How Do I Find the Right Estate Planning Attorney?

When looking for an estate planning attorney, many people feel more comfortable with getting a personal referral, than by trying to find an attorney on their own.

While a referral from friends can be a good start to finding an experienced attorney, it may not be enough to cultivate a successful working relationship, says The San Francisco Business Times in the recently published article, “Guide to finding an estate planning attorney who is right for you.”

  1. Identify the type of estate planning attorney needed. Many people can use the services of an estate planning attorney to draft wills, powers of attorney, and basic trusts. However, some situations require an attorney with certain focuses. For example, those who are concerned about maximizing benefits for beneficiaries with special needs or who are interested in programs like Medicaid or addressing long-term care may want a practitioner who concentrates in elder law.
  2. Interview your short list. See if there’s a fee for a “meet and greet” before you schedule a meeting. Most attorneys welcome the opportunity to meet with potential clients.
  3. Find the attorney’s educational credentials online. At the introductory meeting, ask procedural questions rather than asking for specific legal advice. You may want to ask about topics such as relevant experience, preferred methods of communication and points of contact, billing practices and whether the attorney has the bandwidth (capacity) to work on your issues.
  4. Make an assessment after the meeting. After the interview, assess how the meeting went. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Did they respond in a timely manner?
  • Did you understand the answers they gave you?
  • Did you feel comfortable asking follow-up questions?

If you weren’t totally comfortable with this first meeting, you may never develop the type of open conversation that’s critical to have with your estate planning attorney. You don’t need your estate planning attorney to be your best friend, but you do need to trust them with your family’s future. If one does not suit you, continue looking until you find one who is a good fit.

  1. Move ahead. If you felt good and liked the attorney’s approach, go ahead and move forward.
  2. Get all the fee info out in the open. An estate planning attorney will usually prepare fee engagement letters that sets out the scope of services and billing practices. If your attorney doesn’t give this type of letter for you to review and sign, ask her to put the fee agreement in writing. Make certain that you understand the letter. If you have questions, get answers before signing.

Reference: San Francisco Business Times (January 4, 2019) “Guide to finding an estate planning attorney who is right for you”

Blue Water’ Vietnam Vets Can Now Get Agent Orange Benefits

Until now, the Veterans Administration (VA) has denied disability benefits for Agent Orange exposure to tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who served on boats off the coast of Vietnam. A federal Court of Appeals has rejected that denial of benefits. The Department of Veteran Affairs is reviewing the decision. The department has not yet announced whether it will appeal the decision. As for now, ‘Blue Water’ Vietnam vets can now get Agent Orange benefits.

Historically, the VA has only allowed veterans who served on land or the inland waters of Vietnam to get compensation for illness after exposure to Agent Orange. The federal appeals court ruled that this interpretation is contrary to what Congress intended, when it passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. The court stated that Congress intended to include Vietnam’s territorial sea in the Act, which would allow veterans who served on ships off the shore of Vietnam to get the same benefits as other Agent Orange-exposed veterans.

The Agent Orange Act contains a list of diseases. If a veteran who served in Vietnam develops any of those diseases, the Act creates the presumption that Agent Orange caused the illness. As a result, veterans can receive disability payments. The government used Agent Orange, a herbicide, to clear foliage in Vietnam. We now know that Agent Orange is a toxic chemical compound that causes significant health problems.

The specific diseases on the Agent Orange Act’s presumptive list include:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • type II diabetes
  • soft tissue sarcomas
  • prostate cancer
  • respiratory cancers
  • coronary artery disease
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • multiple myeloma
  • AL amyloidosis
  • early-onset peripheral neuropathy
  • porphyria cutanea tarda
  • chloracne

The VA reports that it is evaluating whether to add hypertension, bladder cancer, Parkinson’s-like symptoms and hypothyroidism to the list of presumptive diseases.

If a Vietnam veteran has a disease on the presumptive list, it is easier for that veteran to qualify for disability benefits. Once a veteran qualifies for disability, his or her survivors can also eventually receive death benefits.

Veterans advocates see this decision as a step in the right direction for the fair treatment of Vietnam veterans. They say this case rights an injustice that has been going on for decades. Some advocates are waiting to see if the VA will appeal the decision before they celebrate. Veterans groups are also asking for additional legislation to protect servicemembers who were in other situations, in addition to Agent Orange exposure.

The federal case took 10 years to make its way through the court system to the federal appeals court. The case, Procopio v. Wilkie, involved a veteran who developed diabetes and prostate cancer, after serving for three years on a military ship off the coast of Vietnam.

