Estate Plan Updates in the Age of Coronavirus

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With the ever-increasing number of deaths in Europe and the U.S., many people are now doing what estate planning attorneys have advised them to do for years—get their estate plans in order. Many are having phone meetings or videoconferences with estate planning attorneys, says Barron’s in the article “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know.” People are worried, and they are in a hurry too.

However, estate planning can be complex, even when there is plenty of time to prepare. Here are a few tips:

Everyone should have three basic documents: a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and an advance health care directive. These documents will allow assets to be distributed, give another person the ability to make financial decisions if you are too sick to do so, and also allow another person to talk to medical professionals on your behalf on treatment and care. These same documents are also a good idea for any young adults in the family, anyone older than 18 in most states.

With the proper documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state, you may be able to avoid having a court appoint a guardian for minor children or having a probate court determine asset distribution.

However, there’s more. In addition to these basic documents, everyone needs to review their beneficiary designations on assets that include bank accounts, IRAs, annuities, insurance policies, and any other assets. If family situations have changed, these may be out of date.

It’s also a good idea to have an attorney create a medical power of attorney for a minor child, in case another family member needs to take a child to the doctor, discuss their care and make decisions. While this exact document does not exist in California, a similar document may be available.

While young adults may be more worried about the financial impact of the pandemic, seniors and the elderly are concerned about having documents in order. Wealthy people are concerned about the impact that the pandemic may have on estate planning law, and some are engaged in planning to make substantial gifts, in case the current estate and give tax exemptions are lowered.

Other issues to be discussed with an estate planning attorney:

  • Irrevocable living trusts, which provide an opportunity to protect and direct how assets in a trust will be held, invested, and distributed before and after death.
  • Durable powers of attorney, which appoint an agent to make financial decisions.
  • Health-care directive, which let people designate a surrogate to make health decisions on their behalf and receive health care information from physicians and designate whether to provide life-prolonging treatment, if in a terminal state.

Reference: Barron’s (March 22, 2020) “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know”

Five Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

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While it’s true that no estate is completely bulletproof, there are mistakes that people make that are big enough to walk through, while others are more like a slow drip, draining retirement finances in a slow but steady process. There are mistakes that can be easily avoided, reports Comstock Magazine in the article “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate.”

  1. Misunderstanding Estate Law. Some people are so thrown by the idea of an estate plan, that they can’t get past the word “estate.” You don’t need a mansion to have an estate. The term is actually used to refer to any and all property that a person owns. Even modest people need a plan to help beneficiaries avoid unnecessary costs and stress. Talk with an estate planning attorney to learn what your needs are, from a will to trusts. Make sure that this is the attorney’s key practice area. A real estate or personal injury attorney won’t have the same knowledge and experience.
  2. Getting Bad Advice. It takes a team to create a strong estate plan. That means an estate planning attorney, a financial advisor and an accountant. Be wary of firms that focus entirely on selling trusts. There’s definitely a role for trusts in estate plans, but there are many other tools that are needed. Buying an insurance policy or an annuity is not an estate plan.
  3. Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. Naming yourself as a sole trustee puts you and your estate in a precarious position. What if you develop Alzheimer’s or are injured in an accident? A trusted individual, a family member, a longstanding friend or even a professional trustee, needs to be named as a backup trustee to protect your interests if you should become incapacitated.
  4. Losing Track of Assets. Without a complete list of all assets, it’s nearly impossible for someone to know what you own and who your heirs may be. Some assets, including retirement funds, life insurance policies, or investment accounts, have named beneficiaries. Those people will inherit these assets, regardless of what is in your will. If your heirs can’t find the assets, they may be lost. If you don’t update your beneficiaries, they may go to unintended heirs—like ex-spouses. Your attorney should help you compile that list to make sure that your successor agents and beneficiaries are informed.
  5. Deciding on Options Without Being Fully Informed. When it comes to estate planning, the natural tendency is to go with what we think is the right thing. However, unless you are an estate planning attorney, chances are you don’t know what the right thing is. For tax reasons, for instance, it may make sense to transfer assets, while you are still living. And for other reasons, it might be best to wait until you pass to transfer the assets. However, that might also be a terrible idea, if you choose the wrong person to hold your assets or don’t put them in the right kind of trust.

