The Most Important Part of Estate Plan Is Planning for Living

Most people think of estate planning as planning for death. However, a well-titled article “Planning for death probably isn’t the most important part of your estate plan” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press presents another reason for estate planning in clear terms. Estate planning is planning for the unexpected eventualities of life.

Estate planning documents address how things will work while you are still living but if you have become incapable of making your own decisions. In many cases, this is more important than distributing your worldly possessions.

Yes, you should have a will (last will and testament). But you should also have Power of Attorney documents—one for health care purposes and another for financial purposes.

The Power of Attorney document states who will be your substitute decision maker, or agent, if you are incapacitated or unable to make your own decisions while still living. This should be a personalized document prepared by an estate planning attorney to include the scope of tasks and the limits, if any, you want to set for your agent. The financial POA is an important one, as it gives your chosen agent the legal authority to make financial decisions on your behalf.

The health care power of attorney gives your agent the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf.

With both of these documents properly prepared and available, someone you name will be empowered to serve as your decision maker if necessary.

The will is used to state what happens to your possessions and assets when you die. It is also the legal document used to name your executor—the person who will be in charge of carrying out your instructions. The will tells the probate court how you want your estate to be administered after death.

Why do you need these and other documents? Your will only becomes effective after death. Your POA documents are effective if you become incapacitated. They are both part of your estate plan, which is a collection of legal documents and has nothing to do with whether you reside in a palatial estate.

Here’s how it might work. If you become seriously ill and cannot speak on your own behalf, but you have a Power of Attorney naming your daughter Carol to serve as your POA for healthcare and financial decisions, Carol will be able to pay bills, including paying the mortgage, keeping your car lease up to date, and taking care of all of the financial aspects of your life. If she is also named as your Health Care POA, she will be able to speak with your medical team, be involved in decisions about your course of care and follow the wishes you’ve expressed in your POA.

If you die, and Carol has also been named your executor, she will be able to transition into this new role by representing you through the probate process. She will be able to work with your estate planning attorney to have your will filed with the court and follow your directions for distribution of your assets.

Having only a last will and testament would not protect you while you are living. Having only a Power of Attorney would not protect your wishes after you have died. All of these documents—and there are others not mentioned here—work together to protect you during life and after you’ve passed.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (Aug. 29, 2022) “Planning for death probably isn’t the most important part of your estate plan”

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?”

Did Actress Anne Heche have a Will?

Homer Laffoon, actress Anne Heche’s 20-year-old son, is asking that he be awarded control of his mother’s assets. His mother died last month after a car crash at age 53 and did not have a will, according to a copy of the petition obtained by CNN.

“Filed concurrently with this petition is a Petition for Appointment of Guardian ad Litem for the minor,” the docs read, “which specifically requests that the guardian ad litem be granted the authority to waive bond on behalf of the minor.”

The petition names Laffoon and Heche’s 13-year-old son, Atlas Tupper as heirs.

“The Estate consists of two (2) intestate heirs—Homer Heche Laffoon and Atlas Heche Tupper,” the petition states “Homer Heche Laffoon is an adult and the proposed Administrator. Atlas Heche Tupper is a minor.”

CNN’s recent article entitled “Anne Heche’s son petitions to assume control of her estate” reports that an October 11 hearing is scheduled to evaluate this request. Also, it’s been noted that the estimated worth of Anne Heche’s estate will need to undergo forensic accounting. That’s because it’s not known how much the star was worth upon her death.

While there’s no official will documenting Heche’s wishes for her estate, Homer’s stated that his mom’s final resting place will be at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. She also designated her organs for donation at her passing before her remains were cremated.

In the aftermath of the grief, these unexpected events will provide some legal hurdles.

Heche’s car crashed into a Los Angeles home and erupted into flames on August 5. She experienced a “severe anoxic brain injury,” depriving her brain of oxygen, among other critical injuries, her family and friends said in a statement. Anne passed away a few days later after being taken off life support.