The VA denied his claim for disability benefits because he had served in the territorial waters of Vietnam, not on land or in the inland waters. The National Veterans Legal Services Program brought the lawsuit to have the courts rule on how the VA handles Agent Orange cases involving military personnel who had served on “Blue Water,” as opposed to on land or inland waters.

Your local elder law attorney can advise you on veterans’ disability issues and answer your questions about how your state’s laws might vary from the general law of this article.

References:

AARP. “Court Rules ‘Blue Water’ Vietnam Veterans Eligible for Agent Orange Benefits.” (accessed February 28, 2019) https://www.aarp.org/home-family/voices/veterans/info-2019/blue-water-vietnam-benefits.html

At What Life Stages Should I Review My Estate Plan?

When a person hits the age of 18, they should at least have powers of attorney to designate who will make their healthcare decisions and handle their finances, in the event of any incapacity. When a person starts to accumulate assets and have children, it’s critical to have an estate plan in place, including guardianship nominations.

Bankrate’s recent article, “Estate planning triggers: When to re-evaluate your estate planning strategy,” says the risk of not having a current estate plan and will that state your wishes is significant. When people fail to put any plan into place, it leads to confusion, chaos and unintended consequences. Use this list of important life events as triggers to remind you to discuss your current situation with a trusted attorney.

Getting married. You and your future spouse probably have had some financial conversations before getting engaged. However, if you haven’t, once wedding plans are set, it’s vital to discuss all aspects of each partner’s financial situation and the desired distribution of assets. You should decide whether to sign a prenuptial agreement, the totals of your separate and joint assets and who you want to inherit those assets should one or both spouses pass on. In light of these factors and the prenuptial agreement, an estate plan that satisfies both parties must be created.

Starting a family. The decision to have a child comes with the responsibility of planning for that child’s care. You and your partner will want to determine the amount of your assets you want to pass to your children in the case of a death, at what age your children will inherit those assets and name a legal guardian.

Divorce. If a couple decides to divorce, it’s important to update their separate estates. If you fail to change the beneficiary designations for a trust or life insurance policy after getting divorced, your ex-spouse may receive the life insurance that was supposed to be paid out to the trust to provide liquidity to pay off debts and administration expenses.

Retirement. Beneficiaries are named when setting up a 401k or Roth IRA account. If you started the account years ago, the beneficiaries may be out-of-date. Account owners should look at their total retirement assets and update their beneficiaries to reflect their current relationship and financial circumstances.

Other life events. Any significant change in assets, a move to another state, the death or disability of a person named in your estate plan, a change in tax laws, a disability of a beneficiary that arises after the initial plan is executed, and/or the birth, adoption, or death of a child are all important life events that should trigger a revision of your estate plan.

Reference: Bankrate (March 4, 2019) “Estate planning triggers: When to re-evaluate your estate planning strategy”

What Should My Fiancé and I Discuss About Finances Before We Say “I Do”?

If you’re older and remarry, you may have more assets and you probably have children. That’s different than a first marriage, where people often enter as financial equals. In subsequent unions, situations are more complicated—and the stakes are higher. You should protect your money in the event of divorce and protect your children in the event of your death.

Barron’s recent article, “How to Manage Your Money When You’re Remarrying,” says the subject of money should be easier this time around. Money talk might have been taboo going into your first marriage, but experience—and the battle wounds of divorce—tend to make this dialog much easier.

The best strategy for navigating the financial side of remarriage is to be direct and give yourself plenty of time before the wedding to work out the details. All good financial plans start with a broader discussion that has more to do with identifying and setting goals, than it does about dollar signs.

Consider what you hope to achieve individually and as a couple over the next year, five years, decade, and so on. Discuss your priorities and intentions, be specific, and write it all down. Your conversation will be the groundwork for the specific financial planning decisions the two of you will need to make, when it’s time to formalize your plans for merging finances or—as the case may be—keeping them separate.

Prenuptial agreements, or “prenups,” are becoming more frequently used by millennials because they are marrying later and bringing more assets and debt to the marriage. In the case of remarriage, a prenup should be strongly considered by most couples. This legally-binding agreement details how assets and liabilities will be divided, in the event of divorce.

Many experts suggest keeping separate checking, savings, and investment accounts—but setting up joint accounts for shared lifestyle expenses. Having a joint account removes the need for constant discussion about how you’ll divide expenses. Create a monthly joint budget and agree on the fairest way to split it. Some couples divide it down the middle, while others base it on a percentage of their respective incomes.