Estate planning is still a highly personal process that depends upon every person’s unique experience. Your family situation is different than anyone else’s. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan and help you to avoid the big, most commonly made mistakes.

Reference: Comstock Magazine (Dec. 2019) “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate” 

What Happens If I Don’t Have an Estate Plan?

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It’s so much better to have an estate plan than not to. With a will and/or trust, you can direct your assets to those whom you wish to receive a legacy, rather than the default rules of the State of California. This is according to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle’s entitled “Elder Law: Will you plan now or pay later?”

You should also designate an independent financial agent (known as an executor, power of attorney and trustee). You may want to have an estate planning attorney create a special trust to provide for family members who are disabled, along with trusts for minors and even adult children.

Here are three major items about which you may not have considered that may require changes to your estate plan or motivate you to get one. Years ago, the amount a person could leave to beneficiaries (the tax-free exemption equivalent) was much lower. You were also required to either use it or lose it.

For example, back in 1987 when the exemption equivalent was $600,000 per taxpayer, a couple had to create a by-pass trust to protect the first $600,000 upon the first to die to take advantage of the exemption. The exemption is $11.58 million in 2020, and the “portability” law has changed the “use it or lose it” requirement. There may still be good reasons to use a forced by-pass trust in your will, but in some cases, it may be time to get rid of it.

Next, think about implementing planning to have some control over your assets after you die.

You could have a heart attack, a stroke, or an unfortunate accident. These types of events can happen quickly with no warning. You were healthy and then suddenly a sickness or injury leaves you severely disabled. You should plan in the event this happens to you.

Why would a person not take the opportunity to prepare documents such as powers of attorney for property, powers of attorney for health care, living wills, and medical privacy documents?

It’s good to know that becoming the subject of a court-supervised conservatorship proceeding is a matter of public record for everyone to see. There is also the unnecessary expense and frustration of a guardianship that could’ve been avoided if you’d taken the time to prepare the appropriate documents with an estate planning or elder law attorney.

Why would you want to procrastinate making an estate plan and then die suddenly without ever taking the time to make your will? Without valid estate planning documents, like a trust, your family will have to pay more for a costly probate proceeding.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (Jan. 16, 2020) “Elder Law: Will you plan now or pay later?”

Get a Medical Power of Attorney Now

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If you have not yet named someone with Medical Power of Attorney, stop procrastinating and get this crucial planning in place now.

What is a Medical Power of Attorney?

A medical power of attorney (also known as an Advance Healthcare Directive) is a legal document you use to give someone else the authority to make medical decisions for you when you can no longer make them yourself.  This person, also known as an agent, can only exercise this power if your doctor says you are unable to make key decisions yourself.

Other Terms for Medical Power of Attorney

Depending on the state where you live, the medical power of attorney may be called something else. You may have seen this referred to as a health care power of attorney, an advance directive, advance health care directive, a durable power of attorney for health care, etc. There are many variations, but they all mean fundamentally the same thing.

Be aware that each state has its own laws about medical powers of attorney, so it’s important to work with a qualified estate planning attorney to ensure your decisions will be enforced through legally binding documents. Also, some states may not honor documents from other states, so even if you made these decisions and created documents in another state, it’s wise to review with an estate attorney to ensure they are legally valid in your state now.

What Can My Medical Agent Do for Me?

Just like there are many different terms for the medical power of attorney, there also are different terms for the medical agent – this person may be referred to as an attorney-in-fact, a health proxy, or surrogate.

Some of the things a medical POA authorizes your agent to decide for you:

  • Which doctors or facilities to work with and whether to change doctors
  • Give consent for additional testing or treatment
  • How aggressively to treat
  • Whether to disconnect life support

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.

