What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning?

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

Common Mistakes when Making Beneficiary Designations

Let’s say you divorce and remarry and forget to change your beneficiary from your ex-spouse. Your ex-spouse will be smiling all the way to the bank. There won’t be much that your new spouse could do, if you forgot to make that change before you die. Any time there is a life change, including happy events, like marriage, birth or adoption, your beneficiary designations need to be reviewed, says the article “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make” from Kiplinger.

If there are new people in your life you would like to leave a bequest to, like grandchildren or a charitable organization you want to support as part of your legacy, your beneficiary designations will need to reflect those as well.

For people who are married, their spouse is usually the primary beneficiary. Children are contingent beneficiaries who receive the proceeds upon death, if the primary beneficiary dies before or at the same time that you do. It is wise to notify any insurance company or retirement fund custodian about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you have properly named contingent beneficiaries.

When there are multiple grandchildren, things can get a little complicated. Let’s say you’re married and have three adult children. The first beneficiary is your spouse, and your three children are contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say Sam has three children, Dolores has no children and James has two children, for a total of five grandchildren.

If both your spouse and James, die before you do, all of the proceeds would pass to your two surviving children, and James’ two children would effectively be disinherited. That’s probably not what you would want. However, there is a solution. You can specify that if one of your children dies before you and your spouse, their share goes to his or her children. This is a “per stirpes” distribution.

This way, each branch of the family will receive an equal share across generations. If this is what you want, you’ll need to request per stirpes, because equal distribution, or per capita, is the default designation. Not all insurance companies make this option available, so you’ll need to speak with your insurance broker to make sure this is set up properly for insurance or annuities.

Any assets that have a named designated beneficiary are not controlled by your will. Consequently, when you are creating or reviewing your estate plan, create a list of all of your assets and the desired beneficiaries for them. Your estate planning attorney will help review all of your assets and means of distribution, so your wishes for your family are clear.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 23, 2021) “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make”

What Changes Have Been Made to Protect Senior Investors?

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or “FINRA,” is a private corporation that acts as a self-regulatory organization of investment brokers and investment firms.

Its rules and guidance are designed to protect investors and to “ensure the integrity of today’s rapidly evolving market.”

The new FINRA Sanction Guidelines now expressly contemplate “whether the customer is age 65 or older” and “whether the respondent exercised undue influence over the customer and whether the customer had a mental or physical impairment that renders the person unable to protect his or her own interests”.

The National Law Review’s recent article entitled “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines” reports that FINRA Regulatory Notice 20-37 states the revised Sanction Guidelines that became effective Oct. 20, 2020.

In the revised Sanction Guidelines, FINRA and the NAC now directly discuss the issue of potential senior investor abuse. They also have revised the Sanction Guidelines to be consistent with FINRA Rule 2165 – Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults.

Further, FINRA asserts that “as with other considerations in the Sanction Guidelines, adjudicators should take a principles-based approach to assessing if the rule violations have more impact on elderly or impaired customers, including the customer’s ability to recover from sustaining financial losses.”

Moreover, FINRA states that these revisions to the Sanction Guidelines should be considered by adjudicators as only “aggravating factors” when considering an appropriate sanction for a FINRA violation.

The FINRA Sanction Guidelines don’t state specific sanctions for a particular violation. They now provide adjudicators with an additional “aggravating factor” to contemplate in determining the appropriate sanction.

The watchdog said that it was feedback from its Securities Helpline for Seniors that showed a pattern of concerns among senior citizens about brokers exploiting their financial accounts that caused them to take action “by putting in place the first uniform, national standards to protect senior investors.”

Reference: The National Law Review (Nov. 2, 2020) “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines”

C19 UPDATE: Beware the Rush to Make Your Own Will Online

With COVID-19 affecting more and more Americans, people across the country are scrambling to set up wills and end-of-life directives. Over the last two weeks, online will companies have seen an explosion in users, according to the article, “Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills,” published by CNBC.com.

However, as online wills grow in popularity, estate and elder lawyers increasingly caution against using them, for several reasons.

  • Will the documents be legally valid? Since most of these do-it-yourself wills are created and executed without any oversight from an attorney, a larger number of wills may not be executed in compliance with the proper will formalities, and that could end up invalidating the will.
  • Do you fully understand the questions and consequences of your answers? There are many nuances in estate planning, as well as a good bit of legal jargon. Confusion over the question or the consequences of a decision can result in costly mistakes … and could even mean your will won’t hold up to a challenge in court.
  • What about asset protection? There is more to estate planning than just giving your stuff away after you die. How you transfer ownership of your assets can mean the difference between a protected inheritance and legacy for many generations … or the squandering or loss of a person’s life’s work within a few years … or months … after they pass away.
  • Is there any planning for long-term care? It’s estimated that more than half of people turning age 65 who will need some type of long-term care services in their lifetimes. Proper estate planning should balance the possibility that you will need assistance paying for nursing home care (Medicaid), with other estate planning goals. Mistakes in this area could disqualify you from receiving assistance should you need it.

