman made the decision to leave her estate in equal shares to each child and giving the three successful siblings the options to share part of their inheritance with their brother. She did this by having her estate planning attorney add language in the will stating if any child wanted to disclaim or refuse any of their inheritance, it would pass to a trust set up for the troubled sibling. This gave each child the opportunity to help or not.

Was it a perfect solution? Perhaps not, but it was the best possible solution given the specific circumstances for this family.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (Aug. 22, 2022) “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?”

How Much Money Can a Well Spouse Keep If Medicaid is Needed?

Despite the intent of the law, allowing one spouse to remain in the family home and having enough income to live on when the other spouse needs Medicaid to pay for nursing home care does not happen automatically. According to the article “What a ‘Community’ spouse can keep” from The Bristol Press, protecting the community spouse is necessary if they are to maintain their prior standard of living.

The community spouse is entitled to have a minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance (MMNA), which changes every year. If the MMNA is $2,288.00, and the healthy spouse has an income of $1,000.00, Medicaid allows a diversion of the sick spouse’s income of the difference, or $1,288.00 per month to the healthy spouse. In most situations, this is not enough to maintain a home, pay bills and enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

An elder law lawyer can help protect assets for the community spouse. The family home is exempt, if it is in the name of the healthy spouse, although most states have a limit to the allowed value. If the sick spouse is approved for Medicaid, the healthy spouse may choose to sell the home and keep the proceeds or downsize to a smaller home.

The community spouse may keep up to $137,400.00 in investment assets in 2022. That’s considered one half of the couple’s total “countable” assets. If the couple’s investment exceeds this amount, there are a number of strategies used to protect the life savings, as long as they stay within the “spend down” rules. Money may be spent on house expenses or improvements. A new car could replace an old model.

Another method is the use of a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, sometimes referred to as a Medicaid Annuity Trust. The well spouse can purchase this and protect their life savings. However, if the well spouse dies before the sick spouse, the balance of the annuity will need to be paid to Medicaid to reimburse it for expenses paid for the care of the sick spouse.

One positive note: personal property is not considered a countable asset. Things like home furnishings, decorations, jewelry, etc., and any personal property will not be counted. Embarking on a spending spree with an eye to reselling personal property to raise cash is not a good idea, since few items maintain their value after the initial purchase.

Planning should be done in advance, when both spouses are well and healthy, because Medicaid strictly enforces the five-year look back rule. Any assets transferred within five years of a Medicaid application will make the sick spouse ineligible for Medicaid coverage, and healthcare expenses will have to be paid out of pocket.

Reference: The Bristol Press (July 29, 2022) “What a ‘Community’ spouse can keep”

Is it Important to have an Estate Plan?

Everyone needs to have an estate plan to ensure that their family can take part in medical care, assets will pass to the heirs they want and to protect minor children, as explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone” from mondaq.com. An estate plan does all this, and more. Having an estate plan can also protects privacy; any assets moved into a trust do not become part of the public record.

Here are the documents making up the foundation of an estate plan.

Last Will and Testament. This is used to direct the disposition of assets and appoints an executor to handle final affairs after your death. If there is no will, the state law controls how your estate is distributed.

Revocable Trust. Trusts permit more control of the management and disposition of assets in a more private and tax-efficient way during your lifetime and after death.

General Durable Power of Attorney. This document usually names a spouse, adult child or trusted individual who can take over your legal and financial affairs, especially if you should become incapacitated.

Health Care Power of Attorney. Everyone over age 18 should have this document. This nominates a person you choose to make health care decisions. Without it, parents of teenagers and young adults may not be involved in their care. Treating physicians will not be able to discuss your loved one’s care, or you may need to petition the court for guardianship.

Living Will. This document allows you to express your wishes with regard to end-of-life care and medical treatment decisions. It alleviates the emotional burden of guessing what you would have wanted by family members.

HIPAA Authorization. Your medical and health insurance records are protected from being released to third parties without the patient’s consent. While this is helpful for patients seeking to maintain their privacy, it also means parents or loved ones will not have any access to medical records and healthcare providers will not discuss the patient’s medical condition with family members. Fines and penalties for professionals and facilities are strict.

Asset and Beneficiary Designations. Part of an estate plan includes ensuring that assets are in alignment with your wishes. Your will does not control how assets with a beneficiary designation or those with joint ownership titles will be inherited. For your estate to achieve the outcome you want, you’ll need to dig deep into your records and ensure that all assets are properly titled, including insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, property and any other assets.

If you have an estate plan in place and have not updated it in recent years, or failed to get one or more of the above-mentioned documents, there is no time like the present to do so. Unexpected events are always around the corner and being prepared in advance helps ensure your wishes will be achieved and your family will be protected.

Reference: mondaq.com (July 29, 2022) “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone”

What are the Advantages of a Business Trust?

Business owner’s heads are frequently filled with a steady stream of questions concerning day-to-day activities. Long-range planning questions about how to expand the business, set business priorities, identify vulnerabilities, etc., are lost in the flood of events requiring immediate action. However, business owners need to keep both details and the big picture in mind, according to a recent article “5 Ways Business Owners Can Use Trusts to Benefit Their Company” from Entrepreneur.