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

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Estate planning is a crucial process for everyone, no matter what assets you have now. If you want your family to be able to deal with your affairs, debts included, drafting an estate plan is critical, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for those 40 and under.”

If you have young children or other dependents, planning is vitally important. The less you have, the more important your plan is, so it can provide as long as possible and in the best way for those most important to you. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

Talk to your family about various “what if” situations. It is important that you’ve discussed your wishes with your family and that you’ve considered the many contingencies that can happen, like a serious illness or injury, incapacity, or death. This also gives you the chance to explain your rationale for making a larger gift to someone, rather than another or an equal division. This can be especially significant if there’s a second marriage with children from different relationships and a wide range of ages. An open conversation can help to avoid hard feelings later.

You should have the basic estate plan components, which include a will, a living will, advance directive, powers of attorney, and a designation of an agent to control the disposition of remains. These are all important components of an estate plan that should be created at the beginning of the planning process. A guardian (or guardians) should also be named for any minor children.

In addition, a life insurance policy can give your family the needed funds in the event of an untimely death and loss of income—especially for young parents. The loss of one or both spouses’ income can have a drastic impact.

Remember that your estate plan shouldn’t be a “one and done thing.” You need to review your estate plan every few years. This gives you the opportunity to make changes based on significant life events, tax law changes, the addition of more children, or their changing needs. You should also monitor your insurance policies and investments because they dovetail into your estate plan and can fluctuate based on the economic environment.

When you draft these documents, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 21, 2020) “Estate planning for those 40 and under”

COVID-19 UPDATE: Emergency Estate Planning Decisions to Make Right Now

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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 the preservation of your legacy.

You may be stuck at home but there are still choices available to you to prepare yourself if you or a loved one contract COVID-19.  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.

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

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For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they need to know that they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

For one, taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default by law for a married couple (even a very unprepared one with no documents) is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It definitely won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially relevant when a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon the death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. This can be an easy way to include an unmarried partner in your estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless of who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it may be difficult to transfer to the other person. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care so that partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over the other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other until death do you part is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

What Critical Estate Planning Document are Californians Missing?

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Too many people think they’re finished with their estate plan after creating just a will or trust. However, that leaves some critical gaps. A comprehensive, well-crafted estate plan isn’t just what happens to your property at death. It should also contemplate what happens if you’re incapacitated and unable to make decisions on your own. That is where documents like the advance health care directive can come in.

The California Probate Code sets out the requirements and process for executing an Advance Health Care Directive, also known as a health care power of attorney. This document enables a person (the principal) to appoint an agent (a trusted friend or relative) to make health care decisions on their behalf. If the principal becomes incapacitated, the agent will decide their medical procedures, treatment and other care.

Insurance News Net’s recent article entitled “Finance Experts Warn: 66% of Californians Don’t Have a Key Estate Planning Document” explains that the law enables the principal to do the following:

  • Detail specific instructions on certain medical issues, such as end-of-life care and pain relief;
  • State her wishes concerning the donation of organs; and,
  • Name a physician who has primary responsibility for medical care.

Here’s a tough situation that individuals could experience without a health care power of attorney, especially for family. If you don’t have a health care directive, your medical care might be on hold. Despite that the fact you express your wishes to someone, that doesn’t mean it’s legally binding. As a result, without a power of attorney, the only way your spouse, children, or other family members can obtain the authority to make health care decisions, is to go to court and file a petition to act as your guardian or conservator. This can take some time, especially if they’re not all in agreement.

By preparing an advance health care directive, you give your agent decision-making authority via the document instead of through the courts.

There are certain state-specific requirements involved with this process, like having people observe and sign as witnesses, or even having it notarized. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney to help you draft and execute it correctly.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Jan. 16, 2020) “Finance Experts Warn: 66% of Californians Don’t Have a Key Estate Planning Document”

Why Is a Power of Attorney Important?