As COVID-19 keeps people home, meeting with a lawyer to create a will could not be easier. In most states, a lawyer’s services have been deemed “essential,” even during stay-at-home orders. We are doing everything we can to make our services as easy and convenient for you as possible, including meeting over telephone, online video services and other innovative ways to ensure you get the planning you need while complying with all safety measures.

Resource: Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-pandemic-triggers-rush-by-americans-to-make-online-wills.html

C19 UPDATE: Emergency Estate Planning Decisions to Make Right Now

Though it may be hard not to panic when the grocery store shelves are empty, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 keeps rising, and we see sobering statistics across the globe … we will not overcome this challenge with a panicked response.

Nonetheless, there are certain things we all need to be doing right now – and your public health officials are the best resource on how to stay personally safe and help prevent the virus from spreading.

When it comes to the seriousness of this outbreak, however, there also are some critical estate planning decisions you should make – or review – right now.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who will make medical decisions for me should I become severely ill and unable to make these decisions myself?
  2. Who will make my financial decisions in that same situation — for example, who will be authorized to sign my income tax return, write checks or pay my bills online?
  3. Who is authorized to take care of my minor children in the event of my severe illness? What decisions are they authorized to make? How will they absorb the financial burden?
  4. If the unthinkable happens – what arrangements have I made for the care of my minor children, any family members with special needs, my pets or other vulnerable loved ones?
  5. How will my business continue if I were to become seriously ill and unable to work, even remotely … or in the event of my death?

These are the most personal decisions to make right now to protect yourself and your loved ones during this emergency. Now is also a good time to ask yourself if you have plans in place for the smooth transfer of your assets and preservation of your legacy.

We are ready to help walk you through these decisions, understand the ramifications of your choices, and memorialize your plans in binding legal documents. We are currently offering no-contact initial conferences remotely if you prefer. Book a call now and let us help you make the right choices for yourself and your loved ones.

When Does a No Contest Clause Make Sense?

It’s an emotionally charged decision. Parents who sit down with an estate planning attorney would much rather talk about their grandchildren and how much they are looking forward to retirement.

However, then the discussion turns to how they want to distribute their assets, as reported in the article “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?” from The Daily Sentinel, and a problem is revealed.

The parents share that there is a family member, an adult child, who has never been part of the family. Usually they have had a troubled past, pushed others in the family out of their lives and it’s heartbreaking for all concerned.

The discussion then moves to determining how to handle that individual with respect to their estate plan. “Do you want her to be part of your estate plan?” is the least judgmental question the attorney can ask. In many cases, the parents say yes and say they’ll keep trying to foster some kind of relationship, no matter how limited. In other cases, the answer is no.

In both cases, however, the concern is that the difficult child will fight with their siblings and take the battle to court. That’s one of the reasons to include a no contest clause.

As long as estate planning documents are prepared correctly and signed, they will survive a legal contest. However, putting in a no contest clause creates another barrier to an estate battle.

The no contest clause is intended to act as a strong deterrent for those individuals who believe they are entitled to more of the estate. It makes it clear that any challenges will result in a smaller portion of the estate, and possibly no inheritance at all, depending upon how it is written.

Both parents need to have a no contest provision included in their wills. The message is clear and consistent: these are the estate plans that we decided to create. Don’t try to change them.

For families with litigious family members or spouses who married into the family and feel that they are not being treated fairly, a no contest clause makes sense to protect the wishes of the parents.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how a no contest provision might work in your situation. If your family doesn’t need such a clause, count your blessings!

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Aug. 10, 2019) “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?”

Suggested Key Terms: No Contest Clause, Estate Planning Attorney, Wills, Last Will and Testament, Asset Distribution

How to Plan for Long-Term Care Costs

The odds are that most of us will need long-term care. At least 52% of those over age 65 will need some type of long-term care at some point in our lives, according to a study conducted by AARP. As most of us are living longer, we’ll probably need that care for a longer period of time, as reported in the article “It’s best to plan for long-term care” from the Times Herald-Record.

Here’s the problem: ignore this issue, and it won’t go away. This is a fairly common response for people 55 and older. The size of the problem makes it a bit overwhelming, and the cost to tackle it seems unsolvable. However, not addressing it becomes even more expensive. How can we possibly pay for long-term care insurance?

Here’s a simple example: a 64-year-old woman who broke her ankle in three places. She was healthy and mobile. However, a badly broken ankle required extensive rehabilitation and she was not able to stay in her home. She has been living at a rehabilitation center and the costs are mounting. What could she have done?

There are two basic ways (with a number of variations) to pay for long-term care.

The first and most obvious: purchase a long-term care insurance policy. Only 2.7 million Americans own these policies. They are wise to protect themselves and their families.

Most families put off buying this kind of insurance, because it’s expensive at any age and stage. The average cost is about $2,170, according to the Kiplinger Retirement Report, for about $328,000 worth of insurance. That rate varies, and it should be noted that if you have a chronic condition, you may not be able to purchase a policy at all.

If a local nursing home costs $216,000 per year and you have $328,000 of coverage, you’ll run out of coverage. The average nursing home stay is about two years. As boomers age, the cost of long-term care insurance is rising, while benefits are becoming skimpier, says Kiplinger.

There are some alternatives: a hybrid life insurance plan that includes long-term care coverage.  However, those can be more expensive than regular long-term care insurance. Try about $8,000 a year for a 55-year-old, about $13,000 for a 65-year-old.

Another choice: a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to create and fund this trust long before you actually need it. Your assets must be placed in the trust five years before an application to Medicaid, which will then pay for your care. You don’t have to live in poverty to do this. If the care is for one person, the applicant is permitted to keep about $15,450 of assets. The spouse may also keep a home worth up to $878,000 and assets up to about $120,000. In New York State, you can keep the principle of retirement funds like an IRA or 401(k), as long as you are taking the required distribution withdrawals.

However, what if you have money to pay or need long-term care before you put assets in trust? If you live in New York, Florida and Connecticut, you have what is called “spousal refusal.” The spouse of the person in long-term care can choose not to pay for their cost of care. This can get complicated, and Medicaid will try to get funds for the care. However, an estate planning elder law attorney can negotiate the amount of payment, which may leave the bulk of your estate intact.

These are complicated matters that become very costly, often at a time when you are least able to deal with yet another issue. Speak with an estate planning attorney before you need the care and learn how they can help you protect your spouse and your assets.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (July 22, 2019) “It’s best to plan for long-term care”

What Are the Biggest Estate Planning Questions I Need to Answer?

However, if you have a family, you can probably benefit from estate planning, regardless of your asset level. The Montrose Press published an article, “Estate plans can help you answer questions about the future,” that answers some of the big questions:

What will happen to my children? As part of your estate planning, you should name a guardian to take care of your children, if you pass away. You can also name a conservator–sometimes called a “guardian of the estate”–to manage the assets that your minor children inherit.

Will there be a battle over my assets? If you fail to put a solid estate plan in place, your assets could be subject to the time-consuming, expensive and public probate process. During probate, your relatives and creditors can get access to your records. They may even challenge your will. However, with proper planning, you can maintain your privacy.

Who will control my finances and my living situation, if I’m incapacitated? You can sign a durable power of attorney. This permits you to name someone to manage your financial affairs, if you’re incapacitated. A medical power of attorney lets the person you choose handle health care decisions for you, if you’re not able to do so yourself.

Will my family feel cheated if I leave significant assets to charities? As part of your estate plan, you have options. You could establish a charitable lead trust. This will provide financial support to your chosen charities for a set period. The remaining assets will then go to your family members. On the other hand, a charitable remainder trust will provide a stream of income for family members for the term of the trust. The remaining assets will then be transferred to one or more charitable organizations.

Careful estate planning with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can answer many of the questions that may concern you.

Once you have your plans in place, you can face the future with greater clarity, peace of mind and confidence.

Reference: Montrose Press (July 7, 2019) “Estate plans can help you answer questions about the future”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Guardian of the Estate, Guardianship, Conservatorship, Incapacity, Charitable Lead Trust, Charitable Remainder Trust, Asset Protection, Probate Court, Inheritance, Power of Attorney, Planning, Financial Planning, Charitable Donations

Protecting Your Family’s Inheritance

The name sounds like you might be trying to keep children and grandchildren from being irresponsible with the assets you’ve amassed through a lifetime’s work, but irrevocable trusts offer a flexible solution. They are also helpful in cases of divorce, substance abuse and other situations, reports The Chattanoogan in an article titled “Keeping Your Family from Losing Its Inheritance.”

If we are lucky, we are able to leave a generous inheritance for our children. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should give them easy access to all or some of the assets. Some people, particularly younger adults who haven’t yet developed money management skills, or others with problems like a troubled marriage or a special needs family member, aren’t ready or able to handle an inheritance.

In some cases, like when there is a substance abuse problem, handing over a large sum of money at once could have disastrous results.

