If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning

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What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation, and our world. The time is now, in other words, to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Business owners from large and small-sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order. What would happen if multiple family members got sick, and a family business was left unprotected?

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision-makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household can’t take care of paying bills, taxes, or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you don’t want, and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Most bills today don’t arrive in the mail but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records, and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Right now, estate planning attorneys are talking with clients about a “Plan C”—a plan for what would happen if heirs, beneficiaries, and contingent beneficiaries are wiped out. They are adding language that states which beneficiaries or charities should receive their assets if all of the people named in the estate plan have died. This is to maintain control over the distribution of assets, even in a worst-case scenario, rather than having assets pass via the rules of intestate succession. Without a Plan C, an entire estate could go to a distant relative, regardless of whether you wanted that to happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Do You Want to Decide or Do You Want the State to Decide?

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A will allows you to direct your assets to the people you want to receive them, rather than the alternative, which is relying on the laws of your state to direct who receives your assets, says the article “Will you plan now or pay later?” from the Chron.com.

A will is also the document used to name an independent executor with successors, in the unlikely chance that the first executor fails, refuses or becomes unable to serve. Your estate planning attorney will discuss the use of special trusts to provide for family members who are disabled, trusts for minors or special needs family members or even adult children.

There are three big considerations you may not have even considered that would require you to have an estate plan created in recent years to be reviewed or revised. Years ago, the federal tax exemption, which allows a person to leave a certain amount of money to beneficiaries, was much smaller than it is now.

This was a “use it or lose it” exemption. Here’s an example of how things have changed. In 1987, when the exemption was $600,000 per taxpayer, a couple would use a by-pass trust to shelter the first $600,000 upon the first to die to take advantage of the exemption. In 2020, the exemption is $11.58 million. The “use it or lose it” law is different. Therefore, if your will/trust still has a by-pass trust for this reason, it may be best to discuss it with your estate planning attorney. It is likely that you don’t need it anymore.

You also want a will to have some control over what happens to your assets when you die. Let’s say Betty and Bob have three children. Bob dies, leaving his assets to Betty, then Betty dies and leaves all of her assets to her three children. One of the children, Bea, dies shortly after Betty dies. Bea’s will leaves all of her assets to her husband Bruce.

Bruce remarries. When Bruce dies, the share of the family’s assets that Bruce inherited from his wife Bea may be left to Bruce’s second wife or the couple may spend them all during their marriage. If Bruce divorces his second wife, she may win those assets in a divorce settlement. Would Betty and Bob have wanted their assets to go to their grandchildren, instead of their son-in-law’s second wife and children?

An estate plan can be created to protect those assets, so they remain within the family, going to grandchildren or to the children of Betty and Bob.

While most people think of an estate plan as a plan for death, it’s also a plan for illness and incapacity. A perfectly healthy person is injured in a car accident or suffers a stroke. Without having documents like a power of attorney, power of attorney for health care, living will and medical privacy documents, the family will spend a great deal of time and money trying to establish legal control over the estate.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to update your current will or create a will and the necessary documents to protect yourself and your family.

Reference: Chron.com (January 16, 2020) “Will you plan now or pay later?”

Preparing for an Emergency Includes Power of Attorney

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Unexpected events can happen at any time. Without a backup plan, finances are vulnerable. The importance of having an estate plan and organized legal and financial documents on a scale of one to ten is fifteen, advises the article “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?” from USA Today. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if your phone bill is a month late but miss a life insurance premium payment and your policy may lapse. If you’re over 70, chances are slim to none that you’ll be able to purchase a new one.

When estate plans and finances are organized to the point that you can easily hand them over to a trusted spouse, adult child, or other responsible person, you gain the peace of mind of knowing you and your family are prepared for anything. Someone can take care of you and your family, in case the unexpected happens.

A financial power of attorney (POA) gives another person the legal authority to take financial actions on your behalf. The person you give this responsibility to should be someone you trust and who will put your best interests ahead of their own. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a power of attorney that can be very specific about the powers that are granted.

You may want your POA to be able to pay bills and manage your investment accounts, for instance, but you may not want them to make changes to trusts. A personalized power of attorney document can give you that level of control.

Consider your routine for taking care of household finances. Most of us do these tasks on autopilot. We don’t think about how it would be if someone else had to take over, but we should. Take a pad of paper and make notes about every task you complete in a given month: what bills do you pay monthly, which are paid quarterly and what comes due only once or twice a year? By making a detailed record of the tasks, you’ll save your spouse or family member a great deal of time and angst.

Is your paperwork organized so that someone else will be able to find things? Most people create their own systems, but they are not always understandable to anyone else. Create a folder or a file that holds all of your important documents, like insurance policies and investment accounts, legal documents, and deeds.

If you pay bills online, naming someone else on the account so they have access is ideal. If not, then try consolidating the bills you can. Many banks allow users to set up bill payments through one account.

Keep legal documents and records up to date. If you haven’t reviewed your estate planning documents in more than three years, now is the time to speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan still reflects your wishes. Call your estate planning attorney to discuss your next steps.

Reference: USA Today (March 20, 2020) “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?”

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?”

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”

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”