“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom. After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness,” Lafoon said in statement to CNN on Aug. 14. “Hopefully my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom.”

Reference: CNN (Sep. 1, 2022) “Anne Heche’s son petitions to assume control of her estate”

Why Is a Will So Important?

A 2020 Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans have a will or have made plans regarding how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have one.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will” says that no matter your age, it’s important to have a will to be in control of what happens with your own assets. A will is a legal document that establishes a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.

Without this type of legal document, the state law may control who gets your “probate” assets and when. Having one can save an enormous amount of time and money in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children, if needed.

There’s a big difference between a will and a living will. A living will is a document that lets you state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical situations, if you’re unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.

These differ by state law. However, they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options. General medical decisions unrelated to end of life care are typically covered in a health care power of attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive.

Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, it lets you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate. If you have minor children, it also allows you to nominate a guardian for them.

When creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.” To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What assets do you have?
  • To whom do you want to leave them?
  • Who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
  • Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
  • How do you want the assets transferred?

Reference: Yahoo News (Aug. 17, 2022) “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will”

Who Is the Best Person for Executor?

Several critical estate planning documents give another person—known as an agent or personal representative—the legal right to act on another person’s behalf. They include wills, trusts, powers of attorney and advance health care directives, as described in a recent article titled “The nomination of trustees, executors and agents” from Lake County Record-Bee.

Your will is only activated after you die. The will and executor then have to be approved by the court. Many people think being named as an executor confers instant authority, but this is not true. Only when the will has been deemed valid by the court, does the executor have the power to act on behalf of the decedent.

After death, the court is petitioned for a court order appointing the executor and then letters testamentary are signed by the appointed executor. An executor then becomes active as an officer of the court with a fiduciary duty to act as personal representative of the decedent’s estate.

If the named person declines to serve, the will should have a secondary person named as executor, who can then request the appointment be validated by the court. Others can petition the court to be appointed. However, it is best to name two people of your choice in your will.

A trust is a separate legal entity with a trustee who is in charge of the trust and its assets. If a revocable will is created, the trustee is usually the same person who has the trust created, also known as the grantor. For an irrevocable trust, the trustee is someone other than the grantor. The appointment does not become official until the appointment is accepted, usually through signing a document or by the successor trustee taking action on behalf of the trust.

Just as an executor might not accept their role, a trustee can decide not to accept the nomination. However, once they do, they have a fiduciary duty to put the well-being of the trust first and manage it properly. You can’t accept the role and then walk away without serious consequences.

Powers of attorney are used while a person is living. The power of attorney’s effective date depends upon what kind of POA it is. A durable power of attorney is effective the moment it is signed. A springing POA sets forth terms upon which the POA becomes active, usually incapacity. The challenge with a Springing POA is that approval by the court may be required, usually with proof from a treating physician concerning the person’s condition.

Similarly, the health care power of attorney appoints a person who acts on behalf of another as their agent for health issues. They can decline the position. However, once they agree to take on the position, they are responsible for their actions.

If the POAs decline to serve and there is no secondary person named, or if all named POAs decline to serve, the family will need to apply for a conservatorship (also known as guardianship). This is a lengthy and expensive process requiring a thorough investigation of the situation and the person who needs representation. It can be contested if the person does not want to give up their independence, or by family members who feel it is not needed.

These are commonly used terms in estate planning. However, they are not always understood clearly. Your estate planning attorney will be able to address specific responsibilities and requirements, since every state has laws and appointments vary by state.

Reference: Lake Country Record-Bee (July 30, 2022) “The nomination of trustees, executors and agents”

What’s the Latest with the Queen of Soul’s Estate?

Clearing the Queen of Soul’s tax debts could clear the way for her four sons to finally take over her post-death affairs and fully benefit from revenues flowing into her estate — which could be millions of dollars.