Many people are not educated or experienced enough to handle a large sum of money. Consider the stories about lottery winners who end up filing for bankruptcy. Without experience, knowledge or good advisors, a large inheritance can disappear quickly.

An irrevocable trust provides protection. A trustee is given the authority to control how funds are used, when they are given to beneficiaries and when they are not. Depending on how the trust is created, the trustee can have as much control over distributions as is necessary.

An irrevocable trust also protects assets from creditors. This is because the assets are owned by the trust and not by the beneficiary. An irrevocable trust can also protect the funds from divorces, lawsuits and bankruptcies, as well as manipulative family members and friends.

Once the money leaves the trust and is disbursed to the beneficiary, that money becomes available to creditors, just as any other asset owned by the person. However, there is a remedy for that, if things go bad.  Instead of distributing funds directly to the beneficiary, the trustee can pay bills directly. That can include payments to a school, a mortgage company, medical bills or any other costs.

The trustee and not the beneficiary, is in control of the assets and their distributions.

The person establishing the trust (the “grantor”) determines how much power to give to the trustee. The grantor determines whether the trustee is to distribute funds on a regular basis, or whether the trustee is to use their discretion, as to when and how much to give to the beneficiary.

Here’s an example. If you’ve given full control of the trust to the trustee, and the trustee decides that some of the money should go to pay a child’s college tuition, the trustee can send a check every semester directly to the college. The trustee, if the trust is written this way, can also put conditions on the college tuition payments, mandating that a certain grade level be maintained or that the student must graduate by a certain date.

Appointing the trustee is a critical piece of the success of any trust. If no family members are suitable, then a corporate trustee can be hired to manage the trust. Speak with a qualified estate planning attorney, to learn if an irrevocable trust is a good idea for your situation and also to determine whether or not a family member should be named the trustee.

Reference: The Chattanoogan (July 5, 23019) “Keeping Your Family from Losing Its Inheritance.”

Suggested Key Terms: Trust, Irrevocable, Trustee, Beneficiary, Estate Planning Attorney, Grantor, Assets, Distribution

What Estate Planning Documents Do I Need, When I’m Diagnosed with a Serious Illness?

More than 130 million Americans are living with chronic illness. Forbes’ recent article, “Estate Planning Musts When You Or A Or A Loved One Has A Chronic Illness,” says that if you (or a loved one) are living with a chronic illness, you’ll likely need the same estate planning documents most people should have.

The article discusses these key estate planning documents, along with some suggestions that might help you customize them to your unique challenges because of chronic illness. These documents might need to be altered to better serve your needs or address your challenges. It’s best to get your estate planning documents in place, soon after your diagnosis.

HIPAA Release. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 governs the requirements for maintaining the confidentiality of protected or personal health information (PHI). A HIPAA Release lets someone you trust access your protected health information.

Living Will. This is a statement of your health care wishes and can address end of life decisions, as well as many other matters. If you’re living with a chronic illness, there are special considerations you might want to make in having a living will prepared. You might alter the general language to explain your specific disease. The fact that you’re living with disease doesn’t mean you might not face another health issue. Therefore, if you make modifications, set them out as examples of specific changes but retain the broad language that might be more typically used. You can address the disease you have, at what stage and with what anticipated disease course, and how if at all these matters should be reflected. You might wish to also speak to experimental treatments.

Health Care Proxy. This is also known as a medical power of attorney. It is a legal document in which you designate a trusted person to make medical decisions for you, if you’re unable to do so. If your health challenges might result in your becoming incapacitated, you can say that the agent appointed under your health proxy is also to be named as your guardian of the person, should a guardianship proceeding ever happen. Although this may not be binding on the court, it may be persuasive.

Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST). This is a document that may be included as part of your medical records. A POLST is meant for the end of life medical decisions and may not be as broad as what you might accomplish with a health proxy or living will.

Financial Power of Attorney. This legal document lets you designate a trusted person to handle your legal, tax, and financial matters, if you can’t. There are some unique considerations for those living with chronic illnesses to consider. One is the amount of control that should be given up now or at what stage. Relinquish enough control, so you can be assisted to the degree necessary, but not more than you need at any point in time. Another characteristic for your powers of attorney, is if you should sign a special power that restricts the agent’s authority to certain specified items or sign a general power that provides broad and almost unlimited powers to the agent.

A Revocable Trust. A frequent goal of a revocable trust is to avoid the publicity, costs and difficulties of probate. However, if you or a family member has a chronic illness, using a revocable trust may be a good way to provide for succession of management for your finances.

Reference: Forbes (July 5, 2019) “Estate Planning Musts When You Or A Or A Loved One Has A Chronic Illness”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Capacity, Revocable Living Trust, Power of Attorney, Healthcare Directive, Living Will, Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST), HIPAA Release, Guardianship