Three key questions for any business owner are: how can I minimize taxes, protect assets and what kind of legacy do I want to leave with my business? All three questions can be answered with two words: estate planning. Within estate planning, trusts are a well-known tool to tackle and solve these three issues.

A trust is a legal entity created when one party (grantor) gives another party (trustee) the right to hold title to property or assets for the benefit of a third party (beneficiaries). Trusts are used to provide protection for assets for individuals and businesses. For business owners, trusts protect beneficiaries and thwart potential creditors (including previous spouses) from gaining direct access to assets held within the trust.

All future growth of assets transferred to an irrevocable trust occurs outside of the estate. It will apply to your lifetime exemption, but all future growth occurs estate tax free. Let’s say a business owner transfers a business worth $3 million into an irrevocable trust and years later, the company is sold for $17 million. The increased value is not subject to estate taxes, saving family members a significant amount of money.

It should be noted these types of trusts needs to be created with an experienced estate planning attorney to achieve the desired goals.

Assets in a trust maintain privacy. For companies and individuals who live in the public eye, placing assets in trust means only the grantor and trustee need to know about the assets. A person who lives in a small city and owns a few restaurants may not want their personal financial matters to become known when they die. Wills become public documents when the estate is probated; trusts remain private.

Litigation arising from sales of small businesses are among the most common legal actions filed against business owners. By removing assets from ownership, the business owner receives another layer of protection. You can’t be sued for assets you don’t own.

Trusts are used in succession planning and should be created to align with business legacy objectives, whether the plan is to sell the company to outsiders, key employees or keep it in the family. Succession plans must be properly documented. This is done with the estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor working in tandem. A succession plan should also address the goals for the business owner’s life after the business is sold or transferred. Do they want to remain on the board of directors, do they require income from the business to maintain their costs of living?

Minimizing taxes. Preparing for a liquidity event is an excellent reason to consider creating a trust. Depending upon its structure and the laws of the estate, a business owned by a trust may minimize or avoid state income taxes on a substantial portion of the estate income tax.

A succession plan, like an estate plan, needs to be created long before it is needed. Ideally, a succession plan is created not long after a business is established and revised as time goes on. When the company attains certain milestones, the plan should be updated.

Reference: Entrepreneur (June 17, 2022) “5 Ways Business Owners Can Use Trusts to Benefit Their Company”

What’s Involved with Being a Trustee?

There’s an old saying that the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy their boat and the day they sell it.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “How To Be An Effective Trustee” says that a similar notion applies to being a trustee – it’s an honor to be named and then a huge relief when it’s over. That’s because being a trustee is difficult.

Remember that a trust is a fiduciary relationship in which one party (the trustor) gives another party (the trustee) the right to hold title to property or assets for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary). Trusts are created to provide legal protection for the trustor’s assets, to make certain those assets are distributed according to the wishes of the trustor, and to save time, reduce paperwork and, in some cases, avoid or reduce inheritance or estate taxes.

Being a trustee requires knowledge about a wide range of topics, including:

  • The trustee’s fiduciary duties, which include loyalty, impartiality, duty of care, protection of trust property, enforcement of claims and the duty to inform and account to beneficiaries, among others (violation of these duties exposes the trustee to liability).
  • Understanding the details of the trust, like the specifics of the distribution instructions.
  • Investments and the ability to engage and monitor investment managers.
  • Administrative matters, such as record keeping and principal and income accounting.
  • Estate planning, trusts and the basics of the estate, gift and generation skipping taxes.
  • Income tax, including how trusts are taxed both by the federal government and the state.

A trustee must also be able to productively communicate and work with the beneficiaries on their financial wellness and distribution needs, which is an area that can be full of conflict.

It’s a daunting list. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to discussion your situation in detail.

Reference: Forbes (May 31, 2022) “How To Be An Effective Trustee”

Why Is Beneficiary Designation Important?

The beneficiary designation will always supersede language of your will. Neglecting to know which assets have beneficiary designations and failing to update the designations can undo even the best estate plan.

The beneficiary designation for your life insurance or retirement account custodian provides an opportunity to tell the company who is to receive life insurance proceeds or retirement savings upon your death, explains a recent article titled “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press. If these are not coordinated with a last will and testament, the results are problematic at best, and worse, financially, and emotionally devastating.

This epic fail comes in many different forms, but the most common is when a life insurance policy has never been updated and an ex-spouse receives the policy proceeds. The rules differ between retirement accounts and life insurance and can be impacted by various state and federal laws (and the divorce decree, if the life insurance policy was included). However, for the most part, the ex will receive the proceeds and litigation will not succeed.

Another common beneficiary designation mistake is when a person has created a living trust or revocable trust to prevent assets from going through probate when they die. Probate can take many months to complete and there are several strategies used to take assets out of the probate estate.

When the living trust is established and assets are transferred into the trust, those assets do not pass through probate.

However, if a person (or married couple) established a living trust and fails to list both primary and secondary beneficiaries for life insurance and/or retirement accounts, it is entirely possible that the assets will go through probate.

Take the time to make an inventory of all assets and accounts. Determine which ones have a beneficiary designation and find out who is named as the beneficiary. If your retirement accounts and life insurance policies were established decades ago, this is especially important.

Failing to coordinate beneficiary designations with your estate plan could undermine your wishes. Review these items with your estate planning attorney to avoid these and many other potential pitfalls.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (May 23, 2022) “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”