The Detroit Free Press reports in its recent article entitled “Aretha Franklin estate says $7.8 million IRS bill is paid; could spell windfall for sons” reports that Franklin’s tax burden had been an immovable hurdle as her heirs sorted out other estate matters — sometimes combatively — in Oakland County Probate Court following her 2018 death.

The IRS debt prevented the sons from receiving money, even while the late star’s music and movie projects generated big revenue in her name. The remaining tax liability was paid off in June with delivery of a cashier’s check to the IRS.

The IRS said that the singer’s estate had nearly $8 million in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest that had piled up during the previous seven years. The estate at last struck a deal with the IRS in April 2021 with an accelerated payoff schedule that also set up limited but regular payments to Franklin’s sons.

The IRS deal earmarked 45% of incoming Aretha Franklin revenue to pay down the standing tax balance. Another 40% was directed to an escrow account to handle taxes on newly generated income.

With the tax debt now purportedly off its back, the estate contends that most of the incoming cash should get distributed equally among the four sons each month. From that point, income tax obligations would be on each individual. Oakland County (MI) Probate Judge Jennifer Callaghan would have to approve the request.

In the meantime, there’s still the issue of multiple wills that were apparently signed by Franklin. That includes three handwritten documents discovered in her home in 2019.

A fourth will draft suddenly was discovered last year — a typed document prepared by a Troy law firm in 2017 but left unsigned by the star.

The documents contain conflicting instructions about Franklin’s wishes for her estate, including which heirs were to get what, and their emergence exacerbated tensions among sons Clarence, Edward, Teddy and Kecalf.

A trial to clear up the situation was planned for 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Reference: Detroit Free Press (July 11, 2022) “Aretha Franklin estate says $7.8 million IRS bill is paid; could spell windfall for sons”

Who will Receive Naomi Judd’s Estate?

Country music legend Naomi Judd, who died in April, named her husband Larry Strickland as executor of her estate. She was married to Strickland for 33 years. According to court documents, he’ll have “full authority and discretion” over her estate and won’t need to have the “approval of any court” or permission from any beneficiary.

The Los Angeles Times’ recent article entitled “Naomi Judd reportedly left daughters Wynonna and Ashley out of her final will” says that the 76-year-old Judd prepared the will on Nov. 20, 2017.

The will also provides that Strickland is entitled to receive compensation for his executor duties and that he would be reimbursed for legal fees, disbursements and other “reasonable expenses” in the administration of Judd’s estate. Judd‘s brother-in-law, Reginald Strickland, and Wiatr & Associates President Daniel Kris Wiatr will serve as the estate’s co-executors.

Reports say that Wynonna isn’t happy with her mother’s will and “believes she was a major force behind her mother’s success.”

Naomi died from suicide on April 30a day before she and her daughter Wynonna, known as “The Judds,” were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The daughters teamed up in their grief to tearfully accept the Hall of Fame honor for their late mother.

Wynonna later decided to tour despite her mother’s death. She enlisted some major stars to join her on the road.

In May, Ashley revealed that her mother had used a firearm and said she found her mother’s body when she was visiting her mom’s Tennessee home.

“Our mother couldn’t hang on to be recognized by her peers. That is the level of catastrophe of what was going on inside of her,” she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “Because the barrier between the regard in which they held her couldn’t penetrate into her heart and the lie the disease told her was so convincing.”

The Judds were known for songs including “Why Not Me,” “Love Can Build a Bridge” and “Mama He’s Crazy.”

Reference: Los Angeles Times (Aug. 1, 2022) “Naomi Judd reportedly left daughters Wynonna and Ashley out of her final will”

Do You Need a Power of Attorney?

Did you know estate planning attorneys recommend anyone over age 18 have a power of attorney? Without one, even a long-married spouse may not be able to make financial or medical decisions if their spouse became incapacitated, according to a recent article “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney” from U.S. News & World Report. Naming someone and having the documents created to make them a Power of Attorney (POA) is part of creating an estate plan.