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A son who is preparing to help his mother with her legal and financial affairs asks what legal documents he needs to obtain in the article “Tips for becoming a power of attorney” in Hometown Life. He is concerned about a sibling who is estranged from the family and could cause problems in the future. Can he protect his mother and himself?

The first thing he needs to do is obtain a medical power of attorney and a durable power of attorney for his mother. These are two separate powers of attorney that will give the son the legal right to handle both her financial affairs and her medical care.

With these documents, he will be able to speak directly to her healthcare providers, including her doctors, and to make end-of-life decisions on her behalf. An unhappy family member could indeed cause problems, especially when it comes to major decisions. When medical staff and institutions see fighting in the family, they will not act unless they see a legal document granting authority to make these decisions.

The durable power of attorney, in contrast, is created for legal or financial issues, including handling the mother’s day-to-day money tasks and making decisions about her investments and assets, including the family home. With a power of attorney, he will be able to move money when needed, and even assist with selling assets or stocks, if necessary.

Having both of these documents gives the son the ability to do what is necessary for his mother, while also protecting him from an uncooperative family member. However, there are more tasks to be done.

First, he needs to find out if she has an estate plan, including a will, a trust or even any other powers of attorney. He should find out if they are current, and if they still reflect her wishes.

If she has an estate plan, he’ll need to find out when it was last updated and see if it needs to be revised. If there are no documents, or existing documents need to be updated, she needs to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan to distribute assets according to her wishes and create any needed trusts.

He should also collect her medical information, so he knows who her doctors are and what medications she is taking. He also needs to understand her medical insurance coverage and see if she has the protection that she needs from health care costs.

For her financial affairs, the son needs to gather up information about her accounts, including passwords and login information. The mother should add the son as a signatory to her bank and brokerage accounts.

He should also get the names and contact information of any financial professionals she works with. That includes financial advisors, insurance agents and CPAs. It would also be wise to get the last two years of her tax returns. This could be invaluable in helping to understand her assets.

Reference: Hometown Life (Dec. 6, 2019) “Tips for becoming a power of attorney”

What Is an Advance Care Directive?

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People start out with good intentions at the start of the year and then fail to follow through.  This makes difficult situations even worse for their family. The process begins with discussions about your care wishes, explains the Chicago Tribune’s Daily Southdown in the article “Talk to your family now about advance care directives.”

That conversation should include who you would trust as a health care agent. This person would be named in the medical power of attorney, an advance directive legal document that gives that person the power to make medical and care decisions on your behalf if you are not able to.

That person needs to know, from you, what’s important to you when it comes to quality of life or length of life. This is a very important document, as the person has the power to make life and death decisions on your behalf.

It also covers whether you want to be an organ donor. If an unexpected accident occurred and your organs were still healthy and working, would you want to give them to someone who needs a kidney or a heart? If that would be your goal, you need to make your wishes known to your health care proxy and health care providers, as well as to your family.

A living will is also important to have in place. This is used in cases of incurable or irreversible injury, disease, or illness. It expresses your wishes for end-of-life care. Depending on your medical condition, you may not be able to effectively communicate your wishes when that time comes. It gives you the ability to refuse any death-delaying treatment and allow you to die naturally.

These are family matters that should be discussed but often are not. The topics are hard, as they are centered on our mortality, the mortality of those we love, and the reality of death. However, when family members know what their loved one’s wishes are, it provides the family with tremendous relief.

Without a medical power of attorney or living will, the family may end up fighting over what each member thinks their loved ones wanted. Without clear direction from the family and the correct legal documents, the health care provider must take steps to prolong life, even if that is not what the person wanted.

When naming a health care agent, think about someone who you trust completely. That person will have access to your medical records and be able to approve who else sees them. They may also authorize tests and treatment, decide where you will receive care, which physicians will provide care and whether to accept, withdraw or decline treatment.

Reference: Chicago Tribune’s Daily Southdown (Dec. 30, 2019) “Talk to your family now about advance care directives”