You don’t need to have all of your estate plans settled before the wedding but be certain to update key documents where appropriate—such as your wills, medical advance directives, retirement plan, and insurance beneficiaries.

A big trouble spot for couples remarrying—especially if there are children and grandchildren from other marriages—is how assets will be divided in the future. Without a clear estate plan, if you die first, then the assets will pass to your spouse and then to that spouse’s children, depending on the type of asset. That can be a big source of family strife—even for families who aren’t wealthy. A good solution is to set up revocable livings trusts that say exactly how you want your respective and joint assets to be distributed when you die.

Reference: Barron’s (March 2, 2019) “How to Manage Your Money When You’re Remarrying”

Estate Planning for Parents with Young Children

Attorneys who focus their practices on estate planning, know that not every story has a happy ending. For some of them, it’s a professional mission to make sure that young parents are prepared for the unthinkable, says KTVO in the article “Family 411: Thinking about estate planning while your kids are young.”

It’s a very easy thing to forget, because it’s so unpleasant to consider. The idea of becoming seriously ill or even dying while your children are young, is every parent’s worst fear. But putting off having an estate plan with a will that prepares for this possibility is so important. Doing it will provide peace of mind, and a road forward for those who survive you, if your worst fears were to come true.

Start with a will and/or a guardianship nomination. In a will, you can name a guardian, the person who would be in charge of rearing your children and have physical custody of them. Don’t assume that your parents will take over, or that your spouse’s parents will. What if both sets of parents want to be the custodians? The last thing you want is for your in-laws and parents to end up in a court battle over custody of your children.

Another important document: a trust. You should have life insurance that will be the source for paying for the children’s education, including college, summer camps, after-school activities and their overall cost of living. In addition, proceeds from a life insurance policy cannot be given to a minor without the need for Court supervision and orders.

However, what if your son or daughter turned 18 and were suddenly awarded $500,000? At that age, would they know how to handle such a large sum of money? Many adults don’t. A trust allows you to give clear directions regarding how old the child must be, before receiving a set amount of money. You can also stipulate that the child must complete college before receiving funds or reach certain milestones. You may not want to have their legal guardian in charge of the finances; by dividing up the responsibilities, a checks and balances system is set into place.

While you are creating an estate plan with your children in mind, make sure your estate plan has the same documents for you and your spouse: Power of Attorney for Finance, Advance Healthcare Directive, and a HIPAA release form.

Speak with a local estate planning attorney who has experience in planning for young families.

Reference: KTVO.com (Feb. 6, 2019) “Family 411: Thinking about estate planning while your kids are young”

 

Who Will Pay for Your Nursing Home Care?

It’s hard for everyone in the family, when a beloved parent or grandparent must enter a nursing home, because they can no longer live on their own. Often the result of a physical or mental decline, the difficulty is compounded by worries about how to pay for the care, reports The Ledger in the article “The Law: Are you eligible for Medicaid nursing home coverage?”

Once health insurance coverage ends, the cost of care becomes enormous, with the monthly cost for a private-pay resident at nursing homes often exceeding $10,000 a month. What usually happens? Residents can’t afford the care and only have two options: qualify for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage, or sell every asset they can, impoverish the spouse, and ask adult children or other family members for help. Most people contact an elder law attorney and explore becoming eligible for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage.

Let’s use the state of Florida for an example of how to qualify for this coverage. A person must pass a three-part test that examines their assets, income, and health, at the time the application is filed.

Income. As of Jan. 1, 2019, you could have a maximum of $2,313 per month in income (before deductions) to be eligible for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage. If your income was above that number, then legal planning is necessary to create a qualified income trust. Timing is extremely important, because if the trust is not set up correctly or in a timely fashion, you will not qualify for Medicaid.

There is a common mistake made about a spouse’s income being too high. It’s happily not true: a spouse’s income can be unlimited, and it does not impact a Medicaid applicant’s eligibility for benefits.

Assets. As of Jan. 1, 2019, you may have a maximum of $2,000 of countable assets and be eligible for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage. If the assets are above that threshold, there are a number of acceptable legal options to help the individual become eligible. There are two types of asset classes to consider when applying for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage: countable and non-countable.

Some non-countable assets are as follows: In Florida, homestead property up to $585,000 in value, one automobile, a prepaid burial contract and term life insurance without a cash value. Countable assets include bank accounts, investment accounts, life insurance with cash value, CDs and annuities.

As of Jan. 1, 2019, a spouse may have a maximum of $126,420 of countable assets, without having an impact on their spouses’ Medicaid eligibility.

An elder law attorney should be consulted to help the family understand the income and asset tests and create a strategy to help the individual qualify, if they anticipate needing Medicaid Nursing Home coverage. It’s best to do this well in advance, if possible. In addition, California has it’s own rules, so it is important to make sure you understand the rules in your specific state.

Reference: The Ledger (Jan. 9, 2019) “The Law: Are you eligible for Medicaid nursing home coverage?”

How Do I Plan for a Blended Family?

A blended family (or stepfamily) can be thought of as the result of two or more people forming a life together (married or not) that includes children from one or both of their previous relationships, says The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a recent article, “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late.”

Research from the Pew Research Center study reveals a high remarriage rate for those 55 and older—67% between the ages 55 and 64 remarry. Some of the high remarriage percentage may be due to increasing life expectancies or the death of a spouse. In addition, divorces are increasing for older people who may have decided that, with the children grown, they want to go their separate ways.

It’s important to note that although 50% of first marriages end in divorce, that number jumps to 67% of second marriages and 80% of third marriages end in divorce.

So if you’re remarrying, you should think about starting out with a prenuptial agreement. This type of agreement is made between two people prior to marriage. It sets out rights to property and support, in case there’s a divorce or death. Both parties must reveal their finances. This is really helpful, when each may have different income sources, assets and expenses.

You should discuss whose name will be on the deed to your home, which is often the asset with the most value, as well as the beneficiary designations of your life insurance policies, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts.

It is also important to review the agents under your health care directives and financial powers of attorney. Ask yourself if you truly want your stepchildren in any of these agent roles, which may include “pulling the plug” or ending life support.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about these important documents that you’ll need, when you say “I do” for the second (or third) time.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 24, 2019) “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late”

Family Meetings and Trustworthy Siblings Needed to Help Aging Parents

It gets tricky when aging parents start having problems managing their own financial and legal affairs. Siblings can be a challenge, if they lack the ability to understand the changing roles from adult child to caregiver, or if they don’t know how to manage the “business side” of life. That, says the Monterey Herald in the article “Financial planning: Family communication helps aging parents,” can lead to challenging circumstances for aging parents and siblings.

For one thing, parents are often reluctant to seek help, even if they are aware that things are not right. Notices of missed payments may be stuffed in a drawer or left to pile up in stacks on a desk that was once orderly and tidy. Depending on where adult children live, this state of affairs could go on for a very long time, until someone realizes that it’s not for lack of money, but their capacity is starting to diminish. If you are nearby and visit often, you may not notice until things are in a bad state. If you live far away, you may not know until an annual visit brings you to a home that’s in a state of disarray.

Some siblings are easy to work with and understand the challenges that aging parents face. However, others don’t have the temperament or the knowledge to help out. If they are estranged from the parents, they obviously won’t be much help and could get in the way. Trying to reach out and keeping them informed may be difficult. However, it may also be necessary.

If there is a good relationship with siblings and they all live relatively close to each other, the family should begin with a series of regular family meetings. Ideally, the parents call the first meeting to take place, and they are able to take the lead in explaining why everyone is gathering and what needs to be accomplished. If they are not capable of doing that, or don’t want to do that, because they don’t want to be seen as needy or pushy, then an older sibling usually steps up.

A family with a history of good communication can usually deal with the legal and financial matters in several meetings. A family that rarely talks or only speaks during the holidays will need to get accustomed to working with each other in a productive manner. Some families meet at their estate planning attorney’s office. The attorney can serve as a facilitator, while an estate plan is put into place. Often, a neutral, third-party meeting place can diffuse some of the old family dynamics, which often emerge when a family meets at the family home.

Start by putting together a summary of the parent’s situation. What are their expenses, and what are their sources of income? How are their investment accounts titled? Do they have an estate plan? Have they named beneficiaries for their retirement accounts and life insurance policies? Is there a long-term care policy in place? How is their home titled, and where is the deed located?

Having the answers to these questions will also help you protect parents from financial elder abuse.

Evaluate their health with a realistic view. Do they have the health coverage they need? Are they independent now, and what is the prospect for their future independence? If they should become less able to live on their own, what will that look like? How will that be paid for?

Next, review their legal status. Do they have a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney and HIPAA release form? If their estate plan has not been reviewed for more than three years, it needs to be updated. Many financial institutions and some health care facilities will not accept documents that are more than three to five years old. If any documents were created before HIPAA went into effect (2001), then they definitely need an updated estate plan.

The goal is to prepare as much as possible in advance, rather than reacting to a crisis. Increasing family communication around caring for aging parents can also bring siblings closer together, with a shared cause. Getting parents the care they need before an emergency, will also leave everyone in the family knowing they’ve done the right thing.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Feb. 20, 2019) “Financial planning: Family communication helps aging parents”

Can a Professional Fiduciary Help Me with Estate Planning?

When it’s time to do your estate planning, you should get assistance from professionals. When you draft your estate plan, you’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney. You also may want to speak with a trust company or licensed private fiduciary, which can help facilitate your estate plans and coordinate the activities of your legal and financial professionals, says The Pasadena Journal’s recent article, “Who Can You Trust to Reduce Stress of Estate Planning?”

If you have a reasonable amount of financial assets, you may benefit from the various services provided by a professional fiduciary. Those services can range from administration of a variety of trusts (such as living trusts and charitable trusts) to asset-management services (bill-paying), and safekeeping services (like providing secure vaults for jewelry and collectibles).

Employing a professional fiduciary can make things much easier, when it’s time to plan and execute your estate. A professional fiduciary can help you in these ways:

  • Lessening family fighting. Dividing estate assets can result in ill will and stress in a family. However, a professional fiduciary can act as a neutral third party to reduce feelings of unfairness.
  • Providing greater control. With a living trust that’s administered by the professional fiduciary, you can allow yourself great control over how you want your assets distributed.
  • Saving time and energy. With a professional fiduciary, you can let them do all the “legwork” of coordinating your plans with your financial professional, tax advisor and attorney. These professionals are also used to dealing with trust companies.
  • Adding protection. A professional fiduciary assume fiduciary responsibility for your financial well-being. This means that your best interests are always considered in each service and transaction they perform.

You can select from among many different trust companies and professional fiduciaries, but before choosing one, examine the services and fees of the various options.

As you journey toward that time of your life, when estate planning becomes more essential, discuss your plans with an estate planning attorney, a tax advisor, and a financial professional about whether using the services of a professional fiduciary might be right for you.

Reference: The Pasadena Journal (February 20, 2019) “Who Can You Trust to Reduce Stress of Estate Planning?” 

Iconic Designer Leaves a Fortune for Beloved Cat

The Burmese cat owned by Lagerfeld stands to inherit a sizable amount of the designer’s fortune, estimated at some $300 million, according to a report from CBS News titled “Karl Lagerfeld’s cat to inherit a fortune, but may not be richest pet.” The beloved cat, named Choupette, was written into his will in 2015, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro.

Before Lagerfeld died on Feb. 19, the cat already had an income of her own, appearing in ads for cars and beauty products. She has nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram and is an ambassador for Opel, the French car maker. She is also the subject of two books. Choupette has had her own line of makeup for the beauty brand Shu Uemura.

Lagerfeld was a German citizen, but he and Choupette were residents of France, where the law prohibits pets from inheriting their human owner’s wealth. German law does permit a person’s wealth to be transferred to an animal.

There are three approaches that Lagerfeld might have taken to ensure that his beloved cat would be assured of her lifestyle, after his passing. One would have been to create a foundation, whose sole mission is to care for the cat, with a director who would receive funds for Choupette’s care.

A second way would be to donate money to an existing nonprofit and stipulate that funds be used for the cat’s care. A third would be to leave the cat to a trusted individual, with a gift of cash that was earmarked for her care.

It is not uncommon today for people to have pet trusts created to ensure that their furry friends enjoy a comfortable lifestyle after their humans have passed. Estate laws in the U.S. vary by state, but they always require that a human have oversight over any funds or assets entrusted to a pet. Courts also have a say in this. There are reasonable limits on what a person can leave to a pet. A court may not honor a will that seeks to leave millions for the care of a pet. However, it has happened before.

Real estate tycoon Leona Hemsley left many people stunned when she left $12 million for her Maltese dog. In 1991, German Countess Carlotta Liebenstein left her dog Gunther IV a princely sum of $80 million. To date, Gunther remains number one on the “Top Richest Pets” list.

For pets who are beloved parts of regular families and not millionaires in their own right, an estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for your pet’s well-being if it should outlive you. Some states permit the use of a pet trust, and California is one of those states. Regardless of what option you choose, I highly recommend that you make a plan for a secure place for your pet and provide necessary funds for food, shelter, and medical care.

Reference: CBS News (Feb. 21, 2019) “Karl Lagerfeld’s cat to inherit a fortune, but may not be richest pet”