If someone becomes incapacitated, someone else—a family member or the state—has to be able to make decisions on their behalf. People hesitate sometimes, as they’re not sure about giving someone the power to make decisions. However, lacking one leads to problems in emergent situations.

While the 18-year-olds are usually the most upset when they learn their parents wish to be named as their POA, it is because they don’t realize how mom and dad have no legal authority over them once they become legal adults.

State laws vary for powers of attorney, so it is important to work with a local estate planning attorney who can create a POA specific to your needs and following the laws of your state.

How to get started with a Power of Attorney

The first, and possibly hardest, part of a POA is determining who should be named. The individual needs to be responsible, trustworthy and calm in emergency situations. Just because someone is related to you doesn’t necessarily qualify them to serve in this role. You should also name a secondary POA, in case the first is unable or unwilling to act on your behalf.

Next, have your estate planning attorney draft the document, which typically works in connection with other estate planning documents including your will, health care proxy and HIPAA release forms. You should have a Power of Attorney for finances and a Health Care Power of Attorney for medical care.

Be careful about what happens to copies of the documents and where they are stored. Some estate planning attorneys create documents to be stored in a fire and water-proof box at home, in the safety deposit box at a bank, or in the attorney’s fireproof safe. Others say you should never put important documents in a safety deposit box in a bank, because if the documents are needed and the bank is closed, the person won’t be able to step up and act.

The POA needs to be kept up to date, just like any part of your estate plan. Some financial institutions will refuse to honor a POA if they consider it out of date. Every three to five years, this document should be updated. It should also be updated if the person named POA becomes incapacitated, dies, or moves to another state.

Should You Have a Durable Power of Attorney?

Powers of attorney typically end when a person becomes incapacitated, which is exactly when you want to have a POA. A Durable Power of Attorney can make decisions on your behalf, even if you become incapacitated.

What is a Springing Power of Attorney?

Power of attorney for finances or healthcare can be effective immediately when the documents are signed or take effect under predetermined circumstances, such as when the principal becomes incapacitated. This is known as a springing power of attorney because it “springs” into effect at a specific time. It seems like a good idea, but a word of caution: the springing power of attorney requires a doctor’s evaluation of incapacity. This often takes time, which can be the one thing you don’t have in an urgent situation.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (July 21, 2022) “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney”

Do Young Adults Need a Will?

Everyone, age 18 and older, needs at least some basic estate planning documents. That’s true even if you own very little. You still need an advance health care directive and a power of attorney. These estate planning documents designate agents to make decisions for you, in the event you become incapacitated.

The Los Angeles Daily News’ recent article entitled “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics” reminds us that incapacity doesn’t just happen to the elderly. It can happen from an accident, a health crisis, or an injury. To have these documents in place, you just need to state the person you want to make decisions for you and generally what those decisions should be.

An experienced estate planning attorney will help you draft your will by using a questionnaire you complete before your initial meeting. This helps you to organize and list the information required. It also helps the attorney spot issues, such as taxes, blended families and special needs. You will list your assets — real property, business entities, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, cars, life insurance and anything else you may own. The estimated or actual value of each item should also be included. If you have life insurance or retirement plans, attach a copy of the beneficiary designation form.

An experienced estate planning attorney will discuss your financial and family situation and offer options for a plan that will fit your needs.

The attorney may have many different solutions for the issues that concern you and those you may not have considered. These might include a child with poor money habits, a blended family where you need to balance the needs of a surviving spouse with the expectations of the children from a prior marriage, a pet needing ongoing care, or your thoughts about who to choose as your trustee or power of attorney.

There are many possible solutions, and you aren’t required to know them before you move ahead with your estate planning.

If you are an adult, you know generally what you own, your name and address and the names of your spouse and children or any other beneficiaries you’d like to include in your plan. So, you’re ready to move ahead with your estate planning documents.

The key is to do this now and not procrastinate.

Reference: Los Angeles Daily News (July 24, 2022) “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics”